Without Christopher Guest, there’d be no Parks and Recreation. There’d be no Modern Family. There’d definitely be no The Office, either the U.K. or the U.S. version. (Ricky Gervais once admitted to Guest, “I’ve totally ripped you off.”) Guest, a writer, director, actor, songwriter, and God-knows-what-else, didn’t invent the genre, but with classics like This Is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind, he’s the reason “mockumentaries” have become a dependable comedy moneymaker — even though, ironically, his films have rarely made a profit. Waiting for Guffman grossed just under $3 million, or 1.8 percent of Iron Man 3‘s opening weekend.
It’s been six years since Guest made a movie, and there were rumors he’d retired from the mockumentary game altogether. But this weekend he returns with a vengeance, making his TV debut with Family Tree, an eight-episode series about a divorced and jobless British loser (Bridesmaids‘ Chris O’Dowd) searching for his roots. I won’t give too much away, other than to say it involves at least one woman who believes dinosaurs still exist, and the word “Chinesity.”
I called Guest to talk about Family Tree — which premieres this Sunday night on HBO — and tried to resist the urge to ask him the same questions he’s been asked a million times about This Is Spinal Tap. We talked about the musicality of improv, saying no to A-list celebrities, and the 4,000 amazing children stories that you’ll never, ever know about.
Since you make your living in comedy, does that make it more difficult to watch and appreciate other comedies?
Comedies as in other movies?
Yeah. I just can’t imagine you calling up Michael McKean and saying, “We should totally go see Hangover III this weekend!”
Well, yes, that’s unlikely to ever happen. I don’t see that many comedy movies, and I don’t watch television at all. I haven’t watched TV since I was 13. I’m a little bit in another world, I suppose, even though I’m technically in show business.
Is that by choice? Do you make the conscious decision not to be exposed to these things?
Obviously. It’s not a court order. Yeah, it’s a choice. A big-time choice.
Do you avoid them because they might affect your creative sensibilities, or do you just not find mainstream comedies appealing?
I prefer to keep my distance. By not watching television and not going to a lot of movies, it gives me a different reference point. It’s not as if I’ve never gone to the movies. My son is 17 now, but when he was 12 and 13, he would want to see certain movies. I did see a couple of films that would be described as mainstream.
Can you remember any titles?
Even if I did, I wouldn’t say. It wouldn’t be polite.
Because you didn’t enjoy them?
It’s not really my thing. I didn’t find any way to relate to it. Comedy, as with anything, is very much a subjective thing. One person can find something funny and another person doesn’t. I have a good gauge for myself when it comes to mainstream comedy. And the gauge usually says… “maybe not.”
Woody Allen claimed not too long ago that Annie Hall was his biggest disappointment. It didn’t end up at all like he intended. Which is ironic, as it’s the one film that most people would hold up as his masterpiece. He hates what the rest of us love. Do you have a film like that?
I don’t have a lot of regrets. And that’s probably because I rarely see what I’ve done after I’ve finished it. I don’t watch my movies. I work on them for a year and put them out there, and that’s the end of it.
When was the last time you saw Spinal Tap?
Not since the premiere.
Seriously? I’ve seen it at least twice this year alone. It’s on TV a lot.
That’s another reason I try to avoid television.
Are you afraid you’d be too critical?
Maybe. I don’t want to find out. You have to finish what you’re working on because at some point they come out. You know what I mean?
Once it’s out there, you can’t do another edit.
Every film feels like a never-ending work in progress. That’s always my mindset. Because something can always be better. But it has to come out. It is technically finished, it’s out there. People may or may not enjoy it. If I looked at one of my films again, I’m sure I’d find a lot to nitpick about. And not in a beating-myself-up way. I think Woody Allen is very hard on himself. And that’s probably unnecessary. It’s all in his mind.
Even if you don’t watch your movies anymore, are you ever driving down the 405 and all of a sudden the perfect Nigel Tufnel dialogue pops into your head, and you’re like, “Ah, man, I wish I could get a do-over?”
