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."
Unsure of what to do with this wealth of material ("I still haven't gone through it all yet – the math and time involved is unbelievable"), Guest began creating a record album of dialogue among an eccentric and mythical family not unlike his own. At the same time, he began collecting images of these characters, unsure of what he was doing or where the idea would go. After a few years of this, Guest called up his old friend, actor and writer Jim Piddock. According to Guest, they "talked for two years" before putting together a package of eight eight-page episode outlines to present to broadcasters, which were, in turn, quickly green-lit for production. Both HBO and BBC 2 agreed to a full season without even doing a pilot – an astonishing commitment when you consider that Guest's projects come without scripts and are therefore impossible to creatively control or even conceive of in advance.
"I've never really pitched anything in my life," says Guest of his extraordinary career, which includes successful stints as a bluegrass and rock musician as well as notable acting work (he played the villain in The Princess Bride). "People generally know what I do and I figure if they get it, great. If they don't, fine. I've been fortunate not to have to go through the regular Hollywood hoops. I haven't done anything that hasn't been made. And I've never done anything on spec in my life."
Piddock, who previously worked with Guest as an actor in Best In Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration, was the one who urged Guest toward television. In the years since Guest's last film, there had been a cultural shift toward auteur-driven, dramatically experimental television. A broadcaster like HBO, he felt, might be the right fit for a Hollywood maverick like Guest. "I felt the whole subject of genealogy wasn't suited to film," Piddock tells me. "It was more amorphous than that. With TV, you don't need one direct through line or traditional three-act structure. You can branch off and explore different things."
And the show certainly manages that. With an impressive ensemble cast fronted by O'Dowd (Bridesmaids), Family Tree explores the life of a circle of family and friends that includes a compulsive ventriloquist (Nina Conti and her stuffed monkey), a sitcom-addicted father (Michael McKean), a big-mouthed zookeeper mate (Tom Bennett) and a kindly curio-shop owner played by Piddock himself. Guest also makes an appearance in episode six as an eccentric American cousin.
Once on set, Guest discourages his actors from being broadly funny or going directly for gags or punchlines. Instead, he lets the scenes spool out much as a documentarian would, never entirely knowing what he'll get from each take. Casting is key. "The people that I've chosen to do these projects are not live improv-night club actors for a reason," he explains. "In each situation, the premise is to be real. Funny things just happen."
Guest's unusual process, and the awkwardly hilarious results it produces, has been an inspiration for an entire generation of comic TV and filmmakers, most notably the original creator of The Office, Ricky Gervais, whom Guest now describes as "a close friend." That show, which Guest believes is "possibly the greatest comic television show ever made" owes so much to Guest's style that when Gervais first met him, he famous remarked, "I'm glad to meet you. I've been ripping you off for years."
While Guest's purely improvisational techniques are still unique to television (mockumentary series like The Office, Trailer Park Boys and Modern Family use traditional scripts), his movies introduced an emotional veracity to modern comedy that's been exploited by film- and TV-makers from Judd Apatow to the producers of Jersey Shore.
Mark Proksch, an L.A.-based comedian and cast member on the U.S. version of The Office (he plays Nate the handyman), was such a self-confessed Guest geek that he nearly wore out his VHS tapes of Waiting for Guffman and This Is Spinal Tap in high school. Despite this, when he started on The Office, now in its final season, he had to adjust as an actor to the mockumentary format. "One of the first things they remind you of on set is that this is a documentary," says Proksch. "You're encouraged to look at the camera from time to time, and long pauses are fine. Basically you can do all the things you're not supposed to in a regular TV show."
The best part, he adds, is when the director sits back and says, 'Now we're going to do a few takes and you guys see what you can come up with.' It's incredibly luxurious, especially in television." And the result, he says, is "a comic spontaneity that scripted films and TV can't achieve."
Here in Canada, mockumentary shows such as Trailer Park Boys and, more recently, HBO Canada's The Yard (about a rival elementary school gangs) owe much to the Guest oeuvre. David Eddie, an advice columnist for this newspaper and the co-creator of the latter show, said in an interview that he's always been attracted to the genre for the way it allows the viewer to get under the character's skin with the contrivance of voice-over. "Personally, I've always been less interested in the stuff that happens to people than what they think about what happens to them. And watching people telling the camera their cracked thoughts about their predicaments is just inherently funny." He adds that Guest is the grandfather of this technique. "For me, the template, the gold standard, the Magna Carta classic of the genre was This is Spinal Tap."
Noel Baker, who wrote the classic punk-rock feature Hard Core Logo – arguably the most successful mockumentary in the history of Canadian cinema – agrees. "Mockumentary can be wonderful when it comes to exposing pain. It's a form that's forgiving to improvisation. It's useful for simulating reality. You can just keep the cameras rolling and get people to do take after take." Like Guest, Baker didn't really use a script in Hard Core Logo: "I was just happy if they more or less hit their beats, and in the end what ended up on screen was closer to my intention than what was actually written on the page."
Like Hard Core Logo, most of Guest's seminal early mock-docs were made before the advent of reality TV – a turn of events that has made the viewing public even more comfortable with the documentary aesthetics in drama. What used to be seen as edgy or weird – characters confessing their inner thoughts to the camera; or a bumpy, hand-held style – is now completely familiar. As Baker points out, Guest was wildly ahead of his time, since "mockumentary today has lots of legs left in it. In a way, it's the form the world deserves. In our confession-addicted culture, viewers want to be in on a joke, and mockumentary allows for that."
In many ways, Family Tree takes that idea one step further, drawing viewers not just into the joke but deeper into the protagonist's emotional turmoil and family secrets. We follow him across the ocean and ultimately into a kind of honest self-discovery, of the sort rarely seen in TV comedy. For Guest, who has never done anything the normal way, it's all in a day's work. "To make these characters more than one-dimensional emotionally is what's most essential to me," he says. "The funny things that happen are great, but this show represents two years of my life. I need something satisfying on a deeper level."