Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy are here to promote their film, Waiting for Guffman, but they aren’t keen on discussing what some might consider the most interesting aspect of its production. They may have a point, so here’s a Spoiler Alert: Don’t read any further unless you are comfortable with frank discussions of theatrical techniques and are open-minded about their application.
Guest’s name is invoked in reverent tones among comedy cognoscenti, but the multitalented chameleon is little known to the general publiceven though his career goes back to the early ’70s, where his spot-on Bob Dylan and James Taylor impressions were highlights of the National Lampoon’s Woodstock satire, Lemmings, and the subsequent syndicated Radio Hour. Despite a stint on Saturday Night Live, Guest is best remembered for his uncanny portrayal of Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spi¬nal Tap. But the low-key silver-haired man sitting in this hotel room could be any business traveler. Speaking softly but deliberately, Guest cracks few jokes. He is serious about his comedy. Guest directed Guffman, having previously directed the underappreciated Hollywood satire The Big Picture, which bypassed most theaters.
With his Grouchoesque eyebrows, Levyrhymes with “Chevy”is instantly familiar from the brilliant SCTV and frequent character roles in feature films. Levy is also a director, having helmed Once Upon a Crime, featuring his SCTV cohort John Candy.
Waiting for Guffman is the story of deluded theatrical director Corky St. Clair (Guest), who returns to Blaine, Mo., to stage a musical celebrating the small town’s 150th anniversary, Red, White, and Blaine. The prospect of even this semiglamour brings out equally deluded townspeople, looking for a bit of magic in their lives. “Guffman” is a New York producer invited to the show in the hope that he’ll take it to Broadway.
What Guest and Levy would rather people not know about Guffman is that it was completely improvised. The script, which they co-wrote, consisted basically of character descriptions and a story outline. The actorsincluding Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, and Levy as a dentist with a Johnny Carson complexwere given that information, but no dialogue.
“The term ‘improv’ is tricky,” says Guest. “It gives the impression to some people who don’t know what that is that this is somehow a less serious kind of pursuit, perhaps. That it’s off-the-cuff.”
“A free-for-all,” adds Levy.
“Yes. It’s not a discipline that is very well known or understood,” Guest insists in his quiet, precise manner. He likens stage improv to playing jazz. “When a guy stands up to do a solo, he’s making it up. It’s not something that people question in that context. This is a very similar situation. It’s people who very much know what the story is, what every scene has to accomplish.”
Levy jumps in with his explanation of improv: “You’re creating scenes, and to create the scene, you have to drive the story, and to do that, you have to listen to everybody on the stage, because the information you’re getting to drive the scene is coming from everyone else onstage.”
“There are rules,” Guest adds. “Not to contradict what is set up in the sceneto sabotage the scene, essentiallyfor a laugh. It’s done all the time, but in this context it really was extremely important to keep the reality, because it’s supposed to be a documentary. Onstage it’s a very different dynamic. Onstage, frankly, the bottom line is to get laughs, so people are constantly scrambling over each other to get that oomph for the blackout.”
This prompts a story from Levy about the time the Toronto and Chicago companies of Second City switched places for a summer.
“The first night we improvised in Chicago, we were getting hissed. It was a strange sound.” Levy whistles loudly. Confused, the cocky Canadians went backstage, where legendary Second City founder Del Close read them the riot act: “‘They’re letting you know that basically it’s bullshit,’” Levy quotes, sternly. “‘And they want you to work for your laughs. Don’t just come up and pull your pants down. They love to watch the process work. You guys aren’t doing the process.’”
Now that he is doing the process, Levyand Guestdon’t want people paying it any mind.
Improv “confuses people,” Guest insists. “I really believe it.” The director wanted to tell a linear story, but with a spontaneous feel. “And I think I was able to do that. Consequentially, this discussion becomes interesting, but not something that we want to stress for people who haven’t seen [the film]. Because I think it would be potentially harmful.”
