When Fred Willard died in May, many of the obituaries and tributes that followed used a photo of his bowtied commentator from Best in Show. “Fred would have loved it, he’d have found it very amusing to see my face on his obituary almost everywhere,” says his broadcast partner in the film, Jim Piddock. “I found it slightly disturbing.”
Willard is remembered and beloved for many reasons, but maybe most of all for his role in Christopher Guest’s faux-documentary about competitive show dog handlers, which opened in the U.S. on September 29, 2000. The same could probably be said for many of the comic actors and improv geniuses who starred in the film—a lineup that includes Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara, and Parker Posey.
The “best” movie by Guest and his repertory company—among them, This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind—differs for every judge, but Best in Show boasts the troupe in its absolute prime, songs about terriers, O’Hara’s wobbly walk and a parade of former paramours, McKean and Higgins playing a daddy and his boy toy, Posey screaming about her dog’s “Busy Bee” through a pair of braces ... and, of course, Willard going off the leash about dogs wearing little Sherlock Holmes hats. Pound for pound, it might just be the funniest—and simultaneously the saddest—of the lot.
For the film’s 20th anniversary, The Ringer called up the people who made Best in Show happen—including Willard, who gave what was likely his final interview on April 9. What follows is less an oral history than a championship show: Brilliant comedy handlers trotting out their memories of a film that is truly best in its class.
Part I: “I Look at This As a Band, and With Great Musicians”
Christopher Guest (director, cowriter; Harlan Pepper): I was walking our dog in a park near my house—it was a rescue dog—and a woman with a pure breed of some sort came up to me and said, in a fashion, “What is that?” I said, “It’s my dog. He’s a mix of this and that.” And the expression was one of, that’s not acceptable, basically; that’s an awful thing to have happened in the world. I was struck by … what a bizarre idea that was, and it just sort of set something in motion.
Eugene Levy (cowriter; Gerry Fleck): We had done Guffman, and then [Guest] came back with this other idea about a dog show. It was a funny idea, but I said, “What do we do for a third act?” He said, “What do you mean?” “Well, like in Guffman we wrote the show that is the third act. But you can’t write the dog show. You can’t make a dog show funny, or you lose the truth in the story.” So we kind of set it aside and started working on something else. Then about a year after that, it was “What about the dog show idea?” I said, “I just don’t know, again, what we do with the third act.” And then the suggestion came: “Well, why don’t we make Fred Willard kind of the Joe Garagiola color commentator during the show?” Bingo. That was it.
Guest: I had never been to a dog show, and all the dogs I’ve ever had were rescue dogs. ... What I eventually found out in doing quite a bit of research was that every person who was an owner or handler of a specific breed had a very narrow view of this world, and that any other dog was essentially not worth being alive.
Levy: I think the outline for Waiting for Guffman was maybe 16 pages. We describe where we are, and what characters are involved, and we lay out what information has to come out. We may indicate “this character is talking about this,” or “this character’s talking about that,” but we don’t give the lines, you know what I mean? By the time we got to Best in Show, the outlines got a bit thicker, because we put more character definition in the actual outline—where they went to school, where they met, whatever. We would put that in the character background, so that the cast could read it, get an idea, build on it, change things if they didn’t really care for what we had down there. Which I don’t think ever happened.
Guest: I invariably talk about this connection I make with music and improvising. … I look at this as a band, and with great musicians. I mean, everyone has to be able to hold up their part. And they’re playing rhythm sometimes, and sometimes they’re taking solos. But you cannot have a weak link in that, because the whole thing falls apart.
Catherine O’Hara (Cookie Fleck): It suddenly dawned on me one day, on one of those improvised movies, that the people who are best at the improvised acting are actual writers. All of us had experience writing. They know every scene has to have a beginning. middle, and end. So it just really helps to be surrounded by people like that. And then also to have someone like Chris that you really trust.
