When you finish Best in Show, Christopher Guest's mockumentary about a purebred dog competition, the only thing you want to do is watch it again—immediately. It's an unbelievably funny movie, the rare comedy that makes you laugh so much your sides hurt for nearly every minute of its runtime. In less competent hands, the eccentric weirdos of Best in Show might feel like caricatures, but the actors who play them were seemingly born for their roles, from Jennifer Coolidge as an elderly billionaire's poodle-loving trophy wife to Fred Willard as the aloof, deeply inappropriate color commentator at a dog show.
The movie, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, is the kind of comedy gold we're only treated to once every few years. But it's also bigger than that. With it, Guest perfected a form of documentary-style comedy—fly-on-the-wall scenes interspersed with cutaway "interviews"—that was virtually unheard of at the time, but would come to define an entire generation of comedy TV. Without Best in Show, there would be no The Office, and likely no Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Documentary Now!, Reno 911!, or What We Do in the Shadows, either.
By 2000, Guest had already brought his trademark filmmaking style to bear in 1984's This Is Spinal Tap and 1996's Waiting for Guffman. But neither of those movies took off the way Best in Show did. When Spinal Tap came out, it only grossed $4.5 million worldwide; Waiting for Guffman earned just under $3 million. Both went on to become cult favorites—but Best in Show was a true hit, earning rave reviews in every newspaper from The New York Times to The Guardian and raking in $20.8 million at the box office globally. It was the first mockumentary to go mainstream, introducing the genre to a wider swath of the moviegoing public than ever before, and creating an appetite for movies and TV shows of its ilk.
Asked about his biggest inspiration for The Office (2001), Ricky Gervais named Guest, calling the director "a direct influence on The Office" and "TV itself." Gervais seemingly cribbed The Office's doc-shots-and-interviews format from Guest; Michael Schur, the co-creator of the US version of The Office (2005) and Parks and Recreation (2009), seemingly cribbed it from Gervais; and Christopher Lloyd, the co-creator of Modern Family (2009), seemingly cribbed it from Schur.
But those scions of comedy TV never adopted the central tenet of Guest's films, the thing that makes them so hilarious, ambitious, and—ultimately—inimitable: total improvisation. Unlike The Office, Parks and Rec, or Modern Family, which are scripted, every single line in a Guest movie is improvised. He creates his film's characters and their backstories, comes up with roughly 75 scenes, and blocks out a beginning, middle, and an end for each one—but that's all he does. Instead of a script, he gives his actors an "outline" about 15 to 20 pages long, thereby putting the words they say, the clothes they wear, and the absurd things they do entirely in their hands.
"There's no dialogue written down of any kind, and there's no rehearsal," Guest told Susan Orlean in 2001. "When we shoot, you're seeing, [for] the first time, what these people are saying. The actors have to be the best at this talent that there can be, because you're out on a limb."
In Best in Show, you're watching comedy happen in real time. Hamilton and Meg Swan's absurd Starbucks origin story, where the two yuppies talk about falling in love over L.L. Bean catalogs, Macbooks, and chai tea lattes, was Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey's spur-of-the-moment brainchild. When Cookie Fleck's terrier gets held hostage by a 12-year-old, the things her old boyfriend threatens the kid with—"I'll punch you in the eye until it turns to jelly"; "I'll stab you with forks until you bleed"—were all improvised by Larry Miller on the spot. And every deranged line from Buck Laughlin, the racy, oblivious dog-show commentator who doesn't seem to know anything about dogs, came straight out of Fred Willard's head.
All that said, great improv doesn't necessarily equate to a great movie, and while Best in Show has it in spades, that alone wouldn't be enough to carry the film. What holds the movie together—what really makes it work—is that Guest designed his characters to be loved. Gerry Fleck (played by Eugene Levy), the jealous husband of a champion terrier-owner, is a bumbling idiot; but he's also sweet, humble, and unfailingly loyal. Scott Donlan, the flamboyant, self-obsessed Shih Tzu handler played by John Michael Higgins, is a basket case; but he's also infectiously charming, and a loving, doting partner. Guest has a clear affection for all of his characters—and he makes sure you feel it, too.
"It has to be funny," Guest told Orlean in 2001. "But if there's no affection for these people—and they may not be the most intelligent or talented people—but if you don't have affection for them, there really is no point in doing the movie. I think after five or ten minutes you'd be bored with that slant."
The minds behind The Office, Modern Family, and every other mocku-soap that's come to define comedy TV in the 21st century didn't just adopt Guest's shooting style; they shared his commitment to creating characters that audiences adore. We don't watch The Office just because Michael Scott is funny—we watch The Office because we love him. Name any character on any mockumentary-style show, and the same principle applies: The laughs these characters provide are the draw, but what keeps us watching is the fact that we're emotionally invested. We want to see Parks and Rec's Leslie Knope win her election. We want to know what happens to Modern Family's Claire and Phil Dunphy after their kids move away. We want The Office's Jim Halpert to work up the courage to propose to Pam, and we want her to say yes.
Twenty years before we cared about any of that, there was Best in Show, somehow getting us to care about the results of the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. When Gerry Fleck walked away with the big blue ribbon, it seemed like nothing more than a fitting end to a strange, funny little movie—a riot, to be sure, but an ultimately unimportant bit of cinematic junk food. There was no way of knowing we'd spend the next two decades laughing our asses off to shows made just like it.
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