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.