Waiting for Guffman (1996)


Have you ever noticed that everyone has that one film (or multiple films) that when they are playing on television, you cannot avoid watching them, or a film so great and resonant that you rewatch it often? For me personally, it is not really a singular film that achieves this, but rather a singular director and his fantastic troupe of actors. Christopher Guest is amongst the greatest comedy filmmakers of all time, and at least once a year, I rewatch his entire filmography, most notably his Holy Trinity of Mockumentaries – A Mighty Wind, Best in Show and of course, his seminal masterpiece, Waiting for Guffman. I was surprised that I have yet to review any of his films (despite him being one of the elite subjects chosen for my sporadic honoring segment “An Appreciation of…”), and attempting to correct this glaring omission, it gave me an excuse to rewatch Waiting for Guffman, a film that stands as one of the greatest comedy films ever made. Any excuse to watch a Christopher Guest film will be fine by me, because they are all so brilliant.

If you are one of the unfortunate few that are completely unaware or unfamiliar with Waiting for Guffman, it is one of the most extraordinarily strange films ever made. It concerns a small town in Missouri, known as Blaine, that is celebrating its sesquicentennial (which is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary) of the founding of their town. A whole day of celebrations is planned, with the keynote event being a musical stage production chronicling the history of Blaine. This is the kind of storyline that Christopher Guest and his ensemble feed on as their bread and butter, because it becomes very clear that Blaine is far from being an ordinary town, and of course only the most bizarre and eccentric characters gravitate to the centre of this film. The production is to be directed by Corky St. Clair, played brilliantly by Guest himself. Corky is an eccentric, flamboyant and very obtuse failed actor and theatrical director that thinks he is the next Bob Fosse, when he is not even on the same level as most dinner theatre directors. His ego drives the production, and he casts a quintet of townsfolk to serve as the cast for the performance, each of whom are woefully indebted to Corky’s “genius” – or so he thinks.

The quintet of actors are played by collaborators that frequently work with Christopher Guest. What I adore about Guest is that his repertory company of actors are all character actors and supporting players, in terms of bigger films, but within the Guest universe, there isn’t any room for big stars, because the incredible comedic timing and talents of his proven cast is far better than anything a bankable star could bring to the film. Eugene Levy, who also co-wrote Waiting for Guffman, plays Dr. Allan Pearl, the goofy dentist with enormous spectacles and a failed sense of humour, hoping to catch his first break. Levy is absolutely outstanding as Pearl (and in all of Guest’s films, and his performance in A Mighty Wind is certainly one of the very best of the year when it was released). Joining Levy are Fred Willard, who has some of the most precise and brilliant comedic timing out of any actor working today – if Willard appears on screen, in any film or television show, you are certainly in for something bizarre and wonderful. Catherine O’Hara, a delightfully hilarious comedian who is also unable to take a misstep, joins Willard as his brassy and outspoken wife. Willard and O’Hara play Ron and Sheila Albertson, the travel agents (who have apparently never been out of Blaine), who double-up as the Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh of the town’s theatrical circuit (meaning that they are the only two people crazy enough to keep working with Corky St. Clair). Parker Posey, who is an absolute indie queen, plays Libby Mae Brown, the trashy Dairy Queen employee that dreams of a better life, but doesn’t seem to have the intelligence to facilitate it. Finally, Guest casts Matt Keeslar as Johnny Savage, the young man that just serves the purpose of dropping out of the production so that Corky himself can take the role of being the sweet, innocent young man and romantic lead of the production, despite being deeply into his middle-aged years.

There are fantastic cameos from many other notable members of the Guest ensemble, each of whom contribute massively to the brilliance of Waiting for Guffman. Don Lake is suitably goofy as the bizarre town historian, David Cross makes a hilarious cameo as a conspiracy theorist, and Larry Miller is once again the sarcastic everyman, playing the friendly but truly incredibly stupid mayor. Special kudos to Paul Benedict, who is just wonderful at playing a really thankless role as the man who we are led to believe is the titular Guffman (this film clearly takes its title from the historically significant Samuel Becket play Waiting for Godot, and much like the play, the titular character, Guffman, never actually makes an appearance in this film, even though the character anxiously await his presence).

What makes Waiting for Guffman, along with Guest’s other films, so special is their spontaneity. It would be wrong for me to not mention the film that served as the basis for Guest’s entire career as a filmmaker – the seminal classic This is Spinal Tap (which Guest did not direct, but rather wrote and starred in). The iconic comedy film launched the careers of Guest, along with his friends and frequent collaborators Harry Shearer and Michael McKean (both of which were sadly absent from Waiting for Guffman). These films are so hilarious, and so highly quotable and filled with such meaningful dialogue, it is bizarre to conceive that they are all almost entirely improvised, with Guest (and Levy in later films) simply writing the outline and then hiring the best actors improv can buy, and letting them loose on the material. It is not a rare technique, yet it seems to only work with two filmmakers – Mike Leigh and Christopher Guest, both equally brilliant. It is wonderful when you consider that each moment in Waiting for Guffman is necessary and brilliant, and that it is not only due to the genius of Guest, but the fact that his cast is at the very top of their game, at every moment. It is a theme that has existed from This Is Spinal Tap, and carried through into every mockumentary film since.

Waiting for Guffman is simply one of my favorite films of all time. I have seen it countless times, and I never tire of it. It is also amazingly suitable for anyone – there are juvenile sight gags that children will adore, and very risque (yet subtle) jokes that adults will love. It is hilarious, from beginning to end, and everywhere in between. It is one of the very rare comedic masterpieces that exist and are impossible to have detractors. Either you love Waiting for Guffman, or you haven’t seen it. It is just an amazing film, and a film that I will certainly rewatch many more times, and I hope everyone is able to see this amazing film, because it truly is just that…pure brilliance.


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