Analysis of ‘Waiting for Guffman’

Waiting for Guffman is a 1996 mockumentary comedy film, done in the tradition of such mockumentaries as This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, directed by Christopher Guest (who played Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap) and written by him and Eugene Levy. Both of them are in the ensemble cast, which also includes Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, and Parker Posey.

The title of the film alludes to Waiting for Godot, an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett. Though Guest and Levy wrote the story, the dialogue is mostly improvised, as it was in Spinal Tap and Best in Show. Waiting for Guffman, about people in a fictional Missouri town who want to put on a stage musical, includes a number of songs written by Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer (who, respectively, played David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap).

The film was well-received, and was even nominated for AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

In terms of plot and character, there’s little to be compared between Guffman and Waiting for Godot; but the two do have a lot in common thematically. Both share themes of the philosophy of absurdism, of frustrated hopes (i.e., Guffman never shows up, either), and of the need to keep striving for value, meaning in life, and something better in spite of endless frustrations.

Absurdism grew out of philosophical existentialism (the atheistic kind in particular) and nihilism; it was given full form by Albert Camus in such books as The Myth of Sisyphus. We strive to find value and meaning in life, but in a cold, meaningless universe, such strivings are futile. Still, Camus insists, neither suicide nor religious faith can help us, for suicide only intensifies life’s absurdity, and religion–as an illusion–is philosophical suicide. Our only hope is to accept the absurdity of the human condition.

We may try to make our own meaning in life, as long as we understand that such constructions are fake and transient. The performers of the local town musical, Red, White, and Blaine (this last being the name of the town), are constructing just such a fake and transitory meaning, and they must learn to accept the vanity of what they’re doing.

Corky St. Clair (Guest)–a musical theatre director who, in spite of his blatantly stereotypically gay mannerisms, speaks of having a wife (“Bonnie”) no one has seen and for whom he buys “most of her clothes”–wants to stage a musical celebrating the town’s sesquicentennial. He also has hopes that Mort Guffman, a Broadway producer, will attend the performance, which, if good enough, may then be performed on Broadway.

There’s only one problem: while Corky and his group of amateur performers’ talent should suffice to charm the Blaine audience, they’re nowhere near good enough to make it on Broadway. Nonetheless, hope springs eternal.

The Blaine performers’ doomed aspirations are symbolic of the absurdity of the human condition in a cold, uncaring universe. Just as Godot (to Beckett’s dismay and annoyance) has been likened to God, and therefore the hope of Vladimir and Estragon, so is Guffman a saviour to these performers trapped in a dull town (i.e., “Nothing Ever Happens In Blaine”). Guffman, like Godot, or non-existent God, doesn’t care about these people, and so never arrives.

On a deeper, psychoanalytic level, Guffman–again, like Godot–represents what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unattainable object cause of desire, which arises from a sense of lack and which can never be satisfied, since one always wants more. Plus-de jouir is like surplus value: one never has enough.

All the people of Blaine feel that lack. They would love to be able to rise above the mediocrity they feel themselves trapped in. For Corky and his would-be actors, their liberation lies in Guffman. For the mayor (played by Larry Miller), rising above Blaine mediocrity is absurdly expressed as having people wait one or two seconds fewer for the weather to improve.

The average resident of Blaine hopes to see that rising-above in the musical’s glorifying of their humdrum town, a glorification based on myth-making that is “a tall tale that grows taller with each passing year.” This myths are collected by a town historian (played by Don Lake) who tells of Blaine Fabin, the founder of the city who is given a heroic status, when really his incompetence led his fellow settlers to mistake “salt in the air” for that of the Pacific Ocean; they settled in Missouri, originally thinking they were in California.

Gwen Fabin-Blunt (played by Deborah Theaker), a councilwoman for the town and descendant of Blaine Fabin, imagines her family’s historical importance comparable to that of the Kennedys. The town is proud of being “The Stool Capital of the World,” seemingly unaware of the other, more embarrassing meaning of stool. A supposed close encounter of the third kind adds excitement to the town mythology. All of these exaggerations, if not fabrications, represent yet again a doomed wish to add value and meaning to a dull, vain existence.

Apart from his pretensions as an “off-off-off-off Broadway” man, Corky makes pathetic attempts at keeping up appearances as not only straight, but outright macho. He speaks of having wanted to be “a construction worker” when he first arrived in Blaine after living in New York for many years. Later, he speaks of having left the navy. His playing of the manly characters in the musical, all without hiding any of his stereotypically gay mannerisms, comically epitomizes this absurd contradiction between the Corky he’d like to be seen as and the real Corky.

