20 Years Ago Today: Waiting For Guffman

NAT YORSKI – Montreal

Improv was a cheap extracurricular lunchtime activity when I was in high school, used as a bizarre makeover device for excited and socially awkward kids to vent excess energy for an hour a week. As I got older and went to theatre school, improv was used as an introduction for my aspiring actor friends to the world of cheap laughs. Finally today, as an adult, improv is either an odd icebreaker to introduce people to each other professionally or it ends up being some sort of cult-like club that my more “alternative” friends enjoy. Any real fun I found in improv was somewhere in the realm of Who’s Line is it Anyway? I wondered how much self-awareness Richard Simmons could really have?

When I was about 19, I was introduced to a whole new realm of comedy that began saturating the market; a new type of improv style that was based on passionate people being totally ridiculous. This new style of improv wasn’t a race to the funniest punchline or a cultish clubhouse of overly animated go-getters. It wasn’t competitive or aggressive improv. No, this improv was honest, awkward, and yet somehow charming, mimicking most people’s deepest and most sociopathic thoughts. When filmed in a mockumentary style, characters become more relatable and as a result funnier, as we laugh at our subtle and perhaps more subliminal personalities. 

The three men responsible for this type of improv are Ricky Gervais, Larry David, and of course Christopher Guest. Each have their own unique take on what it means to make “honest” comedy: Gervais lets natural reactions rule scenes, David turns sociopathic situations into reality, and Guest creates relatable characters in tandem with naturally talented actors, making his movies particularly unique.

In 1997, Christopher Guest released Waiting for Guffman, a story of a small cast of people from a rural town trying to put on a play about their home for its 150th anniversary. Led by a flamboyant eccentric from New York, the cast consists of local business people such as a Dairy Queen worker, a dentist, and a couple who own their own travel agency. Each takes this underfunded amateur project exceptionally seriously. When word reaches the cast that a big shot from Broadway named Mort Guffman is coming to see the performance, they all have high hopes that this will be their big break.

Admittedly, I do find the movie exceptionally entertaining as someone who’s worked in the theatre industry for numerous years. The amount of people that I have worked with that take these amateur productions exceptionally seriously (myself included) is comical and the movie is accurate in the portrayal of these would-be real life characters. However, the same mindsets can be attributed to anyone who’s really passionate about anything. There is a type of tunnel vision and focus that these enthusiastic type of people have. Therein lies the true comedy.

Sure, it’s funny to watch Christopher Guest and Parker Posey do an awkward musical number…

… But the sad realism of the relationship between Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard’s characters – two travel agents who have never left their small town themselves – is as equally cringeworthy as it is funny. Though seemingly supportive of each other, there is a selfish undertone.

Watching Christopher Guest spit out “bastard people” is of course silly, but his anger and frustration is so genuine and relatable.

Waiting for Guffman has some particularly great talents and demonstrates the subtlety of human behaviour at its most awkward. After a five-year hiatus, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm will be coming back to television this year. 20 years after the release of Guffman, we can see that David builds from Guests’ characters, as they manage to be passionate though somehow removed from everyday life. Curb’s Larry David is a relatable everyman whose antics make the viewer feel guilty, awkward, and relieved simultaneously, as are the folks in Guffman.

If there was ever a time to look back on some honest improv, this is it.

Nat Yorski is the effervescent and unapologetic female voice of The Coost. With her love of music and her second love of telling people what’s what, she spends most of her time playing with puppets and signing karaoke to her dog.

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