SIMON HEFFER HINTERLAND
Until the British film industry rediscovers its funny bone, America will continue to nab our wittiest wags
e British know that most of the best television of the past 15 or 20 years was made in America, and that “American comedy” is no longer an oxymoron. I believe there were some who, in earlier generations, found I Love Lucy or M*A*S*H funny, but generally what passed for American humour in the second part of the 20th century was about as amusing as putting one’s head in a mincer, and exemplified the gulf between two nations separated by an allegedly common language.
Since then, American comedy has reverted to something approaching the charm of films from the Thirties and Forties such as The Thin Man, Brewster’s Millions (the 1945 version with Dennis O’Keefe, not the Eighties remake), Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday or Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House. The last three starred Cary Grant, who brought Bristolian understatement and sharp comic timing. Equally, a flagship film of the American comic renaissance (they would say comedic, but there is no such word in the English language, and there does not need to be), Best in Show (2000), was written and directed by, and co-starred, a man with joint English and American citizenship, Christopher Guest – the 5th Baron Haden-Guest, in fact. These days, America is where Englishmen go if they want to be truly funny.
Best in Show is about five dogs and their owners and handlers who compete in the annual Mayflower dog show in Philadelphia. Guest, who developed the “mockumentary” style of film in the Eighties with This Is Spinal Tap and then, in the Nineties, with Waiting for Guffman, uses the dogs and the competition in which they take part to explore different sorts of stereotypes, and to hold up an affectionate mirror to the American people. He succeeds sublimely.
Much of the script is improvised, making it seem unrehearsed in the best possible way and causing it to radiate spontaneity. One senses that everyone is in on the joke, and the joke is the often self-obsessed nature of American society – and the essential absurdity of so many people in it.
The dogs are by some distance the most normal creatures in the film. Winky, the Norwich terrier belonging to cash-strapped Gerry and Cookie Flett (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), has a talent for expressing tedium and giving the impression of reluctantly indulging its owners.
Guest himself plays a genial redneck from North Carolina who aspires to be a ventriloquist, is an expert on nuts, and is, in general, considerably less level-headed than his beloved bloodhound, Hubert.
But the stars of the film are a couple of ultra-camp New York homosexuals (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean) with their shih tzu, Miss Agnes. Their ease and serenity run through the film like a core of sanity, paradoxically despite their occasionally outrageous behaviour. Be sure, if you get the DVD, to watch the deleted scenes, because the best line in the film isn’t actually in it: when the couple meet two men named Jack, Higgins observes: “You’re a pair of Jacks. We’re a pair of queens. We win.”
As in so many British films, the root of the comedy lies mainly in the class system, and the foibles of the different tribes within it. It is that connection with our own sense of humour, and our shared values (not least our love of animals), that makes Best in Show so utterly appealing. Perhaps we might, one day, start making such naturally funny films again ourselves.
WAGGLY TALEJane Lynch, left, and Jennifer Coolidge in Best in Show