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.