Part II: “There’s Something Inherently Funny About Every Human”
O’Hara: The first time I met [Guest], for Waiting for Guffman, I went to Austin, and the night before I shot he said, “Don’t worry about being funny. Just be in character. You know, just be real, just be in the scene.” Hopefully we all have some sense of humor to bring to the game, and actually, there’s something inherently funny about every human, I think. But if you can tap into what’s kind of sweet and ridiculous about who you’re playing, it helps.
Parker Posey (Meg Swan): You’re sponging a bunch of material about the world that you’re in, and the culture of the time. Chris seemed to notice how many catalogs were around, and how you could just order a lifestyle from a catalog, and decorate your home with everything from this particular brand. And the dog came with the lifestyle of the brand that you were living.
Michael Hitchcock (Hamilton Swan): We were very nouveau riche. And Parker chose outfits that were pettable—it’s all very almost fur-like and things like that. And the whole home was decorated with things that we personally were able to pick out from a Sharper Image catalog. I remember telling the hair people that I wanted to look exactly like Matthew Perry.
Posey: [Guest] would say, “Well, what do you think about you guys wearing braces?” And we go, “Yeah, I like that idea. That’s good. OK.” “So Karen will set up the appointments for the orthodontist, and you’ll get the retainer.” I didn’t want to lisp, which the retainer would have made me do, so I got real braces.
Hitchcock: I wish I would have gotten real braces, looking back on it, because I had to wear those retainers for at least two weeks before we started filming so that I could get used to talking with them. You’re clicking on the plastic inside your mouth in them. It added to the character, but boy, it really was frustrating at times trying not to lisp. It kind of just added to, I think, the rod up my back.
Levy: The great fun about these things, too, is that you never really saw who the other characters were—what they looked like, what they sounded like—until you got in front of the camera. I’d had this obsession about teeth; I wanted my teeth to be a bit larger, to create a character that you go, “Oh that poor guy.” Once these brilliant people who are creating the look for you give you the look, you look in the mirror and all of a sudden the character is there—where you probably could not have created the same character without the look. So Gerry Fleck could not have been created without looking the way I did, and then everything just falls into place.
Guest: Eugene and I were talking about this idea of him having two left feet. And you’d think, on the face of it, Well, that’s just insane. But to play it completely real is a way of dealing with that in a different way. And I thought it worked. I guess that’s sort of self-serving, but I think it worked—because of Eugene, who was just extraordinary in that part.
O’Hara: The running gag of running into men who had had the best sex of their lives with me, that was in the outline. And then Eugene would react, and I would react—and it was never decided exactly how we would react.
Levy: Gerry had to be, underneath it all, the good guy—compared to other men she had encountered in her life, many of whom she encountered in front of Gerry. He had to be a good guy, right? That’s what attracted her to him. It certainly, you know, wasn’t necessarily a physical attraction.
O’Hara: Chris said, “Let’s talk about this thing we’re going to do tomorrow. We have to get you out of the show so Gerry can do it.” And maybe it was a fall in the script outline? But then I said, “Well, what if I do this?” [Laughs] My dad used to do that silly walk all the time. It was a big family. He’d get ahead of us, like, in any parking lot or sidewalk, and he’d do that ridiculous walk. So we all learned to do it. It looks so much freakier than it feels.
Bob Balaban (Dr. Theodore W. Millbank III): I’ve sort of always been the same person in the four or five movies that we’ve done. It wasn’t on purpose. Not that I tend to be overly ebullient anyway, but I think on some level I realized I couldn’t possibly compete in the areas that some of the other people were competing. They’re just too good. So I could do my best to just hang on and listen, and see what happened. That was always my modus operandi.
Guest: [Harlan Pepper] is named after a friend who comes from the South. I was interested in a person who was a kind of loner. And as I look back—it’s not premeditated, it’s sort of unconscious—but when I look back at characters I’ve played, they’re always alone. All these other people have wives or husbands or buddies. Many years later, I thought, Wow, I wonder what that’s all about. That’s for someone else to talk about.
