Is Christopher Guest a comic genius? After seeing Waiting for Guffman, which he cowrote, directed, and stars in, I’m prepared to say that he might be. An ironic celebration of American bad taste, the movie is a mock documentary that follows the hapless residents of Blaine, Mo., as they attempt to put on a musical in their high school gymnasium. Most of the characters are bland middle-class losers — a dim-bulb Dairy Queen worker (Parker Posey), a geeky Jewish dentist (Eugene Levy) — but, oh, how they want to perform! Their leader is Corky St. Clair (Guest), the town’s token theater-bug homosexual, who, after a decade of failure in New York City, has agreed to stage an ersatz Broadway revue on the occasion of Blaine’s sesquicentennial.
Guest has always been inspired — on Saturday Night Live and, most famously, in This Is Spinal Tap, the delirious heavy metal satire driven by his performance as a wickedly self-deluded rock egotist. But in Waiting for Guffman, he transcends even his usual teasing highs. Corky, with his morose lisp and popping eyes, his ”stylish” bowl cut, his infantile mood swings, seems, at first, an outrageous stereotype — the self-hating closet queen — but the way Guest plays him he’s more like Ed Wood in the body of Harvey Fierstein; he’s going to put on this show even if he has to break every nail to do it. Corky caresses his words like silk pajamas, and his rage keeps bursting out with jack-in-the-box abandon. After learning that one of the cast members will be an opening night no-show, he seethes into the phone, ”I hate you — and I hate your…ass face!” It takes special inspiration to make a line like that as touching as it is hilarious. Waiting for Guffman is a madcap gem, a movie that salutes the garishness, the shameless enthusiasm, of middle Americans whose lack of talent is matched only by their eagerness to parade it. Guest knows these people are ridiculous, but the beauty of the film is that they’re never just ridiculous. When the musical finally goes up, it’s a veritable triumph of tackiness. Ed Wood would have been proud.