At this point, the mockumentary is a well-worn comedic form. Thanks to so many years of “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Modern Family” on television, mockumentaries are actually on the decline now, as the trappings have become incredibly familiar. Yet even with this explosion of the mockumentary, no one does them better than Christopher Guest. Going back to Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap,” which Guest starred in and co-wrote, this is not just someone who understands comedy, but some knows how to make what would actually be a compelling human interest documentary.
It starts with how it’s shot. Guest makes the incredibly wise choice to film “Waiting for Guffman” on Super 16mm. This strips this small town, backstage story of any kind of gloss or artifice. The grainy film stock aids in the feeling that someone just decided to pick up a camera and start following these eccentric folks around, recalling a real documentary like Errol Morris’ “Vernon, Florida.” Sure, faces in the movie like Catherine O’Hara or Guest himself would be familiar to an audience, but removing any semblance of construction makes these characters feel like regular flesh and blood humans.
What also helps is that all of the dialogue is entirely improvised. For me, improvisation can be an incredibly tricky proposition, as people often derail a film’s momentum searching for a joke that doesn’t serve the story or characters. When making a mockumentary, immediacy is the most important thing imaginable, and the only way you are going to capture that is by having people speak things for the very first time. Guest also doesn’t hire improvisers who are just looking for a laugh. He trusts that he and co-writer Eugene Levy have constructed these characters’ lives enough for the comedy to come naturally, which is a well-founded trust.