5 questions with actor and comic Fred Willard
When Fred Willard appears with the 2000 comedy “Best in Show” at the Redford Theatre on Sunday night, he’ll bring with him five decades of comedy improvisation experience. The event launches the annual Detroit Improv Festival, which runs at several metro Detroit locations through Aug. 10.
Willard, 74, was born in Ohio and served a brief stint in the U.S. Army before beginning his performing career as a dramatic actor and making his big-screen debut in the 1967 exploitation film “Teenage Mother.” He found his comic chops with the improvisational comedy troupe Ace Trucking Company and then as Martin Mull’s sidekick on the TV comedy series “Fernwood 2Night” and “America 2Night” in 1977 and 1978.
His brief appearance in Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap” in 1984 led to a series of similar documentary-style, improvisation-heavy comedies directed by Christopher Guest. “Best in Show,” with Willard playing a color commentator at a prestigious dog competition, is perhaps the best-loved in a string of cult hits that includes “Waiting for Guffman“ (1996) and “A Mighty Wind” (2003).
Willard will speak before the Redford Theatre screening and also perform in improvisational skits. He’ll return at intermission and will appear after the film at the Motor City Java House down the street from the theater.
QUESTION: How does improv differ from other types of comedy, and why do you like it so much?
ANSWER: Any number of people can come out, and there are different formats, ofcourse. But basically we take suggestions from the audience. It’s fun because the audience gets involved, as opposed to a stand-up comic who comes out and talks or a sketch show that works from a script. There’s audience participation. You give an occupation or a situation or a place where a scene takes place, and we take it from there. It can be very challenging. If you do it every night and the audience is really into it, it’s very electric and exciting to watch.
Q: What we think of as the Fred Willard character — a little dim, often inappropriate — really begins with “Fernwood 2Night.” Was this a character you had played before?
A: I really developed it for that show because they gave me this character of the guy who had been a local talent for years and was a bit clueless. So I played it off against Martin Mull’s character, who was kind of a cynical guy. And it just fell into place after the first few weeks. And the show was just so silly, yet well-written, that it was fun to play with.
What strikes me when watching them now is that the premises were very well-developed. I remember a guest who came on who had the first religious theme park — and this was before Tammy Faye Bakker and Jim Bakker, so it was really a step ahead of things. The show made some good points. And the interview format allowed us to bring on so many funny characters. Some followed the script and others we had such fun with that we’d throw away the script and just improvise with them, like you would on a regular talk show.
Q: How does improv translate to a movie like “Best in Show”?
A: I play the color commentator who doesn’t know about dogs, a blue-collar guy. They sent me a tape of the Westminster Dog Show to watch Joe Garagiola to get some of the rhythms … but basically I just went in there with a lot of stuff, any joke I could think of about any type of dog, and was surprised at how much they kept in.
It was difficult because we (Willard and his broadcast partner, played by Jim Piddock) weren’t really watching anything. They would show us the day before some videotape of what was going on down on the main floor, and then we were looking at this empty floor. Christopher Guest would tell us that this is when such and such dog came out or this is when the dog jumped up and tried to bite the lady. We were pretty much doing our own thing there and knowing that he would cut what wasn’t working and keep in what was.
Q: What other research did you do for the part?
A: He (director Guest) told me the less I knew about dogs, the better, but I knew that I had to know a lot about dogs to not know about them. It took quite a bit of research. I knew the different types of dogs and their attributes.
I’m also a sports fan, so I like to watch sports events like football games or a baseball game where there’s a rain delay and the commentators get on and you can see them making these inane comments, or making good comments, but generally trying to fill time. I got an attitude from that and that’s what I worked on.
Q: There’s a collegial quality to a Christopher Guest film, like you’re having as much fun making it as we are watching. Is it really that way or are you and Eugene Levy actually at each other’s throats?
A: No, that’s it. When you work with people you know, you know that you’re on the same wavelength. You get into a scene with someone you don’t know, and you get a little nervous not knowing how they’re going to react. It’s almost like being at a party with friends. You get into this great conversation. Then you meet someone you don’t know and you’re not sure if what you say will be taken wrong or if they are on the same wavelength as you. I guess when you get right down to it, improv is just one big party game.