“Yes,” Levy agrees.
“It’s an odd thing,” Guest continues, “because obviously it’s brought up. Then how do you mention this without really billboarding it as ‘New Wacky Improv Movie’? It’s very important to us. We’ve been talking continually for months about whether to even mention this at all, frankly. So I want you to know that it’s a serious consideration.”
“It almost makes it seem less important,” Levy reiterates.
“Absolutely,” says Guest.
“Like, ‘This looks like fun. Maybe I’ll rent it next year,’” Levy says. He pauses, then adds, “I think something should be mentioned, because certainly you can’t negate the work that was done by the people in the cast.”
And the cast is uniformly convincing, especially Willard and O’Hara, as married travel agents who have never left their hometown. The documentary style does mask the improvising quite handily. If one did not know that the actors were making it up, one would never suspect. In fact, it is the seamless work of the actors that makes Guest and Levy’s arguments seem moot. Guffman plays out like a series of observedand foolishevents rather than an obviously planned sketch.
“The bottom line is, don’t even mention it,” Guest says, in an exaggeratedly weary voice.
Fine, we’ll talk about Guffman’s documentary format, a style that seems perfectly suited to this info age. Certainly, more and more “reality-based” comedy programs are appearing.
“It seemed the best way to do it,” says Guest, noting that the form “has a spontaneity that you couldn’t get if people were repeating the same lines over and over.”
“It’s a way that I can work easily,” he continues. “I don’t mean that in the lazy sense. It is a way to get across a certain style of humor.” That style is bone dry, and so deadpan that if you miss the setup you are likely to mistake it for reality.
“And obviously, Eugene and I know people in common who can practice that tiny little art. And it can only be done, I truly believe, as a documentary.”
“The other thing about documentaries is that by nature they are very serious,” notes Levy. “Documentaries are serious business. So just to take a little curve in that form, you can get a big laugh. It’s a great form.”
Another unique aspect of the production is that it was driven by seasoned comedians rather than studio execs. “It really comes right from the source, which is rare,” notes Levy. It did help that Guest and Castle Rock minimogul Rob Reiner are longtime buddies. “Castle Rock was generous enough to let me have this as my film,” Guest says. “I can’t cry about some studio person taking the movie away.”
But Guest doesn’t see any major trend occurring. “This is a very particular niche. It’s not as if they’re going to be doing 10 mock-documentaries a year,” he says. “And you can’t just get a bunch of comedians in a room and say, ‘You have control over this story.’ That doesn’t mean you’re going to get a good movie.”
One reason the comedians were left to their own devices is that the budget was so smallby Hollywood standards: a mere $4 million.
“I have the belief that comedies that cost above a certain amount can’t work,” Guest declares. Studios become nervous and seek to ‘protect’ their investment. “And then people start to put their 2 cents in, and it’s over.” But comedy is, or should be, cheap to produce. “That’s the difference with movies that are $90-100-million-dollar effects moviesthere’s no shortcut around that.”
Guffman, he notes, “is way under the radar. This doesn’t even show up.”
The money tossed at movies, even comedies, is ultimately corrupting, says Guest. “It’s a very seducing element. And most people are susceptible. I mean, most big actors are getting much more than our entire budget was. Much more.”
So it would seem that clever studio execs would hire funny people to make funny, inexpensive movies that could more easily turn a profit without having to rely on promotional deals with Burger King. Neither Guest nor Levy have any faith that this will happen.
“No, none at all,” Guest declares immediately, not particularly hurt by the fact. “It’s just that nothing changes. I remember talking to Rob Reiner recently, and he said, ‘You realize, if we wanted to do Spi¬nal Tap now it wouldn’t be any easier than it was in 1984.’ If Rob didn’t exist, and if Castle Rock as an entity didn’t existthere’s no way this movie gets made. No way,” says Guest. “It never will get easier.”
“But do you hope?” asks Levy. “Yes.”Dave Nuttycombe