Editor’s Note: Waiting for Guffman was recently released on made-on-demand Blu-ray by Warner Archive.
It’s the sesquicentennial of Blaine, Missouri, a lovely little village that could pass for Anytown, U.S.A. As part of their big anniversary blowout, they city has asked local theater guru Corky St. Claire (Christopher Guest), a transplant from New York, to write and direct a musical celebrating the town. The result is Red, White and Blaine, and after an arduous but hilarious series of auditions, local eccentrics like Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara, respectively), Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey), and others are cast in what is gearing up to be an all-out musical extravaganza. There are the expected, if unorthodox, rehearsal shenanigans and budget arguments, but there’s also good news: a major New York critic by the name of Mort Guffman is traveling all the way to Blaine to review the show, triggering dreams of stardom for everyone involved.
Now considered a master of the form, Waiting for Guffman (1996) may not have been Christopher Guest’s first foray into the mock documentary genre — that would be his appearance as the delightfully addled Nigel Tufnel in This is Spin̈al Tap — but it was his first time in the director’s chair. Opting to use the talents of dozens of experienced comedians in an improvisational setting, Guest created an absurd and charming comedy full of subtle moments, along with a few big howlers too.
Twenty years ago when Guffman premiered, the nuttier folks seemed like broad, unlikely caricatures, people we would only run into in real life once in a blue moon. Nowadays, the internet has shown us that people like Ron “Penis Reduction” Albertson and the Blaine UFO expert who doesn’t even know how to spell the name of the town (David Cross) are all too common, and the characters played by Paul Dooley and Brian Doyle-Murray, though they are only on screen for a few seconds, seem broken in a very human kind of way, thus are strangely relatable.
Waiting for Guffman is also highly quotable. How many of us still call others “bastard people” when angry? We all do. There’s no use denying it; it’s the perfect insult, largely because of Guest’s delivery. Everyone in the film just nails the subtle comedic points, their ad-libbed lines often being funnier than the scripted jokes written for the musical. That said, we see Red, White and Blaine almost in its entirety, and taken as a whole, it’s the highlight of the film.
Though set in Missouri, Guffman was filmed in Lockhart, Texas, which looks like nearly every other small Midwestern town, with the late-1800s courthouse at the head of a tiny town square, the same civic buildings, the same downtown full of small specialty shops. Yet Blaine is awfully dry and sparse for a city that’s supposed to be nestled in the lush Ozark hills and populated by Dairy Queen girls by the name of Libby Mae. It also manages a professional orchestra, a large budget, and a shockingly nice office for the town historian. For those of us who, for good or ill, have lived most of our lives in the Midwest, Blaine fails the authenticity test.
Does that matter? Not really. Waiting for Guffman may feature a lot of light comedy, but it’s a movie that is all about stereotypes and not in any way concerned with accuracy. Unfortunately, the stereotypes can border on the offensive — Janet Maslin wrote in her review that one needed a “high tolerance for bad taste” to watch Guffman — especially when it comes to Corky St. Clair, a closeted gay man whose behavior is mined for all the cheap laughs it can generate. He is also a native New Yorker who for some reason sounds as though he grew up in Tulsa, and arguably his funniest scene, the one where he’s trying to teach himself to dance like a fly girl, makes no sense whatsoever.
Despite being the ostensible lead in this ensemble cast and enjoying several great moments, Guest is the weakest link, not only because of his unfocused portrayal of Corky, but because of the character’s lack of originality. Corky St. Clair shares a non-coincidental number of characteristics with Llewellyn Sinclair (voiced by Jon Lovitz), the local theater producer in the 1992 Simpsons episode “A Streetcar Named Marge.” There’s a My Dinner With Andre joke — action figures in Guffman, a video game in Simpsons — which seems likely to have been borrowed as well, though to be fair, The Simpsons did a fair amount of borrowing of their own (see “A World Without Zinc,” taken from Kentucky Fried Movie). Still, there’s got to be quite a bit of overlap in the Venn diagram of people who like Christopher Guest films and people who like The Simpsons, so the similarities are noticeable.
Waiting for Guffman is Guest’s first stab at a genre he would eventually make his own, and it shows. Best in Show and A Mighty Wind have worn far better over the years, in part because Guest isn’t so intent on insulting everyday people, or “rubes,” as several reviews of the day referred to them. Fortunately, the warmth and charm and wacky characters of Blaine, Missouri outweigh the missteps, making Guffman the kind of comedy that’s worth visiting again.
Warner Archive has just released Waiting for Guffman on a made-on-demand Blu-ray that comes with the commentary by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, as well as additional scenes and the theatrical trailer.