Waiting for Guffman (1999)
Written by Christopher Guest & Eugene Levy
Directed by Christopher Guest
Musical theater is a mixed bag. I enjoy plays that Stephen Sondheim contributed to; he was a thoughtful songwriter whose lyrics show a maturity not often seen in American entertainment. However, we also have shlock like Spongebob the Musical or Back the Future the Musical, shows that should be held in little amphitheaters off the side at amusement parks that you only go to in search of some shade and a break from walking around. And then you have something like Hamilton, a piece of garbage in its own class. Yes, I know some of you really love this one, but between the color-swapping of historical slave owners and Lin Manuel Miranda’s simping for the elites at the cost of his fellow Puerto Ricans, let’s just say it’s not my thing. Nevertheless, making fun of musical theater is a rich vein to tap, and Christopher Guest & company pulled that off beautifully in Waiting for Guffman.
Blaine, Missouri, is set to celebrate its sesquicentennial (fancy word for 150th birthday) and wants eccentric local director Corky St. Clair (Guest) to deliver a show like no other. St. Clair teams with high school music teacher Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban) to write Red, White, and Blaine. The musical will commemorate the founding father who had a poor sense of geography, leading him to think Missouri was California, the fact that the town is the “stool capital of the United States,” and the time a UFO was spotted. The cast is a mixed bag. Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard & Catherine O’Hara) are travel agents and get roles in all of Corky’s plays. Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey) is a Dairy Queen employee without many prospects. Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy) is the town’s dentist who believes a song & dance man is living inside him. These are just some of the performers & residents you will meet as the mockumentary follows the preparation and performance of a musical unlike any other.
Guest and his performers have a challenging tightrope to walk. You cannot let the story fall into a mean-spirited parody but can’t shear off the corners. However, they do a pretty good job of making sure to mock things in a specific way. The humor coming out of Blaine’s founding was a particularly great one for me. So often, stories of founding fathers in American history are told in a manner that parallels ancient myths. We’re taught to see these men, often horrible people, as saints to be revered. Waiting for Guffman’s pioneering town founder isn’t so much an evil man as a complete and total moron.
Waiting for Guffman is a picture full of details. Because much of the acting is improvised in the moment and edited to shape a larger narrative, the actors are free to play around. In recent years, you may have seen this technique being applied in more studio comedies, and it just doesn’t work. An outstanding improviser is hard to find. You can’t just turn on a camera and tell someone to “be funny.” A ton of thought & practice goes into honing improvisation skills so that they appear effortless. What’s going on in the actor’s mind, though, is overwhelming, an intellect working at the top of its intelligence to take in what’s happening and react in a way that plays on the complexity of humor. Some of the significant details that might be missed:
Libby grills a single chicken wing as she says in voiceover, “They’ll always be a place for me at DQ.”
The Albertsons are getting ready backstage before “Nothing Ever Happens on Mars,” with Sheila attending to Ron’s hair and him complaining about the details. Then, seconds before they rush out on stage, he says, “Now you can fix yours.”
The silent anger of Lloyd Miller as he watches these buffoons perform during rehearsal.
The dinner with Andre action figures and The Remains of the Day lunchbox.
Dr. Pearl; “No, I wasn’t the class clown. But I sat next to the class clown, and I studied him.”
Like all of Guest’s works, this movie can be rewatched endlessly, and you will find new details, whether in the background or an improvised line that goes by quickly. The actual core of the film is an examination of the over-inflated ego of the average American. When the idea is posited that Red, White, and Blaine might find its way to Broadway, almost no one involved blinks an eye. They genuinely believe they have a chance. Because of their distance, the audience can easily see what a joke the whole affair is. But this concept isn’t far-fetched; the reality show industry is made up almost entirely of people who think they “have what it takes” but are often objects of mockery.
The average American’s self-delusion is staggering when you can see them through the eyes of people outside that culture. Guest is one of the few, who certainly grew up in privilege, that is willing, to be honest about it. He knows he can’t go too hard because that would turn off viewers, so he is subtle but thoughtful about what he mocks and how he does it. Corky St. Clair being such an over-the-top effeminate man, could be seen as a mockery of homosexuality. I don’t see it that way. St. Clair claims to be straight from beginning to end, even claiming to have a wife no one ever seems to have laid eyes on. I think the joke intends to mock people who believe they are hiding their true selves when everyone can plainly see it. Now, you may not find that funny or think he’s punching down, and I can’t argue that you are entirely wrong. Guest isn’t queer, so he could be stepping out of line with that character.
I will argue that this film is one of the best at looking at how out of touch Americans are with what they look like to others. It’s the case when you get a room full of right-wing conspiracy nuts together in a room and they start talking about how all these other people are crazy. It’s often simple to see the delusion in others but far more complicated to admit to ourselves when we’ve overestimated our capabilities. Americans do not like admitting they are wrong or have failed, so there are mountains of comedy to mine out of their being lost in a fantasy of their capability.
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