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Waiting for Guffman is a 1996 mockumentary directed by Christopher Guest and co-written with Eugene Levy. The film revolves around the production of a community theatre musical, and the anticipation of its cast and director for the coming of a certain Mr. Mort Guffman. Mr Guffman is a producer of Broadway musicals from New York, and is sensed by the amateur actors, all with a need to entertain, as their ticket to Broadway.
The set is staged, at the beginning of the film, in the small and fictitious American town of Blaine, Missouri. The community together with the mayor and town council are busy planning for the sesquicentennial celebration of their town. The climax of which is a stage production about the town’s history called “Red, White and Blaine.”
As narrated by the town’s historian, it all started with Blaine Fabin, who was the chartered leader of an expedition from Philadelphia to California. Believing he smelled the ocean one night, he convinced the group of settlers that they were in California, only to realize the following day that there was no ocean. Fooled by the lie that it was just low tide, they decided to stay even after realizing a while later that they were, in fact, in Missouri.
The town of Blaine had made its mark in history as the Stool Capital of the world, and claimed to be the first town visited by UFO’s. Having lost its glory, and determined to put Blaine back in the map, the whole town is depicted as desperate and has placed all their bets on the musical show.
Comedy in this film is in the form of satire. The target of its ridicule is small town America, being naive and hapless. The other target of ridicule is community theatre in general. The film, however, has given the same small town a heart, creating its charm.
The play is directed by the effeminate Corky St. Clair, a former Broadway actor, director and choreographer expatriated from New York. Settling in Blaine, Missouri a few years back originally to work in construction, he was hired as drama teacher in the local high school, exclaiming that his blood belongs in theatre. He was backed by the exanimate and unamusing but able Lloyd Miller, the high school music teacher, as musical director of the play. The film documented the auditions for the show attracting a few unexpected wannabes.
The final cast was composed of two travel agents, a dentist, a Dairy Queen employee, a car mechanic and a retired taxidermist. Married couple Ron and Sheila Albertson are the travel agents who ironically have not been out of Blaine. Starring in Corky’s two previous plays in the same town and considered the “Lunts” of Blaine, they dream of working in Hollywood. Dr. Allan Pearl is the dentist who has been holding back his love for entertainment. Libby Mae Brown is the Dairy Queen employee who indifferently blabbers on ice cream and Blizzards. Johnny Savage is the car mechanic, a son of a suspicious father. And Clifford Woolley is the retired taxidermist who had a few previous experiences in acting.
As rehearsals went on, Corky secretly sent out invitations to ten producers in New York. Excited as he was to receive a reply from one of his invitations, he announced to the group that Mr. Guffman from the Oppenheimer Organization will be attending to make a review. Being asked what it meant, Corky roused everyone’s dream of going to Broadway.
Corky recognized the significance of the coming of Mr. Guffman, describing him as bigger than anyone in town. This encouraged him to solicit $100,000 from the town council, only to be discomfited by the entire town’s measly annual budget of $15,000. This drove Corky to drop out of the show, which devastated the whole cast.
Two characters of note are Libby and Dr. Pearl. Libby does not know much about anything outside Dairy Queen. To her, New York was an island where different colours and ideas meander, and where she can meet Italian guys, and watch television all day. After Corky left the show, she is seen grilling one scrawny piece of chicken wing, talking about how she can always go back to Dairy Queen.
Dr. Pearl, on the other hand, is an entertainer at heart, watching the class clown for him to imitate back when he was a school boy, and describing how his grandfather passed on to him the entertainment bug. The whole time before the auditions for the show, this dream of his was repressed, more so after he was made dentist by his father. He and his wife were made content with socializing within their Scrabble group and with their domestic neighbours, and were unfamiliar with the so-called creative people. When he saw the opportunity in the musical, he jumped right in. Although he denies his misery when the show was cancelled after Corky left, it was all unconvincing.
But to everyone’s delight, the unusual town council of Blaine, Missouri went to Corky full-force to convince him that the show needed him, the town needed the show, and the state of Missouri needed Blaine. This brought Corky back to the play, and the play went on.
During the beginning of the musical, the empty seat reserved for Mr. Guffman brought panic to the group, but was reassured by Corky. The show proceeded. However amateurish and frighteningly similar to small town community theatres all over America it was, the audience appeared moved and impressed with the performance. One councilman, Steve Stark, a few times screamed Corky’s name in a way that a fan girl would.
During the second scene of the musical, a man in business attire was ushered towards the seat reserved for Mr. Guffman. Everyone, including Corky, was delighted at this sight, only to find out later that there has been a snowstorm, which cancelled all flights, and trapped Mr. Guffman in New York.
Fast forward to three months later, Ron and Sheila are now acting as extras in Hollywood. Dr. Pearl is in Miami, Florida entertaining in nursing homes, explicating his talent and his love for entertainment. Libby is back in Dairy Queen albeit in a different town of Alabama, living with her ex-convict father, who was set free earlier than decided. Corky now lives in New York and owns a Hollywood novelty shop.
This film brought a lot of laughs. It was satirical towards small town America, its regular people, its town officials and its community theatres. Contrast between social orders and individuals were depicted by the unusual town council being that approachable and without a sense of hierarchy, Dr. Pearl coming from a Scrabble group ending up entertaining in front of an audience, Ron and Sheila not being the traveller types end up in Hollywood, and Libby reaching for the stars in New York although failing miserably.