Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Waiting for Guffman isn't a film about small town theater actors, so much as it's about average people dreaming of something bigger than they are, fighting and scratching to get out of their comfort zone. That their dreams are so small says a lot about them. One of them, a Dairy Queen employee, dreams of someday going to New York and watching TV with Italian guys. But even the smallest dreams are worth nurturing. In comparison, Corky St. Clair dreams of returning to Broadway where he was once crushed by the city's  indifference to his talents. He ended up in Blaine, Mo., directing the town's yearly theatricals. When he learns that a mysterious Mr. Guffman, a New York producer, is coming to see his latest effort, a gaudy musical called Red, White, and Blaine, he thinks he's on the way back to Broadway.

Corky has so much riding on this endeavour that he occasionally snaps. When the town board refuses to give him more money for his production, he glowers, "You're all bastard people! I'm going home to bite my pillow!" When a hunky actor bows out of the show a few days before opening night, Corky screams into the phone, "I hate your ass-face!" He's such a whirlwind of writing, directing, choreography, and in some cases, teaching his neophyte cast how to act, that he can't be blamed for losing his temper. The chance to become something other than yourself can drive most people mad. By the end of the film, marriages will end, some people pursue their dreams and find them empty, and others remain stuck where they are. If this hadn't been one of the funniest, smartest films of the 1990s, it might have been one of the bleakest.

Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman came out in January, 1997, the time Hollywood uses to dump its refuse. The studios don't premiere a movie at the beginning of the year. It's too cold and no one is going to the movies anyway.  Besides, most of the holiday blockbusters are still in the theaters. Not surprisingly, Guffman was a financial bust. Audiences caught up with it, though. It played in small cinemas for nearly six months,  and it has developed a loyal cult following during the ensuing years. For some, it is the Citizen Kane of modern comedy; for others, they don't quite get it.  It's particularly effective if you'd ever spent time in a community theater environment, as I did for a short while. I had a cock-eyed idea that I wanted to be an actor, so I ended up in a number if terrible summer stock shows, many of which were worse than what we see in Guffman. Strangely, a few good actors crossed my path in those days, including Hank Azaria and Oliver Platt, but for the most part, the people I knew were much like the people in Blaine. I remember an old carpenter with a deep voice who usually got the lead roles. It wasn't that he was talented, it was because he had the loudest voice and could be heard in the cheap seats. He was terrible. I was terrible, too. That's why I love Guffman.

There's a dentist (Eugene Levy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Guest) who dreams of stardom; there's a husband and wife team (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara) who star in all of Corky's productions, and are known as "The Lunts of Blaine." There's the Dairy Queen girl (Parker Posey) and the frustrated musical director (Bob Balaban) who sees through Corky and knows he's a fool. There's even a UFO expert (David Cross), who explains how Blaine was once visited by extraterrestrials, a moment dramatized  in Red, White, and Blaine.

Guest's movies often have a strange sexual undercurrent.  In his movies there are people who enjoy kinky activities, have past lives in porn, undergo sex changes, and keep their inner lives a thinly veiled secret. This goes back to Guest's This is Spinal Tap days, when his Nigel Tufnel had an obvious man-crush on David St. Hubins. In Guffman,  Corky has an eye on one of his young male cast members, while a male member of the town council seems to have a crush on Corky. Meanwhile, the townfolk are under the impression that Corky is married. "We've never seen his wife," says one character. "Although I once saw Corky in a store buying clothes for her. Maybe she's not supportive of him."  When the young actor Corky fancies (Matt Keesler) drops out of the show, Corky casts himself as the show's male ingenue. He's wrong for the part, but he doesn't trust anyone else to do it. This is, after all, his shot at redemption.

What's remarkable about Guffman is that the side stories are every bit as interesting as Corky's. Dr. Allen Pearl (Levy) is the sort of schmuck who wants to be funny, but isn't. "People ask me, 'Were you the class clown?' I say 'No, but I sat next to him and observed.'" Mrs. Pearl (Linda Kash) is one of my favorite characters in the film. Although she is somewhat mystified by "these creative types," she's passionately supportive of her husband's dreams. When she attends opening night and sees him make his first appearance, she wants to burst into applause. "I knew he could move," she says, proudly. The Pearl's relationship is touching, as is the obvious affection between Ron and Sheila (Willard and O'Hara.) Sheila cries a lot, and seems to have a drinking problem, and Ron's a blowhard who overestimates his talent, but they're  sweet together (and their 'Midnight at the Oasis' is actually quite beautiful.)  I love the scene where Ron does his (bad) impressions of Henry Fonda and Humphrey Bogart, and she can't figure out what he's doing. "I always have to tell her," Ron says, smiling. I also love when Ron and Sheila go to a Chinese restaurant with Mr and Mrs Pearl, a scene that still creates unease when Ron asks Dr Pearl to check out a peculiar surgical scar.

