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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Christopher Guest
Why it’s daunting: Improvisation can be terrifying: When it’s good it’s absolutely brilliant, a mesmerizing highwire act without a net. When it’s bad, it feels unbearably self-indulgent, and even the best improvisers can’t always make their craft work. No less an authority than Carl Reiner said, as recounted by Alan Thicke in an A.V. Club interview, “Mel Brooks and I are the funniest guys in the history of the English language at improvisation, the funniest team, and we could take one of your premises and give you 45 minutes of genius on any given day. And on every other day, we could give you two hours of deathly silence and come up with absolutely nothing.” No comic filmmaker is more intimately associated with improvisation than Christopher Guest, an alum of The National Lampoon Radio Hour and Saturday Night Live who made his name as a filmmaker co-writing, directing, and co-starring in improvised films riffing loosely on show business and music. In his most beloved films as a director, Guest comes up with a loose framework for a film with collaborator Eugene Levy, then has a cast of skilled, veteran improvisers fill in the blanks with their comical genius.
Possible gateway: Waiting For Guffman
Why: Co-written by and co-starring Guest, the classic 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap introduced some of Guest’s improvisatory techniques and featured much of what would become his repertory cast, including Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Ed Begley Jr. and Fred Willard. But it was directed by Rob Reiner and has a different rhythm than Guest’s later films. So does Guest’s underrated 1989 directorial debut, The Big Picture, a charming sleeper that sets itself apart from other Hollywood satires via its relative subtlety and nuance.
It wasn’t until 1996’s Waiting For Guffman that Guest put all the pieces together. At heart, many, if not all of Guest’s mockumentaries offer gently warped variations on the “Let’s put on a show!” subgenre as a motley aggregation of dreamers and wannabes pool together their sometimes negligible creative resources to create something that would fill them with shame if they weren’t so blissfully devoid of self-consciousness. Even with professionals like Spinal Tap or the minstrels of A Mighty Wind, an infectious can-do spirit pervades his films, both in front of the camera and behind. Guest both honors and lampoons the innate human impulse to make a spectacle of ourselves.
In the case of Waiting For Guffman, the show is a garish, gaudy, and borderline insane pageant (Red, White And Blaine) celebrating the 150th anniversary of Blaine, Missouri (“the stool capital of the United States”). The impresario behind it: a deluded, effeminate dreamer played by Guest as a man so deeply closeted that he apparently hasn’t even conceded his sexuality to himself.
Waiting For Guffman adroitly spoofs regional theater, documentary filmmaking, and the human impulse to perform even when it’s inadvisable. But Guest’s Broadway aspirations and pathetic hope that the New York theater producer Mort Guffman will check out the show and elevate him to glory gives the film an element of pathos it shares with many of Guest’s later efforts, particularly A Mighty Wind, where the sadness sometimes overwhelms the comedy.
Next steps: Guest’s 2000 follow-up to Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, transported the action from a community theater in the Midwest to a Philadelphia dog show but maintained the same breezy affability while striking affectionately satirical tone. Fred Willard—like many members of Guest’s repertory company, an old friend of Guest’s with decades of film and television work behind him—steals the film with his signature blissful idiocy as a hilariously clueless dog-show announcer.
The 2003 folk music comedy A Mighty Wind shares many of the strengths of Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show but adds an almost unbearably poignant dramatic element in the form of Eugene Levy’s character, a tormented singer who’s spent decades in a suicidal depression following a split with creative and romantic partner Catherine O’Hara (like Levy, a graduate of SCTV).
Where not to start: Guest tried a different approach with 2006’s disappointing For Your Consideration. It was the first Guest film since 1997’s little-loved Chris Farley/Matthew Perry Western comedy Almost Heroes (another terrific place not to start) not to use the mockumentary format, an approach by then much-imitated both other filmmakers and television shows. But the film’s take on Hollywood pretension and Oscar fever feels overly familiar, especially when compared to The Big Picture. It doesn’t help that the cartoonish film world of For Your Consideration bears only the fuzziest resemblance to a real film world Guest should know quite well by this point.