Tuesday 6 December 2022

"You Like What You Like”: Part Four of Tom Ryan’s 2003 interview with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer- Comedy, formula and sensibility

Editor's Note: This is the fourth part of a transcript of an afternoon spent by Melbourne's Sunday Age film critic Tom Ryan and a trio of American funsters Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean who were in town to promote their latest movie A Mighty Wind. If you wish to read Part One CLICK HERE For Part Two CLICK HERE. For part Three


Part Four: Comedy, formula and sensibility 

Other rules for what you do. Your films never ridicule. They poke fun, but they’re affectionate. They make me laugh, but they make me cry as well.


CG, HS & MMcK: That’s good.


The kiss scene is what made me think about Preston Sturges earlier, and the idea of community. Happens in Palm Beach Story when Jean Arthur gets on to the train and there are these lunatics…


MMcK: The hunting club.

The Ale and Quail Club, Claudette Colbert
The Palm Beach Story


Exactly. And you love them because they know and care for each other. And they’re totally mad, but you never look down your nose at them.


MMcK: Yeah. 


And it made me think about your films and how, through all the absurdity, they also establish a sense of community. Which is why I reckon they’re different from other recent American comedies, most of which are all working on that one-dimensional level.


MMcK: They’re all different… I think American comedies are kind of cold these days. They’re really mostly about humiliating people and that’s where your laughs come from. Which is I think another reason why the ‘reality’ programming on TV is catching on so much because people are…


CG: When you do that you’re not respecting the audience. You’re not trusting the audience; you’re not respecting the people in the movie. And this is the opposite…. This comes down to me being given the trust by Castle Rock, this company that says to me, ‘Here’s the money. Go and make this movie. Do whatever you want.’ 

It’s about me saying to these guys, knowing how gifted they are, going, ‘Michael, go write a song about the thing. I’m not going to be able to write that kind of song.’ Together they wrote the song, “A Big Surprise”, Michael and his wife [Annette O’Toole] came in and they sang the song in my office and I was just astounded. I never knew that Annette even sang, until that moment. I thought, ‘My God.’ It was a great song. 

And I heard Michael Higgins on the end of those tapes of Best in Show doing some arrangements that Eugene was singing with Catherine.’ And based on that, I said, ‘This is insane. I want you to call her up.’ These people are so over-qualified… 

Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins
Best in Show

So if you like these films, you not only see something different, you’re looking forward to the individuality of these actors. You’re seeing what they’re gonna do next. And it’s a big moment whenever you see the different faces, I think. 


HS: It also goes back to that formula because, if you’re going to have to have people learn a lesson about life at the end, you’re going to have to overstack the deck in the front half of the movie to have any laughs at all. So it’s gonna be mean and cold because you feel you’ve gone over the edge because you’re gonna have to go over the edge the other way. 

When you don’t make that bargain at the beginning, you can be more observational and less judgmental all the way through the movie. Because you don’t have to push it into a resolution which is unreal to begin with. People don’t learn lessons about life. People keep makin’ the same mistakes over and over.


MMcK: And in comedy, you’re supposed to.


HS: That’s right. That’s what’s funny.


CG: That’s what’s funny. You know, it’s….


HS: If Laurel and Hardy learned after the first time, here’s how you put a piano upstairs, end of story.


MMcK: ‘I get it now! That’s a very successful winch.’


HS: Right.


MMcK: What fun is that?


So when you’re inside the characters, you obviously feel the same about them?


MMcK: We feel that they’re justified in their actions and they’re doin’ the best that they can. To take just my own example in Mighty Wind, it was very important for me to keep pushin’ these guys, these sticks-in-the-mud, so that ‘We could actually start makin’ some serious money here, you guys.’ And without actually saying those words, that was my motivating conviction.


CG: There was a scene that Michael did by himself – an interview – where this all comes to a boil on the day of the show. He sits on the steps in front of a house and he talks about this and you can see this frustration and this anger about these two guys who were just these benign souls who were kind of wandering around, and he tastes that this could be something, that this could lead to something, that we could capture this thing that we had. 

And it didn’t happen to work in the context of how this movie was, but it just said everything. It showed how deeply he was rooted in this character, that it wasn’t just a superficial thing. 


Michael McKean

So what’s producing these films is a shared sensibility? Because it strikes me – I was watching you last night, the dynamic at work – that there are differences between you. That your sensibility, Chris, is much closer to the edge, much edgier…. And I’m not sure why…


CG [as McKean laughs and Guest feigns ignorance): I’m not sure why either. 


MMcK: Edge of what?


I’ll be open about this. Doing the research, the stuff that I’ve read about you…[waiter delivers my second glass of wine] Thank you.


