There is a moment, in Christopher Guest’s new and acclaimed HBO series Family Tree, where Chris O’Dowd, on the verge of hysterical laughter, pours salt into a woman’s collarbone whilst on a date with her, after she expresses her deep love of bones at him for minutes that seem endless. The scene is so outwardly ridiculously funny, that you’d wonder how the hell they scripted it. Except that’s the thing; they didn’t.
The show, starring Chris O’Dowd, focuses on the disenfranchised Tom Chadwick, a man embarking on a journey to discover his family’s past after a relationship meltdown. Notorious for coaxing his actors into spontaneous brilliance, Christopher Guest has long since championed off-the-cuff comedy in his own work, most notably This is Spinal Tap’s constant flurry of buffoonish brilliance.
In Family Tree, the cast admitted in a Q&A last week that Guest’s style was sometimes difficult to approach, having a paragraph with vague details of each scene in the script, and not much else.
“We knew we had to get from A to B. We just didn’t know what we had to do to get to B.” admitted Tom Bennett, who plays Pete in the series, Tom’s best friend and cockney ‘rude boi’.
O’Dowd agreed that Guest’s laidback directorial style was sometimes difficult to read.
“I’d turn up with these half-prepared jokes, and he [Guest] would come up to me, and go, “Wow, that was great, Chris. That was funny. Really really, funny. Not for this show, obviously.”
Bennett added that his moment with Guest was similarly abstract. “I remember he came in to me after a scene, and just said, “Wow. Wow. That’s a thing then, is it? Wow.”
“His sense of the absurd is so extreme, he only has one word left.” Nina Conti mused, who plays Bea, Tom’s offbeat ventriloquist sister.
“It is terrifying.” ‘O Dowd added, earnestly. “But he’s a very warm, lovely man.”
In celebration of Family Tree’s UK release on BBC 2, we look back at 5 of our favourite improvised moments from Guest’s work.
1. “We’ve put you down for Queen.” “What are you trying to suggest?”
2. “Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?”
3. “Janice. What a terrible name for a child.”
4. “This is called ‘Lick my Love Pump.”
5. “Old Gobbler’s Bum Hole.”