John Michael Higgins (Scott Donlan): I was never a comedian. I was a classical actor for 20 years before I did a Christopher Guest thing. Improv was something that was kind of a tool that I’d use in rehearsals, to sort of unlock scenes every now and then, and I always had an affinity for it. I was in an HBO movie with Ed Begley where I played David Letterman, and I think he may have mentioned me to Chris at some point, as someone who might be interesting for this pilot that Chris was working on with Eugene Levy for HBO. That didn’t go anywhere, but quickly thereafter he called me and said, “Hey, I’m doing this movie about dogs up in Vancouver, what do you think?”
Michael McKean (Stefan Vanderhoof): My backstory was that I was married when I was very young, and my wife was very kind of daunting, intellectually. And that it was kind of the way I found my path to a partner who was dumber than me. So Stefan is a guy of kind of middle intellect—not a dumbbell, and not a genius, but kind of comfortable with a version of himself that definitely benefits from having someone who’s kind of a free spirit. A puck, an imp. Because it made me be the grown-up, and the one who can say, “Now, now, you know that’s not true,” or “I’ll have you know that Napoleon was defeated in 19...” or whatever. But beyond that, I was just a man with very good manners. That’s all. Living in Soho with his boyfriend and doing people’s hair.
Higgins: I’m younger than Michael is, so it’s like, “Let’s do a kind of daddy thing,” because you see that sometimes in these couples. Our problem with it, mostly, was that Chris really wanted us to be happy—which is death for comedy. Comedy is entirely made up of unhappy people. McKean and I knew this instinctually, like on a biological level. The solution we came up with was to make the guys funny. It’s tricky to do, because dramatically it’s inactive, you know, to stand around telling jokes. But it seemed to work in this movie.
McKean: The way I used to describe it is that Higgins is the balloon, and I am the string. And we work together that way as a couple. It was like, he would go flying off into the stratosphere if it weren’t for the grown-up in the room.
Guest: I was setting up something … at the dog arena and I heard singing. I walked over, and Catherine and Eugene and John Michael Higgins were singing in this incredible harmony. And I thought … that’s incredible.
O’Hara: Michael Higgins is kind of an idiot savant about harmonies and a capella singing. And working on that movie, he became our musical director. In between every take in the arena, we’d be standing around singing.
Higgins: I am an amateur, or dilettante, vocal arranger. It’s just something I do. Some people collect stamps, you know. And almost every set that I’m on, if it’s more than a week or so, I will quickly form some kind of vocal group. I had a pretty good one on Best in Show, I have to say. It was really a perfect SATB quartet: Jane was the soprano, Catherine was the alto, and … then I sang tenor, and Gene did the bass. It’s long days on a set, and you get really bored a lot.
Jennifer Coolidge (Sherri Ann Cabot): [Guest] said to me, “Jennifer, she’s not old money. She’s someone who would very much like the prestige of being a wealthy person, but is probably not that aware.” I actually had met someone once in an acting class that was like a young ex-beauty queen. She just had a very sort of serious delivery, and she could even be telling you something really horrifying and had no idea of just how funny it was, because she had a very serious look on her face. I sort of drew from her.
Jane Lynch (Christy Cummings): Very much a version of me immediately came to my mind, that part of yourself that I experienced in high school, which was: Nobody knows how great I am. It’s a big secret, and I can’t seem to impress people with how great I am, but they will regret it.
Coolidge: I thought it was pretty great casting, Jane and I together. We’re very, very different kinds of people, and I always think that’s a great reason for combining two people. Jane is so organized, and just a very prepared person at all times. And I’m, without completely putting myself down, just the opposite of whatever Jane is. It worked for us. We went out to dinner together, we went on these long hikes through that famous park. We hung out in this very fun hotel, and we just absolutely sort of became other people.
Ed Begley Jr. (hotel manager): I had seen a lot of hotel managers on screen over the years. You know, there’s the old Franklin Pangborn model. But I chose to do the more real thing, where, when your credit card doesn’t work or what have you, everybody’s pretending that it’s not happening, and everybody’s just trying to get through this awkward moment. And keep in mind I’m across the desk from Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, so I don’t have to do much.
