Waiting for Guffman is a 1996 American mockumentary comedy film written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, and directed by Guest. The film’s ensemble cast (who improvised their dialogue based on Guest and Levy’s story) includes Guest, Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, and Parker Posey.
In the fictional small town of Blaine, Missouri, a handful of residents prepare to put on a community theater production led by eccentric director Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest). The show, a musical chronicling the town’s history titled Red, White and Blaine, is to be performed as part of the town’s 150th-anniversary celebration.
Cast in the leads are Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), a pair of married travel agents who are also regular amateur performers; Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey), a perky Dairy Queen employee; Clifford Wooley (Lewis Arquette), a “long time Blaineian” and retired taxidermist who is Red, White and Blaine’s narrator; Johnny Savage (Matt Keeslar), a handsome and oblivious mechanic, who Corky goes out of his way to get into the play; and Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), a tragically square dentist determined to discover his inner entertainer. High school teacher Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban) is the show’s increasingly frustrated musical director.
Corky has used connections from his “Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway” past to invite Mort Guffman, a Broadway producer, to critique Red, White and Blaine. Corky leads the cast to believe that a positive review from Guffman could mean their show might go all the way to Broadway.
The program itself is designed to musically retell the history of Blaine, whose founding father was a buffoon incapable of distinguishing the geography of middle Missouri from the Pacific coastline. The viewer also learns why the town obtusely refers to itself as “the stool capital of the United States.” The music is a series of poorly performed songs such as “Nothing Ever Happens on Mars” a reference to the town’s supposed visit by a UFO, and “Stool Boom”. (The DVD contains “This Bulging River” and “Nothing Ever Happens in Blaine”, which were edited from the cinema release.)
Central to the film are Corky’s stereotypically gay mannerisms. He supposedly has a wife called Bonnie, whom no one in Blaine has ever met or seen. He uses her to explain his habit of shopping for women’s clothing and shoes.
When Johnny is forced by his suspicious father (Brian Doyle Murray) to quit the show, Corky takes over his roles, which were clearly intended for a young, masculine actor, playing a lusty young frontiersman, a heartbroken soldier, and a little boy wearing a beanie and shorts. Corky never sheds his dainty demeanor, bowl haircut, lisp, or earring in spite of his historical roles, and his face is pasted with an overkill of stage rouge and eyeliner.
Corky is also faced with creating his magic on a shoestring budget, at one point quitting the show after storming out of a meeting with the City Council, which turns down his request for $100,000 to finance the production. But the distraught cast and persuasive city fathers convince Corky to return. At the show’s performance, Guffman’s seat is seen to be empty, much to the dismay of the cast. Corky reassures them that Broadway producers always arrive a bit late for the show, and sure enough a man (Paul Benedict) soon takes Guffman’s reserved seat. The show is well received by the audience, whereupon Corky invites the assumed Guffman backstage to talk to the actors.
The man is actually Roy Loomis, who has come to Blaine to witness the birth of his niece’s baby, but he does enjoy the show. Corky then reads a telegram stating that Guffman’s plane was grounded by snowstorms in New York City, meaning that, like the “Godot” being spoofed, the real Guffman himself is destined never to arrive.
An epilogue shows the fates of the cast: Libby Mae has returned to Dairy Queen. Allan and the Albertsons have pursued their dreams of being entertainers, Ron and Sheila traveling to Los Angeles, California, to work as extras, and Allan now performing for elderly Jews in Miami, Florida, retirement communities. Corky has returned to New York City, where he has opened a Hollywood-themed novelty shop, which includes such items as Brat Pack bobblehead dolls, My Dinner with Andre action figures, and The Remains of the Day lunch boxes.
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IT’S THE STORY OF BLAINE…
In the small town of Blaine, Missouri, the City Council prepares to celebrate the sesquicentennial anniversary of their little hamlet, a town settled in 1845, visited by extraterrestrials in 1946, and famous for its manufacture of footstools.
In honor of this momentous occasion, Off-Broadway exile, Blaine High School drama teacher, and founding member of the Blaine Community Players, Corky St. Clair, mounts a lavish theatrical tribute entitled Red, White and Blaine. Cast in this historical musical revue is Clifford Wooley, the local taxidermist; Dr. Allan Pearl, the town dentist; two very confident performers (and travel agents), Ron and Sheila Albertson; the Dairy Queen ingenue, Libby Mae Brown; and hunky mechanic Johnny Savage.
Corky’s hopes for a triumphant return to Broadway are fueled when a prominent New York producer from the Oppenheimer Group, Mort Guffman, sends notice that he plans to attend the debut of Red, White and Blaine. However, Corky quits the show in a tussle with the City Council over budgetary issues, leaving the task to the uninspired musical director, Lloyd Miller.
After a last-minute plea from the mayor, Steve Stark and Gwen Fabin-Blunt, a descendant of the town’s founder and local hero, Blaine Fabin, Corky makes a triumphant return to the production.
But then, on the day of the show, a cast member drops out suddenly, leaving the flamboyant Corky no alternative but to appear in the show himself.
ASSEMBLING THE GANG
Shortly after production on HBO’s successful Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, a thoughtful Christopher Guest was contemplating his future in the film industry, and the shape it might take.
“It was harder and more complicated, that film,” production designer Joseph Garrity recalls. “It was about effects and miniatures and a lot of complicated things; a lot of trucks and a lot of hardware. Not that [Guest’s] bad at it, but I think he’s more comfortable keeping it small. He told me, ‘Joe — I’m going to try something next, and if this doesn’t work, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’”
That next thing turned out to be Waiting for Guffman, a return to the documentary-style, improvised comedy that This Is Spinal Tap pioneered successfully in the early 1980s. In this case, however, Guest made a modification.
“I decided to remove the interviewer from the film entirely, and so you never heard any questions, and it’s more of a hybrid in the sense that it is a more conventional film in its style than Spinal Tap was,”1 he told the Sundance Channel’s Jack Tapper.
“Chris has been moving away from the stricter fealty to pure documentary-style, and going into a hybrid form,” Harry Shearer explains. “It doesn’t call for a storyteller on screen, or even an off-screen interviewer. You never really hear a question being asked. These people are talking to somebody off-screen, so it’s more a conceit that helps the style, that helps tell these stories, than Tap, which was a specific parody. It’s broadened from that now.”
Although there was no Marty DiBergi — or even Marty Scorsese — to guide audiences through Waiting for Guffman, that didn’t mean the documentary format need totally be sacrificed. In 1993’s Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen also instructed actors to address the camera as if in one-on-one interviews, and, though the narrator was heard, he was never seen.
Going back further, D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan tribute Don’t Look Back eschewed the role of the narrator totally and permitted audiences to make individual conclusions about the featured subject. Gimme Shelter was the same — no narrator present.
Even sans narrator, Waiting for Guffman would still adhere strictly to many of the tenets of the recent movement in documentary filmmaking called direct cinema — a concentration on impromptu interviews — a conscious informality in the (largely handheld) camera work, and an “attempt to break down the barriers between filmmaker and subject, to oversimplify the procedure to get at the whole truth and nothing but the truth and to catch events while they are happening.”2
Actors improvising lines offered ample opportunity for stammers, pauses and other tics that reflect real life more than the polish of a traditional Hollywood narrative, and that’s always what Guest seeks. The documentary style is also practical in many senses for a low-budget filmmaker. It involves fast setups, and is cheap to shoot.
“There are no lengthy setups,” actor Jim Piddock states. “You can have the camera moving herky-jerky, and it’s okay.”
“He obviously knew that his improv, kind of documentary-style thing was something he was good at,” Garrity adds, “and he knew his friends were good at it. This is where they’ve all come from.”
This time, Guest’s humor, which he himself describes as “sillinessframed intelligence,”3 was targeted not at the world of heavy-metal, rock ’n’ roll pretensions, but small-town America, and, in particular, community theater.
“Starting in theater in high school and having been on Broadway and playing Carnegie Hall and doing movies, there really is no difference other than you get paid more,” Guest commented once, “It’s all the same thing.”4 In other words, human egos, foibles, and pettiness are all on display backstage, regardless of the magnitude of the venue.
Guest also conceived his project not as something that would skewer or hurt people, but rather as a film that would depict — with some affection — the great enthusiasm and energy that people, even untalented ones, have for performing. “I have to entertain,” Dr. Allan Pearl emphatically repeats in the film, “I have to entertain.” He’s so adamant about it that it almost sounds like a threat.
“Chris told me he originally came up with the idea for Waiting for Guffman when he went to see one of his kids’ school plays, and they were putting on Annie, Get Your Gun,” Deborah Theaker confides. “There were all these little kids with handlebar moustaches and he thought it was just hilarious and sweet at the same time, and wanted to translate that into a movie. That was the impetus.”
On the DVD commentary for Guffman, Guest also likened the situation at the heart of Guffman to that of actors in a Broadway show learning that someone like Woody Allen is in the audience and concluding that he must be there to see them, and what’s more, hire them. It is the “discovery” delusion of everyone who has ever dreamed of going to Hollywood; the belief that the right person will see you, discern your captivating abilities, and deliver you to fame and fortune.