Ron and Sheila Albertson (Willard and O’Hara) ought to be content as travel agents who not only act in Corky’s productions but are also seen as local celebrities (or at least see themselves as such), but their plus-de jouir pushes their ambitious selves to fantasize about Hollywood. Ron is particularly narcissistic, imagining his impressions to be spot-on when he has to tell you who he’s aping; elsewhere, he fancies himself to have the potential to be a football or baseball star. Brando didn’t like memorizing his lines any more than Ron does, but at least the former had genuine talent as an actor.

Dr. Allan Pearl (Levy) is a nerdy dentist who fancies himself an actor, singer, and comedian. He rationalizes his delusions of talent by recalling his grandfather’s work in the Yiddish theatre of New York, and imagining this talent is in the family blood. Allan wasn’t the class clown as a kid in school, but he sat next to and studied him. Like Ron, Dr. Pearl mistakenly thinks he does good impressions.

Libby Mae Brown (Posey) is a cute and charming but rather dim-witted girl who works at the Dairy Queen. In spite of her doing a deliberately provocative audition in what seems an attempt to get a part in the musical the…erm…easy way, Libby is actually one of the only ones in the cast (along with narrator Clifford Wooley, played by Lewis Arquette) with more than a modicum of talent. A deleted scene shows an alternate audition in which she acts out, in a monologue, a visit to her dying brother in hospital, a scene combining wish-fulfillment with the disturbing suggestion of autobiographical content.

Other deleted scenes suggest, if not explicitly indicate, that not only is the Albertsons’ marriage failing, but so is that of Dr. Pearl’s with his wife (played by Linda Kash). Such disintegrating marriages, deemed too “dark” to be shown in the film, also suggest another connection with Waiting for Godot, in which Vladimir and Estragon, whom some analysts of the play speculate to be a gay couple (as I did when I studied it in university), are also a couple in danger of breaking up. Of course, their conjectured homosexuality connects Godot with Guffman via Corky’s more-than-probable homosexuality.

Other discontented characters in Waiting for Guffman include Lloyd Miller (played by Bob Balaban), the local high school music teacher who normally does musical productions for the town. He has been upstaged by Corky for Red, White, and Blaine, and Corky’s disorganized, undisciplined methods of preparing his performers is especially irksome for Miller; this has all put Miller’s nose out of joint. Elsewhere, a councilman named Stave Stark (played by Michael Hitchcock) would love to have a role in the musical, but hasn’t a prayer of getting in; he also seems to have gay cravings for Corky.

One irony about Waiting for Guffman, in regards to Camus’s philosophy about the ‘absurd man,’ is how the Albertsons, Dr. Pearl, Brown, and Wooley are actors in the musical, one of Camus’s examples of how the absurd man can revolt against the meaninglessness of life, and live with passion for the present moment. Still, our actors, spurred on by Corky’s ambitious promise of a shot at Broadway when he tells them Mort Guffman will watch the performance, have their hopes of becoming stars raised through the roof.

They all should just content themselves with doing the best show they can, shrugging off their mistakes with a few humble chuckles. But Corky’s pride pushes himself and his actors into imagining there’s a greater significance to their musical dramatization of a drab, forgettable town, and in doing so, he sets them all up for a huge disappointment.

All the errors we see during the auditions, the rehearsals, and the final performance symbolize the absurdity of the human condition, a literal theatre of the absurd. Everyone hopes to present a great show of dramatic or musical art, but instead we get half-realized vocals, an infelicitously chosen scene–delivered with minimal emotion–from Raging Bull, Sheila Albertson’s grating voice, and spastic Dr. Pearl.

The only member of the cast with the humility to admit he isn’t much of an actor is Johnny Savage (played by Matt Keeslar), a young auto mechanic who shows no real commitment to the musical, but who Corky hopes will play the masculine roles that, due to Savage’s last-minute quitting, Corky will have to play himself. Savage’s good looks are obviously the only reason would-be seducer Corky wants him in the play. Again, Corky’s doomed hopes at wooing Savage (e.g., giving him his phone number, the homophobic scowls of suspicion Savage’s father [played by Brian Doyle-Murray] gives Corky) reflect once again the recurring theme of failure in the film.

Neither Savage nor his father are keen on the play, but in a deleted scene showing a visit Corky makes to the Savages’ home, the boy’s mom (played by Frances Fisher) has high hopes for him, pretentiously saying he could be “the next Keanu Reeve” before realizing she needs to add an s. Again, we see the absurdity of trying to rise higher.

Corky tries to rise higher by asking the mayor and city council for $100,000, which is a sum the city can’t hope even to approach raising. His absurd fantasy of using this money to turn a humble, local theatre production into a Broadway extravaganza again symbolizes how we can’t endow vain life with value and meaning; instead, we should live in the moment, enjoy what we can, and not expect our efforts to endure on any cosmic scale. Corky should just put on a humble musical, and have fun doing it. Instead, he quits.