Fred Willard (Buck Laughlin): I was thinking of my character, and the lines that would come out of my character, who was supposed to be an ex-athlete, who has just signed on to be a color commentator, and who had no real knowledge of the dogs. In other words, he didn’t value the different types of dogs. I pictured him as imagining that everyone has tuned in to hear what he had to say, as opposed to watching the Westminster Dog Show. So he contributed more about himself than he did about the dogs. He just made wild comments.
Jim Piddock (Trevor Beckwith): I’d done very little improvisation since drama school. So nothing prepared me, other than the sheer terror that everyone feels about improvising without any rehearsal. I mean, I’d seen Guffman and Spinal Tap, so I knew the style. And I knew what Fred was about. I didn’t quite know where he was going, and he wouldn’t tell me what he was going to do or anything. I had done a ridiculous amount of research, studying a very boring book called “The American Kennel Club” something or other—it’s like a bible. And it’s extremely fascist. I just tried to keep things along the lines of reality, and react. And that kind of was perfect, to be the straight man. And luckily, Fred is, you know, genius. So he would go off on his stuff, and I would do the polite British thing of being at first mildly amused, then mildly annoyed, and then kind of really annoyed —but never saying anything, because (a) I’m British, and (b) we’re on the air.
Part III: “Ask Coolidge About the Poodle Getting Fired”
Hitchcock: We all trained ahead of time with our dogs, learned how to do all the dog show stuff. We did that at a park across from 20th Century Fox before we started filming.
Lynch: Did Michael tell you that he actually won a show? He actually went to a dog show, and it was right after he was trained by the same woman, and someone didn’t show up. She said, “You were very good in the class. Why don’t you show this dog?”
O’Hara: And he won! [Laughs] ’Cause he’s so good at it. I guess it’s not quite Method acting; it’s just his sense of humor.
Balaban: I chose a Dandie Dinmont terrier. It’s an exotic terrier—there aren’t many. I grew up in Chicago, in a fun little building where everybody was friends with everybody, and there was a Dandie Dinmont in the building that I thought was the greatest dog I’d ever seen. But when I got my Dandie Dinmont, it turned out Dandie Dinmonts really aren’t very friendly. They’re sort of high-strung. You have to kind of be careful or they might bite you. But I loved working with the dog, just having him on my lap, being there so I could whisper into his ear from time to time.
O’Hara: I said, “Well, can I be not that experienced at handling? Could it be new to us?” My backstory for us was that we had lived down the street from an old woman that we’d taken care of, we’d been kind to her, and she died, and she left her show dog with us in her will or whatever. And out of respect for her, and because we never had—you know, other than our music career—much going, we put our energy into learning. And the couple who actually owned Bryllo—that was Winky’s real name—were very cool, and new to it as well. So the dog was really relaxed. You know, all those characters had very different relationships with their dogs, and ours was nothing but love for Winky. He was our baby.
Posey: We [originally] had a Pointer, which was not very Banana Republic; it was more J. Crew, Hitchcock and I decided—more steely and austere and serious than Banana Republic. And it just so happened that I wore all these capes and cloaks and beiges, and these colors that felt and looked like Beatrice, as the movie went on. That’s what’s so fun about the movie, is how people are like their dogs, and they look like the dogs. I mean, Coolidge is like a poodle!
Hitchcock: Our dog’s real name was Peaches. She was a movie dog. All the other dogs were real show dogs, but our dog had to have bad behavior. Originally it wasn’t going to be a Weimaraner. The person who owned the dog that Christopher wanted didn’t want to teach the dog bad behavior. So they used the movie dog that knew how to do dog show walks and everything else, but it could also bark at people, and it could leap up and all that. The trainer was somewhere near to help with the commands, but I would also be like “Get up, boy! Get up, boy!” under my breath a couple times when it’s supposed to jump on me. But all the dogs were trained, so they’re not like these happy pooches that you’re playing with between the scenes. You know, the movie dog is a working actor. I thought I would walk in and it would be like a kennel with all the dogs barking. And it was anything but that. The dogs never barked.
