Strip him of his wigs, beards, and beanies, and you might be hard-pressed to place Christopher Guest as dim-bulb rocker Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap or shirty choreographer Corky St. Clair in Waiting for Guffman. This week, MoMA will host a retrospective devoted to the master comedian, who never cracks a smile. Adam Sternbergh spoke to him about what exactly he finds funny.
You’re best known for your “mockumentaries.” Is that a term you like?
It’s a term I don’t like or use. I think it’s a bit cheesy. The last three films I’ve done have been in a documentary form. The next one, in fact, will not be.
Since you co-wrote This Is Spinal Tap, that style has become more pervasive.
I’ve never seen another one. But I’ll take your word for it.
What about The Office? You must have seen that.
The Office was not improvised. It was a written show. But, yes, I happen to think—and we’re talking about the British Office—that’s the best TV show I’ve ever seen.
Do stunt documentaries like Super Size Me or Fahrenheit 9/11 make it harder to borrow the genre’s conventions?
No, no, not at all. You could do a parody of a Michael Moore movie. But I don’t know what the point would be. I love documentaries. My problem is when the filmmaker becomes the star.
The reality-TV boom has further accustomed audiences to a documentary style—
I’ve never seen a reality show. I don’t watch television. The fun part about doing our movies is that you’re creating something using the talents of people, rather than finding these pathetic people who are thrust into these situations. That to me is completely artless.
Do you go see the big comedy movies?
No, because “big comedy movie” equals “not funny” to me.
As part of the retrospective, you’ll have to talk about comedy—something comedians famously hate to do.
I find it really appalling when people talk about comedy. The minute you start pontificating, it’s like, “Please don’t be alive anymore.”
But do you ever talk to your collaborators about why certain things work?
You’ll never rewatch a scene and talk about why it did or didn’t succeed?
No. You can’t do that. That would be very wrong. It’s a very primitive level, of this is funny or it’s not funny. It’s brutal.
A lot of fans regard your movies as safe havens for great comic actors, like Eugene Levy or Catherine O’Hara.
I’m very aware of that. One of the great joys for me is to create an atmosphere where they can do what they do best.
So are there other good comic actors currently being wasted whom you could rescue?
No. I don’t believe so. I get calls all the time from agents of very well-known people saying, “Can they be in your movies?” And I say, “No, they can’t.”