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Waiting for Willard

Waiting for Guffman
Suzanne Tenner

First Family of Small Theater: Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard practice some steps in "Waiting for Guffman."

Comedian Fred Willard of 'Waiting for Guffman' talks about the importance of being clueless

By Richard von Busack

Fred Willard was one of the better repertory comedians of the 1970s and 1980s, appearing on such memorable shows as WKRP in Cincinnati and Fernwood 2-Night. Willard usually plays small-town types--slightly off, clueless Midwestern nice guys from Chagrin Falls (where, indeed Willard lived for a time).

The actor is visible now in his juiciest screen role yet, as a travel agent-cum-actor in Christopher Guest's new film, Waiting for Guffman. Willard's sort of comedy would have been unthinkable before Vietnam, before the 1960s schism between Us and Them. No? Then try to imagine a pre-Vietnam analogue. Maybe Ralph Bellamy in the screwball comedies, but Bellamy had to be obvious to make his squareness and blandness (to make his "looking like Ralph Bellamy," as Cary Grant had it in His Girl Friday) different from the other square, bland heroes (the Randolph Scotts and Bob Cummings) the studios sometimes liked to use.

Once upon a time, Willard's particular brand of cluelessness would have been signaled with some sort of physical tic. Willard, tic-free and handsome in the conventional way, is really the first person you think of when you need a comic version of an oblivious small-time politician.

For example, see Willard as a military officer in This Is Spinal Tap. Having booked the infamous heavy-metal band Spinal Tap into an officer's club at an air base, he compounds this grave error by failing to realize how different Spinal Tap might be from 4 Jacks and a Jill, a band Willard's character saw and applauded in a Holiday Inn in Kansas.

Students of subtle comedy might be helped by Willard's description of himself as being "somewhere between Albert Brooks and Charles Grodin." He's less aggressive than Brooks and not as sweetly out of it as Grodin. While Grodin's characters are almost never conscious of the cross-currents, Willard's know that there are cross-currents, but they don't register a response to them, which is why he can blurt out the stupidest things.

Still, it's when he doesn't say something stupid that he's at his funniest. Get away from the coastal cities of America, and you'll meet plenty of Willards who make it clear by what they don't say and don't do that they've noted the piercing in your eyebrow and glow of your tattoos through your shirt.

Metro: How would you describe your persona as a comedian?

Willard: I think it's kind of broad. A guy who doesn't really conceal his thoughts, who has a lack of self-awareness. A blunderer. A guy who, if his pants were on fire, would carry on as if he didn't notice. I think in the back of his mind, my character in Waiting for Guffman knows he's not carrying on too successfully--even though he has the appearance of success, as both a travel agent and as a wonderful performer.

Metro: In Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest's Corky St. Clair is a drama teacher trying to organize a podunk town's sesquicentennial celebration. He's obviously gay, but he has a wedding ring and an imaginary wife. In one shot, you see what looks like a matching ring on the piano player's finger. Did the two of them have a secret marriage no one was meant to know about?

Willard: No, those characters were meant as adversaries. "Theatrical" is the word everyone in the town uses to describe Corky, not "gay." They just think all Broadway types are like that. In the final cut, there's one character who has a line about how Corky is just like the only other talent who can act, direct and sing all at the same time--namely Barbra Streisand. In one version, this character is seen in Corky's New York boutique at the end of the movie.

Metro: I loved the scene in which you and Catherine O'Hara are insufficiently concealing your sexual problems as you needle Eugene Levy's character, a dentist with delusions of singing talent.

Willard: That's about my favorite scene in the film, where I'm just trying make Eugene and Linda as uncomfortable as possible in the Chinese restaurant. I got to do a lot of homework for it, getting together for rehearsal with Catherine, Eugene Levy and Linda Cash, who played Eugene's wife. We shot two hours of the restaurant scene. There was so much good stuff we shot for the movie--30 hours of it altogether, and you only get 82 minutes of it on screen.

Metro: I hope we get to see it someday on laser disk or bootleg.

Willard: We had so much that had to be cut in Waiting for Guffman. There's a long sequence where I'm needling Eugene with a series of bad dental jokes until he blows up. And there's a war between me and Bob Balaban's piano teacher character, where I'm trying to get out of the ensemble because "my fans expect me to stand out." And Catherine's character's drinking problem developed during the film.

[Note: As described, this scene echoes one of the most devastating moments in the history of television comedy: O'Hara's alcoholic chanteuse Lola Heatherton on SCTV delivering the poignant confessional ballad "No One Cares (You're All Just Parasites Draining Me of Love)."]

Metro: How did you become a comedian?

Willard: My early influence was Robert Klein, the standup comedian. I spent years at the comedy improvisation club Second City when it first opened up a branch in New York. Later, I went to Chicago with Second City. After that, I formed my own troupe, the Ace Trucking Company. We did 20-minute improvs. One of our guys was the "Bad Improv Fairy," who would come out with a wand and end the sketch that wasn't working.

It amazes me that improv had spread so much. Now they have those ComedySportz teams all over the country. Improvising a role from scratch is one thing, but for me, it's difficult to just start working from a topic suggested on the spot: "two men in an elevator," that kind of thing.

Metro: You did a guest spot on the Midnight Special show, the rock concert show hosted by Don Kershner. What songs did you play?

Willard: I did two songs: "Ride 'Em High" a country song about the cowboy's need for moisturizer to keep his skin supple on the prairie. And I did a punk-rock song called "You've Got to Do Whatever You've Got to Do," written from a lawyer's point of view, all about how if someone crosses you have to be ready to retaliate, even if it means sending them a really nasty letter.

Metro: How would you compare your persona with that of Charles Grodin's?

Willard: I think Grodin is more subtle than I am, and he's more laid back than me. He has a wonderful sense of humor. When I was on Saturday Night Live, I told them I wanted to host the show like Grodin did--he kept interrupting sketches, breaking character, apologizing that he hadn't rehearsed and didn't know what was going on. I told them I wanted to do something like that, and they said that they'd gotten lots of hate letters about that episode.

Metro: Where did you film Waiting for Guffman?

Willard: In Austin. The exteriors are in the town of Lockhart; we did five weeks shooting in Texas. Me, Catherine and Eugene all showed up on the same day, wrapping in one long day of shooting that began at noon and ended 5:30 the next morning--leaving on the flights back to L.A. two hours later at 7:30 am. The first shot took place in the public library, they set up the camera and this was the first rehearsal, too. These are all scenes that were cut. So much was cut.

Metro: When you were performing in this film, what did you have to worry about the most?

Willard: Jokes out of context, that went against plot points. To make sure that none of the jokes were unrealistic to the characters, even if they got the biggest laughs. The jokes had to be guided, to take the characters as far as they could go without breaking them. The other problem was the temptation to sit back and enjoy all of the other actors--and the other opposite problem of not trying to push too much, and to leave room for the other actors. The key to good improv is the keep your mouth shut and your ears open and listen to what the other actors say. That's tough when you're playing a character who is garrulous and insensitive. And Eugene Levy is so calm and my character loved to push him, too.

I consider my self professional, but I kept blowing my lines laughing when I was around Eugene. I really wanted just to watch him and laugh at his character.

Metro: What's your next project?

Willard: Contempt of Court is a pilot I'm doing for a show where every week, we cover an imaginary court case. Joe Flaherty plays the judge, and Wayne Knight from Seinfeld is in it. Both Fox and HBO are talking about it as a series.

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