Waiting For Guffman

Warner Brothers, 1996

Christopher Guest

Screenplay: Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy

Starring: Christopher Guest, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Matt Keeslar.

Rated R, 84 minutes

The Show Must
Go On

by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, November, 2001

Improv director extraordinaire Christopher Guest's recent mockumentary, Best in Show was a hit with both critics and audiences. When it made its debut on DVD, with commentaries and extras, I hoped that his earlier effort, Waiting for Guffman would be given the same treatment. I just got my Christmas wish.

Waiting for Guffman (1996) is a tour de force and one of my favorite comedies of all time. Guffman is a must for fans of off-beat improvisational comedy, for lovers of the theatre, and for anyone who has ever suffered through a truly bad amateur community play. Waiting for Guffman was the brainchild of Saturday Night Live alumnus Christopher Guest who, along with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer made the definitive rock and roll comedy, This Is Spinal Tap in 1984. Like Spinal Tap, Guffman takes the form of a documentary and was largely improvised by its players in order to make it feel as if the film really is a documentary.

The simple plot is set in Blaine, Missouri. Blaine is a fictional small town straight out of The Andy Griffith Show. Their biggest industry was once the manufacture of fancy footstools and so the town's official slogan is "The Stool Capital Of The World." The main character is Corky St. Clair (Guest), who worked as an actor, director and choreographer in New York City for 25 years before returning to his hometown. He is the high school drama teacher and directs the Blaine Community Players. Blaine is celebrating its sesquicentennial and Corky has been asked to write and direct the town's pageant, Red, White... and Blaine.

The cast is filled with lovable, quirky figures. Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara play Ron and Sheila Albertson, a married couple who run a travel agency even though they have both never traveled outside of Blaine. They often star in Corky's productions and Corky calls them "the Lunts of Blaine." Eugene Levy is a dentist named Allan Pearl with a penchant for bad jokes. When asked if he was once the class clown, he says that he sat next to the class clown in grade school and studied him. Parker Posey plays a Dairy Queen worker named Libby Mae Brown who hopes to someday "meet some Italian guys and watch TV and stuff." Each lands a plum partin the sesquicentennial pageant despite their lack of talent.

From the abysmal auditions to the pathetic production, Guffman is hilarious from beginning to end. This is not a film that goes for cheap belly laughs, instead it indulges in subtleties. Spinal Tap viciously skewered rock archetypes but "Guffman" takes a different approach. Part of its charm is that it never ridicules its characters. Each thinks they are doing something special and there is a charm to their naivete'. Listening to O'Hara and Willard warble "Midnight at the Oasis" and Parker Posey trumpet "Teacher's Pet" at the auditions are among the comedic highlights.

The title is a take-off on Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot. Corky is expecting a Broadway luminary named Guffman to attend their show and of course, like Beckett's Godot, he never arrives. This is just one example of the subtlety and ingenuity of the film's jokes. This is not another foray in toilet humor like the latest abomination from Tom Green. My favorite joke involves Corky's collection of movie memorabilia which includes the coveted My Dinner With Andre Action Figures.

Guffman did not have a conventional script. Each of the actors were given notes on their characters and then given free reign to improvise. What is truly amazing about Guffman is that each of the principals are fully realized characters and not just a bunch of people goofing around in front of the camera. Most notable are Fred Willard and especially Catherine O'Hara whose comedic gifts are legendary. (Does anyone remember her sublimely awful lounge singer Lola Heatherton from Second City Television?)

The pageant itself is the best bad musical I've seen since "Springtime for Hitler" in Mel Brooks' The Producers. The music was written by Guest, along with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, and they manage to brilliantly lampoon the Broadway musical with the same wit that they savaged heavy metal rock with in This is Spinal Tap.

But the main reason for reviewing Guffman in Outcome is Corky St. Clair. Corky is quite obviously gay but, aside from his lisp, references to his sexuality are subtle and here are no cheap fag jokes in this film During one of his monologues he mentions leaving the New York theatre to come back to Blaine so that he could be a construction worker and wear chaps. He wears a Judy Tenuta sweatshirt during a rehearsal, and his tacky wardrobe is rivaled only by Emmet's on Showtime's Queer as Folk. Corky also casts the local beefcake mechanic Johnny Savage (Matt Keeslar) in his production and offers to tutor him privately.

Corky is sometimes outrageous but no more so than any of the others. In lesser hands, Corky could have been an offensive stereotype, but Guest makes Corky a complete and sympathetic character. You laugh with him and not at him. Corky is, in many ways, a major step forward in depicting a gay man in a film that is not targeted exclusively at a gay audience. His sexuality is not the focus of the jokes. In fact, his "peculiarities" seem to go largely un-noticed by the populace of Blaine. One townsperson remarks on how sweet he is when he shops for his wife's lingerie but is confused because no one has ever seen her.

In another nice quasi-gay touch, a council member breaks into tears during the show and remarks afterwards that Corky is a genius and that the only other showbiz personality that comes close to him is Barbra Streisand.

The new DVD for Waiting For Guffman includes several entertaining deleted scenes, as well as a commentary from Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. The commentary, however, is a disappointment. When you take into consideration their talents at improvisation, the long stretches of silence during the commentary are inexcusable. Several of their observations are amusing though and the listener does get a sense of how the actors found and created their characters. Lovers of this film will probably also enjoy their more recent comedy, Best in Show (2000) which pokes fun at professional Dog Shows and the obsessed people who enter their pampered pets in them. While not quite as funny as Guffman, Best in Show includes a gay couple and an unexpected lesbian angle amongst the comedic proceedings.

[Reviewer's note 2009: Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind (2003) features a very funny - but not mean-spirited - moment when one of the members of a 1960s folk trio suddenly reveals that he had a sex change and 2006's For Your Consideration details the making of a God-awful independent film, set in the 1940s, called Home For Purim, in which an old dying Jewish mother played by Catherine O'Hara is visited by her prodigal daughter (Parker Posey) who comes out as a lesbian (and also comes home with her partner). In the same fllm, Posey performs the most hilarious, intentionally-bad, "man-hating radical feminist" performance piece you will ever see.]


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