Christopher Guest’s publicist gives me one piece of unsolicited advice before my interview with the comic legend: Under no circumstances should I use the word “mockumentary.” Guest loathes the term and will not warm to anyone who uses it.
This poses a small problem, of course, when you are interviewing the irascible imagination behind such modern comic masterpieces as This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman, A Mighty Wind and Best in Show – all of which fall broadly into the mock-documentary category, a genre Guest is often credited with pioneering and more or less perfecting.
And then there is the problem of how to describe Guest’s latest project, Family Tree, a television series for HBO and BBC 2, which follows the sheepish journey of one depressed man (Chris O’Dowd) through the genealogy of his eccentric British and American family. Like Guest’s previous work, the dialogue is entirely improvised – a method that lends itself well to the forgiving faux-documentary form. All the signature hallmarks of Guest’s work are there: The “interview” monologues just off-camera, the self-conscious sidelong glances, the interruptions, the long awkward pauses that make you squirm in your seat. If this isn’t mockumentary, I’m not sure what is.
So when I finally get him on the phone from his office in Los Angeles, I can’t resist saying it, if only to see what he does. True to form, he is suitably annoyed. “People have been using that term for 25 years, and no matter what I do or say, it still hangs around,” he says gruffly. “I don’t like it because I’m not mocking anybody. It’s not what I do.”
Enough said on that – except that I will be using the term (for lack of a better one) against the auteur’s wishes for the rest of this piece.
Family Tree marks Guest’s first major foray into television, and like almost everything else he’s done it breaks the typical creative mould on almost every count. It is no exaggeration to say Guest is one of the grandfathers of modern comedy as we know it. Everything from stunt-based comic reality TV (Punk’d and Jackass) to scripted comedies in a documentary format (Modern Family, The Office) to such online fare as Funny or Die owe much to Guest’s style and process. The mockumentary form, with all it’s ragged edges and potential for mess, introduced a veracity to comedy that exploded the traditional “set-up … gag” structure of TV comedy. Now that the medium has been revolutionized as the result his legacy, Guest is finally ready to venture into TV himself.
A transatlantic co-production, the show was the result of Guest’s own personal familial reckoning. And his is a family history to be reckoned with. You’d never know it from his broad Californian accent and Hollywood-royalty family (he is married and has two children with actress Jamie Lee Curtis), but Guest is a British aristocrat who has served in the House of Lords. His father, the former British diplomat Peter Guest, was was the fourth Baron Haden-Guest while his mother, Jean Hindes, was a casting director at CBS. Guest’s younger brother is the New York-based journalist and illustrator, Anthony Haden Guest.
When his father died 17 years ago, passing on his title, which Guest retained but does not formally use, he left behind dozens of boxes filled with family treasures and clues. Guest began going through it all and was astounded at what he found. “There were medals and military buttons, diaries that describe events from London life in the early 1800s that were so insane and you could scarcely believe had even happened,” he says. “I found out my great-great-great-grandfather was a ventriloquist who performed for King George III.”