Now Miller thinks he has his chance to take over the production and discipline the cast into acting and singing on a competent level. No sooner does he tell them it’s his show than they all rush out to find Corky and get him back. As they cheer and applaud his return, him grinning from all the love they’re giving him, we see in the background a very short and very pissed-off Miller. Once again, hopes to be something better are quickly smashed up.

At the beginning of the performance, however, Miller conducts his low-budget orchestra (i.e., the horn and violin players double on percussion) to play the overture–with his comically eccentric baton movements–and at the end of it, he smiles at the applause he hears. He has lived in the moment and has enjoyed the success, however modest, of his accomplishment.

The overture opens with the clarinet playing a theme from “Nothing Ever Happens in Blaine/on Mars,” a chromatic rising and falling of five notes, from (in relation to the tonic) the perfect fifth to the major seventh, then back down. After this, a sentimental theme leads to a cowboy/Western pastiche, complete with cowbells, suggesting the first scene with the covered wagons. Then, there’s the theme to “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” which merges into that of “This Bulging River” (a deleted number).

There’s a fear that Guffman won’t show, since the seat reserved for him, at the front-centre of the audience, is the only unoccupied seat. Corky reassures his cast that “these New York types like to come late.” A man does occupy the seat early on in the play, and it’s assumed that he is Guffman. This assumption, carried right to the end of the performance, adds a tension to the film that doesn’t exist (to the same extent, at least) in Waiting for Godot, in which Pozzo is only briefly mistaken for Godot…twice.

By the climactic ending of the overture, it feels as if it’s been going on for hours (the passages of it alternating with the cast frantically getting their costumes on). It ends with the trumpeter banging on a kettledrum while he holds a high note on his horn. In any case, Miller is satisfied.

Wooley begins the show as the narrator, first gabbing about the delicious beans he’s eating at a campfire. It seems fitting that the “tall tale” he’s about to tell be introduced with talk of the flatulence-producing food he so enjoys.

Similarly fitting is Dr. Pearl’s portrayal of Blaine Fabin, whose “keen and perceptive eyes” couldn’t tell the difference between California and Missouri. Because his prescription glasses are anachronistic in the time period of Blaine, Pearl isn’t allowed to wear them for this scene, though he needs them to correct his lazy eye; so his cross-eyed awkwardness parallels Blaine’s incompetence perfectly.

While the Albersons vainly imagine themselves, through their experience, to be far more competent and professional than Pearl (to the point of Ron often teasing and baiting Pearl), we immediately see from the very first scene how amateurish the couple’s acting really is. They seem focused on just saying their lines correctly, while showing only superficial emotion–there’s no sense of either of them digging down into the depths of the characters they play.

“Stool Boom” offers the musical’s attempt at a Broadway-style number. Here again we see the comically discordant contrast between the ambitious aspirations of Corky et al and the banal subject matter of manufacturing stools. Add to this the embarrassing double meaning of stool, emphasized in “stool boom,” reminding us perhaps of the after-effects of eating the narrator’s beans. It all reminds us of what bullshit…and Blaine-shit…this musical really is, emphasized again by how the song lyrics have an excess of rhymes for stool.

Tension is maintained throughout when the man in the reserved seat (played by Paul Benedict)–presumed to be Mort Guffman, recall–watches the musical with a stolid expression at first, and only later is smiling.

Now, I’ve discussed the musical largely in terms of how inept it is; but there’s one moment in it that is actually quite touching, and that is the song “A Penny for Your Thoughts.” Musically, it’s very sweet. Guest and Levy were right to have the performance, in spite of its many comical flaws, not be a total disaster. Tension is further created in moments like the singing of this song, with the thoroughly acceptable execution of Brown’s dance moves, raising hopes that the presumed Guffman will like the show and offer the cast a shot at Broadway.

Another interesting point about this song is how, in its idealization of love and marriage, it contrasts with the reality of such disappointing marriages as those of the Albertsons and the Pearls. Pearl’s wife is deeply moved by the song…presumably because she secretly knows her marriage with Allan isn’t so ideal. Recall also the irony of how, during the song, we cut to Sheila in the dressing room helping Ron with his hair, while he has no intention of helping her with hers.

Far more of the improvisations filmed were excluded from the movie’s final cut than were included. (I’d love to find a DVD including every improvisation! Please let me know in the comments if one has been released.) This cutting out of scenes, of course, was unavoidable, for the sake of pacing.

One part that I wish had been included, though, was the song “Nothing Ever Happens in Blaine” (which is heard in the final credits, seen in the DVD ‘deleted scenes’ section, and discussed in a rehearsal scene with Miller teaching half the singers to sing “Blay,” while the other half sings “Blaine,” and one half sings “say,” while the other half sings “same”). It’s a short number that flows effortlessly into “Nothing Ever Happens on Mars.” The excluded song is also the only one–a small island, as it were, in a sea of songs glorifying Blaine to excess–that is actually honest about how dull and inconsequential the small town is. With the “Mars” variation, Blainians can save face knowing their boring home isn’t the only one.

