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Mascots and the Very Serious Business of Making a Christopher Guest Movie

7 minute read

When Parker Posey got a call from Christopher Guest offering her a part in his next movie, she already knew the drill. Having appeared in all four of the faux-documentaries Guest had written and directed since 1997, she knew he’d give her the basic character sketch—in this case, Cindi Babineaux, a mascot for a Mississippi women’s college basketball team who’s aging out of her tenure as Alvin the Armadillo—and it would be her job to fill in the details. “The nine-banded armadillo is limited,” she says, recalling her attempts to crack the character. “They’re mainly roadkill.” She pauses. “That’s an interesting angle.”

Finding the interesting angle on idiosyncratic subcultures and the Cindi Babineauxs that comprise them has driven Guest’s work over the past two decades. Movies like Best in Show, about competitive dog breeders and trainers, and A Mighty Wind, about a folk-music reunion concert, have won the onetime Saturday Night Live cast member legions of devoted fans. His particular brand of comedy, which originated with the cult classic This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, directed by Rob Reiner and co-written by Reiner, Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, applies the conventions of self-serious documentary filmmaking to unexpected, if not undeserving, fictional subjects.

In Mascots, Guest’s first film in a decade, premiering on Netflix Oct. 13, he and co-writer Jim Piddock turn their gaze—with the help of a flock of returning cast members including Posey, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard and Ed Begley Jr.—toward the men and women who dance in poorly ventilated animal suits to bring smiles to the faces of amateur sports fans.

When Cindi arrives at the World Mascot Association’s Golden Fluffy Awards in Anaheim, she faces stiff competition from the likes of Tommy “The Fist” (Chris O’Dowd), a belligerent hockey mascot and the self-proclaimed “bad boy of sports mascottery”; Phil Mayhew, a.k.a. Jack the Plumber (Christopher Moynihan), a real estate appraiser who deems his day job his “pretend life”; and Owen Golly Jr., a.k.a. Syd the Hedgehog (Tom Bennett), a third-generation mascot and butcher who cheers a British pudding factory’s soccer team.

In a way, the stakes are higher for the mascots than they were for dog handlers or has-been folkies. Their complete anonymity—in both face and name—makes the chance for recognition by their peers all the more meaningful, as proven most poignantly by Jack the Plumber, who hypes a football team with members who don’t know him from Adam. Yet his routine—which involves chasing errant, breakdancing feces around the stage—is met with rapturous applause from the mascot community.

The mascots refer to their passion as a “craft.” They look to forebears so dedicated to their plush alter egos that they chose to be buried inside of them. Judges wear white gloves to handle the trophies, lest they leave a thumbprint, and the master of ceremonies buzzes with nervous excitement at the possibility that the Gluten Free Channel—which airs in “more than two cities nationwide”—might televise future competitions. It’s all extremely serious business for these characters, and much of the humor derives from the often humorless, single-minded fervor with which they devote themselves to their passion. But despite the zaniness of the end result, it’s serious business for the actors who portray them, too.

Posey’s attitude toward Cindi mirrors her approach to her uptight Weimaraner owner in Best in Show, who has a hilarious conniption when her dog’s favorite toy goes missing. But Posey didn’t play that scene for laughs. “Meg asks for a toy that they don’t have at the pet store, and it’s serious. It’s people caring. There’s a lot of heart. It kind of starts at that.” Adds Lynch, who reunites with Guest for a fourth time in Mascots— this time as competition judge Gabby Monkhouse, whose mascoting career as a moose was cut short by a split-induced injury—“It’s wonderful that it ends up being so funny, but it comes from a real place of being grounded in these characters.”

It’s also surprisingly serious on set, where, Lynch observes, “Wacky things don’t happen. Chris is a very steady guy, a very serious guy, and that’s the tone of the place.” Guest’s movies are meticulously plotted, but they’re unscripted. The dialogue is improvised in protracted takes, from which Guest conjures comedic magic in the editing room. The word improv may imply off-the-cuff ideation, but preparation is key. “By the time you get to set, it has to be a fully baked characterization so you can play,” says Lynch. “You can’t play if you’re not sure who your character is.” Adds Posey: “It’s different than coming up with a funny line. It’s not a kind of game, it’s not like we’re exercising our funny chops. It’s strong character work.”

It wasn’t always so businesslike on set. Eugene Levy, who co-wrote and starred in the last four Guest movies (though he’s not involved with Mascots), told TIME earlier this year that there were giggles aplenty on the set of 1997’s Waiting for Guffman, the first documentary-style comedy Guest directed, about a community theater production in small-town Missouri. “There were so many things in shooting that movie that made me laugh on camera. There were scenes where I actually had to work my way to the back of the group and get down on my hands and knees and crawl off the set so I wouldn’t stop the scene,” he recalls. “But we learned quickly that if you keep laughing in these scenes and you ruin takes, you’re ruining something you can never get back. So we learned to be more professional as we went along.”

Though Mascots and its predecessors are largely apolitical, it’s hard to talk about sports symbolism without mentioning the conversation about offensive characters that continue to represent some teams. In one scene, Cindi is nearly disqualified because of a rule forbidding competitors whose teams are associated with anything offensive based on race, creed, gender or sexual orientation, and Alvin the Armadillo’s predecessor, per an anonymous complainant, was the Leaping Squaw. The judges’ deliberation skewers discussions about real-life controversial mascots, with most of the all-white panel not seeing what’s so bad about the word squaw, anyway. (“Frankly,” says Gabby, “I’m more offended by the word leaping.”)

Guest’s films are commonly referred to as mockumentaries, but the filmmaker has distanced himself from the term because his intent is not to mock. “It’s not a mean laughter,” says Lynch. “It comes from deep inside our own fears of the ordinary. We laugh watching these people because ultimately, they’re really just ordinary people who wish they were extraordinary, and they’re not,” she says. “We’re laughing at ourselves even if we don’t know it.”

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com