THE LEVY CONNECTION
After Guest imagined the film’s concept, he contacted Eugene Levy to collaborate on the film’s dialogueless screenplay with him. “I live in Toronto, and Chris called me [from L.A.] and said he wanted me to write Guffman with him,” Levy revealed to Back Stage West. “It wasn’t until quite recently that I found out he called me because he liked my work on SCTV.”5
In fact, Levy at first believed that Guest’s call was a prank.6 Fortunately, it wasn’t, and Guest had selected both carefully and wisely. Not only was the Canadian Levy a brilliant actor, writer, and director in his own right, but he also had significant experience with the so-called mockumentary format, specifically the 1984 HBO special called The Last Polka, a parody of The Last Waltz and chronicle of the life and times of the Happy Wanderers, the Schmenge brothers (John Candy and Eugene Levy) — characters from the SCTV series.
Born in 1946 in Hamilton, Ontario, a small town some forty miles or so from Toronto, Eugene Levy lived a youth not that different from that of Guest. He always had a love of music, and attended McMaster University in the late 1960s. He dropped out during his fourth year and worked as a coffee boy on the set of the 1971 Ivan Reitman movie, Foxy Lady, a job that earned him only about sixty dollars a week.7
Soon thereafter, Levy began appearing in Toronto theater productions like Godspell in 1972, alongside co-stars including Paul Schaffer, Gilda Radner, and Alias’ Victor Garber. Sometimes termed a “walking encyclopedia of show business,”8 Levy then joined the Toronto branch of Second City in 1973.
By 1976, Levy was headlining in the legendary television series SCTV alongside Rick Moranis, Martin Short, John Candy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, and eventually his Guest movies’ co-star, Catherine O’Hara.
The series focused on the fictional SCTV studios, channel 109, and all the crazy characters who appeared on the air, in commercials, and behind- the-scenes at the network. Replete with several skits per show and a number of recurring characters, the syndicated, Canadian-produced, thirty-minute series expanded to fit a ninety-minute slot on NBC in America in the early 1980s, and aired from 12:30 to 2:00 am on Friday nights.
Like Guest, Levy demonstrated a fondness for incorporating music into comedy routines, and wrote many musical parodies for the series, including those involving a folk group called Five Neat Guys. Presaging the folk music comedy of A Mighty Wind, this skit involved a quintet of folksy serenaders (Levy, Candy, Moranis, Thomas, and Joe Flaherty) decked out in letterman sweaters, gold bow ties, and gold lame pants. Levy also served as co-host alongside John Candy for the aforementioned the Happy Wanderers, a polka-style, musical variety show. John Candy and Eugene Levy played brothers Yosh and Stan Schmenge.
Though SCTV earned a comedy-writing Emmy award for the 1982-83 season and also acquired a legion of devoted admirers, Levy didn’t truly become a beloved part of the American pop-culture landscape until 1984, when he played the scheming villain in Ron Howard’s mermaid comedy, Splash.
Over the years, Levy has been a solid character actor in mainstream comedies like Father of the Bride (1991). and Multiplicity (1993). but in 1999 he achieved everlasting fame as the kind-hearted, accepting father of Jason Biggs’ pastry-loving character in American Pie.
After appearing in two sequels, American Pie 2 (2001) and American Wedding (2003), Levy again stole the show with his deliberately straight- laced delivery of hip-hop jargon in the Steve Martin – Queen Latifah comedy Bringing Down the House (2003).
Levy has also produced tv series such as Canada’s Maniac Mansion (featuring Deb Theaker) and collaborated with Christopher Guest on a comedy pilot for HBO called D.O.A. (1999), which followed the comic misadventures at a talent agency. In 1998, after Waiting for Guffman, Levy appeared in the Guest-directed traditional narrative, Almost Heroes.
On Waiting for Guffman, the highly respected Levy not only co-wrote the screenplay, he portrayed Dr. Allan Pearl, the small town dentist with big time dreams of Broadway and beyond.
Michael Hitchcock still recalls his excitement the first time he met Levy in the flesh, during an interview with Guest in pre-production of Waiting for Guffman. “I remember, all of a sudden, Eugene Levy walked out of the door, and I was almost speechless. I said, ‘Oh, that was Eugene Levy!’ And Chris said, ‘Yes, and Bob Hope is in that room, too,’ very dryly. So that was my introduction to Eugene.”
GETTING TO KNOW BLAINE
When the screenplay for Waiting for Guffman was completed, there was a sixteen page outline/script to show for Levy and Guest’s efforts, and what emerged from their work was the story of Blaine (rhymes with plain) and its starry-eyed residents.
Some early touches were changed before filming, including a denouement that would have seen the town’s stage destroyed before Red, White and Blaine could premiere. It was all part of a running joke related to The Wizard of Oz (1939). Blaine was originally a town in Kansas,9 which explains the aforementioned tornado, and Corky owned a memorabilia shop called Over the Rainbow, where stills and posters from that film could be seen. But as the story developed, Blaine moved to Missouri, and the Oz references dwindled, or at least slid into the background.
Another mostly discarded concept involved the sprinkling throughout the film of several talking-head moments, featuring purportedly real Blainians. This was a funny allusion to a similar conceit in Warren Beatty’s epic Reds (1981). In the end, only a confused UFO expert (David Cross) and blase abductee (Paul Dooley) were shown.
Named after its hapless founder, Blaine Fabin, who mistook Missouri for California, the fictional town of Blaine became known, according to the film’s screenplay, for its manufacturing of one marginally useful item: footstools.
Known as the Stool Capital of the World, Blaine proves to be a prodigious source of jokes for the film’s creators, but in accordance with Guest’s “comedy is reality plus one step further” theorem, the town is not too off the wall. Indeed, there are probably weirder towns in middle America. For instance, in North Carolina, a town called Bethune proudly heralds itself as “the home of the chicken strut.”
At Blaine’s center of gravity stood a very strange and singular individual, the colorful Off-Broadway exile named Corky St. Clair, who had relocated from the Big Apple to the film’s primary setting. The fey Corky was a variation and evolution of characters that Guest had developed in other venues, including Saturday Night Live and on some old cable TV specials.
As Waiting for Guffman’s screenplay was forged, talent from both sides of the camera came aboard the project. Karen Murphy produced This Is Spinal Tap, and had made a name for herself in Hollywood with challenging material like David Byrne’s True Stories (1986) and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989). She had worked with Guest before not only on Tap, but in a series of Showtime specials called Likely Stories in the early 1980s. Also helpful was Murphy’s experience with authentic documentaries, which she had produced for both PBS and the American Film Institute.
Another talent marshaled for the film was Guest’s old supporter from The Big Picture and Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, production designer Joseph Garrity. He still remembers his initial conversations about the project and its design. “The thought was that it’s all very real. Nothing was going to be staged and nothing was going to be perfect.
“You have a character and you discuss him with Chris,” Garrity describes. “Each character has a history and space he lives in. For Corky, he had a history of doing bad theater, and we had to come up with a lot of posters on the wall for these oddball plays. I always went to Chris and Eugene and asked them for the names of plays Corky had done. They would come up with weird names and I would put some insane images to them.”
Among Corky’s previous productions from off-off-off-Broadway were We’ll Dance ’til the Cows Come Home! and Cornelius McGillicutty and His Truly Amazing Flying Machine. One of Corky’s previous shows also had the distinction of opening at the East Side Recreation Hall/Annex, perhaps not a very well-known (or well-attended) venue.
In the casting department, a versatile group of performers, most of them boasting extensive improv experience, joined the team. Deborah Theaker, a graduate of Second City, and Michael Hitchcock, discovered by Guest during a performance of the Groundlings, were cast as Town Council member Gwen Fabin-Blunt and pharmacist Steve Sark, respectively.
“Though you never know exactly why you were picked with Chris, I think what got him interested in me is that I had done a lot of community theater growing up in the Chicago suburbs, at a place called the Theater of Western Springs,” says Hitchcock, “and I was relaying some of my experiences with that. I guess something clicked, and I was asked to join the film.”
Fred Willard signed on to play Ron Albertson. His domineering character was one half of the married acting team that Corky referred to grandly as the Lunts of Blaine. Ron’s wife Sheila was played by Second City vet and Home Alone (1990) mom, Catherine O’Hara, sister of singer Mary Margaret O’Hara.
Willard recalls how he came to be involved with Guffman. “I watched a rerun of Saturday Night Live where Chris Guest and Martin Short were doing a sketch. Guest was doing an incredibly effeminate character — it was Corky St. Clair, but he had a different name — and there was this long scene where they were sitting at a restaurant, this agent and a manager.
“The next day I was doing a voice-over for a commercial and my manager called me frantically and said, ‘I just got a call from Christopher Guest and he wants to talk to you about being in a movie. How soon can you get down there?’ I said, ‘What’s the big rush?’ and he said, ‘You’ve just got to go talk to him,’ so I went down there and talked to Christopher — and he’s not very forthcoming. He’s very quiet.
“So I said, ‘Christopher, I saw you last night on Saturday Night Live, and you were doing this character. Was that all improvised?’ And he said, ‘Unfortunately, yes it was,’ and I said, ‘Well, it was the funniest thing,’ and I spit all his lines back at him. Then he said, ‘It’s funny you mention it, because we’re doing this [improvised] movie and we’re calling it Waiting for Guffman,’ and I assumed it was a take off of Waiting for Godot, but they weren’t sure that was going to be the title.
“My first thought as an actor was ‘Wonderful, no lines to remember!’ Then Chris said, ‘You’re going to play Catherine O’Hara’s husband,’ and I said, ‘This is even more wonderful because she’s one of my favorite actresses,”’ Willard recalls. “So I said, ‘Count me in!”’
