Friday 19 August 2022

"You Like What You Like”: Tom Ryan’s 2003 interview with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer

Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest

It was mid-winter, 2003. By way of promoting the release of its latest film, Roadshow had arranged for me to lunch with Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean in a cosy space in a plush South Yarra restaurant. Members of a wonderfully inventive, loosely constructed repertory company, they’d all starred in a series of hugely enjoyable Guest-directed mockumentaries: Waiting for Guffman (1996), about a small-town repertory group’s musical production, Best in Show (2000), about the canine aristocracy and their guardians, and A Mighty Wind (2003), about a memorial concert that reunites folk singers from the 1960s. And I had them all to myself.


The company was made up of a remarkably talented ensemble who’d work together on the films and then go off to pursue their many and varied other interests. In addition to Guest, Shearer and McKean, there was also Eugene Levy (Guest’s occasional co-writer and the creator and star of Schitt’s Creek), Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard (who died in 2020), Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock and Jennifer Coolidge. 


Shearer and McKean were Guest’s co-writers and co-stars on the Rob Reiner-directed This Is Spinal Tap (1983), the wicked film that single-handedly turned the “rockumentary” (the rock documentary, in case you’ve forgotten) into an endangered species. It also introduced Spinal Tap’s lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel, to the world (played by Guest), a man extremely proud of his unique amp system that went “all the way to eleven”. The trio is currently at work preparing Spinal Tap II, with Reiner again directing.


Harry Shearer and Simpsons characters

Amongst many other things – including uncredited child-star roles in Abbott and Costello go to Mars and The Robe (both 1953) – Shearer is famous for voicing 17 characters in The Simpsons. When I took away from the lunch a hand-written and signed message from him for an eight-year-old family friend named George, whose mother had banned him from watching the show, George was overjoyed. For his part, Shearer was won over by the fact that, despite the prohibition, the brilliant George had somehow managed to learn episodes off by heart and would make a practice of reciting them as often as he could around the dinner table.


McKean is a versatile actor who was responsible for two of pop culture's more memorable icons: Lenny from TV's Laverne and Shirley (1976 – 1983) and Spinal Tap’s rhythm guitarist, David St. Hubbins. He began his career as a member of the comedy group Credibility Gap with fellow Tap member Harry Shearer and David Lander, all subsequently working as writers on Laverne and Shirley. He also co-wrote and acted in the Hollywood satire, The Big Picture (1989), which was directed by Guest, and was an occasional regular on Better Call Saul (2015 – 2022).

Michael McKean as Charles McGill, Better Call Saul

Their repartee around the lunch table was a joy to watch. They bounced off each other in ways that made it patently clear how they go about making their films. Not only did they frequently finish each other’s sentences, but their conversations were like musical riffs, one picking up on a theme, the others playing their own variations on it. The analogy that Guest draws between what they do and a jazz improvisation perfectly catches the flavour of how they go about their business. They’re also as hilarious in person as they are inside their characters on screen.

In one glorious exchange during an earlier Q & A session at Village’s Europa cinemas (in Melbourne’s Jam Factory), an eager questioner asked Guest if he’d selected the actors to go with the dogs or the dogs to go with the actors in Best in Show. While Shearer and McKean laughed their heads off, Guest deadpanned his response: “We cast the talking parts first.” But the questioner wasn’t finished. Did the dogs have to live for an extended period with the actors in order to be become as comfortable with them as they appear to be in the film? “Security!” called Guest, summoning a non-existent army of protectors at the rear of the cinema.

The parameters I took with me to the lunchtime interview were (a) that, wherever the conversation went, there should be a focus on their working methods and (b) that I needed to tell them that they shouldn’t feel insulted if they noticed me looking at my watch. It wouldn’t be because I was bored but because I needed to change the tape after 30 minutes and that I wanted to make sure that I squeezed in all the questions I had in the available time.




Tom Ryan: Don’t say anything you don’t want to be recorded because I’ve just switched the tape machine on.


Michael McKean: Harry, I beg you, for God’s sake, please don’t mention...


Harry Shearer: Hey, hey, hey [pretending to have been gagged]. 


MMcK: Don’t worry, Tom, I’m only planning to be fascinating.


HS: You say that all the time. You wrote it into your wedding vows…


MMcK: Hehehehehe!… You notice I’m the one sitting opposite the mirror, so as I can see how bald I am. But that’s alright.


I want to talk about the ensemble comedies. I know you’ve all had extensive careers apart from that, but I need to narrow it down a bit. And if I look at my watch, it’s not because I’m getting bored. It’s because I’m checking the time because…


MMcK: Well, you could be getting bored. But now that you’ve said that, you’ve got great cover.

[Christopher Guest looks at his watch. Laughter all round.]


[To Guest] You’ll check for me then?


CG: Yes.


Christopher Guest

And if I ask one of you a question that someone else wants to answer, feel free to jump in.


HS: Well, what I wanted to say…


MMcK: No, not yet…

But go ahead, if you wish…


HS: No, no. You go.


Where to start? After watching the three of you on ‘The Panel’ the other night, I know that you didn’t all meet on a bus. 


MMcK: Hehehehehe.

Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams, Laverne and Shirley

My research on where you did meet up has taken me back to 1976 and ‘Laverne and Shirley’. I can connect all of you with the show in that year, but not with the same episode.


MMcK: I was in every episode. Harry did one on-camera part and a few voice-overs. And, in fact, was the voice of The Boss for short time, and also David Lander, Harry and I were hired as apprentice writers. Harry left after… 

[Interrupting himself] Did I just say Harry laughed? He didn’t laugh at all. 


