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The Man of Many Face 

Christopher Guest takes his comedy very, very seriously

Wednesday, Oct 18 2000
It has often been written of Chris Guest -- or, if you prefer, Fifth Baron Christopher Haden-Guest, son of diplomat Peter Haden-Guest, who could once vote in Parliament -- that he has the demeanor of cold stone and the temperament of the dead. He possesses, one often hears, an impenetrable façade, that of the serious man who comes to life only when pretending to be someone else -- say, Nigel Tufnel, guitarist for a hairy hair band named Spinal Tap; or Corky St. Clair, effete director of horrendous plays on small-town stages; or, most recently, Harlan Pepper, a shopkeeper from Pine Nut, North Carolina, who loves his bloodhound almost as much as fly fishing. Guest is, as The New York Times recently wrote, "a man of many faces" -- and, one assumes, none of them his own. A colleague who has interviewed him several times refers to Guest, rather affectionately, as "an odd duck" who "keeps everything close to the vest." This friend intends the description as a warning: Christopher Guest is, to put it mildly, a difficult interview. Like talking to a pile of bricks dressed in loafers and a blue blazer. Like interviewing a corpse with good skin tone.

Guest insists he has no idea he possesses such a reputation -- that of the taciturn comic who lets his characters do his goofing around while he watches stoically from the sidelines. He can see where it comes from -- "If you didn't know who I was, if I was to walk out on the street without people knowing who I am, you'd think I'm an accountant or a lawyer" -- but swears he has no idea it's the public perception, the conventional wisdom. That is because Guest has never read a single word written about him, positive or negative. He insists that he reads nothing at all about the movie business; he tunes out those who would even relay show-business news, for fear that such information would contaminate his world, his craft, his art. Guest claims, for instance, that until informed by his interviewer of this news, he had no idea that early DVDs of This is Spinal Tap, released in 1998 by the Criterion Collection, sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. "That's surprising," he says, in a tone of voice that suggests he didn't actually know or doesn't actually care. Besides, he reminds, This is Spinal Tap was just re-released a few weeks ago for less than $20 by MGM. One need not pay so much anymore for a 16-year-old movie.

Guest doesn't mean it all to sound so pretentious. Besides, pretentious is the last adjective one would apply to a man with Guest's résumé, which boils down to: writer for National Lampoon magazine in the early 1970s, performer and writer on Saturday Night Live for a single season in 1984-'85, co-writer and co-star of This is Spinal Tap, and now writer-director of such films as 1996's Waiting for Guffman and the just-released Best in Show. He has made a living in comedy for almost three decades and doesn't need a critic to tell him whether he's earned such a right. Instead, he contents himself with being his own critic: After the completion of any film he's directed, written, or appeared in, Guest will jot down his own comments, among them: "I'm pleased with this film. I think we did a good job. I like it." He says that "only twice" has he been disappointed with a film he's made; he doesn't name names.

"I don't read about myself, and I don't read any magazine that has anything to do with movies or show business," he says, sitting in a two-story Dallas hotel suite as large as a small, tastefully decorated home. ("I got up last night, and got immediately lost," Guest had said earlier of his accommodations.) Every now and then, Guest will indeed laugh, and the sound punctuates the room's stately silence. Actually, it's not quite a laugh: He opens his mouth wide (look, Ma, at all those fillings) and gags on a chuckle, until it becomes more like the sound of a cat coughing up a hairball: HA! HA! HA! But the look on his face is one of genuine delight. It's just as well he doesn't read his press clippings; he might too believe he's the world's most humorless comedian.

"I feel in some way I need to not be in that world to do what I do," he continues. "Some instinct has told me I need to live in a world that isn't consumed with reading about myself or anyone else or someone's opinion about something. I need to be clear of that. It's just healthier for me. I feel happier. I remember running into someone years ago -- an actor who had just finished a movie -- and I said, "How was it?' He said, "It's a piece of shit. It's really horrible.' The movie came out two weeks later, and it was a huge hit, and I ran into him a month later, and he said, "The movie's great! It's the best!' I thought, "Well, he's full of shit.' The most important thing about my life is this integrity, and you can't lie to yourself."

When Guest was a child, the 6-year-old son of a diplomat then living in New York, he used to look outside his window and peer at the people walking on the street below. He would then jump off the windowsill and imitate their walks. He would also give them voices, becoming these strangers, or at least who he imagined they might be. So often during his childhood, adults would say to him the same thing: "I'm glad you're amusing yourself, young man." He was. He still is.

When he was in college, at New York University, Guest found himself rooming with a fellow theater student named Michael McKean, otherwise known as Spinal Tap's singer-guitarist David St. Hubbins (and, before that, Lenny Kosnowski on Laverne & Shirley). They would arise at 8 every morning and begin "making the movie" -- creating and becoming characters, performing for the invisible camera. By the time they arrived in class, they would be in the third act, cracking themselves up even as their classmates struggled to keep themselves awake. Guest and McKean annoyed those around them -- "they thought we were manic" -- but couldn't care less. "To us it was funny," Guest says, smiling, "and it's the same thing I'm doing now, except now it has a little more structure." Small pause. "Perhaps."

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky


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