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Christopher Guest shakes his 'Family Tree'

The filmmaker's HBO comedy series about a man's transatlantic genealogical quest sprang from his own dabbling into the lives of accomplished and colorful forebears.

June 15, 2013|By Martin Miller, Los Angeles Times
  • Chris O'Dowd, left, Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock work on "Family Tree."
Chris O'Dowd, left, Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock work on "Family… (Suzanne Tenner, HBO )

A powerful recurring motif in the varied works of Christopher Guest is the dummy.

From early sketch comedy on "Saturday Night Live" through a series of mock documentaries, the looming figure is an essential part of the Guest aesthetic. It can be a truth-teller as on his new HBO series "Family Tree," where a sharp-witted monkey hand puppet accuses a bubble-brained wife of being "inflatable." Or it can also be a flesh-and-blood dimwit such as Nigel Tufnel, the "This Is Spinal Tap" guitarist who boasts his special amp's volume goes to 11.

It turns out the deep fascination with dummies may be embedded in the family DNA. Guest discovered, after receiving a treasure trove of family diaries, photographs and letters in 1996, that one of his forebears was a ventriloquist. As a child, the distant relative performed a puppet show for King George III – yes, the dummy, er, the British monarch, who lost the American colonies.

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"If I put this in a movie people would think it's stupid," said Guest of his great-great-great-great-grandfather, noting he might be missing a "great" or two, who was born in 1797. "But he wrote in a wonderful Dickens sort of way that he was a child who liked to make mischievous voices, that he always imitated sounds and people.

"And I thought, 'OK, this is my life when I was a child in school,'" continued Guest, whose father, Peter Haden-Guest, was a British U.N. diplomat and a member of the House of Lords. "I could make sounds and the teacher didn't know where they were coming from — because I was so interested in learning, apparently."

Just before the launch of his new series, Guest talked over breakfast in Santa Monica about his Anglo-American heritage, the odd pull of ventriloquism and his first stab at a television series. Unlike his free-spirited, eccentric characters, the filmmaker behind "A Mighty Wind," "For Your Consideration," and "Best in Show" doesn't particularly enjoy the celebrity interview process or, for that matter, being photographed. During the hour-long conversation, he was reserved but not unfriendly.

His improvisational eight-episode series — perhaps the only TV comedy ever driven by genealogical research — explores with humorous and often poignant detail a young man's quest to fill out the names and faces on the many branches of his transatlantic family tree. After initially being set in England, the series moves its hero, Tom Chadwick, played by the Irish comic actor Chris O'Dowd, to sunny California on Sunday for the final four episodes.

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The Sunday episode, "Welcome to America," also marks Guest's first appearance in front of the camera on the series. Like seemingly every Guest character on the series, he plays a mostly normal person — except for one thing.

Actually, in the case of his character, it's a couple of things. He plays a Southern Chadwick fond of knit caps who is embarrassed by a vestigial body part and has a wife who has been missing for several years. (The monkey hand puppet has a theory about the wife.)

"I wasn't sure until the night before that I actually was going to do it," said Guest, who created and wrote the series with Jim Piddock. "I wasn't comfortable and I was so busy, I didn't really feel like I could just put on a costume and walk into it."

Overall, the series has been greeted by welcoming reviews. Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter called it "a quirky and hilarious gem," while Times critic Robert Lloyd wrote it is "sweet and funny and not a little melancholy," adding that "Guest gives the world a quarter-twist toward the ridiculous, without losing sight of the human dreams and strivings, obsessions and accommodations that are his main and constant subject."

Like much of Guest's previous work, the series seems to be playing to his niche audience. The ratings have been modest — averaging around 2.3-million viewers per episode across all platforms, according to HBO. Network executives are weighing whether to order a second season and are expected to decide soon.

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"We certainly want another season," said Guest, who is married to actress Jamie Lee Curtis and lives on the Westside. "But they may say, 'Thanks for coming,' and I'll be fishing again."

He's not joking — Guest loves to fly fish, and he doesn't have anything else lined up. Unlike a lot of his Hollywood colleagues who thrive on juggling multiple projects, he will take off months, even years at a time. "I don't ever work at two different things at the same time," he said. "I don't have file cabinets filled with scripts. Everything I've thought to do, I've done."

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