Guest's style comes from  Second City, and the classic SCTV TV show, and the same influences that created the early years of Saturday Night Live (he was an SNL cast member in 1984). Yet, he has been quite vocal about the way his leaning on "improvisation" is interpreted. "I don't want people to think we're just screwing around and filming it," he's said. "This is just a way to get the most laughs possible." 
Guest and Levy put together the Guffman  screenplay, setting up the basic plot, characters, and situations. Then his carefully chosen cast of Willard, O'Hara, and the rest, "masters of the craft," as Guest has called them, provided bits of their own dialog through an "improv" rehearsal. The scene where actors audition for Red, White and Blaine is an example of the spontaneity Guest wants to capture; Guest has no idea what he'll be seeing as the characters walk in to do their piece. He and the audience are seeing it together for the first time. (I especially like the fellow who does a scene from Raging Bull as his audition piece.)  Guest shot about 58 hours of film and spent more than a year cutting it down to less than two hours.

Waiting for Guffman kicked off a reign of laughs that would last a decade and include A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, and For Your Consideration. Each movie was funny and sharp, but  Guest's recent HBO series called Family Tree felt tired, as if he may be running out of ideas; the actors seemed as if they'd seen his other movies and were trying to ape the style. Guest practically invented the "mockumentary," but now everything on television feels like a mockumentary. Where Guest's style has had its biggest influence is on TV shows like The Office and Portlandia, but there's never been anything to match Guffman. 
I've never thought of this film as condescending towards its characters, or as 'Entertainment Weekly' put it, as mocking "the shameless enthusiasm, of middle Americans whose lack of talent is matched only by their eagerness to parade it." I maintain that it's a movie about the yearning to be something you're not, and how you're willing to do crazy things to change your lot. The origins of Waiting for Guffman were once explained by Guest in an interview with

"I had gone to see a junior-high production 10 years ago of Annie Get Your Gun with 13-year-olds playing grown-ups, basically. And I was very moved. I thought it was very poignant, the whole idea of the seriousness with which they took this task. The director afterwards came up and he was crying, and they gave him roses. This is no different, really, because we're not trying to parody a small town in this. It's really to show that in human nature, this is something that would happen. And I make the point sometimes that if you were to go backstage at a Broadway theater and say that Woody Allen was sitting out there, people would just go insane. People would be falling all over each other, even though they're professionals. And they would make the same leap in their logic to say, well, obviously he's here to see me and put me in a movie."

The whole plot twist of whether Guffman is going to show up or not feels heavyhanded to me. I guess it would have been worse if he did show up and panned the show, because, quite frankly, I love Red, White and Blaine, and I love how the little audience cheers it on. I especially love when children are shown in the audience, looking on in wide eyed wonder. They aren't in on the joke. They see Eugene Levy dressed as a martian, and they're sucked in by the magic of theater. Besides, I can't watch this movie without  'Nothing Ever Happens on Mars' sticking in my head for three days. (As well as Parker Posey's rendition of 'Teacher's Pet.')

Guest saves the absolute best laughs for when the movie has ended, and he's working in a New York novelty shop, surrounded by Brat Pack bobblehead dolls, My Dinner with Andre and Das Boot action figures, and The Remains of the Day lunch boxes. Yet, what makes the ending unique is that there are  moments of sadness threatening to creep up and destroy the jokey atmosphere.  Yes, Corky's returned to New York, but not in triumph. He's selling baubles to tourists, and acting as an understudy in My Fair Lady. He has struggled mightily to attain mediocrity. ''There was...a discussion...of whether this was all too sad,'' Guest said during a commentary for the 2001 DVD release. ''Which I tend to like.''
There's also Ron and Sheila, who are seen going to LA to become actors, but are only given work as extras. Ron asks of the Hollywood film crew shoving them around,"Why can't they remember our names?"  One wonders how long Ron and Sheila's good cheer can last.
Finally, I think of Dr. Pearl, leaving his practice in Blaine to work as a nursing home entertainer in Miami. He seems happy, singing and telling jokes to an audience that's falling asleep on him. Then the camera zooms to Dr. Pearl's hand; he's not wearing his wedding ring. That he's left his adoring wife for this low end  show biz fantasy is just about the saddest thing I can imagine.

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