HS: Didn’t laugh at all. That’s right. 


MMcK: Harry left after 15 shows. But we had been working together as a comedy group that preceded Laverne and Shirley since 1970, when I came out to Los Angeles. Harry had, in fact, been on that show – it was a radio show called The Credibility Gap – for two years at that point. I had known Chris before that, from ’67 when we did in fact meet at college. 

We were both acting students at New York University and guitar aficionados and we had both just seen Mike Bloomfield who had come through town with his band, The Electric Flag, and we were both blues fans and guitar players. And so that’s really where that happened.

It’s bizarre to have our association dated to Laverne and Shirley, however. Before one gets into TV or the movies, there are all these other connections that always crop up in show business. In Harry’s and my case, The Credibility Gap evolved, or devolved, whichever, from radio into a stage act and records as The Credibility Gap.


HS: And we were touring.


Kevin Bacon, The Big Picture

And you wrote The Big Picture together…


CG: Yes.

[To Guest] Which you directed. Was that based on personal experience?


CG: No.


MMcK: Totally.


CG: It was the first film I directed, but I didn’t have that experience. I didn’t go to film school.

But you were familiar with Hollywood. You knew the scene…


CG: Yes. But it was not based on anything literal in the sense that I had tried to sell a movie and gone through the things that the guy in the movie does. I never had those experiences at all. To that extent, it was made up and what really happens is a lot stranger than happens in that film, as it turns out.

Is it the Faustian story? Is selling your soul what one needs to do?


MMcK: It’s more like renting your soul than selling it.


CG: Every day.


But you guys have very much steered clear of the mainstream.


MMcK: I don’t think so. 


HS: We’ve dipped in and out of it. We are in it but not of it. We’ve all done mainstream movies – Chris has directed commercials, which is mainstream – but I think we’re all very protective of our sensibilities. I think the key is that you can get into the mainstream and it can – I’ll use a probably too expressive verb – it can suck your sensibility out of you, if you let it. So you have to really be protective of whatever you think your inner voice is that’s keeping you tuned in to your own sense of humour. So we’re all protective of our own sensibilities. You can use the mainstream for what it’s worth and yet still be able to do your own work.


MMcK: There’s a difference between working as a hired gun on any kind of film, whether it’s a very big film or a very small one, or TV show – you go on there to do the job that they hired you to do – but there are other projects where you’re one of the movers. 

In Chris’s films, everyone’s involved as a creator to some extent. Chris and Eugene [Levy] have done all the hard stuff to begin with: structuring the story, breaking down each scene and creating the characters. Then we come in and we do the fun part, you know, which is playing and staying true to what we’re doing. But everyone in the film is creative to a greater extent than it would be if…. 

Michael McKean, The Brady Bunch Movie

I did a film called The Brady Bunch Movie [1995]. It was very much a commercial film and I had fun… and I’m pretty good in it. And it’s a very funny movie, you know. But it’s not something that started with me or with my friends.

TR: Or that you had any emotions invested in?


MMcK: Not at the time. I’m just glad it was a hit.


And you’ve all done that kind of work.


MMcK: To some extent.

Is that just a way of staying afloat then?


CG: Well, we find ways to do that and to make a living and still try to get to do what we want to do. I think most actors in Los Angeles, that’s what they do: they act. They don’t write, they’re not composing music. And we’re lucky enough to have several different areas. Harry has a radio show and we write pieces for journals and Michael and I have directed, and Harry’s directed. We write songs. There’s a lot of different ways of approaching a career.


HS: And I think the main distinction between the mainstream route and what we do is that – I’ve experienced it; I don’t know about you guys – there’s a tremendous tendency on the part of people who think they have to advise you or tell you how to handle your career to ask, ‘What is it you really want to do?’

We’re talking agents here?

HS: Or managers, or journalists, or producers, or anything. They say, ‘What do you really wanna do?’ And I say, ‘What I really wanna do is everything I do.’ If you let yourself be pigeon-holed – ‘Well I’m just, um…’ – and you just do that all the time, that’s the most mainstream mistake you can make.


CG: That’s easy for them. That’s what they said to me when I started… And I never understood what the problem was. They said, ‘Which would you rather do?’ 


MMcK:  ‘Why?’ is an important question. 


CG: Yes. ‘Why are you even asking the question? I wanna do this and then I wanna do this….’ They just want me to make it simple for them.


MMcK: If you’re confused, then they can come and help you.


CG: And it’s a strange thing. If you have this choice…


MMcK:  I do have my choice. It’s why I’m doing both.


[Menus passed around during this. Pause while we make our orders]


MMcK: But seriously, that’s the most non-mainstream thing we could do. Refuse to answer that question.  


[Everybody gives their orders]


CG: A beef fillet, please.


Waiter [who I think was being slightly condescending]: Medium?


CG: Well.


I can see the head they’ll put on my story now: Three Americans Aghast at Size of Steaks in Australian Restaurant.


[Both Harry and Michael select the Caesar salad; then Michael sees something else and starts to think]


HS: Michael, which would you really like?


MMcK: To tell you the truth, if I had to make a choice I want to have both.


TR: Can I have the beef as well, please? I don’t want an entrée. And a nice glass of pinot or….


Waiter: Something on the lighter side?


TR: That’d be perfect.


Waiter: And you, sir?


MMcK: I’m fine with the water, thank you. Just leave me a top up.


Waiter: How would you like your beef done?...

(To be continued)

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