Christopher Guest has made so many people laugh since he started making mock documentaries with This Is Spinal Tap in 1984 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."
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. There are some situations that can make you just shake your head and ask: Is this a Christopher Guest film? Tom Chadwick is 30 years old. He's down and out in London. He's lost his job. He's lost his girlfriend. Then a great-aunt, whom he never really knew, dies, leaving him a box of old photos and knick-knacks which give him a new purpose in life: discovering his family tree. But an old photo expert tells him that the man he thought was his grandfather is actually someone else.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAMILY TREE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) The discovery I've made is that the man in the photographs that you showed me the other day was none other than Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge.
CHRISTOPHER O'DOWD: (as Tom) Shut the front door.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Yes.
O'DOWD: (as Tom) Harry is a royal. That's makes a lot of sense.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Unfortunately, it isn't your great-grandfather, Harry Chadwick.
O'DOWD: (as Tom) It's not?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) No. Your great-grandfather Harry Chadwick took the photograph.
O'DOWD: (as Tom) Harry was a photographer?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) He was indeed.
O'DOWD: (as Tom) Oh.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) And I am pleased to be able to show you a picture of your great-grandfather.
O'DOWD: (as Tom) Oh, great.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Harry Chadwick. There he is, your great-grandfather.
O'DOWD: (as Tom) He's a Chinese man.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Yes. Hence his name, Harry Chadwick.
SIMON: That's Chris O' Dowd as Tom, who will eventually be taken across the ocean to America and across America to try to discover his family tree. And that's the name of Christopher Guest's new series. It premieres tomorrow night on HBO. It stars some of his old collaborators from "Waiting for Guffman," "A Mighty Wind," and "Best in Show," including Bob Balaban, Michael McKean. Ed Begley Jr. and Fred Willard, and new cohorts, including Carrie Aizley, Nina Conti, Tom Bennett and Meera Syal. The series is written and created by Jim Piddock and Christopher Guest, who joins us now from NPR West. Thanks very much for being with us.
CHRISTOPHER GUEST: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: I gather your idea for this story began even before the current rash of shows that trace somebody's DNA.
GUEST: That's true, yes. It began really with my own search. After my father died, he left dozens of boxes filled with various things. And over a long period of time I 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.
SIMON: You have a fascinating family history. I mean, you've read you had an uncle who was a communist who died in Spain.
GUEST: I do have an interesting family, I think, to me. Going back to a relative born in 1797. He was a ventriloquist 200 years ago, and as a child performed for George III, the king, doing a puppet show in his house. The king came to his house to see this puppet show. And I did have an uncle, yes, who fought in Spain in the '30s and was killed at the age of, I believe he was, 27.
SIMON: Let me get back to the ventriloquist, because ventriloquism plays, at least in the episodes I've seen, more of a prominent role than you usually see in series.
GUEST: That's true. I've always had a fascination about it since I was a child. And I didn't know that there was a connection in my family until after I did a film called "Best in Show" where I actually do some of my own ventriloquism. After that, I had finished that movie, I found this diary. So, it's been going on for quite a while apparently.
SIMON: Well, we'll explain - I was really excited to see, I think, a great comedic talent, Nina Conti, in your series. She plays Tom's sister, and she suffered a - why am I laughing? Forgive me. She suffered trauma as a child and under expert advice she's accompanied by a monkey puppet.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAMILY TREE")
NINA CONTI: (as Bea) We've been together ever since, you know, and I find it wonderful to have his companionship.
(as Monkey) I take a lot of the heat. It has to be shared.
(as Bea) You know, it's not all laughs with Monkey because holding down a job, finding a job where they will put up with him, you know, that really is a challenge. Currently, I'm working in a bank, you know, bring Monkey in two days a week. But you're really hopeless that counting out the money.
(as Monkey) Well, I find it difficult. I don't have the manual skills.
(as Bea) Yeah, but the inaccuracy.
SIMON: And that's Monkey contributing the observation that he or she lacks the manual skills to count up the money, which is just priceless, by the way, when you see the way that's shot.
GUEST: No one pays attention in the family to this anymore because they're so used to the monkey puppet speaking, that it's just an everyday occurrence. But the monkey tells the truth invariably. The monkey always tells the truth.
SIMON: Do you use a script as we commonly think of them?
GUEST: No, there isn't actually no script. Jim 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 they're about to do. It's where they went to school and who they know, what kind of music they like. But there's no dialogue written at all and there's no rehearsal in fact.
SIMON: Wow. Is there a lot of laughter on the set of your films or TV series?
GUEST: I will not permit that. I'm kidding.
SIMON: You had me going.
GUEST: Yeah. Well, that's my job, I guess. I think people aren't laughing in the middle of the work; they're laughing before and afterwards. But they're professionals and they do these scenes and we do the work and there's laughter before and after.
SIMON: I've read interviews with Ricky Gervais in which he says your work has inspired him. Inspired him so much, in fact, he uses the word steal.
GUEST: Well, the style of what I do now really began with this movie we did called "This Is Spinal Tap" that Rob Reiner directed and Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, the four of us who wrote it, and we decided to do it in a documentary style that was improvised. And that was the first time that had happened.
SIMON: Yeah. Do you ever think of doing a serious film?
GUEST: Well, to me, this is serious. I'm not trying to be glib. It is, and couldn't be more serious. And the opportunities in this current show, "Family Tree" with Chris O'Dowd, there's a tremendous amount of emotional undertow in this. It's very important that this guy, this main character, is accessible and likeable and you feel for his emotional well-being, as well as any funny things that may happen. And so I guess I look at this, this is serious.
SIMON: I gather Chris O'Dowd is one of those people who grew up essentially impersonating all the roles in "Spinal Tap."
GUEST: Really? See? I never heard that. That's good to know now.
SIMON: He said in interviews that he was quite intimidated on the whole idea of working with you.
GUEST: Wow. I wish I had known. I would have been nicer to him.
SIMON: Christopher Guest. His new series, "Family Tree," debuts tomorrow night on HBO. Thanks so much for being with us.
GUEST: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.