a nice firm handshake. No fey small-town theatrical idealist Corky St. Clair in
sight. No extra finger attached to the hand of dastardly foil Count Rugen. No
rock guitar blaring "Stonehenge," as it did on Jay Leno the other
night, where Nigel Tufnel was joined on stage by band members David St. Hubbins
and Derek Smalls. No musty smell of Harlan Pepperís faithful bloodhound
lurking behind an overstuffed chair in the back reaches of the Four Seasonsí
lobby. And, alas, no sighting of his gorgeous wife of nearly 16 years selling
long distance service, as I and my guest wait (too long) for our cappuccinos to
on you if you donít recognize Americaís most recognizable (Christopher)
Guest. King of parody, consummate actor, stone-faced comedian, low key director,
comic writer, cartoonist, and family man. So you wonít have to scroll to the
bottom of the page and turn your computer upside down, the answers to todayís
pop quiz are Waiting for Guffman, The
Princess Bride, This is Spinal Tap
(now back in theaters and on bonus-feature-laden DVD, and still bringing
audiences to their knees in laughter), Best
in Show (garnering well deserved raves), and Jamie Lee Curtis. The
interviewee is visiting Washington in between New York, San Francisco, Los
Angeles, and elsewhere, on behalf of his new film, but the only evidence of jet
lag are slightly creased beige khakis and a weakly crumpled pin-stripe shirt. No
tie. His dark jacket appears as well-pressed as his straight-forward demeanor.
And while the hair line may be receding, his sense of humor is still strong
after more than a decade bringing comedy to the masses.
to his enduring relationship with Jamie Lee, thatís a great fairy tale story.
She had seen his photograph in Rolling Stone, showed it to her mother
(Janet Leigh) and said she was going to marry that guy. And they are living
happily ever after.
initial conversation covers the obscure French phallic animated comedy Tarzoon
Shame of the Jungle, released in the U.S. in 1978 and for which Guest earned
his first near-top-billing credit (behind Johnny Weissmuller, Jr.! and fellow
SNL compatriots John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Bryan Doyle-Murray) for providing
four voices to this x-rated cartoon spoof that incensed the estate of Edgar Rice
Burroughs. Pack-rat that I am, I found a pressbook for the film and offer it as
Wow, this qualifies as a major tchochke. I remember the sessions. We basically were improvising all
this stuff and I at least played six characters (heís credited with four).
My first recollections of you are with Spinal Tap, although your initial film roles were such generic
credits as "policeman" and "resident."
Well the (National) Lampoon was my
first real gig in 1970, way prior to Spinal
Tap. I did radio shows and helped to create Lemmings,
somewhat of a departure in the world of comedy. I think everything came out of
the Lampoon experience. Iíve been
working with Michael McKean since 1967. In our family tree of comedy, which has
a lot of overlaps and connections, Michael then went to work with Harry Shearer
while I got together with Rob Reiner. We all rejoined and Spinal Tap was formed, which, contrary to some peopleís
understanding, did not start out as a short film. The original Spinal
Tap was actually a scene on a a 1978 tv show called The
TV Show, that Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, me, Billy Crystal, and Martin Mull
wrote. It was a special for ABC, with Tapís
first appearance mimicking the popular show The
Midnight Special. Loudon Wainwright was the keyboard player and Russ Kunkel
was the drummer. He didnít spontaneously combust at that time (for those of
you familiar with the bandís tragic history), although he later appear in the
film as Stumpy, one of the guys who did. We went to Marble Arch Productions (Sir
Lew Grade), who offered x-amount of money to write this film. We of course knew
weíd never write the film because it was going to be completely improvised.
Instead we actually started shooting Spinal
Tap with the development money that he gave us, ending up with a 20-minute
film. After he saw our footage, he showed us the door. ("Please get out of
my office.") We then took this film around town and got pretty much the
same answer. They didnít know what the hell it was. They didnít know what a
documentary was. The next step was Norman Lear at Embassy Pictures, who took a
chance. Albeit a low budget movie, there was no script. And we shot it.
One of the alternate audio tracks on the CD-ROM version of This
Is Spinal Tap suggested the film had a four- or five-hour first cut.
I donít remember. It took about 10 months in the editing room. Pretty much the
same ratios I use. Waiting for Guffman
was five weeks to shoot and a year and a half to edit. Best
in Show: five weeks to shoot and eight months to edit. Thereís a pattern
Are there any plans for additional segments of the tour further to the 25th
anniversary reunion show back in the early 90s?
Weíre going to play some concerts.