HS: Now you’re outta control.

MMcK: No more for my friend.


HS [as waiter delivers his second chardonnay]: And now I’m outta control.


MMcK: It’s the wine talking.


HS: Yes.


The interviews I’ve read suggest that interviewers seem very threatened by you.


CG: No! But… 


CG: But that’s not edge, that’s just…


MMcK: Hehehehehe!


CG [getting a bit exasperated]: But these are funny people. We’re all funny. We’re slightly different. But I just… if I don’t talk, people think there’s something going on. But there’s not. I’m just not talking. Because I don’t feel comfortable or something. Michael might be more outgoing, but I think Harry might be more ‘edgy’. Seriously…


HS: I’m more bitter.


CG: True. You are more bitter.


MM: And you play bitter on TV. [his pun, not my misspelling]


CG: I think, seriously, that it’s just a personal thing. Occasionally someone will say these things… But there’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m not comfortable with socialising, but that’s my problem. It’s not their problem. I’m not… It’s not…It’s become a pest, but it’s not… It’s a character fault.

Christopher Guest, A Mighty Wind


MMcK: There was this journalist in Auckland and the only shred of research she did was to read the title and the first paragraph of an article in Rolling Stone that called Chris “a mighty grouch”. Now if you go on and scan the rest of that thing, there’s nothing remotely grouchy about it. But she had decided that that was what her story was going to be. And she was also an idiot. There was that to be said.


CG: Honestly. That’s my only issue. I’ll go to a party and if I’m not saying something people will go, ‘He’s being moody.’ And I’m just not comfortable. I think what’s really close in our appreciation of what makes us laugh… It’s so close that we could sit and do this forever. We could sit on a stage and literally do that forever.


HS: I think, knowing other comedy teams, other comedy groups, obviously three individuals have differences. But I’m struck by how congruent, not identical but congruent, our sensibilities are. I can describe… You know, Chris actually has a more whimsical side than I do. Michael, I’ve never understood him. But seriously…


MMcK: You’ve used the word ‘desperate’ before and that pretty much nails it.


HS: Not in your presence… But I’ve known the Pythons for years. They’re much more different in their individual sensibilities than the three of us are, by a wide margin.


CG: And this is much more seamless, you know… 


MMcK [referring to the crab feast that has arrived on Shearer’s plate]: Oh, they’re having a bad day. 


Waiter: Some mustard to share there, gentlemen.


CG: It’s interesting that you should mention that, Tom, because I’m not out there looking at us and seeing what we’re doing. But I think that one of the comforts of working with the two of them for me is that – and this becomes part of the filmmaking process – I know that one of them is gonna take over if I just stop talking. 




CG: And they’ll carry on and then…


HS: And we feel the same way.


CG: Rarely have we all stopped talking at the same time. It just seems to work out. And again that becomes very musical in nature because you don’t play at the same time. You can play harmonies and then one person will solo and I’ll just lay off for a bit….


Waiter [interrupting, again]: More salad and vegetables for you? Keep you healthy.


CG: Thank you. We didn’t order… OK


Waiter: Compliments of the house.


Harry Shearer, A Mighty Wind

Australians really care about your health. If we were in America, or at least the New York part of it, he’d still be offering alternatives to how we wanted our food served.


CG: Aha! You’ve been to New York.


I have. You order something and you have 15 ways of doing it…. Whereas here they pretty much just go ahead and do it, regardless of what you ask for.


CG: They’re looking after my health.


I’ve read a couple of interviews you’ve done for Australian newspapers. One said that you apparently left your keys behind in a restaurant.


CG: No. I didn’t leave my keys in a restaurant. [Then, to the others] That’s the person I was telling you about. This person interviewed me and…


HS: Oh, yeah! Haha.


CG: No, I have to do this off the record.

[I switch off the recorder and Guest explains how a journalist came uninvited to his office after having done a shared interview with him earlier, had nothing new to ask, and swiped Guest’s keys off his desk for some reason, only returning them sometime later to the office when Guest was away.]

Do you never read anything about yourself?


CG: No. Or about anyone else.


HS [accusingly]: You read that book about John Adams.


CG: I don’t read anything about show business. No reviews. No articles.



CG: I find it disturbing.


HS: He can’t read.


MMcK: He wants Tom Cruise to read it to him.


CG: Now, that would be interesting.


MMcK [to me]: You should’ve turned it off before I said that.


CG: I read the thing today in, what’s it called, ‘Now Magazine’.

HS: No, Who.


CG: Yeah, that’s right.


HS: ‘Who the Fuck Magazine’.


CG: And then someone gave me a picture book about scientologists. Yeah, that’s a joke. I’m just kidding.

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