“Waiting For Guffman”: A new take on an old favorite

Jem Herron

The mockumentary is a relatively new genre in film. Born in the ’60s, the mockumentary has come in recent years to capture and amaze the cynical satirist buried in the psyche of many a college student. These films offer a biting commentary on the ethos of their time. They put human flaws and societal problems on display and when well done, they do so with grace, poise and utter hilarity.
One of the most well-crafted mockumentaries I have seen – or rather, revisited – lately is 1996’s “Waiting for Guffman,” a film that is brilliant for its poignancy as much as for its rampant absurdity.
The film depicts a band of everyday small-town citizens, each one more painfully awkward than the last, who reach for stardom in the world outside the rural Missouri town of Blane. Fueled by unbridled town pride and ultimately false hopes, they bring their own stories to life through a “documentary” about the making of a low-budget musical.
Each character has something to gain from the musical’s success, be it fame, money or just a chance to leave Blane and start over somewhere else. It’s a story of people with incredibly small lives catching a glimpse of very big dreams. They are at once selfish, na’ve and self-centered, yet dependant on each other.
Some might find it odd to review a movie over a decade after its release. However, I chose this particular mockumentary to review precisely because of its place in recent history. Made on the cusp of the new millennium, “Waiting for Guffman” is still wildly popular, at least among those who know it, and it proves the staying power of the genre’s current manifestation. If you want to know where “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation” got their stylistic bent from, look to “Waiting for Guffman.”
In other words, something about “Waiting for Guffman” still resonates strongly today with a college-age audience that was 10 years old or younger when it came out.
Why is this? I think it’s because writer and director Christopher Guest had his finger right on the pulse of the audience of the late ’90s, and knew where they were heading. He portrays with his characters the truth behind a veil of small-town sentimentality or apathy – take your pick.
We at Lawrence are often accused of being apathetic, of living too high up in our ivory tower. At face value this may appear true, but Guest sees, in his audience and in his characters, a rumbling just beneath the surface, an explosive and all-consuming desire to be something greater than what we are.
What Guest does – effectively – is give otherwise “apathetic” people a wide open opportunity to let that passion loose. Then he leans back, popcorn in hand, and invites us to take a look at what happens. He makes it real for us.
That’s why “Waiting for Guffman” is still worth reviewing, let alone worth seeing. Or there’s always the more simple answer: This movie is funny as hell. So do yourself a favor and go see it.