Waiting for Guffman

Christopher Guest is best known for playing Nigel Tufnel, the lead guitarist of the rock band Spinal Tap in This Is Spinal Tap but has had such a huge career in film outside of that role that it must sometimes frustrate him to always have the reference come up. Heck, even I couldn’t resist pointing it out in the opening paragraph of this piece and I’m super-aware of his pre- and post-Tap career.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, however, and although he’s acted in a broad range of films, when you look at the film’s that Guest has written and directed himself, much of it resembles his most famous role in the sense that he likes making ‘mockumentaries’. Working with a similar set of actors and often co-writing with comedy legend Eugene Levy, Guest takes simple topics like dog shows (Best in Show), sports mascots (Mascots), and folk music (A Mighty Wind), to create a small world that his actors can improvise within. I’ve seen it said before that although there’s a story in play and the actors know that they need to get from A to B, he’ll sometimes let a scene run for 10 minutes and then edit down anything from 60 hours of overall footage into the finished product. The results are fabulous.

Like the other mockumentaries, Waiting for Guffman has a simple premise, too. A small town in Missouri is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a stage musical. The performers aren’t hugely talented (but think they are), and there’s no budget for the production at all. We follow them all through auditions, rehearsals, and the show itself. The Guffman of the title is a Broadway producer, whom they’ve invited to come and see the show, thinking it will be a way to get it onto Broadway when, clearly, it’s the kind of amateur dramatics that even the local high school would do better.

Vitally, like all the other mockumentaries Guest has made, this isn’t a straight laugh fest. While every scene has a line that makes you smirk, there’s always a sense of taking the characters seriously and often with a real dash of pathos. When Parker Posey (as Libby Mae Brown), talks about her life at Dairy Queen in one breath, and maybe making it on Broadway in the next, you instantly know the kind of sweet and naive character she’s playing. You meet these people in real life from time to time and although it’s “funny” that they don’t get the difference between working at Dairy Queen in a small town and having little talent, yet being able to go to New York City and mount a musical with no experience, you don’t tend to laugh out loud at them. You feel for them and maybe admire them.

I saw this film only this year, having seen more recent Guest movies a long time ago… if that makes any sense… so it was slightly discombobulating to see a “new” Guest film with a clearly lower budget and production values than ones I’d seen 10 or even 15 years ago, but that’s not something that will affect viewers who haven’t seen his work before and was more unique to my situation, I acknowledge that.

If you like the mockumentary genre and you particularly like them to be really dry and deadpan, the ones Christopher Guest makes are really near the top, if not on top, of the heap. Try one sometime.

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