In the late 1970s and early 1980s, two small-screen titans dominated the field of television sketch comedy: “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV.”  While the two programs shared a lot of the same DNA – “SCTV” grew out of the Second City improv troupe, which fostered such SNL stars as Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Bill Murray – their differences were incredibly pronounced, from region (Canada versus New York City) to format (ninety minutes versus – in “SCTV” original format – thirty minutes) to comedy style.  “Saturday Night Live” was, and always will be, incredibly gag-oriented; its intermittently successful batting average comes from a scattershot approach to humor: get as many jokes on the stage as fast as possible.

“SCTV,” on the other hand, was a little more calculated, a little more polished, preferring to ground its humor in character rather than in one-offs or running gags.  I’m thinking of John Candy’s Johnny LaRue or Martin Short’s Jackie Rogers, Jr., or Joe Flaherty’s Guy Caballero.  These parts got laughs because of their definition – the “SCTV” players’ first priority was burrowing deeply into their parts.  Being funny grew from that process, from that trust in performance.

So it goes with Christopher Guest’s improvisatory film circle.  Beginning with the 1984 comedy classic This Is Spinal Tap, Guest and his team took the character focus of “SCTV” to the next level.  Guest doesn’t use a traditional script; he and his characters devise characters down to the minutest details, and then they improvise their way through comic scenarios.  This shouldn’t work – I’d liken it to designing a bridge while you’re building it – but more often than not, Guest succeeds.  Part of that is due to the magic of editing (films like Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind often rack up hundreds of hours of shooting footage that Guest winnows down to ninety minutes), but that character emphasis is key.  Because the jokes grow organically, they rarely fall flat, and when they do, it’s usually on purpose.

So it goes with Best in Show, which might be Guest’s masterwork.  The subject matter might seem niche – how nine people prepare their dogs for entry in the fictional Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show – but Guest finds a common universality: the insanity of competition.  Most of his nine protagonists are competitively inclined to a near-psychotic degree: there’s the Type-A Swans (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), whose neuroses have driven their Weimaraner into psychiatric care; the flamboyantly gay Donlan-Vanderhoof couple (John Michael Higgins and the great Michael McKean), who make their excessively primped Shih Tzu look sedate by comparison; dithering gold digger Sherri Ann Cabot, an artificially enhanced socialite who falls under the thrall of her Standard Poodle’s trainer (Jane Lynch); and Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), whose road to the Mayflower is studded with hundreds of Cookie’s former lovers.  Only stoic Good Ol’ Boy Harlan Pepper (Guest) seems unfazed about the whole thing, and that’s only because after years of competitions, he’s finally come to resemble the genial, easygoing Bloodhounds he loves so much.

It all reads like an episode of “Soap,” which would make a perfectly serviceable screwball comedy in its own right, except Guest shoots for a sort of understated wackiness.  Sure, his casts’ respective quirks register loud and clear, but we also grow to appreciate them as people, and that’s important, considering Guest stages the final third of Best in Show at the actual Mayflower competition.  To a degree, he’s actually after legitimate suspense as the five dogs face off against one another, and we’re far more invested than we might otherwise be because we’ve come to know their owners so well.  The film has a flavor of the sports movie, except Guest complicates the proceedings by giving us five potential underdogs (ha ha) to root for.

Guest’s other secret weapon: Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock) and Buck Laughlin (Fred Willard), the Mayflower’s television announcers and Best in Show‘s most inspired comic inventions.  Beckwith is veddy British, cultured, refined, with an innate knowledge of canine breeding and decorum, and Laughlin’s his polar opposite, a sports commentator who knows nothing about dogs but still natters on incessantly like an even denser version of Joe Garagiola.  Whether he’s trying to engage Beckwith in asinine banter (“Excuse me if this is off the subject a little bit, but just take a guess at how much I can bench press.”) or tossing out bizarre non sequiturs to cover his ignorance about the proceedings (“Now tell me, which one of these dogs would you want to have as your wide receiver on your football team?”), Laughlin functions as Best in Show‘s faulty Greek chorus, and his Odd Couple routine with Piddock gives Best in Show its most high-wire comic juice.

And, in a sense, that’s the real miracle behind the films of Christopher Guest.  By starting with characters, by fleshing them out so completely that they evolve from goofy stereotypes to Actual Human Beings, Guest ends up with something as funny and inspired as the most traditional farces.  Two ways of reaching the same road, I guess, except this way hardly feels like a slog.

Warner’s Blu-ray presents the film in a solid-but-unspectacular digital transfer.  The framing conceit behind Best in Show is that it’s a documentary following the various Mayflower hopefuls, and the aesthetic reflects that mockumentary style: handheld, a little washed-out.  The same goes for the film’s 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which is functional but unspectacular.  Still, considering the source material, this Blu-ray probably makes Best in Show look as good and sound as it can ever look.

Supplements are all recycled from the previous DVD edition, though – in fairness – they were pretty good in the first place.  We get a commentary with Guest and Eugene Levy, the film’s theatrical trailer, and a half hour of deleted scenes, all of which look relatively finished and have optional Guest/Levy commentaries.  It’s good stuff for comedy fans.

So’s the movie.

Best in Show is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.


Note: Seeing as how Best in Show is a Warner Bros. release, I thought it not entirely imprudent to use this space to announce the upcoming release of another Warner Bros. entry, the time-spanning romance-thriller-sci-fi-epic-comedy Cloud Atlas.  On the surface, Cloud Atlas couldn’t be more dissimilar from Best in Show, but despite its far more expansive subject matter (a diverse cast of characters weave in and out of one another’s lives over thousands of years), the film shares Best in Show‘s patience and care for character.

Few event films are as carefully wrought and provocative as this one; in some ways, it was the best, most endlessly inventive film of 2012, with peerless direction from the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and brilliant performances from the likes of Tom Hanks, Keith David (!), Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, and the great Ben Whishaw, who acts as Cloud Atlas‘ wry, tragic heart.

The film makes its Blu-ray debut on May 14th in a stacked Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.  Considering how few folks saw it in theaters – it grossed only $27 million domestically – here’s your chance to PRE-ORDER IT FROM AMAZON.

Culture Movie Review: BEST IN SHOW's Comic Flair Still Dazzles; Plus a Quick...