When Fred Willard died in May, many of the obituaries and tributes that followed used a photo of his bowtied commentator from Best in Show. “Fred would have loved it, he’d have found it very amusing to see my face on his obituary almost everywhere,” says his broadcast partner in the film, Jim Piddock. “I found it slightly disturbing.”
Willard is remembered and beloved for many reasons, but maybe most of all for his role in Christopher Guest’s faux-documentary about competitive show dog handlers, which opened in the U.S. on September 29, 2000. The same could probably be said for many of the comic actors and improv geniuses who starred in the film—a lineup that includes Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara, and Parker Posey.
The “best” movie by Guest and his repertory company—among them, This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind—differs for every judge, but Best in Show boasts the troupe in its absolute prime, songs about terriers, O’Hara’s wobbly walk and a parade of former paramours, McKean and Higgins playing a daddy and his boy toy, Posey screaming about her dog’s “Busy Bee” through a pair of braces … and, of course, Willard going off the leash about dogs wearing little Sherlock Holmes hats. Pound for pound, it might just be the funniest—and simultaneously the saddest—of the lot.
For the film’s 20th anniversary, The Ringer called up the people who made Best in Show happen—including Willard, who gave what was likely his final interview on April 9. What follows is less an oral history than a championship show: Brilliant comedy handlers trotting out their memories of a film that is truly best in its class.
Part I: “I Look at This As a Band, and With Great Musicians”
Christopher Guest (director, cowriter; Harlan Pepper): I was walking our dog in a park near my house—it was a rescue dog—and a woman with a pure breed of some sort came up to me and said, in a fashion, “What is that?” I said, “It’s my dog. He’s a mix of this and that.” And the expression was one of, that’s not acceptable, basically; that’s an awful thing to have happened in the world. I was struck by … what a bizarre idea that was, and it just sort of set something in motion.
Eugene Levy (cowriter; Gerry Fleck): We had done Guffman, and then [Guest] came back with this other idea about a dog show. It was a funny idea, but I said, “What do we do for a third act?” He said, “What do you mean?” “Well, like in Guffman we wrote the show that is the third act. But you can’t write the dog show. You can’t make a dog show funny, or you lose the truth in the story.” So we kind of set it aside and started working on something else. Then about a year after that, it was “What about the dog show idea?” I said, “I just don’t know, again, what we do with the third act.” And then the suggestion came: “Well, why don’t we make Fred Willard kind of the Joe Garagiola color commentator during the show?” Bingo. That was it.
Guest: I had never been to a dog show, and all the dogs I’ve ever had were rescue dogs. … What I eventually found out in doing quite a bit of research was that every person who was an owner or handler of a specific breed had a very narrow view of this world, and that any other dog was essentially not worth being alive.
Levy: I think the outline for Waiting for Guffman was maybe 16 pages. We describe where we are, and what characters are involved, and we lay out what information has to come out. We may indicate “this character is talking about this,” or “this character’s talking about that,” but we don’t give the lines, you know what I mean? By the time we got to Best in Show, the outlines got a bit thicker, because we put more character definition in the actual outline—where they went to school, where they met, whatever. We would put that in the character background, so that the cast could read it, get an idea, build on it, change things if they didn’t really care for what we had down there. Which I don’t think ever happened.
Guest: I invariably talk about this connection I make with music and improvising. … I look at this as a band, and with great musicians. I mean, everyone has to be able to hold up their part. And they’re playing rhythm sometimes, and sometimes they’re taking solos. But you cannot have a weak link in that, because the whole thing falls apart.
Catherine O’Hara (Cookie Fleck): It suddenly dawned on me one day, on one of those improvised movies, that the people who are best at the improvised acting are actual writers. All of us had experience writing. They know every scene has to have a beginning. middle, and end. So it just really helps to be surrounded by people like that. And then also to have someone like Chris that you really trust.
Part II: “There’s Something Inherently Funny About Every Human”
O’Hara: The first time I met [Guest], for Waiting for Guffman, I went to Austin, and the night before I shot he said, “Don’t worry about being funny. Just be in character. You know, just be real, just be in the scene.” Hopefully we all have some sense of humor to bring to the game, and actually, there’s something inherently funny about every human, I think. But if you can tap into what’s kind of sweet and ridiculous about who you’re playing, it helps.
Parker Posey (Meg Swan): You’re sponging a bunch of material about the world that you’re in, and the culture of the time. Chris seemed to notice how many catalogs were around, and how you could just order a lifestyle from a catalog, and decorate your home with everything from this particular brand. And the dog came with the lifestyle of the brand that you were living.
Michael Hitchcock (Hamilton Swan): We were very nouveau riche. And Parker chose outfits that were pettable—it’s all very almost fur-like and things like that. And the whole home was decorated with things that we personally were able to pick out from a Sharper Image catalog. I remember telling the hair people that I wanted to look exactly like Matthew Perry.
Posey: [Guest] would say, “Well, what do you think about you guys wearing braces?” And we go, “Yeah, I like that idea. That’s good. OK.” “So Karen will set up the appointments for the orthodontist, and you’ll get the retainer.” I didn’t want to lisp, which the retainer would have made me do, so I got real braces.
Hitchcock: I wish I would have gotten real braces, looking back on it, because I had to wear those retainers for at least two weeks before we started filming so that I could get used to talking with them. You’re clicking on the plastic inside your mouth in them. It added to the character, but boy, it really was frustrating at times trying not to lisp. It kind of just added to, I think, the rod up my back.
Levy: The great fun about these things, too, is that you never really saw who the other characters were—what they looked like, what they sounded like—until you got in front of the camera. I’d had this obsession about teeth; I wanted my teeth to be a bit larger, to create a character that you go, “Oh that poor guy.” Once these brilliant people who are creating the look for you give you the look, you look in the mirror and all of a sudden the character is there—where you probably could not have created the same character without the look. So Gerry Fleck could not have been created without looking the way I did, and then everything just falls into place.
Guest: Eugene and I were talking about this idea of him having two left feet. And you’d think, on the face of it, Well, that’s just insane. But to play it completely real is a way of dealing with that in a different way. And I thought it worked. I guess that’s sort of self-serving, but I think it worked—because of Eugene, who was just extraordinary in that part.
O’Hara: The running gag of running into men who had had the best sex of their lives with me, that was in the outline. And then Eugene would react, and I would react—and it was never decided exactly how we would react.
Levy: Gerry had to be, underneath it all, the good guy—compared to other men she had encountered in her life, many of whom she encountered in front of Gerry. He had to be a good guy, right? That’s what attracted her to him. It certainly, you know, wasn’t necessarily a physical attraction.