Improvisation takes a hell of a lot of talent and grit. There is a particular sort of flexibility and creativity that is required in order to continue a story or work through a challenge. The act of improvising is being utilized in a variety of ways in 2020, but the skill only truly brings a smile to someone’s face when it’s witnessed within a performative setting on stage or on screen. Twenty years ago, writer/director Christopher Guest gifted audiences with a combination of two of the most vital things necessary to alleviate our emotional woes in today’s stressful era: improv and dogs.
Set in the ambitious world of dog competitions, Best in Show is a mockumentary (or “faux documentary”) comedy that stands apart from the rest with its performance style, characters, and production. After his success with Waiting for Guffman in 1996, director/writer Christopher Guest brought back his beloved group of actors and collaborators including Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, and Fred Willard to work on a new film. Inspired by the eccentric individuals at a local dog park, Guest foresaw an opportunity to explore a subculture filled with zany and ruthless dog lovers as they compete for a grand prize.
The film follows five different dogs, their owners, and their handlers as they prepare for and compete against each other in the fictional Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. Among the competitors are Gerry and Cookie Fleck (played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), a loving, middle-class suburban couple who write songs about how much they adore their Norwich Terrier named Winky. Another more neurotic and volatile married couple by the name of Meg and Hamilton Swan (played by Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) bring a stressful tone to the film as they bicker over designer brands and their dog Beatrice’s delicate mental state after witnessing the couple’s experimental sex life. Harlan Pepper (Christopher Guest) is a Southern small business owner who enjoys hunting with his trusty Bloodhound, Hubert. Guest even incorporated his hobby of fly fishing into his character by making flies, or imitations of various insects used for fishing. Scott Donlan and Stefan Vanderhoof (John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean) are a supportive and sassy gay couple who flaunt their pampered Shih Tzu, Miss Agnes. They bond over old movies and mocking Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch), the handler for the Mayflower’s reigning champion, a striking Standard Poodle named Rhapsody in White.
Guest and Levy co-wrote the film and were adamant about creating as much authenticity as possible from the acting. Several of the actors had already worked together on previous projects and have a comedy background. They were given a blueprint of the screenplay along with brief character descriptions which they were free to develop. Levy explained, “our outline gives a very solid blueprint to the actors so they know how to get from point A to point B, but how they do it is largely up to them.”
Levy himself and his co-star O’Hara did not even know what the other looked like in costume until they arrived on set and ready to shoot. Any given day, the actors were in the dark about what would be said and therefore had to improvise their scenes throughout filming. The technique makes each character’s quirks even more hilarious. For example, Jennifer Coolidge’s performance as trophy wife Sherri Ann Cabot is comically cringe-worthy as she describes her relationship with her elderly husband by saying they “love talking and not talking, they can not talk or talk for hours” and how nice it is that they bond over a love of soup. Posey and Hitchcock also converse about how their love of Starbucks and how buying clothes from catalogs brought them together in a scene that is both sweet and absurd.
Best in Show contains several interview segments wherein the owners and handlers talk directly into the camera with each other and about each other. These conversations are meant to enhance their characters, but it also provides a deeper appreciation to the craft of improv because of the effortless way they bounce off of each other while continuing the story. There’s a partnership and willingness to build off of their co-stars which compound the comedic elements. It’s not like Michael Scott in The Office when he decided to try improv by just pulling his hand out and using it as a gun to steal each scene and literally hold the other actors hostage.
Improv is a delicate and difficult process. Parker Posey, a frequent collaborator with Guest, describes improv “like jazz”. Speaking with Vanity Fair, Posey stated “Everyone is a different instrument and adds a different element. Guest is very much a maestro, an auteur.” Fred Willard’s character is one of the best examples in the film. He plays a television announcer named Buck Laughlin and was specifically instructed by Guest to not research dogs, whereas Jim Piddock (playing co-announcer Trevor Beckwith) was told to conduct thorough research on breeds and dog shows. As a result, Willard comments on the dogs with a childlike enthusiasm and naivety while Piddock corrects him incessantly and emits a professional seriousness about reporting the show’s updates. The balance between seriousness and playfulness serves as an undertone throughout the film and is part of the reason for its success.
The film’s narrative was only fifteen pages long. While the dialogue was not meticulously laid out, the film’s production was. Guest and Levy spent three months researching dog shows and dog breeds, scouting trainers, and auditioning hundreds of dogs for the film. Dog show coordinators were brought on board, as well as animal trainers, and over 100 actors served as extras to fill the stands of the Mayflower arena. The principal cast spent five days of intensive training to learn dog handling, “stacking” (arranging dogs in proper posture), and working with the delicate coats of breeds like the Shih Tzus and Standard Poodles. The amount of careful detail put into the production is counterbalanced by the antics that occur on the big day, from Gerry having to take over as a handler despite his unfortunate affliction of literally having two left feet, to the Swan’s Weimaraner having an emotional breakdown on stage because she lost her favorite stuffed toy, “Busy Bee”.
Twenty years later, Best in Show is still one of the greatest comedies ever made. 2020 has been a time of forced improvisation as individuals and businesses have had to adapt to extreme circumstances with a global pandemic that has uprooted our lives and routines. It’s an intense reminder to be flexible and become creative in our work, interactions, and entertainment. When seen on screen, improvisation is refreshingly fun and a reminder to not take life too seriously. These are reasons why Best in Show still holds up and why we need more of this type of comedy. Guest and Levy dive into arcane subcultures, and yet they are able to make viewers realize humans are more alike than we care to imagine. The comedic duo is able to unify audiences despite creating idiosyncratic roles. Therefore, it is easy to see little glimpses of ourselves in Guest’s outlandish characters. Do we spoil our dogs? Of course, because they are precious creatures that protect us and love us unconditionally. Do we have photos of them hanging around our home and random pieces of decor like coffee mugs and blankets with their faces on them? Yes. Do we dress them up in cute outfits? Embarrassing but also, yes.
Best in Show showcases ample amounts of laughter and love through use of improv and dogs to create the things we need the most right now. In a year of impending doom and uncertainty, one thing is for sure: just like man’s best friend, Best in Show will always put a smile on your face.
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September 21, 2020