Wooley the narrator ends the performance with a series of tired clichés about Blaine’s ups and downs, looking back into the past and ahead to the future, and to top it all off, with a cheap appeal to American patriotism. We narcissistically tend to identify with where we came from, by accident of birth.

After the performance comes the moment of truth. Corky goes up to “Guffman” and, after admitting to the rough spots in the performance, asks him point blank if they have a shot to go to Broadway, to which the man answers in the affirmative, to Corky’s relief and delight. The tension of hope builds when Corky introduces “Guffman” to the cast, who are all thrilled and honoured to meet him.

When he, however, tells them his name is Roy Loomis, and that he is visiting Blaine to witness the birth of his niece’s baby, Corky and the cast are crushed. Corky is given a telegram saying Guffman’s plane was grounded by snowstorms in New York. (Was this a made-up excuse for not coming? I wonder.)

As is generally the case for humanity, the cast’s hopes for significance in the world have been frustrated. The absurdity of the contradiction between the human search for meaning, value, and significance on the one hand, and the cold, uncaring, and meaningless universe on the other, is symbolized by the cast’s futile, though painstaking, efforts. The other hopelessly unfulfillable desire is that of the Other, as Lacan called it, to be recognized by the Other, to be desired by the Other. The cast wanted Guffman to want them, and he didn’t return the feeling.

Film critic Mark Kermode has noted how Waiting for Guffman “skates a very thin line between comedy and cruelty.” Like Waiting for Godot, the film is, properly understood, a tragi-comedy. Though the especially dark improvisations were cut from the film, we are as heartbroken as the cast is to have seen their hopes raised so high, and then brought crashing down so cruelly. For as inept as these characters are, we do care for them and hope they’ll succeed.

Their hopes have been dashed, but some of them keep hoping for at least some level of significance; for such is the human condition, to keep needing to find significance and value in a meaningless, uncaring universe. We see the absurdity of their attempts in some final scenes three months after the performance.

Brown is in a Dairy Queen in Alabama, where she’s moved after her father was paroled. Her ambition is to create a healthy…low-fat…Blizzard. Pearl is singing and telling unfunny jokes to retired Jewish seniors in Miami; he still has his dental practice (see the deleted scene), for that’s how microscopic his chances are of making any money as an entertainer, despite his delusions of talent. The Albertsons still dream of Hollywood stardom, but having moved to LA, they can only find work as extras.

Corky is back in New York, where he not only imagines he has a chance to play ‘Enry ‘Iggins from My Fair Lady, but has also opened up a Hollywood-themed novelty shop. Here, he’s selling such eccentric items as Brat Pack bobblehead dolls (We see ones of Anthony Michael Hall and Andrew McCarthy.).

Of particular interest, in terms of their comical relation to philosophical absurdism, are Corky’s My Dinner With Andre action figures and his Remains of the Day lunchboxes. What could possibly be more ineffectual than action figures (usually used by kids to act out movie fight scenes) of two men who spend the entire film just sitting at a restaurant table and chatting about philosophical matters?

My mistake–there is one thing more ineffectual: lunchboxes, which “the kids are just having such a good time with,” based on an extremely sad movie about an emotionally repressed British butler (Anthony Hopkins) and a housekeeper (Emma Thompson) who cannot hope to have a relationship due to his excessive preoccupation with rules, decorum, and the perfect fulfillment of his duties as a server…and his later regret at applying this devotion to a master with Nazi sympathies.

I have serious doubts that anyone other than Corky thinks the items of his store have any appeal. Still, he tries and hopes to find value and meaning in his life, as the other former cast members do. That’s all anyone can do in a meaningless universe, to find meaning in it, however futile that search may be. I’ve made my own attempts at it, with wavy ideas that rise into crests of only temporary validity, then sink into troughs of invalidity…or put another way, that are a serpent‘s biting head of wisdom and bitten tail of folly.

Let’s stop it.

We can’t.

Why not?

We’re waiting for Guffman.

2 thoughts on “Analysis of ‘Waiting for Guffman’

  1. Another great analysis, Mawr. I’ll watch This Is Spinal Tap anytime it’s on, but Waiting for Guffman — hilarious though it is — is just too depressing, for all the reasons you cite.

    As a former film editor, I can’t imagine what a monumental job is must be to edit one of those improvised feature films. Years ago, I had the LaserDisc edition of This Is Spinal Tap, which literally featured hours of deleted scenes — probably three times the length of the movie itself! Then when Tap was released on DVD some years later, the supplementals included several more hours of unused footage — none of it duplicating what was on the LaserDisc! I honestly don’t know how you go about assembling all of that unstructured footage into a cohesive narrative! Way harder than cutting a traditionally scripted movie.

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