Almost in spite of himself, Christopher Guest is now directly in the limelight. Over the course of four films - The Big Picture, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and the new A Mighty Wind - this most self-effacing of directors has now firmly established his own comedy style: character-driven, subtle, and with an attention to detail so meticulous it is often difficult to distinguish parody from the real thing. Along the way, he's developed a unique methodology, editing down material improvised by an unofficial repertory company working from an outline instead of a script. As a result, his films, like Robert Altman's, showcase ensembles rather than stars. What is less well-known is that Guest has been hoeing this row for more than 30 years, although he appeared to spring full-blown from the head of Spinal Tap in 1984.
Guest first came to the attention of the comedy cognoscenti in 1972 when he appeared on an LP called National Lampoon Radio Dinner. National Lampoon was a US satire magazine which combined the Ivy League erudition and sophistication of its forebearer, The Harvard Lampoon, with the Sixties counterculture's rock'n'roll sensibility, rather like a cross between Private Eye and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
Having conquered the magazine world, the Lampooners wanted to hear their work on the hip radio stations that played aural humour by groups such as the Firesign Theater and the Credibility Gap who brought a druggy rock sensibility to comedy.
Radio Dinner was produced two Lampoon editors, Tony Hendra (later the band manager in This Is Spinal Tap) and Michael O'Donoghue (laterSaturday Night Live's head writer). Though Radio Dinner was supposed to serve as a showcase for sketches by Lampoon writers, much of the album came from Guest's improvised material, such as a surfer dude discussing the philosophical significance of George Harrison's The Concert for Bangladesh, the prototype for solving world problems by record purchase.
"He was truly the man of 1,000 voices," said Anne Beatts, a Lampoon writer. "He once told me and Michael that sometimes when he was making a hamburger he would find himself doing the voice of the hamburger and wonder if he was flipping out." Because of this ability to lose himself in a character, Guest struck Beatts as "quite distanced from this work and from himself in a sort of Alec Guinness-like way. You're left wondering 'who is the real Chris Guest?'"
Radio Dinner was nominated for a Grammy award, and its success inspired the Lampoon to instigate another record, this one a parody of Woodstock that would use actual laughter instead of a laughtrack. This meant putting together a show, with Hendra directing, to be recorded in front of a live audience. Guest improvised with each new hopeful at the auditions. One of these was a dynamic young actor from the Chicago-based improvisational theatre company, Second City, named John Belushi.
The actors would also constitute the show's band, so all the performers had to have at least rudimentary musical skills. Thus a musically-inclined acquaintance of Guest's turned up for auditions and got a part despite having no stage experience at all. "As I remember I was awful," Chevy Chase recalled, but luckily he was pretty good on the drums.
Chase and Guest had more in common than having gone to the same progressive private school and similarly WASPish good looks. They both came from arty yet social New York circles, were natural athletes, had great musical facility, and were quick on the uptake. "Chevy had the best ear as far as picking up musical things," said Paul Jacobs, who wrote the music for Lemmings in collaboration with Guest.
While Guest has always been a true actor, submerging himself in a character, Chase was always a true star, portraying the same nonchalant persona in a variety of contexts. In life as in art, Guest was intense and directed while Chase took the casual approach.
The actors were pretty much on their own when it came to developing characters. Directing was not Hendra's forte, and Guest was more discomfited by the lack of structure than were Chase and Belushi. Adding to the tension was British class-warrior Hendra's resentment of the future Baron Haden-Guest.
Lemmings' centrepiece was the "Woodshuck Memorial Festival of Peace, Love and Death". Guest donned a wig and painted his face as the lead singer of the Kiss-like Megadeath. And he gave a dead-on impersonation of a popular singer/songwriter with a persistent drug habit, James Taylor.
Meanwhile, O'Donoghue started a weekly Radio Hour created by National Lampoon writers,Lemmings performers, and special guests. One character Guest created for the Radio Hour was the BBC announcer, Roger de Swans, introducing a reading of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot and pronouncing the Russian names with excruciating correctness. Then on comes the Idiot himself, warning "everybody get out of here - there's a lobster loose! Holy Cow! He's vengeful!" This was the creation of Bill Murray, brought in by Belushi from Second City.
Shortly thereafter, Guest was imported to California by the comedian Lily Tomlin, who had seen him in Lemmings. "She said there was a brilliant actor in it named Chris Guest and she brought him back to write for her television special," said the programme's producer, Lorne Michaels. "I don't think I would have made the same choice, but that's the choice she made," he added.
This remark may explain why Michaels did not recruit Guest for Saturday Night Live. However, Guest had already been drafted by a rival project, the short-lived Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. By the end of 1976 Guest and Murray were working on the final National Lampoon album, That's Not Funny, That's Sick. It was on this album that Guest refined the method that was to serve as the template for his film-making technique, i.e., generating lots of improvised material quickly, then shaping the final product in the editing.
For the next eight years, Guest appeared in a few forgettable movies while Chase, Belushi, and Murray became big stars, first on Saturday Night Live and then in movies. But the race is not always to the swift, and Guest, like Guinness, may find his perfectionist but collegial approach bringing its greatest rewards in later life. He even got the girl, in the form of Jamie Lee Curtis, aka Lady Haden-Guest. As the late Gilda Radner, another Saturday Night Live star, said, "you can always get all the attention, you can always steal the focus and be the funny one. But to equal the other people on stage, to give them their moment and then take yours and go back and forth - that's the much more difficult and greater thing."
The writer is the author of 'Out for Blood: The National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and satire in the Seventies'