Following the success of his most recent film The Big Sick, Judd Apatow stated that he didn’t “think critics have a great respect for the effort it takes to make people piss their pants laughing. They think it’s more honorable to show someone in torment, but being able to do that doesn’t make you more of an artist than being able to make ‘The Naked Gun.’ It’s not hard to make people cry. Kill a dog.” Whether or not you think that Apatow’s films are as impressive as the newest drama hitting theaters, he certainly does have a point. The ability to elicit a genuine emotional response from an audience is remarkable, and not something possessed by many filmmakers. Waiting for Guffman, the 1996 film from Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, does exactly that and proves itself to be an unconventional, frequently uncomfortable, and consistently hysterical experience.
Guffman follows the citizens of a sleepy little town in Missouri, called Blaine. In the grand tradition of sleepy little towns line Fargo North Dakota (as well as the chronologically later but thematically relevant Scranton Pennsylvania, Dibley England, and Pawnee Indiana) life in Blaine is simple. The big cheese in town is a travel agent who has never left Blaine. The dentist is an awkward man who fancies himself a standup comedian. The girl who works at the local Dairy Queen doesn’t seem to see a world much larger than the Dairy Queen. The Mayor attends an annual Mayor’s convention. The town’s claims to fame are the stools they made for a former president and a supposed alien landing. Things there are simple, and nobody seems to have a problem with that.
Enter Corky St. Claire, played hysterically by director and Co Writer Christopher Guest. Corky is a flamboyant theatre director who left the acting/directing scene in New York to come back home to Blaine. The plot follows Corky as he gathers a cast for a play celebrating the town’s sesquicentennial anniversary. The cast universally delivers wonderful performances, with every single character simultaneously feeling like an insane caricature, and eerily like somebody you used to know from your hometown. Particularly amusing was Eugene Levy as Dr. Allen Pearl, who is perhaps the most awkward man ever to exist.
The vast majority of the film’s humor comes from the strength of these performances, as well as the stellar editing. When something as mundane as side character drinking water causes me to burst out laughing, you know that the director has created a remarkable mood to prime the audience. In fact, almost all of the “jokes” are in the style of a side character drinking water. On very few occasions was there ever a legitimate punch line to a joke set up previously. However, as opposed to the vast majority of Adam Sandler’s oeuvre, the format succeeds wildly in Guffman. The laughs come from watching a monotone-voiced dentist try to sing in an audition. It comes from watching a man who clearly thinks of himself as a master of the theater stumble over his words and call the city council “bastard people.” It comes from awkward pauses in dialogue, from stiff dancing, and from watching actors at the top of their respective games embody real people on the screen for 84 minutes.
In a cinematic landscape filled with miserable people going through terrible pain and loss, it is incredibly refreshing to watch a movie that reminds you its okay to laugh. Waiting for Guffman is, at its heart, a small story about small people in a small town. These people are happy. They say dumb things, and make fools of themselves on a makeshift stage set up in a high school gymnasium. In a different kind of film, this might be depressing. In Waiting for Guffman, it’s an excuse to just have fun. Allow yourself, just as every character in the film does, to forget that this is not Broadway, it doesn’t have to be.