Sometime after This Is Spinal Tap bombed at the box office (because its supposed target audience was too stoned or too stupid to realize that it was a joke) and was then revived as a cult hit on home video, an idea must have been germinating in the mind of actor Christopher Guest. The end result was this take on the same basic format, the improvised fake documentary, in a very different setting. While gentler (and quieter) than Tap, Waiting For Guffman is just as funny in its own way.
Blaine, Missouri, is about to mark the 150th anniversary of the day its founder was too dim to tell the difference between the Pacific Ocean and the Mississippi River. The town’s claims to notoriety are being known as the “Stool Capitol of America” and a 1946 UFO landing that had its thunder stolen a year later by Roswell. To celebrate, the town fathers commission a pageant called “Red, White and Blaine” and tap off-off-off-off-Broadway refugee Corky St. Clair (Guest) to direct. To describe the, ahem, flamboyant Corky as a fish-out-of-water in the small Midwestern town would hardly do him justice. You have to wonder if he is what landed in that wheat field back in 1946.
The talent pool for Corky’s extravaganza is as thin as it is shallow, but his performers are enthusiastic and, for the purposes of comedy, that’s an adequate substitute for ability. His stars include Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), travel agents who have never traveled, Dr. Allen Pearl (Eugene Levy), a tragically unhip dentist, and Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey), a Dairy Queen employee whose audition piece, “Teacher’s Pet” makes the high school music director (Bob Balaban) very uncomfortable.
However trivial the subject matter and middling the talent, the company treats “Red, White and Blaine” as if it were the next incarnation of “Les Miz,” pouring heart and soul in the project. Heightening the stakes is the rumor that New York theatrical critic Mort Guffman will be in the audience, filling the stars with dreams of taking the play all the way to Broadway.
A blow-up between Corky and the city council over the budget and the defection of their young male lead, Johnny Savage (Matt Keeslar) nearly derail the whole production, but these near-catastrophes are overcome and “Red, White and Blaine” goes on as scheduled.
Guest is much kinder to his subjects than Rob Reiner was in This Is Spinal Tap, which regarded the titular band with a sort of benevolent pity. Waiting For Guffman loves its characters, admiring their enthusiasm enough to forgive their comparative lack of talent. It’s no small feat that we, the audience, come to share this affection enough to willingly sit through “Red, White and Blaine” without a single compaint. This makes Guffman less of a satire and more of a human comedy, but in that vein it works just well as Spinal Tap did in its way.