If there’s a price to be paid for shooting a comedy like “Best in Show,” it’s deciding which 90 minutes of material should be culled from some 3,600 minutes actually filmed. This fearsome factual tidbit is mentioned about halfway through the running commentary, handled by writer-director Christopher Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy, in pic’s new DVD package, and it only begins to indicate the Sisyphian task that goes into making a feature-length movie based on a premise (in this case, a mock docu of a national dog show and its obsessed contestants) and filled out with purely improvised scenes.
Guest, who with Levy and regular comic partners Michael McKean, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, Michael Hitchcock, Bob Balaban and (in her second film with Guest, after “Waiting for Guffman”) Parker Posey, has been making these improv forays since “This Is Spinal Tap.” The process must be second nature to him by this point, since he hardly emphasizes the sheer work and effort of winnowing and editing that he and editor Robert Leighton went through for eight months in post-production.
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Of course, part of the trick of comedy is to never let them see you work. But a supplementary batch of 27 minutes’ worth of 17 deleted scenes (also including Guest-Levy commentary) provides the viewer with a deeper glimpse into the difficult task of determining what to leave in and what to leave out. It hardly helps, of course, that Guest cast so many gifted improvisers whose work made the picking and choosing all the more taxing.
Not even the most admiring fan of “Best in Show” would want pic to run much past its 90-minute length, but to watch some of these deleted sections (all in finished, not rough-cut form) is to see some priceless nuggets sadly fallen by the wayside. Foremost among them is a four-minute scene between McKean’s hairdresser character, Stefan Vanderhoof, and John Michael Higgins as his lover Scott Donlon and lead handler of their prized shih tzu. Interplay between McKean and Higgins is brilliantly smooth and natural, underlining an earlier comment by Levy that even as a veteran improviser, he felt intimidated by the level of this duo’s playing. Remarkably, it was the first day of shooting for both thesps, and it provides such crucial background information that trimming it seems in retrospect a misjudgment.
Higgins, as the more flamboyant of the pair, proves to be a star of the cutting room floor footage. In a brief bit at a hotel party honoring the Mayflower Kennel Club contestants, Scott mercilessly teases a straight guy named Jack; in another, which is the only scene bringing together Spinal Tap bandmates Guest and McKean, Higgins needles Guest’s bloodhound owner Harlan so much that you can glimpse Guest starting to lose his composure.
Some lost scenes are not so invaluable: The package includes no fewer than six featuring Guest’s Harlan, mostly solo and riffing away until the 10 minutes in the film magazine runs out. Helmer explains that most scenes were shot this way, so the actors would have the time to build up an improvised exchange. Unlike most of the characters, however, Harlan operates alone (except for his non-human buddies, the bloodhound and his ventriloquist dummy) and some of Guest’s speeches, while funny as samples of his hound dog-as-human style, are easily expendable.
Perhaps the best example of what director and editor have to go through in the cutting room is the alternate version of the epilogue recounting what happened six months later to dog show winners Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Levy and O’Hara). While the release version shows Gerry and Cookie in a recording studio cutting some awful doggie-themed tunes for their upcoming CD, the alternate scene shows them in sit-down interview mode complaining about some of the more dubious endorsements they’ve had to consider, including a pooper-scooper. There’s also an oddly tacked-on bit with Levy, shot on video, doing an infomercial for left-footed athletic shoes. Levy says he complained about Guest’s and Leighton’s final choice, but clearly, the right one was made.
There’s hours more of this stuff we’ll likely never see, including some more choice bits by Fred Willard, who virtually stole the film from everybody as Buck Laughlin, the dog show’s dim play-by-play announcer.
But Guest and Levy lavish praise on Willard’s scene partner, Jim Piddock, as the proper show analyst, as well as key supporting players such as Don Lake as the dog show’s chairman, Patrick Cranshaw as a silent Methuselah-like dog owner (Cranshaw’s character actually speaks in a funny deleted scene with Willard) and Ed Begley Jr.as a hotel manager.