Christopher Guest has made so many people laugh since he started making mock documentaries with This Is Spinal Tap in1984 that his fans might be surprised to hear his response to Scott Simon’s question on Saturday’s Weekend Edition about whether he ever thinks about making a serious movie.
Referencing Family Tree, his new show for HBO starring Chris O’Dowd as a man discovering his roots, Guest says that even with comedy, the emotional content can still be critical.
“To me, this is serious,” he says. “And I’m not trying to be glib. It couldn’t be more serious. … There’s a tremendous amount of emotional undertow in this. It’s very important that this guy, this main character [played by O’Dowd], is accessible and likable and you feel for his emotional well-being as well as any funny things that may happen.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not writing comedy. How can there not be comedy in a character played by Nina Conti who goes everywhere with a monkey puppet? Monkey puppets are instant comedy, right? Well, they are to everyone except the family portrayed on the show. “No one pays attention in the family to this anymore,” Guest says, “because they’re so used to the monkey puppet speaking that it’s just an everyday occurrence. But the monkey tells the truth, invariably,” he adds, undoubtedly giving his fan something to quote for years to come the same way they do Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show. “The monkey always tells the truth.”
The truth doesn’t come easily to Tom Chadwick (O’Dowd), who inherits a mysterious box from a relative and begins to unravel his own heritage. Despite a smattering of recent shows about people looking for their relatives, Guest got his inspiration from his own experiences:
“After my father died, he left dozens of boxes filled with various things. And over a long period of time, I’ve found diaries from almost 200 years ago, war medals, and various other things, and I began doing my own search. And that prompted me to think that maybe this is an area that would work for a project.”
And, like Tom Chadwick, Guest didn’t always find what he expected. His ancestors include a ventriloquist who was working 200 years ago, who inspired George III to make a house call to see his puppet show. And then there was the one who died in the Spanish Civil War. Guest agrees that he has an interesting family.
Perhaps it’s an affection for surprises that leads to Guest’s known predilection for improvising. In fact, he says, there are no scripts at all on Family Tree.
“Jim [Piddock, Guest’s co-creator] and I wrote outlines for each show, of the eight. We also do character breakdowns, and in those, the actors are given all the information that they would need for the work we’re about to do … but there’s no dialogue written at all. And there’s no rehearsal, in fact.”
And the actors went ahead, despite the fact that O’Dowd, for one, has said that he grew up quoting Guest’s films and felt a little intimidated. “I wish I’d known,” Guest says dryly. “I would have been nicer to him.”