McKean: [The Shih Tzus] were very sweet dogs, and they smelled great. They looked like they got a full salon treatment every couple of days. The woman who owned the dogs was very nice. We got one of the sane ones. Some of the wranglers who were owners of the pets themselves were a little on the ... eccentric side.
Posey: Ask Coolidge about the poodle getting fired.
Coolidge: Well, you know, Jane was the one handling that poodle, and Jane has way more dirt on the poodle than I do.
Lynch: The woman who had this poodle, she had a haircut just like her dog. Very tight, tight curls. And she was a problem. We’d be shooting the scene, and she’d yell at me: “Don’t do this with the dog! Don’t do that with the dog!” And I think they probably just said, “OK, we’re going to let this go. Better to get another dog.”
Balaban: I mean, as if any white standard poodle doesn’t look like every other white standard poodle.
Lynch: They brought a dog up from Seattle that I’d never worked with before, and the first thing she did was trip me in front of about 300 extras.
Posey: When we were grooming Beatrice before I threw a fit and ran out and got the toy, Busy Bee, Chris said: “OK, we’re going to have our professional groomer, who’s done dog shows before, come over and remind you the techniques, and how to hold a comb and all that.” And we were about to roll camera, and this woman comes in to give a brush-up lesson, and she started critiquing the dog. She said, “This dog will never compete in competition. His coat is wrong. Wrong color, wrong type.” Chris had to say, “OK, thank you so much. Now let’s shoot this scene.”
Guest: And then there was a woman who was very angry because her dog didn’t win, and I said, “You understand this is a film?”
Part IV: “This Is Like Being Run Over by a Friendly Truck”
Balaban: Fred’s performance in Best in Show is one of the longest, best, funnest improvised things I’ve ever encountered in a movie.
Posey: I remember seeing [Willard] in Waiting for Guffman, like, sitting out on the edge of the little town in Lockhart, just smoking a cigar in a folding chair, looking out in the empty street, and just coming up with brilliant, funny stuff. I’m in awe. We would all just sit and watch him, and just double over. He had pages of legal pad, of just bits. “I have another thing, I have another thing ...”
Willard: I like to run through something once, and then the second time through it, color it out. [Guest] did not want to know what was coming. He’d say, “Please don’t tell me what you’re going to say.” He wanted to really see it for the first time. And it just came right out of his head, completely impromptu. Which I can’t really do. I can do it occasionally, but I like to know what ground you’re crossing, and prepare just a little.
Balaban: I think Fred’s energy level, his character—that was similar to what he always did, but definitely had a little more edge of urgency to it. I remembered thinking when he interrogated me at some point about the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, feeling: This is like being run over by a friendly truck. I didn’t mind it. It was great, because it forced me to think I really had to fight back to even say anything. And then you realize, when you’re having somebody to play with who really provides you with an obstacle, [it’s] always a fun and interesting thing. It’s not Fred, it’s this obnoxious person who won’t listen to you. Which, when you watch it, it’s funny, but when you’re in it, it’s kind of disturbing in a very pleasant way.
Willard: I have to point out Bob Balaban, who is a personification of great improvisation. He would never try to be funny. He would step back if you were doing a joke, or a line. And he was always in character. He was a wonderful acting partner.
Balaban: Oh my God. How wonderful. I’m glad he thinks it’s true. I love that he said that, and I love that you told me. That means a lot to me.
Willard: Jim Piddock, the announcer, was a dog expert, and he got a little worn out dealing with me. Now, part of his being worn out was that he had flown in from London a couple of days before, where he was working on his own sitcom—I think it was called Too Much Sun. And they kept delaying our day of shooting. He called me in my room one night, and he said, “I damn well have to be back in England by Thursday.” You know, he was getting very stressed. So that stress showed on camera. It became stress with me, a kind of impatience, and it worked perfectly.
