Interview: Comedy legend Fred Willard on Mascots

Fred Willard reteams with director Christopher Guest for their first mockumentary in a decade, Mascots.

It’s been a decade since Christopher Guest made his last “mockumentary,” the biting Oscar-race satire For Your Consideration, and you don’t realize how much you missed his brand of incisive yet heartfelt improvisational comedy until you watch Mascots, his new film that premieres this weekend on Netflix. The subject matter this time is almost as obscure as the high school theater he featured in Waiting for Guffman: the movie takes place at a national competition for high school sports mascots, and in typical Guest style his cast of characters are all deadly earnest, hilariously dysfunctional and oddly empathetic.

The director has surrounded himself over the years and through several movies (including Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) with a core group of players, and chief among that brilliant ensemble is the legendary Fred Willard. The 77-year-old actor is perhaps best known to modern audiences for his acclaimed turn as the buffoonish dog show color commentator in Best in Show, but his 54-year career stretches from live improv with Second City through scores of film and TV appearances, ranging from Silver Streak to the Anchorman movies to Modern Family, just to name a few.

Willard is as engaging and amiable in person as you would want him to be, and the short time we got to speak with him at a recent press day for Mascots was far too brief to delve into the dozens of stories and memories he no doubt can spin.

Den of Geek:  Hard to believe, but it’s been 10 years since the last one of these.

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Fred Willard:  Yes, Christopher did a HBO series called Family Tree, which I did a couple of episodes on, but this is his first movie since For Your Consideration.

Did you ever wonder if he was going to get back to the movies?

I always kind of thought, yes, I knew he would do something. He directs a lot of commercials. I kind of felt the last thing I did with him, he was moving more towards regular scripted movies. He surprised me with this. It was pretty much improv — he comes in with plot points and tells you what character you are and I kind of make up some things on my own so it’s always fun.

I was going to ask you about that process, and how much of what you’re saying or what you guys are doing on set is in there already and then how much of it is stuff that you work out as you go…

My character, he said, “You’re a former mascot, you got injured and now you’re coaching Jack the Plumber,” that character in the movie. I thought of a whole background for my character, I thought of a guy who keeps discussing head injuries. I was going for a character that kept repeating things, it wasn’t that clear in the movie, but a kind of laid back guy who doesn’t take anything too seriously.

You make up your own character, but then you never know until you get on set. You start working with the other person, you try to keep moving the plot forward, but you know where the plot has to go. That’s all I can say about it. It’s not just, “Go out and have fun.”

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When you come up with your own ideas about the character, do you run it past Christopher?

No, I never do that because I just like to spring it on him. I’ve done that before and he usually doesn’t like it. If you go in already with somebody, once you’re doing it on camera, he gets it. It’s like trying to pitch a script — if you explain it to someone or they read it, well it’s not too good, but if they see it and you act it out, it’s “Oh, oh, yeah.”

There’s a famous story about Sid Caesar where the network guy looked at the script and said you can’t do this, it’s not funny. Sid said, “Well, let’s just try it.” “Well, that’s not funny.” He said, “Let’s try it.” They started to do the script and the network guy started laughing and said, “Oh, if you do it that way…” That’s why I like to go in with something prepared.

You started in improv around 1962…

Well, my first improv was Second City in Chicago. Before that I worked at, with a partner, doing comedy sketches. It scared me to death to think about improv but I got hired for a year at Second City in Chicago, which made me nervous but I found I could improvise. Then I was in a group called the Ace Trucking Company, which we’d do like a half hour set of material then open up for improvisation.

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There’s different kinds of improv. There’s Second City improv where you try to slowly build a nice sketch. There’s stuff you do in college coffee houses where you just go joke, joke, joke. Bring another funny character with a funny hat on his head. Christopher Guest is more the line of trying to get a story out. He does these quirky characters who are serious about trying to do what they believe in. Like these mascots, they don’t take their jobs humorously, they’re very serious about it. They work hard, they struggle.

You worked in the Ace Trucking Company with the late George Memmoli, who was in one of my favorite cult movies of all time, Phantom of the Paradise.

Yes. We miss him so much. He passed away years ago and he was wonderful. He started working under the name George Terry, but his real name is George Memmoli. He was just a terrifically funny guy. He got injured doing a movie and it caused a skull fracture and he was never quite right after that, but he was a great guy. We missed him. We tried to replace him but it didn’t work.

When you get back together on one of Christopher’s movies, is it like a family reunion in a way?

You would think there’s a big opening night party but you come in the first day and you’re working with someone and of course Christopher you’ve met, and so there’s no big reunion thing as such. If you happen to do a scene with someone it’s, “Hey, how you doing?”  When we did Best in Show, that was the closest thing to a reunion. We did it just before Christmas and I got up to Vancouver and it was the last week of the movie, and I came in and everyone was down in the hotel lounge singing Christmas carols. Everyone you knew, so it was great.

Usually you come in, you work with the person you’re working with, you come back two days later and you’re working with someone else. It’s a reunion at the press screenings and all. You know, “Hi, how are you, it’s great to see you.” Everyone seems to love each other. It’s not like a series where by the fifth season this one isn’t talking to that one. We’re all very fond, it’s like teammates, we’re all doing the same thing in the movie, we’re all trying to get the movie done.

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Is Best in Show the movie that you get the most quotes thrown back at you from?

Yes, that was amazing. That was the second movie I did with him. The first movie, Waiting for Guffman, a lot of my stuff was cut, but Best in Show, I was the color commentator. I thought most of my stuff is going to be off camera or end up on the cutting room floor, so I did a lot of preparation for that. He says, “Don’t worry about learning anything about dogs,” because the character didn’t know much about dogs, but I had to learn enough about dogs to be stupid.

I really rehearsed for that, I thought of every bad dog joke because I said he’s only going to use a few, but he used most of them. Some of them, about half of them popped up right on the set. We got rolling there and we did my scenes in about four or five hours one afternoon with Jim Piddock who was the other broadcaster. They kept just enough of my stuff.  The last time I saw the movie, when I did my last line I said, ‘Oh good, I’ve seen enough of myself.’ That can get tiresome, those comments.

But I got great feedback from Gene Siskel and it was just so great. Yes, that was the one that people quote the most.

Since it’s out on Blu-ray this month, before we go I wanted to ask you about playing the real estate agent Larry Crocker in ‘Salem’s Lot.

That was a scary movie. Tobe Hooper, I saw Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and then he called me to be in this movie. He was the gentlest, sweetest guy. I have no idea why he put me in that movie. The first day I was working he says, “Now Fred, you’re going to go from your office across the street with whatever funny little run you’ve prepared.” I said, “Oh, I’m supposed to be kind of a funny guy?”

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That was a scary movie for its time. We were doing a scene, it was three in the morning, he had it all backlit through the trees and my wife and I and my little daughter were there, and I guess they were carrying what was supposed to be my body out on a gurney and it was scary. I said, “That’s me in that thing.”

You had a couple of scenes with James Mason in that.

Yes, and I forgot that. When I saw it again, I said, “My God, I was in the house talking to James Mason.” It was a big thrill. I had a joke prepared. He did some scene and we were all watching, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I went up and pretended I was giving him notes?” Then I thought I’d better not do that. He was a very charming guy though, I’m sure he would’ve laughed.

Another interesting thing with the scene where I was in bed with the girl and her husband came home, we did two versions. In the American TV version, I had to be lying next to her, and for the foreign version I was lying on top of her, and then when the guy had the gun, for the American version he had to hold the gun up to my chest, but for the foreign version, he shoved it right into my mouth. They couldn’t do it for the American version.

Mascots is now streaming on Netflix.

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