Saturday Night’s Children: Christopher Guest (1984-1985)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
In the final year before Lorne Michaels returned to save SNL, NBC producer Dick Ebersol replaced the recently departed Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo (and fired cast members like Brad Hall and Tim Kazurinsky) with ringers like Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer, Martin Short, and Christopher Guest, who was not only known for his work on The National Lampoon Radio Hour but for his role as Nigel Tufnel in the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap, which premiered only months before his first SNL episode. During his short time as a repertory player, Guest developed the characters and comic sensibilities that turned him into the actor, writer, director, musician, composer, and American mockumentary pioneer he is today.
Guest was born in New York City to an American mother and British father and spent much of his childhood in the United Kingdom. His interest in music — specifically bluegrass, Americana, and jazz — began at an early age and he studied the clarinet at The High School of Music & Art in New York City, then graduated from Tisch in 1971. After appearing in theatrical productions in Washington D.C. and on Broadway, Guest began contributing to The National Lampoon Radio Hour in 1973 and also appeared in the Off-Broadway show National Lampoon’s Lemmings alongside Chevy Chase and John Belushi. His two-country upbringing led to a chameleon-like facility with accents, allowing him to master the dialect of everyone from a rock star Brit (Spinal Tap) to a bumbling backwoods fisherman (Best in Show).
During his time on SNL, Guest’s most popular recurring characters were duos with cast mate Billy Crystal like Frankie and Willie, two talky blue-collar New Yorkers who work odd jobs as security guards, messengers, and construction workers and have rambling conversations about their masochistic proclivities: “Don’t ya hate it when…” Another Crystal/Guest duo were the Minkman brothers, two owners of an allegedly high-quality prank toy company who warn against purchasing pirated Minkman replica products: “If you buy an inferior non-Minkman dribble glass and you put it to your lips, and because of uneven glazing, suddenly find yourself on the way to the emergency room, with 15 stitches, this does no longer amaze and delight your friends. This is a lawsuit.” Guest also played picky wine expert Rajeev Vindaloo and Señor Cosa, a ventriloquist who he developed during his time on The National Lampoon Radio Hour based on Señor Wences. He also impersonated Alan Arkin, Red Skelton, Bert Convy, and James Mason and acted as anchor of Saturday Night News from December until the end of the season in April 1985.
SNL’s tenth season was cut short due to NBC temporarily canceling the show until Lorne Michaels returned to produce the following year, so Guest and the rest of Ebersol’s cast only appeared in seventeen episodes (except for Shearer, who left the show halfway through the season). After Guest’s year on SNL, he began his career in filmmaking with The Big Picture in 1989, and in 1996 he wrote and directed Waiting for Guffman with co-writer and frequent collaborator Eugene Levy. His ensemble cast on Guffman, which included Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, and others, continued to appear in his documentary spoofs (Guest doesn’t enjoy the term “mockumentary,” even though it was first coined to define his seminal star work This Is Spinal Tap) Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. On his recurring ensemble, Guest told The AV Club in 2009:
“The reason the ensemble continues in the movies is because those are the people that can do that kind of work. It’s not just an accident those people are in the film. It’s important to realize that, in the same way you want to play with good musicians, there’s a reason people play with the same musicians because they can do what they’re supposed to do.”
Aside from his own films, Guest appeared in The Princess Bride, A Few Good Men, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (as Ivan the Terrible), and The Invention of Lying in 2009. Despite calling himself “semi-retired,” he is currently working on a new movie about collectors of “old comic books, Barbie dolls, vintage magazine ads, vinyl 45-rpm singles, or even Charles Manson song lyrics written on Kleenex.”
Guest’s deadpan hangdog countenance is probably at its most ideal in Best in Show where he is paired with a Bloodhound named Hubert and they run and look almost identical — he’s a calm, centered, and even spooky blank slate who only comes alive when poured into a character or role as writer/director. Perhaps this made SNL not an ideal fit for him, since the show’s most successful recurring guests (like Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, for example) are larger-than-life characters both offstage and on camera. That’s why the more reserved Guest is at his best not in sketches but in his full-length documentary spoofs, where his character development can come together slowly to create a startlingly real and hilarious character parody. “People want me to be funny all the time. They think I’m being funny no matter what I say or do and that’s not the case,” Guest has said. “I rarely joke unless I’m in front of a camera. It’s not what I am in real life. It’s what I do for a living.” Guest’s aversion to the term “mockumentary” speaks to a prickly character that comes out in much of his interviews, but at any rate, his detailed and highly calculated approach to improvisation makes the characters he disappears into that much more real and even lovable.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.