You get ideas after the fact. But I’m not interested in going back in and messing with it. No movie is perfect, at least no movie I’ve seen. The world is filled with wonderful movies that have imperfections. I’d rather see something that’s ambitious but flawed than some pretentious cinema that pretends to be a masterpiece.
Masterpieces are hard.
And they’re virtually impossible. It may have happened a couple of times in history. Especially for comedies.
I’m assuming this isn’t how you pitched Family Tree to HBO. “Don’t expect a masterpiece.”
I’ve been very fortunate that I don’t really pitch. I’ve never written anything in my life on spec. Typically writers have drawers full of scripts, and if they’re lucky, they get a script or two made. But every single thing that I have wanted to do has been produced. And they were done entirely the way I wanted to do them. If you don’t like them, that’s my fault. And if you do like them, it’s still my fault.
With HBO, did you come to them or vice versa?
HBO said they liked what I do and would I be interested in doing what I do for them. So that’s what I did.
I get weirdly comforted when I watch one of your movies and the same actors pop up. In Family Tree, you brought in familiar faces like Michael McKean, Fred Willard, and Ed Begley, Jr. Do you get the same comfort from working with these guys as we do watching them?
You don’t have to explain to them what you do.
That’s really what it is. There’s no question that there was some anxiety when we started in England. Apart from Michael McKean, for a lot of these actors, like Chris O’Dowd and Tom Bennett, this was new territory for them. Bringing in new people is always a risk. Because there’s no written dialogue, there’s no rehearsal. You’re saying, “Okay, let’s jump into this and see what happens.” I was definitely more relaxed when we did the stuff in the States, and I had Fred Willard and Ed Begley and Kevin Pollak and Bob Balaban and all those people I’ve worked with before. Because I know what they can do.
There are no surprises.
Or the surprises are usually funny. With these guys, you know there’s a good shot it’s going to be effortlessly brilliant.
Are you ever approached by A-listers wanting to be in your movies? You’ve got cult cred. I can easily imagine George Clooney or Tom Cruise calling and asking you to put them in something.
Yeah, that’s happened. [Long pause.] Not specifically them, but you know…
And you said no?
What it comes down to is whether someone can improvise. And if you can’t improvise, I don’t care how famous you are, you aren’t going to be in the project. Improv is something that only a handful of people can do. The reason all the same people are in my movies is because those are the people who can do that work. I’m more interested in what somebody can do in a situation where they have no script and nobody is telling them where to go and what to say than whether they’re a movie star or famous.
Without naming names, have you gotten to the audition process with an A-list celebrity?
Oh, no. I would never get to that point. George Clooney is a wonderful actor, but when you look at people’s careers and what they are drawn to doing, there are people who gravitate to comedies because that’s what they do well, and people who do other things because that’s where their talents are. I’ve been approached by people who do dramas, who are really wonderful actors, who say things like “I would love to be in one of your movies.”
You have to gently tell them, “This isn’t for you”?
It’s hard. But there’s a reason that they haven’t done comedy or films with a lot of improvisation. Just wanting to do something doesn’t mean you should.
Do you really put your actors out there with nothing?
Oh, no, of course not. These things are much more mapped out than even a written screenplay would be. We do character backgrounds: where they went to school, what music they like, who they’ve dated and been dumped by. Plus, every scene is mapped out so they know exactly the beats in every scene. This is much more rigorous than people would imagine. Everyone has to know where we’re heading. Otherwise it’s just people yapping.
You’ve said that Peter Sellers is one of your comedy idols.
He’s my favorite.
He wasn’t an especially happy guy. He once claimed that he didn’t have any personality outside of his characters, that he was just a blank slate and these oddball characters took him over completely. Do you ever feel like that?
Well, that’s a little spooky. It’s like a plot from X-Files. That’s an Area 51 kind of a thing, don’t you think?
I do. So you’re saying it isn’t like that for you?
Every actor has a different way of approaching what they do, whether it’s research or finding a look or a voice. Sometimes it comes from the outside, sometimes from the inside. In my case, I would equate it to musicality.
