This past Wednesday, Chicago’s Music Box Theater hosted a special event with writer/director/actor Christopher Guest where he talked about not only his own movies but also those that influenced him. That provided enough reason for me (I don’t need much of one) to revisit the marketing of Guest’s 1997 classic comedy Waiting for Guffman, which marked its 20th anniversary this past January.
The story, told in the same faux-documentary style as This Is Spinal Tap, takes place in the small town of Blaine, MO., which is preparing for its 150th anniversary. The town leaders want to put on a show and enlist Corky St. Clair (Guest) to write and direct given his…artistic sensibilities. The show is staged despite setbacks and the obvious lack of talent among the amateurs cast for the production. As curtain nears, a rumor begins that a famous New York theater producer will be attending and could be interested in taking the show to Broadway. Guest’s usual band of collaborators, from Fred Willard to Catherine O’Hara to Eugene Levy to Parker Posey and others all take on the roles of town residents who begin to see this small show as their slingshot to stardom.
There’s not much happening on the movie’s one poster. It just shows Guest, dressed in one of Corky’s ridiculous outfits, standing out in a field with a bemused and silly look on his face. The copy reading “There’s a good reason some talent remains undiscovered” is really the only hints that are offered as to the movie’s story or characters. Instead the audience is simply promised a silly movie featuring Guest, a point that’s emphasized below the title as we’re reminded this is “A new comedy from the lead guitarist of ‘Spinal Tap.’” So it’s trading harder on Guest’s reputation in the comedy world than anything unique or original about this movie itself.
The trailer makes that same Spinal Tap connection and is framed around an interview with Corky. It’s through his comments that we meet the cast of his show (and the movie) and see some of their quirkiness. We basically see him talking about Ron and Sheila Albertson, Allen Pearl, Libby Mae Brown and everyone else and begin to see how they’re involved. Many of those people are themselves talking about Corky and his artistic vision. Finally we see that they’re anxious because a famous Broadway producer will be in the audience.
It’s a good trailer but really undercuts much of the comedy of the movie. Without the room to breathe that the movie’s running time gives the humor it’s hard to see anything here as overtly funny. Sure, the characters and scenarios on display look humorous enough, but these things take time and that’s not what a 1:53 trailer will allow for. Still, you can see that Guest is working in the same documentary style that helped launch him into public awareness with Tap (and which he eschewed for his first directorial feature The Big Picture) and that’s the big draw here.
So you have a campaign that has one eye on the past, specifically This Is Spinal Tap, and one eye on the future. It sells what the audience might expect, minimizing some of the quirk in favor of messages that would resonate better, it was hoped, with comedy audiences.