Christopher Guest, known as a leader in the mockumentary style after his 1984 film This is Spinal Tap, has a new show on HBO. It's called Family Tree, and stars Chris O'Dowd as a man tracking down his family lineage after receiving a mysterious box from an aunt he didn't know existed. Guest came in to talk to Weekend Edition Host Scott Simon about his career, inspiration for the show and working on a funny set.
Guest has an interesting family history himself; for example, one of his relatives was a ventriloquist who performed for King George III. Guest has been interested in ventriloquism since childhood, and even included himself doing some uppercutting in his movie Best in Show. It wasn't until after the film that Guest learned of his own family connection to ventriloquism in a diary he found among the dozens of boxes left when his father passed away.
That's when Guest realized he might have an interesting subject for a new show. Family Tree even features a sort of ventriloquism (per Guest's handiwork), in the form of a monkey puppet worn by the main character's sister to help cope with a past trauma.
"The monkey tells the truth invariably," says Guest.
As Guest is known for making such humorous films during the interview, Simon asked him if there's a lot of laughter on the set of Family Tree.
"I will not permit that. [pause] I'm kidding." Guest explained, "I think people aren't laughing in the middle of the work; they're laughing before and afterwards. But they're professionals and they do these scenes and we do the work and there's laughter before and after."
And as you might guess, there is no script for Family Tree. He and co-creator Jim Piddock wrote outlines for each of the shows and detailed character backgrounds, but no dialog.
Now, I've asked a whole lot of people to pose for I Heart NPR pictures. Every so often I still get nervous, and because I'm such a big fan, this was one of those times. When I asked Guest if he'd mind posing for us, I showed him some of the previous photos we've taken at NPR West. He had the idea for how to personalize his shot: hold up a picture of someone else holding up the I Heart NPR sign.
"It's funnier this way, right?" he said. So we looked at the gallery on the front of my desk, and when Guest spotted Jane Lynch (who has been in a number of his films including For Your Consideration, A Mighty Wind and Best in Show), he said in an affectionate tone, "Oooh, Jane."
We grabbed her picture and headed out to take his picture. And of course he's right it is meta, I mean mega, fun.