We were thrilled to learn HBO had purchased a new half-hour comedy developed by Christopher Guest, the writer, director and actor known for improv-heavy mock-umentaries such as This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. The new series Family Tree, which debuted earlier this month, stars Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, This Is 40) as he tries to track down his family in California. It’s a single-camera comedy and, as one would expect from Guest, it relies heavily on improvisation and features several familiar faces from the director’s comedic world.
Family Tree airs Sundays on HBO at 10:30 p.m. In celebration of Guest’s first project since the 2006 film For Your Consideration, we’ve decided to take a look at some of the most memorable characters from Guest’s films over the years.
Though Rob Reiner directed, Guest co-wrote both the film and the music—it’s definitely part of the Christopher Guest canon. And as the manager of Spinal Tap, Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) is charged with the daunting task of corralling David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and company on their journey through the “topsy turvy” world of rock ‘n’ roll. He must appease all of their nonsensical urges, and though Faith’s character isn’t inherently funny, the fact that he’s the straight man amongst such an off-the-wall, high-maintainence cast of characters makes for some hilarious situations.
He said it: “Certainly, in the topsy-turvy world of heavy rock, having a good solid piece of wood in your hand is often useful.”
Fred Willard is one of Guest’s favorite actors, always portraying the raunchy, inappropriate, fun-loving foil to other more conservative characters. This contrast is the starkest in Best in Show, which sees Willard playing Buck Laughlin, a sports commentator dreadfully out of place at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. Next to him is a straight-laced and serious dog analyst, who has a hard time hiding his annoyance at Laughlin’s buffoonery.
They said it: “Now tell me, which one of these dogs would you want to have as your wide receiver on your football team?”
Some of the funniest interactions in Guest’s films come as the result of odd character pairings and relationships. A prime example is Terry and Laurie Bohner in . The husband-and-wife duo are both members of the New Main Street Singers, but while Terry (John Michael Higgins) is relatively dorky and prim, his wife, played by Jane Lynch, is a loose-talking former porn actress who isn’t shy about her background. Let the awkwardness commence. To reconcile their differences, they’ve adopted a rather unconventional system of spirituality.
They said it:
Terry: “This is not an occult science. This is not one of those crazy systems of divination and astrology. That stuff’s hooey, and you’ve got to have a screw loose to go in for that sort of thing. Our beliefs are fairly commonplace and simple to understand. Humankind is simply materialized color operating on the 49th vibration. You would make that conclusion walking down the street or going to the store.”
Played by Guest himself, Harlan Pepper is the most mild-mannered of all the deranged dog owners at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. This doesn’t mean the bloodhound owner with a Southern accent isn’t a few cards short of a full deck. In addition to owning what ends up being the winning dog, Pepper is an aspiring ventriloquist and is prone to rambling on in a monotone drawl about topics only he could possibly find interesting.
He said it: “After the dog show I was on an El Al flight to Haifa faster than a walnut could roll off a henhouse roof.”
Catherine O’Hara is another fixture of Guest’s casts, and in Waiting for Guffman she paired up with Fred Willard to portray Sheila and Ron Albertson, a husband-and-wife team of travel agents who have never left their small hometown of Blaine, Missouri. More relevant to the film, however, is the many years of experience they’ve amassed in the Blaine community theater.
They said it:
Ron: “If there’s an empty space, just fill it with a line, that’s what I like to do. Even if it’s from another show.”
Like Terry and Laurie Bohner from A Mighty Wind, Gerry Fleck, played by Guest regular Eugene Levy, is conservative and timid while his wife Cookie (Catherine O’Hara) clearly has a promiscuous past, evinced by the their repeated and awkward run-ins with her former lovers as they help their beloved dog Winkie vie for Best in Show at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. After Cookie goes down with an ankle injury, Gerry is forced to “show” the dog, a problem because of his shyness and, of course, the fact that he was born with two left feet.
They said it:
Gerry: “I forgot to compliment you on your luscious melon breasts tonight. How does that sound?”
Played by Michael McKean, David St. Hubbins is the lead singer and voice of reason within Spinal Tap…if such a thing can even be said to exist. St. Hubbins is a brilliant caricature of the misogynistic rock frontman, and constantly frets about the band’s relevancy all the while toting around wife and eventual band manager Jeanine. St. Hubbins claims his namesake was the “patron saint of quality footwear.”
He said it: “I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.
It’s a love story that revolves around Starbucks, catalog shopping and their obsessive love of their dog, Beatrice. How obsessive? They took Beatrice into dog therapy after they caught her watching them have sex. And, of course, there’s the busy bee (see below).
They said it:
Meg: One day Hamilton gathered his courage and approached me…
Hamilton: I remember, I was drinking a grande espresso.
Meg: I know, and I remember I thought that was really sexy. I was drinking capuccinos… then I switched over to lattes… now it’s double espresso macchiato…
Hamilton: These days I’m a big chai tea, soy milk kind of guy.
Meg: Because of the lactose. You’re lactose-intolerant now.
Guest’s films are known for featuring an ensemble cast without any one character serving as the “star.” But in Waiting for Guffman, Guest’s character of Corky St. Clair, the Blaine, Missouri community theater director, all but steals the show. Once St. Clair becomes convinced that New York big shot Mort Guffman will be travelling to Blaine to see the show he’s putting on, he deludes himself into thinking Guffman might bring it to Broadway. St. Clair is clearly gay, but claims to have a wife that no one has ever met. Why else would he go shopping for women’s clothes?
They said it: “It’s a zen thing, like how many babies fit in a tire. You know, that old joke.”
Of all the memorable characters in the Christopher Guest universe, it’s impossible to put any of them above dim-witted Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel. Played by Guest himself, Tufnel must constantly be watched over by Faith and St. Hubbins as he bumbles his way from gig to gig…or as the case may be, cancelled gig to cancelled gig. He’s also responsible for probably the most well-known line in any of Guest’s films: “”These go to 11.
They said it: “It’s like, how much more black could this be? and the answer is none. None more black.”