How ‘Best in Show’ influenced a generation of TV comedies

How 'Best in Show' influenced a generation of TV comedies
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Best of Show

Image from Best in Show, courtesy of Warner Bros.

Once you have finished Best of ShowChristopher Guest’s mock purebred dog show documentary, the only thing you want to do is watch it again – immediately. It’s an incredibly funny movie, the rare comedy that makes you laugh so hard your sides hurt for almost every minute of its execution. In less capable hands, the eccentric weirdos of Best of Show It may sound like caricatures, but the actors who play them were apparently born for their roles, from Jennifer Coolidge as the trophy-loving poodle-loving woman of an elderly billionaire to Fred Willard as the distant and deeply inappropriate color commentator during of a dog show.

The movie, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, is the golden genre of comedy that we only get treated to once every few years. But it’s also bigger than that. With him, Guest developed a form of documentary-style comedy – scenes of theft on the wall interspersed with cutaway ‘interviews’ – that was virtually unheard of at the time, but would eventually define an entire generation of comic television. Without Best of Show, there would not be Office, and probably not Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Documentary Now !, Reno 911 !, or What we do in the shadows, Is.

By 2000, Guest had already put his trademark cinema style to use in 1984. This is the spinal cock and 1996 While waiting for Guffman. But none of these movies took off Best of Show made. When Lumbar tap came out, it only grossed $ 4.5 million worldwide; Waiting for Guffman earned just under $ 3 million. Both have become cult favorites – but Best of Show was a real success, earning rave reviews in every newspaper from the New York Times to the Guardian and grossing $ 20.8 million at the box office worldwide. It was the first mock documentary to go mainstream, introducing the genre to a wider audience than ever before, and creating an appetite for movies and TV shows of its ilk.

Asked about his greatest inspiration for Office (2001), Ricky Gervais named Guest, calling the director “a direct influence on Office“and” TV itself. “Gervais apparently rocked OfficeGuest’s doc-shots-and-interviews format; Michael Schur, the co-creator of the American version of Office (2005) and Parks and recreation (2009), it seems the Gervais crèche; and Christopher Lloyd, the co-creator of Modern family (2009), apparently Schur’s cribbed.

But these descendants of comedy television never embraced the central tenet of Guest films, which makes them so hilarious, ambitious, and – ultimately – inimitable: total improvisation. contrary to The office, parks and recreation, or Modern family, which are scripted, every line of a guest film is improvised. He creates the characters for his movie and their stories, comes up with around 75 scenes, and blocks a beginning, middle, and end for each – but that’s all it does. Instead of a screenplay, it gives its actors a “preview” of around 15-20 pages, putting the words they say, the clothes they wear and the absurd things they do into their hands. .

“There is no written dialogue of any kind, and there is no rehearsal,” Guest told Susan Orlean in 2001. “When we shoot, you see, [for] the first time, what these people say. The actors have to be the best in this talent that there is, because you are in a breach. “

In Best of Show, you watch the comedy unfold in real time. Hamilton and Meg Swan’s absurd Starbucks origin story, where the two yuppies talk about falling in love with LL Bean catalogs, Macbooks and chai tea lattes, was the brainchild of Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey. When Cookie Fleck’s Burrow is held hostage by a 12-year-old, the things her old boyfriend threatens the child with – “I’ll hit you in the eye until he turns frozen”; “I’ll stab you with forks until you bleed” – were all improvised by Larry Miller on the spot. And every deranged sentence from Buck Laughlin, the racy and oblivious dog show commentator who seems to know nothing about dogs, came straight out of Fred Willard’s head.

That said, a good improvisation doesn’t necessarily equate to a good movie, and even if Best of Show has it in spades, that alone wouldn’t be enough to carry the film. What holds the film together? really it works is that Guest designed his characters to be loved. Gerry Fleck (played by Eugene Levy), the jealous husband of a champion terrier owner, is a goofy idiot; but he is also kind, humble and steadfast faithful. Scott Donlan, the flamboyant and self-obsessed Shih Tzu handler played by John Michael Higgins, is a basket case; but he is also charming and contagious, and a loving and affectionate partner. Guest has a clear affection for all of his characters and he makes sure you feel it too.

“It must be funny,” Guest told Orlean in 2001. “But if there isn’t affection for these people – and they might not be the smartest or the most talented people – but if you don’t have affection for them, there is really no point in making the movie. I think after five or ten minutes you would be bored with that tilt. “

The spirits behind The office, modern family, and all of the other mock dramas that defined 21st century comedy television didn’t just embrace Guest’s style of shooting; they shared his commitment to creating characters that audiences love. We don’t watch Office just because Michael Scott is funny – we watch Office because we love it. Name any character on any mock documentary style show, and the same principle applies: The laughs these characters provide is the toss, but what gets us to watch is the fact. that we are emotionally invested. We want to see Parks and recreationLeslie Knope wins her election. We want to know what happens to Modern family Claire and Phil Dunphy after the departure of their children. We want OfficeJim Halpert has the courage to propose to Pam, and we want her to say yes.

Twenty years before we cared about all of this there was Best of Show, causing us to kind of worry about the results of the Mayflower Kennel Club dog show. When Gerry Fleck walked away with the Big Blue Ribbon, it seemed like nothing more than a fitting ending to a weird, funny little movie – a riot, of course, but an ultimately unimportant piece of cinematic junk food. There was no way we knew we would spend the next two decades laughing at shows made like this.

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.

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