A powerful recurring motif in the varied works of Christopher Guest is the dummy.
From early sketch comedy on "Saturday Night Live" through a series of mock documentaries, the looming figure is an essential part of the Guest aesthetic. It can be a truth-teller as on his new HBO series "Family Tree," where a sharp-witted monkey hand puppet accuses a bubble-brained wife of being "inflatable." Or it can also be a flesh-and-blood dimwit such as Nigel Tufnel, the "This Is Spinal Tap" guitarist who boasts his special amp's volume goes to 11.
It turns out the deep fascination with dummies may be embedded in the family DNA. Guest discovered, after receiving a treasure trove of family diaries, photographs and letters in 1996, that one of his forebears was a ventriloquist. As a child, the distant relative performed a puppet show for King George III – yes, the dummy, er, the British monarch, who lost the American colonies.
"If I put this in a movie people would think it's stupid," said Guest of his great-great-great-great-grandfather, noting he might be missing a "great" or two, who was born in 1797. "But he wrote in a wonderful Dickens sort of way that he was a child who liked to make mischievous voices, that he always imitated sounds and people.
"And I thought, 'OK, this is my life when I was a child in school,'" continued Guest, whose father, Peter Haden-Guest, was a British U.N. diplomat and a member of the House of Lords. "I could make sounds and the teacher didn't know where they were coming from — because I was so interested in learning, apparently."
Just before the launch of his new series, Guest talked over breakfast in Santa Monica about his Anglo-American heritage, the odd pull of ventriloquism and his first stab at a television series. Unlike his free-spirited, eccentric characters, the filmmaker behind "A Mighty Wind," "For Your Consideration," and "Best in Show" doesn't particularly enjoy the celebrity interview process or, for that matter, being photographed. During the hour-long conversation, he was reserved but not unfriendly.
His improvisational eight-episode series — perhaps the only TV comedy ever driven by genealogical research — explores with humorous and often poignant detail a young man's quest to fill out the names and faces on the many branches of his transatlantic family tree. After initially being set in England, the series moves its hero, Tom Chadwick, played by the Irish comic actor Chris O'Dowd, to sunny California on Sunday for the final four episodes.
The Sunday episode, "Welcome to America," also marks Guest's first appearance in front of the camera on the series. Like seemingly every Guest character on the series, he plays a mostly normal person — except for one thing.
Actually, in the case of his character, it's a couple of things. He plays a Southern Chadwick fond of knit caps who is embarrassed by a vestigial body part and has a wife who has been missing for several years. (The monkey hand puppet has a theory about the wife.)
"I wasn't sure until the night before that I actually was going to do it," said Guest, who created and wrote the series with Jim Piddock. "I wasn't comfortable and I was so busy, I didn't really feel like I could just put on a costume and walk into it."
Overall, the series has been greeted by welcoming reviews. Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter called it "a quirky and hilarious gem," while Times critic Robert Lloyd wrote it is "sweet and funny and not a little melancholy," adding that "Guest gives the world a quarter-twist toward the ridiculous, without losing sight of the human dreams and strivings, obsessions and accommodations that are his main and constant subject."
Like much of Guest's previous work, the series seems to be playing to his niche audience. The ratings have been modest — averaging around 2.3-million viewers per episode across all platforms, according to HBO. Network executives are weighing whether to order a second season and are expected to decide soon.
"We certainly want another season," said Guest, who is married to actress Jamie Lee Curtis and lives on the Westside. "But they may say, 'Thanks for coming,' and I'll be fishing again."
He's not joking — Guest loves to fly fish, and he doesn't have anything else lined up. Unlike a lot of his Hollywood colleagues who thrive on juggling multiple projects, he will take off months, even years at a time. "I don't ever work at two different things at the same time," he said. "I don't have file cabinets filled with scripts. Everything I've thought to do, I've done."
Guest fans will recognize the familiar stable of faces that animate the writer-director's many films — namely, Fred Willard, Ed Begley Jr., Kevin Pollak, Bob Balaban and Michael McKean. McKean, who co-starred in "Spinal Tap" with Guest, portrays O'Dowd's caring but often clueless father, who nearly pops a stitch every time he watches one of his beloved old British sitcoms. (The laughably bad sitcoms, shot on the same stages as actual laughably bad British sitcoms years ago, are entirely made up for the HBO series.)
"Chris' stuff is at its best when there is a sweetness and a kindness without being soft," said McKean, who once was roommates with Guest when they were just starting out in New York City. "It's not that everyone is wonderful and we have to hug at the end, it's just that people are like this. They are a little crazy and funny."
The inspiration for the HBO series was born after the death of Guest's father in 1996. Not unlike his main character, Guest suddenly found himself curating a host of family artifacts — which he is still sorting through — that prompted a look into his heritage. Gradually, he learned much more about his lineage that had been left unsaid. Medals for valor in World War I, an uncle who fought in Spain in the 1930s, a grandfather who was a physician and Fabian Society member who worked with H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.
"My dad, a lovely guy from an interesting, amazing family, would tell me some things but not everything," said Guest, whose American mother was a vice president of casting and talent at CBS. "Not because there were secrets, he just wasn't that forthcoming. He wasn't cold, but he didn't say everything. So psychologically, when you grow up around that, you tend not to ask questions."
He realizes that in some ways he's a chip off the old block.
"There are certain people that are open and accessible. And then there are certain people when you look at them you get the, well, I'm-not-going-over-there vibe. And frankly, I may be one of those people," said Guest, who at 65 is fit thanks to a five-times-a-week workout routine that includes cycling, tennis and an elliptical machine. "I meet people and they say this about me and I think, 'Really? That's odd.' Because internally it doesn't feel that way."
The cache of materials first led to a personal audio-recording project in which Guest conjured a family and performed all the voices. Then he thought of adding video, at which point he contacted his friend Piddock, the English actor who has appeared in several of his films.
Because of the project's open-ended nature — a young man finding his identity by creating a giant family tree — television seemed like a better option than film. There's no natural end to the series, said Guest, whose actors improvise the dialogue for every scene.
And there was no pitch to sell it either. Just a very elaborate outline with eight pages about each episode. "We said, 'That's the show,'" said Guest, who talked to several cable outlets about the project. "You know how I work, you like me or you don't."
Sue Naegle, HBO's entertainment president, told reporters this year that the premium channel "jumped" at the chance to grab it.
One of the most talked-about characters in the series is Nina Conti, who portrays Bea Chadwick, the main character's sister. She's a perfectly normal person, except she communicates through her sharp-tongued hand-puppet "Monk" much of the time. Conti, the daughter of actor Tom Conti, is actually a trained ventriloquist.
"I was having dinner with her dad years ago," said Guest, who played a ventriloquist, Señor Cosa, on "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-'80s and later in "Best in Show." "And I asked, 'How's the family?' Good. 'How's Nina?' She's a ventriloquist. 'But seriously, how is she?' She's a ventriloquist. I said OK."
The series hasn't ventured into the hallowed halls of the British Parliament, which given Guest's experiences there wouldn't be as unlikely as it may sound. When his father died, Guest inherited a seat in the House of Lords and when he was in London, which was frequent, he would sit in the chambers and listen to the voices of government.
"The people are highly educated and make amazing speeches," said Guest, who lost the seat after hereditary peers were tossed out of the august body. "They speak fluidly and fluently in English. It was very refreshing."
Did he ever speak?
"I could have made a speech, but I didn't think it was my place — well, it was my place," said Guest, who attended sessions for several years. "I thought it would be a little presumptuous of me after I'd shot all my ventriloquism scenes to stand up in the House of Lords."
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