In terms of a character’s personality, or how they talk?
It’s all in the voice. I have to hear that person talk and I have to love how that instrument sounds. In the same way that — I have a guitar collection, and there are certain instruments that speak to me because they have a certain tone and they are fun to play. If I’m doing a character, I have to be able to speak like that character and love the music and the meter of his voice. It has to flow out of me and feel true. It can’t be forced. It has to feel as natural as playing an instrument.
Speaking of music, it’s the 40-year anniversary of the National Lampoon musical Lemmings.
Geez. Really? That’s scary.
Scary that it was so long ago?
I had no idea it’d been 40 years. Thanks for bringing that up.
I didn’t mean to make you feel old.
No, don’t worry about it. I am old. I accept that. I did that show when I was 23. I hadn’t thought about it in a while.
Lemmings was a huge deal. The cast included you and a pre-fame John Belushi and Chevy Chase.
I was very fortunate to be involved with the Lampoon during that period. Not just the Broadway thing, but the radio show and the five or six albums we did. I look back at it now and think, “Was that really me? Did that happen how I remember it? How did I stumble into that?”
It’s amazing you remember anything. Stories about the Lampoon and the comedians involved with it during the ’70s — apparently there were some substances abused.
If the legend is to be believed, there were wheelbarrows full of cocaine. Was it as crazy and unhealthy as it sounds, or has the debauchery been romanticized?
Well, if that’s considered romantic, then I need to talk to someone. There was a lot of stuff going on, but I was not one of the people doing that stuff. I was kind of living a different life, in many ways. I was isolated, I guess out of self-preservation. But I was mostly just interested in the work, not the stuff that happened afterwards. I was not the after-party guy.
There’s a YouTube video from the show of you doing a Bob Dylan impression. It’s staggeringly awesome. Did you ever hear from him?
Never. I mean, we heard from his attorneys, but never him personally. I saw him perform once in 1963, but I never came in contact with him. I doubt that he came to the Lemmings show, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. Maybe he snuck in, saw it in disguise. When we did the first Lampoon album, Radio Dinner, I did a Dylan impression. It was meant to be him selling these really cheap records on late-night commercials. The Lampoon offices got a call from someone representing him, asking us to stop it. And the same thing happened when I did Mr. Rogers.
You got a cease-and-desist from Mr. Rogers?
It was much nicer than that. It was about a scene I did for one of the records, with Bill Murray. I was Mr. Rogers interviewing a bassist, who was maybe a little stoned. We heard from Mr. Rogers’s people, who basically said, “Please don’t do that anymore.”
Your wife [Jamie Lee Curtis] has written some great children’s books. Today I Feel Silly, It’s Hard to Be Five. You’ve heard about this, I assume?
She has told me about it, yes.
Would you ever consider writing a children’s book? And if so, what might it be about?
Wow. Well, I know how to tell children stories. When my son was very small, I told him an original story every single night between the ages of three and eight.
Are you kidding me?
No. I did that. I must’ve told him close to 4,000 stories.
Why’d you stop?
He got to the age where he was like, “Please don’t do this anymore.”
That’s hard to fathom. There’s somebody in the universe who wants Christopher Guest to stop improvising original stories for him?
Yeah. An eight-year-old is hard to impress.
What were the stories like?
They’d all be about the same characters. But every night would be an original story.
Did you do voices? Did every character speak differently?
Oh, yeah. That’s what I know how to do.
Jesus. I’m getting goose bumps. Do you remember any of these stories?
I don’t. It’s the same thing as when I’m improvising. I have no memory of anything I’ve said in any of my movies. It was never said or thought about before that moment, and I’ve never thought about it afterward. The camera turns on and I start to talk, and then the camera shuts off and I forget everything.
So there are 4,000 original Christopher Guest children stories that were uttered out loud, and only two people were witnesses to it, and you’ve forgotten all of it?
I’m going to need your son’s phone number.
That’s probably not going to happen.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)