Piddock: Chris called me and said, “Can you shoot on Friday now, because we’ve still got stuff to do?” I said, “I actually can’t, because I have to leave Thursday night for London.” So we did all our stuff in one day, and then I flew back Thursday night and arrived back in London Friday morning. It was a crazy week. But what worked well for me was being jetlagged, because I just was in a reactive state. And with Fred, that’s the best way to be.
Begley: It was all just a brilliant exercise in restraint to do what he did in all those scenes with Fred. It’s a duet, what they do together.
Piddock: What he did better than almost any American actor in my lifetime, is he played the boorish, bull-in-a-china-shop American, who would say and do outrageously stupid things, but do it so straight and with such conviction and charm that it was hilarious. There are very few people that can do it that well, and that consistently. He could play assholes who’d do it, and you still love him.
Guest: A strange thing we learned in the research ... Fred Willard makes a joke when the person handles the dog’s testicles, and one of the reasons [they do that] is because people have been known to put fake testicles [in]. If a dog only has one testicle, which happens occasionally, it would be ineligible.
Willard: They shot the dogs, what you see going on down on the floor, a couple of days before. So they ran that for us. So when we were working, we were not seeing anything. Chris would just tell us: “This is the part where, you know, this kind of dog came through, or that kind of dog came through.” So we did it all just sitting in the stands looking at a blank stadium.
Piddock: I finally do stick the knife in—very, very politely at the very end—where he says something, and I said, “Yes, I remember you said that joke last year.” I’d done all this research, and I had a whole riff that I did very straight, about examining a dog’s anal sacks. It was really grotesque, and it was, in itself, quite good, but I know why it was cut, because it kind of took away from Fred being inappropriate, and me being straight and just reacting to that.
Willard: The last time I watched the movie, when our last scene was done, I said “That’s plenty. I’ve seen enough of myself.” But I thought it would have been fun if they had a shot of Jim and I leaving the stadium that night, saying, “Well, that was a good job. That was well done.”
Part V: “Most of It’s Sad, Actually, If You Look at It”
Guest: In the films that I’ve done … it’s essentially people who don’t see themselves very clearly. The audience can see something happening that they don’t see. They obviously take what they do very seriously, whether it’s folk music or whether it’s a dog show or whatever. So the world is ripe. ... I don’t look at things, initially, as something that is funny to me. Rather, more that it’s interesting, almost on an emotional level. Because there’ll be funny things that happen, but at the core of all of this—and when you see the characters Eugene and Catherine play—it’s pretty sad. You know, most of it’s sad, actually, if you look at it. There are funny things that happen, but if it doesn’t have that other part of it, it doesn’t really hold much.
Lynch: I think the reason we love it, these comic actors love doing it, is because he’s designed these absurd situations that we get to take completely seriously. And that’s the comedy. So the less you think about, Oh, I’m doing comedy, the better. Ultimately, all of his movies have kind of a team of underdogs who find themselves in a microcosm, a world in which there are winners and losers. And it means everything to these people. The bar is really high for success.
Hitchcock: He captures the absurdity of human behavior very well, and the foibles that we all go through, and the hopes and the dreams. I think why people like his movies so much, too, is that sometimes hopes and dreams ... you know, they’re not huge.
Begley: You bring that kind of drama through comedy, and it really sails. [Parker] was playing that scene where she’s looking for the Busy Bee like some Shakespearean scene, or something from Ibsen. That’s the way to do it. That just makes it all the better. She’s never playing it for laughs. She’s playing it as real as any Greek tragedy.
Higgins: If you go back and watch Best in Show, you see really unhappy couples, really up against it. It’s like a Cassavetes movie. It’s like a bunch of couples falling apart.
Part VI: “I’m Not Finished!”
Willard: [Guest] is very quiet, very noncommittal. I would say to him after a scene or something, “Was that funny?” And he’d say, “Yes.” I said, “Is it gonna be in the film?” He’d say, “No.” Just like that. You didn’t know whether he was joking or not.