Unfortunately, on a second meeting, Willard learned that Catherine O’Hara might actually drop out of the project, and Willard recommended Mary Gross for the role, since she had been in the same company with Guest on Saturday Night Live. In the end, O’Hara came aboard, and went on to become a beloved player in this repertory company.
Also cast in the film was Lewis Arquette, formerly of the 1960s political satire group the Committee, as well as Sills and Company. He would be playing Blaine’s resident old fart, Clifford Wooley, who was responsible for narrating Red, White and Blaine.
Parker Posey, an actress well-known as Queen of the Indies for her roles in cutting-edge, independent cinema like Party Girl (1995), Flirt (1995), and The Daytrippers (1996), also met with Guest to discuss the role of the town’s Dairy Queen employee-turned-actress, Libby Mae Brown.
A native of Laurel, Mississippi, and named after 1950s supermodel Suzy Parker,10 Posey impressed Guest during their ten-minute meeting. “Parker is really able to spontaneously create a multi-dimensional character that is very rich,” Guest noted of the SUNY-Purchase graduate after shooting A Mighty Wind. “She’s very serious about her work, and I think that it shows… It’s why I keep working with her.”11
Another young cast member was Matt Keeslar, fresh from appearances in Renaisance Man (1994) and Quiz Show (1995), and late of the Sci Fi Channel miniseries Dune (2000). Keeslar, who had once played Marlon Brando’s role in a television version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), was perfect as Corky’s secret object of desire, Johnny Savage.
Rounding out the cast was a team of veteran comedians and actors including Larry Miller, Don Lake, Scott Williamson, Brian Doyle-Murray, Linda Kash, and Frances Fisher (Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman), whose role as Johnny Savage’s mother was subsequently cut from the film, despite her prominence in the film’s trailer.
Bob Balaban joined the Guffman roster when Guest’s pal and Spinal Tap collaborator Harry Shearer was not available to appear in the film to play Lloyd Miller, Blaine High School’s music director and foil for Corky.
“I got a call out of the blue, and Christopher said, ‘Would you like to be in Waiting for Guffman? This is what it is, and this is what we do,” Balaban remembers. “I had the good sense not to ask too many questions and just say, ‘Anything you want to do, let’s do that.’”
However, as the film revolved around a musical revue, at least to some extent, Balaban had to prep for the part.
“When Christopher called about Waiting for Guffman, he said,‘Oh, by the way, you’d be playing the musical director. Do you play the piano? We might have you play at rehearsals.’ I said, ‘I don’t really play too well.’ I’ve taken a lotofpianolessonsandifTvegotthemusicallwrittenout — notefornote — months in advance, I could probably memorize it,” Balaban says.
But by the time of the shoot, Balaban didn’t feel comfortable playing piano, so Guest — in Balaban’s words — “improvised,” thus making Lloyd the orchestra’s conductor and giving Miller a female assistant to tickle the ivories instead.
“Looking back on it, Christopher said to me, ‘Isn’t it great you couldn’t play?”’ Balaban says. “So I could go around ordering people about.”
While Balaban trained to conduct the orchestra with musical director Jeffrey C.J. Vanston, the elements really started coming together. As This Is Spinal Tap had featured funny tunes such as “Big Bottom,” “Sex Farm Woman” and “Hellhole,” Waiting for Guffman would generate more than its fair share of bizarre theatrical numbers, including “Stool Boom” and “Nothing Ever Happens on Mars,” both of which Guest co-wrote with Shearer. Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins, Michael McKean, co-wrote the music and lyrics to the 1845 set piece, “Covered Wagons, Open-Toed Shoes” and the romantic show-stopper, the ludicrous World War I era ballad “A Penny for Your Thoughts” (which Guest performed on stage with Parker Posey).
A LITTLE TOWN WITH A BIG HEART
In the early months of 1995, the cast and crew of Waiting for Guffman packed their bags, and on a budget of just four million dollars, descended on Lockhart, Texas, for an intense twenty-nine-day shoot.
Nestled deep in Caldwell County and boasting a population of just over 11,000, Lockhart is approximately thirty miles south of Austin, and quickly proved the perfect site for the mythical town of Blaine. In the center of town stands the magnificent, and spired Caldwell County Courthouse, an imposing edifice built in 1893 that features a four-way Seth Thomas Clock. With this distinctive landmark dominating the town square, Lockhart could easily be Anywhere, U.S.A.
Billeted in a Sheraton Hotel in Austin, about an hour from Lockhart, the film company had access to a whole world outside of Hollywood, and Guest put the locale to good use.
A bustling community with its own outdoor festivals and local celebrations, Lockhart granted the Waiting for Guffman crew the opportunity to film authentic local color for their pseudo-documentary.
“The ceremonies that were happening in the park —where all the people are singing in the square? That was an actual event happening in town,” Garrity explains. “They were having some kind of event that they do every year, so we got in there and made a banner for Blaine that we put in the foreground, and we shot this event as it was going on.
“We made it our event,” Garrity laughs. “We just got in there with [the director of photography] Roberto Schaefer and Chris, and they got girls singing and all this other good stuff, and a few of those things made it into the movie. We got real close with that community. We linked with it, and we got to know people like the librarian, and they were all wonderful people. We were a part of them and they knew we were around, and that contributes to the reality of it, I think.”
“It was such a great place. It was a funky little burg,” Deborah Theaker agrees. “I do remember that one day Chris, Mike Hitchcock, and I cut out on craft services and went out for ribs. We went to a Texas barbecue place where they put a stack of white bread on the table and a big cube of cheese, and you get your rack of ribs. It was so good.”
“Being on location was terrific,” Hitchcock agrees. “It was my first time to Austin and that area, and we, as a cast, especially Deb and I and the other council members, would travel around the city and check out some of the nightlife. Lockhart itself is just a beautiful, sleepy town that apparently appears quite a bit in different motion pictures, television shows or commercials.”
Garrity enjoyed finding unique locations near Lockhart that were suitable domiciles for the film’s dynamic characters. For instance, old Clifford Wooley — a retired taxidermist — had his own unique abode in the middle of nowhere.
“That was a field where we just brought in a little trailer,” he remembers. “I love those kind of sets, because it’s usually very cheap and you can bring things in from the junkyard. And Chris always finds the one element, like the paws of the deer on the rack, and flies with it. A lot of people ask me, ‘Is it hard to know what to put there?’ ‘What the hell are [the actors] going to do?’ Because it’s just a paragraph that explains what happens in the scene.”
Some Texan locals were also cast in the film in some small roles, appearing during Corky’s auditions for Red, White and Blaine. A retired gentleman from Texas who also played the governor’s chauffeur in the Burt Reynolds film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1981), actor Jerry Turman, remembers how he became involved with Guffman.
“When they auditioned me, they were looking for a guy who would be uncomfortable with profanity, and I think my agent sees me as Mr. Cream Cheese, for some reason,” Turman considers. He auditioned for Guest in February of 1995, learned he had won the part of the foul-mouthed Raging Bull Auditioner on February 27, and shot his scene on March 16 at one of the high schools in Lockhart.
“I think I was the only one in the whole movie who was scripted,” Turman reports. “They sent a package with the script from Raging Bull and some history of the hypothetical town and so forth.”
As it turned out, his monologue from the Scorsese film was a heated and profanity-laced confrontation between the characters portrayed by Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. It was littered with a common four-letter expletive.
“I checked out Raging Bull, and I studied the scene over and over again, and there’s no way that a guy from East Texas is going to do DeNiro or Pesci — either one,” says Turman, “so I did it in my natural voice and told [Guest] and the casting director at the beginning of it, ‘That’s the only voice I have,’ which is mostly east Texas, some central Texas. Everybody down here sounds like Willie Nelson. It’s the pollen, I think.”
But Turman found out that this offbeat line reading was precisely what the director had hoped for. “They wanted a bad audition for these guys, and I had a chance to work on it for several days,” says Turman. “I knew it very well, and had to learn both parts because the responses were so strange to me. We don’t talk that way here. So I had to learn it, and sure enough when I got in, he had me do both parts. So I was prepared.
“Catherine O’Hara was in the room,” Turman adds. “She stood over in the corner and smiled at me, which helped. [The scene] took forty-five minutes and we did four takes.”
What emerged was one of the most memorable moments in the film, as this southern gentleman spouted some very profane language in a straightforward manner.
“I didn’t have any qualms about it,” Turman laughs, “but I do have grandkids, and suddenly I’m aware that my grandkids are going to know about this. But I wasn’t uncomfortable doing it. It was the first shot I had at a principal part in a feature film, so I was delighted, actually.”
The only problem, as Turman learned, was that his part, filled as it was with such invective, could never see the light of broadcast TV. “My audition doesn’t make it to television,” he notes. “I can’t imagine why.”
Unlike Turman’s audition, which was indeed scripted, the other auditions turned out to be something of a surprise to the director. It was Parker Posey’s idea to revive the popular Doris Day tune “Teacher’s Pet,” and subsequently perform an expressive and sexually charged interpretation of it for Corky and Lloyd.
Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara came up with a bizarre nightclub act that played like a Taster’s Choice coffee commercial, drafting the lyrics of David Nichtern’s hit, “Midnight at the Oasis.” Notably, that song had also played in the background of a Hollywood party scene in Guest’s 1989 film, The Big Picture.