How involved are you with the resurgence of the band on the internet? Thereís
the official website, merchandise, even mp3ís and auctions!
Well we just cut a song (appropriately titled Back
From the Dead), which I like very much (it can be downloaded (http://www.tapster.com/).
We did Letterman and House of Blues.
Weíll do others sporadically. We like to play music, so thatís an excuse for
use to get together. Spinal Tap has
remained this legacy which is difficult to explain.
I think itís like Bela Lugosi, whose Dracula icon has embedded itself on the
Well thatís very nice. At the same token, itís really fun to go back and
play. Because we have this added dimension of playing music. Other movies may be
like Spinal Tap, but you donít have
the actors doing the actual music. There was a very strange episode that
happened on our last tour when we played the Royal Albert Hall, a dream we all
had. I came off stage after the first night and there was a little boy who asked
for my autographed. As I was signing, I looked up and saw his dad. George
Harrison. It was one of those quintessential moments. I got the chills. This was
so eerie because The Beatles had played the Royal Albert, we did this movie
about this fictitious group which is now a real group playing the same hall, and
now one of The Beatlesí sons is going to see the real fictitious group
influenced by The Beatles. Itís way chicken and egg.
Segueing into Saturday Night Live, was
your involvement with that show a direct result of Spinal Tap?
No. Not at all. Actually before we even did the movie, SNL
producer Bob Tischler, a friend of mine from the Lampoon days, when he produced and edited our records, asked me to
join the cast. I rejected them initially. While we were shooting Spinal
Tap, he and (executive producer Dick) Ebersol then asked me to do just the
Weekend News Update. "But Iím making a movie!" I told them. They
wanted me to fly in from Los Angeles, where we were shooting. Finally, when the
filming was done, they asked me, Michael (McKean), Harry (Shearer), Billy
Crystal, and Marty Short to be on the show. Michael, because of his family,
opted out, but became a regular ten years later. The rest of us signed one year
contracts. We got to do a lot of interesting stuff. Most people (on SNL)
donít have the luxury (of setting contract terms), but because we were
somewhat established, we set our own deal.
Sir Denis Eaton-Hogg, the fictitious owner of Polymer Records in This
Is Spinal Tap, proclaims it was time to "Tap into America!" which
seems to be your credo in your films. Youíve taken these really quirky, often
bizarre, characters that are either ripped from the headlines of Americaís
tabloids or walking the aisles at a K-Mart.
Whatís your springboard for creating such endearing characters as Corky,
Nigel, and now Harlan Pepper.
Well I would say that from the time I was a child I would watch people. Their
behavior. Their voices. The way they walk. I didnít know what this was at the
time -- I just enjoyed it. As a child I would look out the window and make up
voices for the people as they walked by. My mother would ask what I was doing,
and I said "nothing." I think my family thought I was funny. I have a
four-and-a-half year old son and heís really
funny. He makes me laugh more than anyone. There is something going on in his
eyes, something mischievous. Part of that is external forces and some of it
youíre born with. Anyway, thatís what I remember when I was growing up, and
I still do it. I see people and something about them gets lodged in my brain.
There was a character I created on Saturday
Night Live that originated 15 years earlier at a New York City hotel. I was
checking in and there was a completely bizarre guy behind the desk. While I
donít consciously have a library of memories, they are triggered when someone,
somehow, makes me remember. While I canít remember exactly where Harlan Pepper
comes from, Iíve heard that voice, Iíve been in the South, and I was
intrigued by the musicality of that accent. (At which point he riffs into that
nearly indecipherable drawl before returning to normal.) I have to feel
comfortable that I can sustain that through the film.
When you prep a film, how much load do you place on the actors? Obviously
thereís a lot of improv here.
Itís ALL improv. 100 percent. Which is hard for people to understand.
(Co-writer) Eugene Levy and I have a story (his latest was originally called Dog Show) with a first, second, and third act. Thereís a linear
flow through the movie. The characters all delineate. We know their histories,
their names, their relationships to the friends and family. I give the actors
the ability to expand even on that. But there is no dialogue written down
whatsoever. The exceptions are, for instance, the scene with Rob Reiner in Spinal
Tap, where I point to the number 11 on the sound amplifier and we had to
construct that joke in order to have the prop. With that exception, Spinal
Tap is completely improvised. In Best
in Show, as with Waiting for Guffman,
there is no rehearsal. You canít, because you might blow the whole deal.
How much of this film is first take? Second take?
