Christopher Guest and the English transformational modality

Christopher_guest_ii Christopher Guest mystified The New York Times recently.   His interviewer, Alex Witchel, was surprised to find him "polite and dignified." 

He barely cracked a smile for the better part of two days, so the web of fine lines around his slate blue eyes was unexpected. He must laugh sometime.

Comedians are supposed to be joke-spitting chatter boxes, I guess, desperate for our attention.  The idea of a dignified comedian, this does not play in our culture especially well.

But is it so strange?  Guest is a transformational creature of the old school.  According to the English model (Guest’s father is English), the public self must be unassuming.  No affectation, no self aggrandizement, no kinetic  bid for attention.  The public self should be modulated, burnished, restrained.  In the language of Guest’s most repeated screen appearance (This is Spinal Tap), one may not turn the social self up to 11.  In fact, you shouldn’t go much past 3. 4, tops.  No, strike that.  Not 4.  3. 

The English are really Japanese.  Any departure from due form puts the credibility of the social performance in jeopardy and the capital of the social actor at risk.  They are an exacting, unforgiving audience.  Anyone who dares claim too much or give too little will be found out and made to pay.  So intensive is this scrutiny that many English people live under deep cover.  Their social interests are almost always better served by concealment than revelation. 

Needless to say, this makes comedy difficult.  (Sly remarks are permissible, and that’s why the English are so good at sotto voce comedy.)  But of course it also  makes it necessary.  The English, and those raised in the ambit of the English, seek out moments when departure is allowed.  Those moments are always a little hydraulic, as if the comedian should be marked "contents under pressure," because of course he is precisely this.

Now sometimes the outcome of the explosion is the antic absurdity of the Monty Python kind, Ministry of Silly Walks and all.  But sometimes, what emerges is the transformational option, as when the comedian vacates his polished English self for a profusion of new possibilities.  Witchel saw this.

[Christopher Guest] seems to carry thousands of voices in his head, and each reveals an almost eerily realized character. The character that is Christopher Guest — smart, dry, fiercely emotional about his family and work and just as fiercely hidden — prefers a back seat…

Martin Short was once asked why so many American comics are Canadian, and he came up with a great, but deeply partial, answer.  The reason there are so many Canadian comics is that they are (or were) raised in an English culture where the social self is supposed to be restrained, turned up not a jot more than 3.  It is precisely this that creates the mad excretions of a Jim Carey or the extravagant satires of a Martin Short. 

When you grow up in the ambit of the English, you want very much to get out of the ambit of the English.  You want, you need, the eager embrace of an American audience and a green card.  This latter, it’s your license for transformational exertion and a place of refuge for all those voices in your head. 


Witchel, Alex.  2006.  The Shape-shifter.  New York Times.  November 12, 2006.

11 thoughts on “Christopher Guest and the English transformational modality

  1. jens

    if you rebuild your story with “irony” as the centre piece you will find that you end up somewhere slightly different. irony lives from the presence of two realities. dig here if you want to find some british soul.

  2. jens

    and: those who needed a green card already went a number of generations ago i presume… (that would be french humour)

  3. adb

    Grant: If you’ve been to the UK recently, you probably recognize that the “English Reserve” we all automatically refer to is being crushed by a new form of radical egalitarianism. In mainstream UK culture today (and ever since the rise of Blair) there is a knee-jerk dismissal of anything having to do with something “posh,” including social restraint. And the ascendant culture is not a million miles away from “ghetto fabulous.” (BTW see Garry Shteyngart’s “Absurdistan” for the Russian version.) Canadian culture in 2006 is clearly MUCH more reserved than UK culture.

    I agree that Guest does draw on this old-school English tradition, but it’s on its last legs. (And keep in mind, Guest was until recently a member of the House of Lords.) The new UK culture is not based in this “mustn’t frighten the horses” tradition. It may be good or bad for the UK, but it’s a death sentence for this particular strand of British comedy. Repression is a great environment for comedy. Libertinism is not.

    The new UK culture is much more Jerry Springer/Paris Hilton than Peter Sellers. Deference is is dead, and most UK comedy you see (with the exception of The Office) is much more in-your-face than sly.

    I think it’s a pity, but hey– it’s their culture.

  4. gugoda

    Two thoughts here, related.

    I am surprised you did not mention class, as this structure (or system) is so deeply and pervasively embedded in british culture that it touches practically all aspects of daily life, including comedy. Tensions between classes manifest themselves in different kinds of comedy, which poke fun at different strata by mocking their affections, both to be baudy as well as use excessive restraint.

    Shakespeare is perhaps the greatest comic writer of all time and even in his plays, characters acting according to their class expectations is very much present and a source of great comedy (and vindication) from them being revealed for what they are rather than what they appear to be. So in my view, class is a major influence on this quality of restraint.

    The other thought is dignity which cuts across class boundaries. It is a pervasive trait in british culture despite the more casual, assuming nature people on the street adopt today through how they dress and how they speak. Notably though, in a national bbc sponsored poll in 1995, the country’s favorite poem was Rudyard Kipling’s IF, an apotheosis of dignity if ever there was one:

    IF you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;

    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

    If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

    If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;

    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;

    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,

    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    ‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
    if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;

    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

  5. Peter

    Your post reminded me of a statement in a short story by the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, and I’ve finally tracked it down:

    “He and my father had entered into one of those close (the adjective is excessive) English friendships that begin by excluding confidences and very soon dispense with dialogue.”

    Jorge Luis Borges: “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

  6. E

    “Grant: If you’ve been to the UK recently, you probably recognize that the “English Reserve” we all automatically refer to is being crushed by a new form of radical egalitarianism.”

    Or has never existed, at least not as the hopeless stereotype being pedalled here. Maybe for the son of a peer, but it’s hardly representative and at the very least badly outdated.

    Also “The Office” must be some new internet code word for “I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about!”

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