Not to be left out, Eugene Levy performed a (deliberately) painful Stephen Foster medley that included snippets of “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” “Swanee River,” and “Camptown Races.”
Turk Pipkin performed a near-fatal ping-pong-ball trick with his mouth and throat, and eagle-eyed viewers will notice comic Bob Odenkirk (The Ben Stiller Show [1992-93], Mr. Show [1995-98]) standing outside the audition room, dressed as a vampire, though his routine didn’t make the final cut.
In his missing scenes, Odenkirk played the town minister of Blaine, a role originally assigned to Michael Hitchcock. The role of the priest was then cut out all together, but for a fleeting glimpse.
“He’s still in it briefly,” says Hitchcock, “but Bob had a scheduling conflict, and I became a councilman at the last minute. I knew before I arrived what I’d be.”
Another auditioner, Jerry Turman recalled, was an eighty-year-old local woman who spoke with some excitement about her opportunity for stardom, but whose time on camera was not utilized in the final cut.
In all, the weeks spent in Lockhart are remembered by many among the cast and crew of Waiting for Guffman as a time of real bonding and creativity. The cast often got together to eat dinner and review the day’s footage.
“They’d order some kind of dinner, sometimes Chinese food, and we’d be in the hotel and watch dailies practically every night,” remembers Hitchcock. “It was the same with Best in Show[\n Vancouver] as well.”
MEET MR. ST. CLAIR
Although the characters were established, the locations scouted, and work commenced on Waiting for Guffman in the early months of 1995, nobody on the set was prepared when Guest first strode onto the set in the guise of his Guffman alter ego, Corky St. Clair.
“We didn’t quite know what he was doing until the first day,” Joseph Garrity reveals. “The first day, in his little apartment that we shot in Lockhart, he walked in with his band-leader uniform on, and we went,‘What’s this?’We knew he was going to be a little flamboyant; we knew from the outline of the movie that he was probably a gay character — probably. But we didn’t know what he was going to do, and it was hilarious. We all started leaving the room, because we couldn’t keep our mouths shut. He was very funny.” “When I first came to Texas, they were already in the middle of shooting stuff in Corky’s loft,” Theaker recalls. “I had never seen Chris in that goofy little wig. He had on these Japanese sandals and white socks, and a kimono. I really didn’t quite recognize him at first.”
In fact, many performers had difficulty maintaining a straight face in the company of Monsieur St. Clair. “Your laugh restrainers break down a little,”12 observed Bob Balaban.
“[With] Waiting for Guffman, things would happen, and I’d just crack up,” Levy also reported, “I would work my way to the back of a crowd and literally drop to my hands and knees and crawl off the set.”13
“I had no idea he would be so extreme,” says Hitchcock. “I can remember when Corky said, ‘I’m gonna bite my pillow,’ I was biting my cheeks trying not to laugh. It was such an odd comment.”
“I remember watching Chris do a scene,” Fred Willard recalls. “He improvised with Matt Keeslar [playing Johnny Savage] and I watched him, and Christopher was just hilarious, at the height of his seductive gayness. He was drinking wine, and he invited Matt up to his apartment, and Matt says, ‘Oh, would it be a problem?’ and Corky says, ‘Oh no,’ and he was drinking and looking at Matt as he said it. ‘In fact it would be a bonus.’ It was hilarious.
“When the scene was over, I rushed over to Matt and said, ‘You did a wonderful job!’ and he said, ‘Thank you,’ and I said, ‘No, really, your impulse must have been to try to be funny, but if you had, the scene would have fallen apart.’ He played the perfect straight guy. Matt was so straight, and if he had tried to be goofy, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Perhaps even more impressive, Christopher Guest not only had to stay in character as the dynamic (if ambiguous) Corky St. Clair, but also direct all the action and also manage a fairly large crew.
“When he came in to do that scene in the Council Chambers, it was the end of a very long, taxing day,” Theaker remembers. “Chris came in and did three or four, maybe more, completely different reactions, and in each one he was just as vehement, and he never dropped a line or fumbled, and he went for a different feel each time. It was amazing to me. I thought it was virtuoso given that not only was he in command of the crew and the big shoot, but he saved his close-ups and his shots until the end of the day, when he must have been most exhausted, and yet you could not tell.
“That’s when I went, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s amazing,’ because it’s very hard when you’re tired in the first place to do anything when it’s scripted, let alone unscripted. Also, they weren’t sure what emotion they were going to go with, or how they were going to have Corky react, so they tried it a bunch of different ways.”
Of course, watching Guest direct (as Corky) had its funny side, too. “The hardest thing about this was Christopher in Corky-guise giving direction, because he would still be wearing the toupee and those outrageous outfits, and he just looked so funny that it was hard not to be looking all over his body and that silly toupee while he was giving you notes,” remembers Hitchcock.
DANCES WITH STUMPY
Although nearly every actor in the film has a deep background and experience in the arcane art of improv, that doesn’t always mean it is easy to get started, and on Waiting for Guffman, it took the performers a little time to get into the spirit of the thing.
Fred Willard remembers one occasion when he was worried there would be only dead air captured by the camera.
“Chris explained there’s a scene in a Chinese restaurant where we would probably take some cameras and film for about two hours, and we’d just improv it,” Willard says. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, after five minutes, I’ll run out of things to say.’”
Worse, the scene, a dinner date at the Chop Suey Chinese Kitchen between the Pearls and the Albertsons, was scheduled for the end of a long day, and Willard feared that the promising scene had the chance of being lost if things didn’t go well. “I thought, ‘If we don’t do it now, it either won’t end up in the movie, or we’ll have to do it first thing in the morning, so I hope we do it tonight.’”
To Willard’s relief, they did do it that night, but there was still a lot of air time to fill with improvisation.
“We went [to the restaurant] and they set up the table, and well, you understand how Chris works. There was only one thing planned, and that was their idea that my character had this penis-reduction surgery,” Willard recalls.
Then the camera rolled and… nothing.
“Nobody said anything for about a minute,” Willard recalls, “and the first thing that came out of my mouth was this thing about how in China they cut up a monkey at the table and eat his brains, and we got talking and it seemed to be going fine.”
In fact, it went too well.
“[Guest] stopped the camera a couple of times to reload, and then said, ‘That’s it, we got it.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re just getting started!’ Well, two hours had gone by so quickly.” Willard remembers. “We could have gone on for another two hours.”
The Chinese restaurant scene turned out beautifully, in no small part because Willard had another contribution to it, a succinct form of punctuation.
“In the trailer just before the scene, Christopher said to Linda Kash (Mrs Pearl), ‘What do you think you’re going to do in this scene?’ She said, ‘I figure I’ll just lay back and listen to the guys,’ and I thought, ‘This is the kind of actress I love to work with!’ So in the scene, we were supposed to make the Pearls feel ‘as comfortable as possible,’ by, of course, being as boorish as we could,” Willard explains, “and I said to Chris, ‘I have an idea for something I want to do.’ Chris said, ‘I usually don’t like to know what another actor is going to do in an improvised scene, but in your case I have trouble keeping a straight face, so please tell me what you’re about to do.’ So I said, ‘I’d like to get up and drop my trousers to show Eugene my operation.’ What could be more humiliating to someone?”
True to form, Willard stood up, went for his zipper, and approached the shocked Levy and Kash at the end of the scene. Naturally, they protested most vehemently (and amusingly) that they didn’t care to see the results of his penis reduction surgery.
A SYMPHONY OF PROBING
Acting and improv legend Paul Dooley served as pinch-hitter on Waiting for Guffman. Christopher Guest had originally wanted the veteran actor to play the role of Blaine’s mayor, the role eventually taken on by Larry Miller. But Dooley, a recurring presence on the ABC sitcom Grace Under Fire (1993-98) at the time, was unable to get out of his contract and head off to Texas for the duration of a four-week shoot.
“But then [Guest] called me up in the middle of it and asked me if I could come down on the weekend and shoot for a day,” Dooley recalls. In particular, the director wanted Dooley to play one of the Blaine residents, a local fellow with a strangely blase attitude about his close encounter of the third kind.
“I never really planned it,” says Dooley of his memorable monologue about this most unusual — and penetrating — alien visitation. “I just went there and got in front of the camera and figured that it was better if it just comes to me. One of the reasons that people like it is that it seems very much like a real person talking. It’s full of false starts and pauses, almost tripping over words.
“It was my symphony of probing,” Dooley explains. “An elaboration of how many ways I could suggest probing. My handle on it was that I wanted to sound like a guy who didn’t think it was strange. He was just reporting something like plowing. Actually, it was plowing in a funny way. It was a variation of ‘They took me on, they gave me food, they took my fingerprints, and showed me a movie, and then I left. Except it was about… probing.
“So I went down there in one day, did my thing in two takes, got on the plane and left.”
Perhaps the most difficult components of Waiting for Guffman involved prepping and shooting the actual stage show that represented the picture’s denouement, the stunning Red, White and Blaine.
“The stage we used had no room for all the scenery that was in this show,” Garrity remembers. “It was just this little community basketball court/theater that was supposed to be in the high school.”
It was there, at the Dorothy Miller Recreation Center on 11th Street in Austin, that the company spent the grueling last two weeks of shooting.1*
“We built a lot of the scenery, and Chris even shot us building the scenery,” Garrity explains. “Some of the people you saw putting paint down and sewing were the real people who did it.