Fifty percent is second take. 25 percent is first take. Generally we never went
beyond that. At the most we had some third takes, because you start to lose the
spontaneity. What makes this film special is that the audience is hearing
something spoken for the first time. It may be a subliminal reaction, but
somehow they know this is something different. That this is the way people
really talk and react in real time. In any other reel film you have a master
shot, then an hour breakdown before a two-shot, followed in another hour by a
close-up. At the end of the day, youíd have 20 seconds of dialogue recorded
and maybe two-and-a-half minutes of footage. In a given day on Best
in Show weíd have an hour-and-a half of dailies. Ultimately I had 60 hours
of material. We shot it on Super16mm and our budget was around $7 million. Guffman
came in at $4 million. The increase was partly a function of quite a bit bigger
cast. These actors are the best at this type of work. Everyone gets scale.
Almost Heroes (which Guest directed) got drubbed at the box office
and by the critics. Was it because of the script?
(an emphatic) No! Simply because Chris Farley died right after we made the
movie. Iím now in a position of doing a press junket about a guy who died. I
think his performance is incredible in that movie. Truthfully, I think itís
the best thing he ever did. He had huge potential above the dopey movies he did.
He had some profound talent that people never had a chance to see. We had a
glimmer of that in this film. I liked the script. The movie just didnít work.
You never know whatís going to work.
As an actor, youíve often embraced non-comic roles, particularly in A Few Good Men and TV's Blind
Ambition. Do you approach those characters any differently than your comic
I donít know that I approach them differently at all. I like acting. I donít
look for acting work. I donít think there are any characters Iíd like to
play (as he scrunches his face in thought). I donít even think of it. If
someone comes along and offers me something I find interesting, Iíll do it. I
like doing any acting, but thatís a secondary consideration at this point. I
said several years ago I wouldnít even mind being on a tv show. Not as the
main lead, but as the guy who comes in from next door every once in a while,
does his little thing, and then leaves. But no one can understand that.
Back to Best in Show. As in Waiting for Guffman, you donít see the filmmaker. Thereís no
conscious effort to show a Marty DiBergi lurking behind the camera?
Regarding some of your more obscure television work is the short-lived series Morton
& Hayes (Guest offers up an affectionate laugh). Was that more than just
a summer replacement? [Telecast in 1991, this series within a series showcased
the fictitious and too-often forgotten comedy team of Chick Morton (Kevin Pollak)
and Eddie Hayes (Bob Amaral). Each week, Rob Reiner introduced some of their
forgotten Max King-produced 2-reelers to the adoring fans at home.]
That was one of those shows where if people catch on to the idea, then you do
more. It was a very bold idea, first of all because it was in black-and-white.
It was incredible fun to do. It was also very difficult. I directed five of the
six episodes. I was in probably five of the six. I think I wrote four of the
six. And I was producing the show. Which was insane. To be totally honest, if
CBS has picked this up, I donít know what I would have done. Kevin and Bob
were terrific. The atmosphere was completely insane. People wrote in and asked
"Why is Rob Reiner pretending to be Max King III?" So you know
youíre in trouble.
Which is exactly what happened with Spinal
Exactly. When we previewed that, the audience was wondering why we made a movie
about stupid people. So youíre dead. Obviously Morton
& Hayes was before itís time or after itís time. It just wasnít
itís time. People couldnít comprehend this subtle comic premise.
I found reference to a 1981 pilot called Likely
Stories that you directed and co-produced with David Jablin? What was that?
Did it air?
Oh yes. This was when cable was really cable (and before all the award-winning
originally programming of today). This was not HBO, but something like oak
cable, and something genuinely bizarre. I was approached by David, who wanted to
get all our friend to contribute to the show. Rob Reiner directed his first
short, called The Tommy Rispoli Story
that featured the limo-driving chauffeur later embodied by Bruno Kirby as Tommy
Pischedda in Spinal Tap. Billy Crystal
and I did a short called Prizefighter.
I did some animation for the program. My first thing I ever directed is there,
in which I play all the parts. I did it in a film noir style, a Ď40s detective
story in which Iím the private eye, the woman who hires him, the murdered
husband, the Indian guy with a turban who hits the detective over the head, and
so on. No one had told me you shouldnít play all the parts. Richard Belzer,
Stephen Collins, and other friends were on the show. Harry Shearer and Michael
McKean did a bit.
Aside from Spinal Tapís London Sell-Out Anniversary television show that aired
on NBC, have you and your wife ever acted together?
CG: No, weíve made a decision not to do that. We wanted to keep our careers separate. Her part on the show was just a short bit in which she is interviewed about how much Spinal Tap has meant to her.
Click here to read Elias Savada's review.