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Fred Willard’s Genius Was Taking the Ridiculous Seriously

The comedic actor, who died Friday at age 86, never dug a hole he couldn’t emerge from triumphantly

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The last time I saw Fred Willard on screen, he was playing a funeral. I was thrilled to see him, of course; pretty much everybody was thrilled to see Fred Willard anytime, anywhere. The funeral occurs during the second episode of Netflix’s chaotic 2019 sketch-comedy show I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson, and the setup is minimal. (It’s a funeral.) “Why don’t we listen to and enjoy a beautiful song?” the preacher asks, before adding, “Oh. Our organist, Peg, is under the weather. So we have a replacement organist for the day.”

Cut to the replacement organist. Oh shit, it’s Fred Willard. Awesome. Big wave. Too-colorful shirt. Suspenders. A bushy mustache that is probably fake, but there’s this crucial, tantalizing, 2 percent possibility that it’s not. He is sharing his organ bench, disconcertingly, with a giant stack of china plates. “And I’m now seeing that he brought his own, much longer organ,” the preacher observes, and Willard responds with two words that are freighted, suddenly, with an exquisite silliness: “My condolences.”

And then he yanks on a bunch of pulleys that make a bunch of goofy carnival sounds. Slide-whistles, horns, cymbals. It ain’t rocket science, but he makes this gag feel sophisticated, or maybe it’s that he whisks you away to a fantasy land where even the idea of sophistication doesn’t exist. He smashes one of the plates on the ground, startling the baffled mourners. The circus tune ends, and in the stupefied silence that follows, he says it again, but now it’s twice as silly and 10 times as exquisite: “My condolences.”

Fred Willard, who died Friday at 86 in Los Angeles, was a zen master at playing utter ridiculousness utterly straight, the noblest possible doofus, a walking surrealist Dad Joke, a deadpan fount of heartwarming zaniness. Think Leslie Nielsen or Phil Hartman: a suspiciously handsome leading man who wanted nothing more than to lead you merrily off a Looney Toons cliff. He was born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, as a Cleveland Browns fan, which means he knew black humor, but there was no darkness, no meanness, no despair to him whatsoever. Just a joyfully anarchic spirit that would make him a crucial component of some of the funniest movies ever made, and some of the smartest funny movies ever made, and all the smarter for how dumb he was willing to look.

There was 1984’s god-tier This Is Spinal Tap, wherein Willard, a real-life Army veteran, invited the heavy metal band that brought you “Sex Farm” onto a military base, and rambled like the transcendent square he already was: “We are such fans of your music, and all of your records—I’m not speaking of yours personally, but the whole genre of the rock ‘n’ roll, all the exciting things that are happening.” Twenty years later, there he was in 2004’s Anchorman, still rambling, but now on the phone with an irate nun at his delinquent son’s school: “I have no idea where he would’ve gotten ahold of German pornography. But you and I are mature adults: We’ve both seen our share of pornographic materials. Oh, you never have? Of course you haven’t. That was stupid of me. Neither have I. I was just speaking in generalities.”

In both cases, the genius of it is that he just won’t stop talking, a relentless buffoonish patter that would qualify as “cringe comedy” if he weren’t so unbothered, so serene. “We’ve both seen our share of pornographic materials.” Incredible. He trained his whole life to unleash torrents of verbiage that fabulously inane. His TV career spans from The Ed Sullivan Show in the ‘60s to his gig marrying Martin Mull on Roseanne in the mid-’90s to Modern Family across the 2010s. He was an actual talk-show host (here he is profiling “America’s smallest and lowest-rated television station” on the late-’70s/early-’80s NBC show Real People) and a fake talk-show host (here he is flirting awkwardly with a no-water swim team on the 1977 satire Fernwood 2 Night alongside, huh, Martin Mull.) Take everything and everyone seriously, no matter how ridiculous. Stick with your friends. And keep talking. In Fred Willard’s best moments, you watched in awe as he dug a hole so deep he emerged on the other side of the earth, triumphant.

That was certainly his way in 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, playing a smarmy travel agent turned amateur thespian with a fantastic windbreaker in the first of director Christopher Guest’s string of spectacular mockumentaries, joining an ensemble—including the likes of Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, and Parker Posey—that in the next decade-plus would solidify into the 1993 Chicago Bulls of highbrow-via-lowbrow comedy. Whether he was helping spoof dog shows (2000’s Best in Show) or ‘60s folkies (2003’s A Mighty Wind) or the Oscar race (2006’s For Your Consideration), Willard’s genius could be distilled into a single endless-repetition catch phrase you’d never forget (“Wha’ happened?”) or a split-second aside you were meant to barely remember (“Marilyn Hack and trash: what a juxtaposition”) or a ceaseless barrage of clueless color commentary. (Best in Show is probably his single best work.) But just his tone of voice—brash but with no cruelty, authoritarian but with no authority—made everything he said instantly, outrageously funny. He laughed with you, always, even if he never actually broke character.

And so today I’m stuck on “My condolences.” What a perfect delivery of a simple line. His I Think You Should Leave funeral cameo, amid that show’s feral and confrontational pandemonium, is a balm, no matter how many plates he smashes. There was a sympathy, an innate kindness, a vivid commitment to the foibles of Real People that came through in Fred Willard’s work no matter how preposterous the setup, no matter how outlandish his role within it. It made you glad to see him, and glad to know him, or at least glad that somehow he seemed to know you.