“There was no wing space,” Garrity continues, describing the venue. “There was very little space to bring scenery up, so that’s why the cloud was hanging there [in ‘Nothing Ever Happens on Mars’]. There was a single cloud above the actors because we couldn’t lift the spaceship high enough to hide it. We made this cloud quickly, and the spaceship came out from behind the cloud.
“In a way it was perfect, and Chris was fine with it too, because this is what might really happen. Nothing’s precious. Nothing needs to be perfect, because most things aren’t. And people laugh at these imperfections in people, like Eugene Levy without his glasses, stumbling off the horse.”
There were, however other technical issues involved with putting on such an elaborate show.
“I find that a lot of movie people don’t get theater,” says Garrity. “They don’t get what’s involved. There’s certain lighting, and how do you combine movie lighting with theater lighting? It’s a lot more difficult than you might think. I come from theater, so I knew it was coming — and would be hard — but it worked out fine.”
The Red, White and Blaine production represented the totality of the film’s third and final act, so a significant amount of coverage was necessary to make certain it came off without a hitch. Actors had to perform live on stage, others in the cast had to be present in the auditorium as audience members, and cameras had to capture every detail.
“We were there for a long run of it,” Hitchcock, one prominent audience member, reports. “When they went in for close-ups, they moved us out of the way. For me, as far as being in the audience goes, it was lucky that the first time we saw these numbers that the cameras were behind us, because I can definitely remember laughing out loud.”
For many on the set during the show, two little words bring back a flood of memories: “Stool Boom.”
It was a number that had to be performed over and over.
“It was really tedious,” Deb Theaker remembers. “I thought if I heard ‘Stool Boom’ one more time, I would just snap like a twig in the wind. You don’t love [the music] when you hear it day after day after endless day sitting in a chair. I thought I was going to lose my mind. They had to shoot it from all angles, and they’d do the same songs over and over.
“A Mighty Wind wears much better because the songs are so beautiful, but [in Guffman] the songs are musical theater songs, and definitely written for a specific genre,” Theaker elaborates. “I found that hard to shoot. Is that rude? It was hilarious, but really difficult.”
“The hardest part of that whole filming was that one number, ‘Stool Boom,”’ Fred Willard seconds. “Going in, all of us thought we would just play amateurs trying to dance and sing, and there was some discussion whether or not we’d lip-synch or sing live. Well, much to our surprise, they brought in a woman, a choreographer, and she put us through paces like we were going to do an Off-Broadway show. We were all taken back with all these steps they had us do.
“Saturday afternoons when we were off, we had to go over to a dance studio in Austin and for three or four hours go through this number. That was the toughest part, learning all that. I would watch Catherine, Eugene, and Parker Posey, and I realized they didn’t know any more what they were doing than I did.
“Eugene injured his foot somehow, and was taking aspirins and wrapping his foot, so he was in pain during that,” Willard recalls. “So the happiest moment of shooting was when we finished filming that number, and they said, ‘Okay, cut, let’s move on.’ I said, ‘Did we get it?’ and they said, ‘Yeah,’ and I went up to Eugene, and just grabbed him and quoted a line from a movie he had written that I’d been in. I don’t know if he got it, but it was a real accomplishment.”
OVER THE RAINBOW
In Waiting for Guffman’s coda, Corky St. Clair escorts the camera on a tour of his odd memorabilia shop in New York City after his relocation to the Big Apple. Originally, all the sequences in the shop were meant to occur in Blaine.
“His store was in the town of Lockhart. Over the Rainbow, I think it was called, and it had this mural the size of a building with Wizard of Oz stuff on it,” Joe Garrity remembers.
In fact, Corky’s collectibles shop even had a local competitor. “I was his chief rival,” Deborah Theaker remembers. “I had Fantasia Gifts across the street. The kind of place where you’d buy a ceramic cheetah and stuff like that. So the props department had ads for my gift shop in the program for the show, but none of that ever entered into the movie, though we all knew about it.”
“Between that store and the show at the end, those were the big things on the film,” Garrity explains. The main problem facing the production designer concerned the legal issues surrounding Corky’s unusual collectibles, including Remains of the Day (1993) lunch boxes, little figurines of the popular 1980s Brat-Packers, and My Dinner with Andre (1981) action figures.
“This was a big clearance and permission nightmare,” Garrity sighs. “Easy to write — very funny stuff — but we had to reach all of these people and their representatives to get the okay to do this. People like Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson just laughed and said, ‘Go for it.’ It was those kids who were worried about how this was going to portray them: Andrew McCarthy, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson. They were a little hesitant, but they went for it in the end. And My Dinner with Andrei We had to contact those guys, too!”
In the end, everybody agreed to be in on the joke, and Garrity found a local woman in Austin who was a sculptor to produce the unusual action figures and other bizarre memorabilia.
In the final cut, Corky’s shop was located in New York City, but Garrity says you can detect otherwise if you watch the film closely. “Although we didn’t see much out the windows, if you look closely, there’s diagonal parking with pickup trucks — and that wouldn’t exist in New York City.”
And Missouri license plates, too.
After a month shooting in Lockhart, the real job on Waiting for Guffman began in earnest: the editing process. In particular, more than fifty-eight hours of footage had to be vetted and assembled into a coherent, tight story lasting approximately ninety minutes.
“We had a lot of distracting, fun, good stuff, but our main focus was on the show in Blaine, Missouri,”16 said producer Karen Murphy.
“Whatever didn’t drive the story had to go,”16 agreed Eugene Levy, and that edict translated into heavy cuts. In fact, one early version of the film is rumored to have all but removed the character of Corky St. Clair! Fortunately,
that didn’t happen, and this character remains the film’s emotional heart and soul.
Still, a great number of deep cuts altered Waiting for Guffman’s final act. The debut of the stage production Red, White and Blaine originally ran well over a half-hour, and Guest deemed it too long. As a result, two of the funniest — but lengthiest — bits disappeared all together, including “Nothing Ever Happens in Blaine,” which featured Parker Posey and O’Hara performing spastic dance moves, and Guest doing a radical hip sway.
Another loss was the elaborate number entitled “This Bulging River.” The song featured the whole ensemble, revived Willard’s purposefully dreadful Henry Fonda imitation, and climaxed with Corky’s expressive, operatic singing about Blaine’s temperamental river being in his “bloo-oo-o-d.”
“I miss that,” Joe Garrity admits, “It’s my favorite set.” Thankfully, through the restorative magic of the DVD format, these numbers are now available for viewers to enjoy and have become an important part of the Waiting for Guffman experience.
Another missing scene is one that should be familiar to fans of Guest’s work: the pre-show gathering. In Best in Show, there was a cocktail party where everybody got together, and in A Mighty Wind it was the event at Steinbloom’s apartment. In Guffman, the cast of Red, White and Blaine had a pre-show gathering in Corky’s mauve apartment.
The lengthy editing process also revealed another issue. Some new shots had to be staged to clarify some elements of the storyline, and consequently there followed a period of reshoots in Los Angeles. “He puts these things together, and there are holes sometimes,” Garrity explains, “and he doesn’t know it until he edits. We did a few days of shoots in L.A. — we didn’t go back to Lockhart.”
In one circumstance, Corky needed to further explain the importance of Mort Guffman’s impending visit to Blaine, as well as his determination to return to Broadway on his own terms. The scene was set in his brightly colored apartment. “That was a set that we built, a kitchen that we never saw in his real place,” Garrity remembers. During Corky’s one-on-one with the camera, he is seen cooking a tray of pigs in a blanket — even though he is the only person in his apartment. “It was a nervous thing,” Garrity notes, “where he was cooking all those things.” It was at this time that an alternate ending featuring Steve Sark and Corky living happily ever after in New York, was also devised and lensed.
In all, the editing process on Waiting for Guffman sprawled out across eighteen months. The time to edit a “normal” movie? Six weeks.
A RETURN TO FORM
In late August 1996, Waiting for Guffman was unveiled at the Boston Film Festival, a fact that explains why some databases list its year of release as 1996. The film didn’t officially go to theaters until February of 1997, and upon its release, critics loudly cheered Guest’s return to the so-called mockumentary format of This Is Spinal Tap.
The New York Post’s Michael Medved raved that the film contained “so many funny bits that you can share the best of them with friends without fear that you’re spoiling the movie.”17 Newsweek’s David Ansen called it a “savvy satire of small-town boosterism and an affectionate salute to the performing spirit.”18
In the Chicago-Sun Times, Roger Ebert reported that the film proceeded “with a certain comic relentlessness from setup to payoff, and its deliberation is part of the fun.”1? Writing for the Village Voice, critic Justine Elias considered Waiting for Guffman “clever but a bit cruel”20 and Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman raved that Guffman was a “madcap gem” and that it had transcended Guest’s “usual teasing highs.”21
By the vast majority, the reviews were positive, but business was not especially hot. After its initial release in only three theaters, the film didn’t have the wide and highly publicized rollout of Best in Show or A Mighty Wind. In the end, the film grossed approximately three million dollars before shuffling off to the secondary market, where it promptly became a cult favorite. The DVD was released in August of 2001, following the success of Best in Show, and a whole new audience familiarized itself with Guest’s first documentary-style comedy.
Despite the relative box-office disappointment, Waiting for Guffman was also highly celebrated. Guest was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best director in 1997, though he lost to Kevin Smith for the New Jerseyite’s Chasing Amy. Waiting for Guffman’s screenplay also picked up an Independent Spirit nomination, and Guest was among the five actors selected as a nominee for best lead actor for the creation of the unforgettable and indomitable Corky St. Clair.