Guest: Fred Willard is ... from another planet. … When we were shooting film, which are 10-minute rolls on Super 16—which we always shot, because it was a camera that the cameraman could walk around with—the mag would run out, and I’d say “Cut,” and Fred would say, “I’m not finished!” And the crew would explode in laughter, because he wasn’t finished. … Fred would always come up to me—the one actor … when he’d see the movie: “What happened to the thing I did when ...” And I’d say, “Well, you know, it didn’t fit.”
Willard: I would tease Chris about that. But so many of every actor’s scenes were clipped. Michael McKean ... one day we were talking and I said, “You’re a fan of Vincent Price, aren’t you? I just saw the House of Wax, and you do a great impression of Vincent Price.” Well, he and John Michael Higgins did about a 20-minute scene in the movie as Vincent Price, but it was cut out. I said, “Oh my God, I would have paid just to see that 20-minute scene.”
Hitchcock: With our couple, the thing that got cut was Parker’s character, Meg Hamilton, liked to smoke weed. And all of that had to be cut, I guess to keep a certain rating? I would be like, “Meg, you can’t get high before we go down to the party,” and she doesn’t care and she’s smoking weed. So there’s this weird underlying tension, sometimes, that was a little bit more explained when you saw what she was doing. I think it works without it just fine.
McKean: We know the job. When Rob [Reiner] was putting Spinal Tap together, there was a four-and-a-half-hour cut, which told every bit of every story. And watching him spend 10 months pulling that down to 90 minutes, or whatever it is, was remarkable.
Guest: We shoot for 25 days, roughly, and I edit for a minimum of a year—every day in the editing room with the editor. We have 50 hours [of footage], and I sit down with the editor and a legal pad and we watch every single thing—for the first time. There’s a very strict story laid out—three acts, and all the scenes, and it’s not just this random thing of people yapping away. And I would say that it’s very clear what has to go, to me. There are incredibly funny things, but they have to go if they don’t serve the story.
Part VII: “Best in Show Is Kind of Like Lawrence of Arabia”
Levy: It’s one of the great movies, one of the highlights of my career.
Balaban: If you think about it, there aren’t that many improvised movies that are any fun, other than these movies. That’s my selfish opinion.
Posey: When I see Michael Hitchcock, I still feel like he’s my husband. You know, there’s big love there. There’s a lot of love with everybody, and respect. I think everyone just loves Chris so much, and respects him so much, because he’s the man.
Willard: I’ll get calls when the Westminster Dog Show is on. They’ll say, “Would you come down to the studio and give us a few comments?” I had to turn down a lot of things, because it’s one thing to play a character that’s clueless about dogs, another thing to go in as myself and do the same thing. I didn’t want to be associated completely with being the color man for the Westminster Dog Show. But when you see it on television, I’ll have to watch for a minute or two, to say: “Now, is this the Westminster show or is this Best in Show?” Chris really made it look real.
Piddock: I did a series of puppy training videos for Eukanuba, years ago. And I’ve played a dog expert in something else on a TV show. But I actually thought that a lot of people missed a trick on that, because it did become a kind of cult thing. I mean, our double act became a bit of a cult thing. We were both a little surprised that people didn’t try and utilize us for commercial purposes. We’re both such whores, we’d have done it in a heartbeat.
Willard: I think it’s the one that did me the most good. For one thing, it was [Guest’s] most popular film. My part wasn’t my favorite part—I had some, I thought, juicier parts in some of the follow-up films—but it was the one that did me the most good, career-wise.
Higgins: I literally field compliments about Best in Show—this is 20 years later—almost every day of my life. Best in Show is kind of like Lawrence of Arabia or something. It’s the best possible example of what it is. Chris really invented something. It was his, and he made it, and he thought it up himself.
Begley: It probably is my favorite movie I’ve ever been in.
Guest: I am so grateful to have been able to work with these people. I got to create something for them that they could show off. That is a rare thing.
Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at timgreiving.com.