“Somebody said that Winona Ryder had seen Waiting for Guffman fifteen times,” Deb Theaker adds, testifying to the film’s power, even among those who may have a vocation in common with Corky St. Clair.
SECRET INSPIRATIONS: Often, the actors in Christopher Guest’s documentary- style comedies get to choose their own character names and occupations. “Fie asked me what I wanted to name my character, and I named her Gwen,” Deb Theaker says. “I used the name Blunt because it was my friend’s last name, and I thought she’d get a laugh when she went to see the movie. Everybody uses somebody’s name.”
And pharmacist Steve Sark? “He was a friend of mine from Northwestern,” Michael Hitchcock explains. “Chris let us name ourselves in that movie, so I picked Steve Sark as a kind of goof to my friend.”
Sometimes, real names don’t get into the movies, but the actors’ inspirations do. For instance, Fred Willard based Ron’s relationship with Sheila on some people he actually knew.
“I modeled them after an acting couple I took lessons from when I first started in New York,” he recalls. “It was a married couple, and I don’t know that they’d ever worked professionally in their life, but they had this acting workshop …and you could imagine their home life.
“I think I also modeled our relationship on some of my aunts and uncles from when I was little,” Willard adds. “My aunts were always drinking, and my uncles were always saying, ‘For god’s sake, put that down,’ and she’d pull away from him. Our relationship was based on that. She was drunk, and I’d say ‘We need some coffee over here.’”
STOOL BOOM: One of the most enjoyable and silly production numbers in the Red, White and Blaine extravaganza is the incomparable “Stool Boom.” Longtime Guest collaborator Harry Shearer co-wrote the song with Guest, and remembers how it came about.
“Chris came over and he said, ‘There’s this premise about the town of Blaine,’ and that stools were ‘the big thing.’ So we were sitting at the bench of the piano in my house, and the phrase ‘Stool Boom’ came out. Chris had a melody already, which came out being the B part of the song. I was playing, and just sort of came up with the vamp, and a little magic stuff happened. You put yourself in the right mood and the song comes through you, even if it’s a jokey song like that.”
Joe Garrity remember his contribution to the production number, namely the giant gears spinning madly in the background, in part an homage to the Charlie Chaplin comedy about the dawn of the industrial age, Modern Times (1936).
“That was my idea,” he laughs. “The gears were part of a factory churning out these stools. People had these little sticks and gears that we made out of cardboard.”
FIVE LETTERS? David Cross’ character, a deadly serious UFO expert examining crop circles in Blaine, bases his entire theory of extraterrestrial life on a notable fallacy. He claims that “Blaine” is an anagram for “Nebali,” the hypothetical home world of distant aliens, and that the number five, the same number of letters in the word Blaine, has a special significance to these visitors.
The only oversight in this fascinating hypothesis? The word Blaine is composed of six letters, not five.
PRINCE OF TIDES: Michael Hitchcock’s character, Steve Sark, draws an explicit comparison between Corky and Barbra Streisand during an intermission in the show
“The weird thing about these movies is that you don’t really remember saying things,” Hitchcock says. “When you watch them, you say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I said that!’ But I know my character was very enthralled with Corky, and I think that in my mind, my character knew a little more about show business than other people in Blaine might have known. So certainly he knew that Barbra was a triple threat, and obviously he thinks that Corky is, too. That’s partly where that came from.”
WE NEED A LITTLE COFFEE HERE: Catherine O’Hara does a great drunk, as she proves for the ages, during the memorable scene at the Chop Suey Chinese Kitchen. According to Fred Willard, the scene may have included less acting than the actress would have preferred.
“An interesting thing about that scene: Catherine was drinking wine and getting drunker and drunker — as the character — and at one point, Chris said, ‘Keep drinking, drain the whole glass.’ So she drank the whole glass, and he called, ‘Cut.’ Then she said, ‘Christopher, that was real wine in there!’ Usually, they put apple juice in the glass, but he didn’t know she was drinking real wine!”
UNDERSTANDING THE KENNEDYS: Another great moment in Guffman is Gwen Fabin-Blunt’s admission that because of her famous name and heritage, she sympathizes with the concerns of a certain well-known Kennedy family. Theaker delivers that line with a beautifully effective deadpan, though the actress credits Guest with getting it out of her in the first place.
“That was such a far-ranging interview, and he constructed it to make it look like I earned that laugh,” she says graciously, “but I know how long it took to get there.”
IS HE OR ISN’T HE? There has been a great deal of speculation about Corky’s sexual orientation. In the film, he supposedly has a wife named Bonnie, but she is never seen. For Guest, the matter is ultimately unimportant. “This isn’t about Corky’s sexuality,” he told the Advocate. “The heart of the movie is about Corky as a person… If I didn’t like him and I was making fun of him, it wouldn’t ring true.”22
STAGECRAFT: In This Is Spinal Tap, a major set piece goes awry on stage during the performance of “Stonehenge.” A little error (literally) by Nigel results in a Stonehenge replica standing just eighteen inches instead of eighteen feet, necessitating the employment of two dwarves. In Waiting for Guffman, a similar on-stage blunder evokes laughter.
“I broke up on stage,” Willard remembers about this particular moment. “We were doing ‘Covered Wagons,’ and Eugene was supposed to ride out on a wooden horse, and we were re-creating the town’s founding, and all of a sudden, Christopher Guest started to laugh and fell down on the floor. Everybody said, ‘Chris, what’s so funny?’ and he said, ‘I just realized Eugene is not going to be able to wear his glasses and he’s going to come out, and the first line is going to be “What have your keen and perceptive eyes beheld?”’We all had a good laugh.
“So we got up on stage, and we were rolling cameras and I said, ‘Whoa, I hear a horse,’ and here comes Eugene dressed in buckskin with his eyes going different directions, and I looked at him and started to say, ‘What have your keen and perceptive eyes beheld?’ and I started to laugh. Chris said, ‘Okay, cut, let’s start again,’ and I said, ‘No, no, let me just stand here and look at Eugene.’ I laughed and laughed and I actually went over and picked up my camera and told Eugene to sit on the horse, and I got a picture of him… and he wouldn’t crack up, either!
“I finally got all the laughter out of my system. That’s the only time I ever cracked up.”
PARKER POULTRY: One Guffman scene that never fails to elicit howls from viewers depicts a solitary Libby Mae Brown cooking a tiny piece of chicken on her grill. As she attempts to see the positive side of the show’s cancellation, she notes — pitiably — that she’s still welcome at the Dairy Queen.
“That was shot in the bad, rundown part of Lockhart, on the outskirts,” Garrity remembers. “It was so pathetic to see this person with a… lonely… piece of chicken, just kind of kicking it over this grill. Her fat mother was in the background, hanging laundry. It’s just sad — and very funny. That’s the thing about [Guest’s] films — some people find it very sad, and some people find it very funny. You root for these people.”
THIS GOES UP TO ELEVEN: Longtime Guest aficionados will note that the green- hued alien visitor appearing in the production number “Nothing Ever Happens on Mars” has a relevant number emblazoned on his torso: eleven. This is an allusion to Nigel’s famous conversation with director Marty DiBergi in Spinal Tap, and his conclusion that his amps are just a notch better than others.
Another possible allusion to This Is Spinal Tap: when Corky practices his cockney accent for an upcoming show, he mentions the word “hellhole.” Of course, “Hellhole” is one of Tap’s signature songs.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER? Viewers who note Steve Sark’s enthusiastic appreciation of all things Corky might rightly wonder if there is more to the story of Monsieur St. Clair and Steve Sarkthan meets the eye. One alternate ending explored that possibility, at least briefly.
“In my favorite ending, they end up together,” Theaker reveals. “The pharmacist and Corky end up living together in a loft in New York.”
This ending was shot a few months after principal photography, during reshoots. Hitchcock describes the scene as he remembers it: “It started on a close-up of Corky talking,” and then the camera pulled back and revealed that Steve was with him. “We were barbecuing on the roof, and we did a little limbo, so it was a little bizarre, but very funny.”
“It’s superlative,” Theaker agrees. “They’re sitting up on the deck of their loft, holding hands. I loved it. It was so sweet and touching that I thought it was the perfect ending for the movie.”
“He pulled away from that,” Garrity explains. “Sometimes he feels like he goes too far. He didn’t have to answer that question [about Corky’s sexuality], and that ending went away.”
“From what I’ve heard from Chris, they just thought, ‘Let the sexuality be.’ It’s obvious something is going on, that Corky is the way he is, and Steve is what he is, and we don’t need to explore that any further, and I agree,” says Hitchcock. “It’s kind of nice to be left alone. It’s a little more realistic. Steve probably stayed in Blaine with his family, and Corky moved on to New York.”
BIG FISH: In the deleted musical extravaganza “This Bulging River,” a cardboard fish jumps up between the tumultuous cardboard waves of the flooded river.
As Garrity remembers, there was a special helping hand behind the scenes. “That was the producer, Karen Murphy, I believe, who had a little roller thing — and she made the trout go up and down through the water. That was a lot of fun.”
It is this attention to details, Michael Hitchcock notes, that makes these films so much fun to work on.
“I remember when we were in Corky’s apartment, there was a coffee table that Joe had made that was a box that had the word ‘puppets’ on it. Corky [apparently] went out and bought this box, and nobody even saw that except us, but the detail with Joe is always just amazing. There’s so much little detail that goes into his sets, it’s incredible. His eye is fantastic, because he captures things so well.”
NAME-DROPPER: Corky is a guy who thinks he knows a lot about theater and film (and dance), and his knowledge — or rather, half-knowledge — often emerges in a stream of strange allusions and inappropriate comparisons.
For instance, he calls Sheila and Ron Albertson “the Lunts” of Blaine, referring to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, renowned as the greatest theater actors in American history. A slight exaggeration, perhaps.
Later, Corky describes an Alfred Hitchcock movie in which somebody gets put in a rubber bag and thrown in the trunk of a car. Corky may have been referring to i972*s Frenzy, the master of suspense’s fifty-second film. Frenzy involves a psychotic grocer named Bob Rusk who, in one scene, hides one of his victims’ corpses in a bag in the back of a potato truck.
Before Guffman is over, Corky has also misquoted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his assistant Dr. Watson; referenced D’Artagnan; and also come up with his own strange Zen philosophy about the number of babies that fit in a tire.
These references may seem random, but they tell audiences a great deal about Corky’s world, or more accurately, the world he would like to inhabit.
Christopher Guest’s first documentary-style comedy as director, Waiting for Guffman is a textbook example of his theorem that comedy is reality plus that critical “one step further.”
Though comedy is a notoriously difficult genre to assess and dissect because humor is often a subjective thing, Waiting for Guffman makes its funny points with effortless strides for two important reasons. First, it observes accurately and with clarity the universe of its characters, in this instance, middle-America’s community theater companies, and secondly, because Guest’s selection of the documentary format enhances the details of that chosen reality and generates in the audience a strong sense of sympathy and compassion for the starry-eyed dramatis personae.
In Waiting for Guffman, the filmmakers and actors have demonstrated special care in developing a world that is simultaneously believable and funny. Why is reality so vital in comedy? Well, simply stated, to laugh at a situation, viewers must identify with some aspect of it. There must be a vital connection between the viewer’s life experience and that which he sees played out in the darkness of the theater, or it just isn’t relatable.
Or, as author Gerald Mast notes in his treatise, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies:
A film (or gag, or line, or character) is truly funny when the audience is not conscious that it intends to be funny. As soon as one becomes aware of artifice and fakery… comedy disintegrates into banal and obnoxious posturing. Although intellectual detachment is crucially related to the experience of successful comedy, when the detachment becomes so great that the mind is no longer amused and engaged, but notes the gap between intention and accomplishment, conception and execution, the comedy fails to amuse or entertain.23
In other words, a film’s humor must be as closely tied to reality as possible, or it will be detected as artificial —a fakery. A film’s humor must be genuine enough that viewers don’t begin asking questions that will foster that dreaded sense of detachment, and could bring them back to an awareness of their surroundings.
Given Mast’s observation, it seems that more comedies ought to follow Guest’s lead, and not take the construction of a plausible reality for granted.
Considering the importance of “reality,” how does a comedy director foster it, and more important, how does he do so quickly and efficiently?
Well, Guest is a master at deploying archival footage such as photographs or newspaper headlines to instantly bolster his films’ sense of reality. It is also important to note, that these archival documents usually arrive in the first third of his films — often in a flurry — when they are most useful. After all, archival footage in the last act arrives too late to do any good, doesn’t it?
In short order, Waiting for Guffman provides persuasive documentation that these Blainians boast a history and background outside the confines of the silver screen. For instance, the camera focuses on the masthead and headlines from the local paper, the Blaine Bugle. Perfectly, its logo is that distinctive courthouse, the Lockhart Town Hall, which the audience has already seen and mentally connected with the town.
Similarly, the local historian, played by Don Lake, reveals a cluttered office filled with important town memorabilia, including a photograph of President McKinley, who stopped by on a whistle-stop tour in 1898, and a rough drawing of a UFO, which abducted town locals for a pot-luck dinner in 1946. He also has one other important item cementing Blaine’s status as the Stool Capital of the World, a pennant that declares this dubious, double-edged honor.
Stills of Corky St. Clair’s previous theatrical productions (Barefoot in the Park and Backdraft), and their inevitable fallout, also inform many of the film’s earliest scenes, and these materials on the B-roll immediately enhance the feeling that we are peering into a real world, not merely being setup for a rat-a-tat-tat of punch lines.
As in A Mighty Wind, there is almost enough momentum in the beginning scenes that the film feels like sensory overload, as fact after fact, image after image, is presented to audiences about the world these characters inhabit. But it’s all to the good. If the audience is distracted, concentrating and absorbing data at a very fast rate, it has no time to seek out fakery, does it?
Even personal histories are intricately laid out in Waiting for Guffman, as if each character has shared photographs from a personal album with the documentarian. For instance, audiences catch a glimpse of Dr. Allan Pearl’s ancestor, the stage actor Hyam Pearlgut, who appeared in a “sardonically irreverent” musical review generations back, in 1914.
We also see in other photos Pearl’s dentist father, and Pearl himself, as a youth. All these archival materials hold center screen for seconds at a time, often with actor voice-overs conveying information on the soundtrack, and they appear authentic enough to convince audiences that this material could be real rather than the artifice that Gerald Mast warned readers about.
Guest augments these many archival photographs, documents, and items with actual documentary footage of Lockhart’s annual town celebration, solidifying the belief that there are more folks living in this town than just those people who happen to be on the town council, or auditioning for Red, White and Blaine. By serendipity, the filmmakers captured a real-life event — an outdoor fair —and the authenticity of these locals further opens up the film’s (relatively small) universe, granting a sense of a larger Blaine — again an essential facet if audiences are to believe that this could be a real documentary and not a put-on.
Waiting for Guffman also makes fine and notable use of the Lockhart and Austin locales, thus capturing the feeling and tone of middle America in the process. The Magic Carpet Travel Agency and the Chop Suey Chinese Kitchen feel not like Hollywood’s glorified and romanticized renderings of suburbia, but the real Midwest, perhaps a bit shabby in places, perhaps a bit poor in corners, but very far indeed from either coast, and from that promised land, that city on the hill called Hollywood.
Given Guest’s skill at vetting convincing archival materials and locations, Guffman already goes a long way toward reaching its goal of establishing a sense of reality. But then comes the next vital piece of the jigsaw puzzle — the actors themselves. They must inhabit this world as if they were born to it, and delightfully, they all contribute performances that come across as realistic rather than outrageous.
In fact, one of the big ironies of Waiting for Guffman is a self-reflexive one. This is a film about non-professional actors putting on a show, made by professional actors making a movie. This accomplished ensemble renders the people of Blaine so colorfully and truthfully that viewers never feel an ounce of condescension either from the actors or the man directing them, and that’s critical.
Instead, everybody behind the camera and in front of it really gets into the spirit of the show and into the heads of these quirky characters. The cast and crew has accomplished this task by modulating or tuning their talent level (some might say lowering it), to the level of the people they are depicting: enthusiastic amateurs with a flair for performing, but no real talent to speak of. This quality of zealous amateurism emerges in everything from the songs performed in Red, White and Blaine to the very stagecraft of the show itself, and it is all so charming and enthusiastic that it almost feels like admiration.
“We were trying to make ourselves laugh, but we were also trying not to write any better than they would have,” composer Harry Shearer explains.
“The fun part of these projects is that you’re never trying to write really bad stuff, but nor are you trying to write better than the characters are capable of. You’re trying to write in character. That’s part of your acting. You’re trying to be in the heads of these people, so you’re not judging them as you write. Instead, you inhabit them as you write.”
“These are not professional people,” Joseph Garrity stresses. “They live in an almost-hick town and they work with what they’ve got. I tend not to have a lot of money on these films, so I also work with what I’ve got. People put on shows in their community theater, so [in doing that] you become just like these people.
“How good are you?” Garrity asks. “If you are not very good, you are still doing the best you can. I think that’s what [Guest’s] films are all about: people doing the best they can.”
Sometimes, the best that people can muster just really isn’t that good, a fact Roberto Schaefer’s probing camera notices with subtlety through-out the film. For instance, during Ron and Sheila’s dreadful but amusing “Midnight at the Oasis” audition, O’Hara, as Sheila, visibly mouths all of Fred Willard’s dialogue as she interacts with him, a typical amateur’s mistake.
Yet the camera doesn’t highlight this gaffe. There is no close-up of O’Hara, and no reaction shot featuring Lloyd or Corky or even the domineering Ron, realizing that Sheila is mouthing her husband’s lines in an effort not to lose her place in the scene. Instead, in an all-encompassing master shot, Ron and Sheila simply do their thing, and O’Hara’s deliberate but subtle gaffe represents one funny element of many in the scene. Because the joke isn’t spotlighted, the audience feels rewarded when catching this minutiae, feeling it has discovered the punch line all on its own. Frankly, these laughs are always the best ones, when you realize the filmmaker isn’t talking down to you, or spoon-feeding you the humor.
Indeed, audiences might miss the joke the first time around, but if they return to the film, they may notice it — and perhaps even things more interesting and funny, too. Like the best comedy directors, Guest works by setting the stage for his actors and then standing back. Even in the editing room, the director holds back sometimes and preserves the rhythms of his people by employing long shots and group shots.
Why? Because what’s funny about this movie is seeing Willard and O’Hara act together. Or Levy, O’Hara, Guest, Willard, and Posey on stage all at once, playing and reacting with one another. The editing doesn’t intrude on the space between these performers, and the magic of their chemistry is preserved. Part of the enjoyable “badness” of Ron, Sheila, Corky, Dr. Pearl, and Libby Mae is their total and utter inability to do any dance moves in synch, a factor that would be lost in close-ups or two-shots.
“It’s a symphony of bad acting put on by incredibly terrific actors who make themselves look like amateurs,” Paul Dooley describes with delight. “There’s nobody better at that than Catherine O’Hara. She is just incredibly good in that.”
“I think I was the baddest of the bad,” O’Hara reported in an interview with journalist Bob Thompson. “I showed absolutely no potential.”24
“So many actors have said, ‘I’ve been in amateur groups just like that,”’ says Willard, “and I’ve said, ‘There are professional groups just like that!”’
In other words, these moments are not over-the-top or exaggerated, but finely hewn evocations of reality.
With all the documentary technique, including the one-on-one interviews, the handheld camera, the utilization of archival materials, and the finely crafted performances, Waiting for Guffman achieves the first half of its equation: it feels real. And because of Guest’s and Levy’s sense of humor, and again, the fine acting of the cast, the jokes work and the film is funny. It goes “one step further” with Dr. Pearl’s lazy eye, Corky’s funky dance, and the auditions, and the results are big, but honest — and hard-earned — laughs.
When Corky must replace Johnny Savage in the show, substituting a mincing pioneer for a husky, hunky one, the film’s humor comes to a boil. Watching the effeminate fellow discuss his burning love for Libby Mae Brown (“Oh, Emma…”) is a big joke, perhaps, but it is one that has been thoroughly earned at this juncture. It is honest, too, because no one other than Corky could replace Johnny Savage on a moment’s notice and know the show’s routines. But it is also utterly ridiculous, that final “one step further” moment that aficionados always cherish in the Guest canon.
It’s interesting to note that many of the big laughs in Waiting for Guffman are the same way, elements that, taken one by one, aren’t that funny, but in combination, seem hysterical.
“The richness and the verite of all the minutiae of the strange little character quirks and idiosyncrasies just build up and create the whole,” Deb Theaker considers. “But those little moments, when you isolate and look at them, you see nothing is based on an easy joke, and nothing is based on a quick laugh.”
“I like the little fun things that were never talked about,” Hitchcock concurs. “I think what intrigues me about Steve is that he is kind of treated like shit. He really wanted to be in the play, and Corky told him he couldn’t, because he missed the audition. But then, after the auditions, Corky is purposely going around to find other people, so he lied to Steve! Which Steve doesn’t know. And he really has this little crush, and Corky doesn’t care one way or another.”
None of these moments are emphasized, they’re just part of an interesting totality. “I can’t read Chris and Eugene’s minds, but I certainly don’t think that on Best in Show they said, ‘We’re going to go after people who show dogs,’ or in Waiting for Guffman, ‘We’re going to go after community theater,”’ Hitchcock muses. “I think they’re mostly just showing human nature in those settings. If you go to any business or community, you’re going to find a myriad of people and see how they get along.”
And while audiences indeed laugh at many of these moments, there remains something incredibly touching about this particular group of characters. The movie “hints at larger human dreams,” writes Salon’s Sarah Vowell, “pinpointing the inherent sadness of yearning for talent, excellence, and escape. And that isn’t mockery. That is actuality.”25
Audiences root for Corky, Dr. Pearl, and the rest of the bunch because in these starry-eyed friends they can identify something of themselves, that irrational aspiration to achieve fame and success.
“In terms of Guffman, I think it was a… sense of, well, some people can do it, and some people can almost do it. And here’s a group of people who can almost do it,” says Harry Shearer.
In fact, one of the most overlooked things in Waiting for Guffman is the recognition that the acting company actually succeeds, at least to some modest extent. Yes, their show is corny and amateurish, but who can deny that this group of actors really pleases the townspeople who attend the show?
When this author’s mother watched the film, she sighed with relief when Red, White and Blaine ended, a feeling of tension released, because she had been afraid something really terrible was going to happen to the performers. In other words, she cared what happened to them.
In a mainstream Hollywood comedy, something terrible would have certainly happened in the last act. Maybe stage lights would have fallen from the ceiling and exploded during “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” or an actor might have fallen over a set piece in “Covered Wagons” and broken an arm. Maybe Ron Albertson could have inadvertently exposed his penis reduction surgery on stage in “Stool Boom,” offering a moment of typical humiliation humor.
In most Hollywood comedies, that sort of outrageous thing, usually focusing on a character experiencing emotional or physical pain, is a seeming necessity, but the films of Christopher Guest don’t play that game. They could be more outrageous, but they could hardly be more funny, or touching, and the fact of the matter is that everybody survives Red, White and Blaine relatively intact. Furthermore, the performance pleases the audience. Really, when you think about it, isn’t that the ultimate goal, the ultimate success of any performer, on any stage? To make your audience happy? To elicit hoots of approval from the crowd seated before you?
The problem in Guffman, however, is that alt the performers have become so obsessed with the dream of Mort whisking them away to Broadway, with making Red, White and Blaine the stepping stone (or footstool, in this case) to something bigger and better, that they can only parse their very positive experience as a failure because they haven’t achieved what was unattainable in the first place. They put on a good, amateur show for their friends and neighbors — and made a group of Blainians feel proud and happy about their town, but to these guys, that success is lost because of Guffman’s absence.
“One of the best sports books I ever read was called The Professional, I think,” Willard explains. “It was about a sports reporter going to interview a fighter who had been up for the heavyweight championship of the world, and he followed him through training. [The boxer] was a clean-living, all-American, wonderful guy, and you were just rooting for this guy. He got into the fight, and he was doing well in the first round, but in the second round he slipped. Just a momentary slip, but the other fighter hit him and knocked him out, and he went into oblivion. And ten years later, the reporter went to interview the athlete again.
“There he was, one step away from being Rocky, and his foot slipped on a wet spot,” Willard notes. “That’s what happened to these people in Guffman. They believed they could have made it. It was really a show that the townspeople could have put together, and the townspeople loved it — it was a tribute, but the players were all crushed. We’ve all had failures [like that] in life.”
“There’s something ineffably sweet about an aspiration and belief that you can do anything,” Deborah Theaker says, “and the reason that you feel let down as an audience is because we all clearly saw the show — and it wasn’t a Broadway caliber show at all — but they played it with such commitment. I mean, even Chris doing splits in ‘A Penny for Your Thoughts’ at the end … it just destroys me. Because you know Corky is trying so hard to give these people their entertainment value, and it’s all doomed to failure. There’s no way he’s going to be a leading man.
“I’ve read a lot of critical things that said he doesn’t really like his small-town characters,” Theaker continues, “and that he’s making fun of them, but I don’t think that’s the case at all.”
Willard agrees. The final coda, which returns to the characters some time after their failure to make it to Broadway, reveals a group of determined people who may be battered and bruised, but who aren’t down for the count. At least not yet.
“They went on with their lives, though Catherine and I were still kind of delusional,” Willard says. “One of my tines was, ‘We’re living in Los Angeles, and luckily in Los Angeles, you don’t need to have a car.’ But they were still trying.”
And that’s the overriding texture of Waiting for Guffman — that these people are still trying, still clinging to a dream. Mitigating factors that might have made the protagonists appear less appealing, like the fact that Allan Pearl has left his wife and baby in Blaine to pursue his hopeless dream of big-time success in Miami, have been excised from the film to foster the notion that these are really good, decent folk doing their best. The result is a movie that often seems like a paean to man’s capacity to keep going for the gold, even when it is realty, realty far out of his grasp.
Oh William Hung, where art thou?
Considering the psychology of the wannabe, it is probably appropriate to end any discussion of this film with a notation about Corky. This “curiously endearing nincompoop,”26 as People magazine described him, is one of modern cinematic comedy’s truly great characters. Petulant, silly, pretentious, and all-together charming, Corky St. Clair may be the quintessential theater guy, but he is also much more. He symbolizes the dreamer in all of us, the fella who might get “slammed down” in one venue, but then pops right back up in another one, more optimistic and determined than ever.
It’s no wonder that Steve Sark leaves Red, White and Blaine exuberantly shouting Corky’s name. Gay or straight, married or single, a boob or a genius (there’s a fine line), Corky represents something worthwhile in all humankind: the indomitable spirit of the dreamer. He never gives up, not in the face of “bastard people” or “ass faces,” and that’s why people love him so much. We’ve all had to choke it down and bite our pillows some days, but we all hope and pray we can bounce back with as much grace and optimism as Corky.
“I love community-theater stories. I have a hankering for that, and I love that everybody is rooting for Corky to win,” Michael Hitchcock says. “I love that so much.”
Theaker agrees that Corky is memorable and funny not because of any lifestyle choice or sexual orientation, but because his character is universal, and very touching.
“How many people have you known like Corky throughout your life?” she asks. “I’ve had maybe five or six teachers in school who were that guy. You know, closeted — his mythical wife Bonnie that nobody’s ever seen. He’s just an irrepressible optimist, and that’s what I think is so sweet and endearing. At the bottom of it all, he believes he can be a star.”
And despite the mincing, he makes us believe it, too.
They all do.