A Tribute to Bob Odenkirk’s Unforgettable Performance in Waiting for Guffman

Comedy Features Bob Odenkirk
A Tribute to Bob Odenkirk’s Unforgettable Performance in Waiting for Guffman

As the first film in Christopher Guest’s series of mockumentaries, Waiting for Guffman established what would become the core of Guest’s stock of repertory players. SCTV vets Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, ‘90s indie It Girl Parker Posey, understated character actor Bob Balaban, comedian Larry Miller, supporting players Michael Hitchcock and Don Lake, and comedy legend Fred Willard all joined Guest in the director’s first four mockumentaries, reuniting every few years for such films as Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. That streak ended with 2016’s Mascots, which Miller missed, and which Levy and O’Hara had to skip due to the production schedule of Schitt’s Creek.

A few future Guest regulars aren’t in Guffman. There’s no Jane Lynch, no Jennifer Coolidge, no John Michael Higgins. Guest’s Spinal Tap bandmates Michael McKean and Harry Shearer co-wrote some of the movie’s songs, but neither appear on-screen. Jim Piddock and Ed Begley Jr. never show up. There are a few notable comedians who do make an appearance in Guffman who weren’t involved with any of Guest’s subsequent movies, though, and there’s one in particular who deserves special mention.

Yes, I’m talking about Bob Odenkirk, and his wordless two-second cameo as some kind of nail salon art vampire priest.

Odenkirk appears 11 minutes into the film, at the start of the audition montage. He’s standing quietly in the high school hallway outside the audition room wearing a cape, a priest’s collar, and makeup that makes him look like one of those ubiquitous nail salon posters that rip off Patrick Nagel’s artwork. Bob seems intent before his audition, a little nervous, but with the kind of obvious confidence his characters often have. He’s not officially credited, but IMDB lists his character’s name as “Caped Man at Auditions,” and the no-nonsense directness of that name evokes the plainspoken simplicity of Blaine, Missouri.

Our one glimpse of Bob comes as the camera pans over the acts waiting to audition for the play at the heart of Guffman’s plot. Off-screen a man sings Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes” as we see a belly dancer and a woman in aerobic gear stretching in front of the lockers, while a show parent primps her young daughter’s clothes. A man in what looks like a straw hat and aloha shirt pushes a cart at the end of the hallway, while a woman with an acoustic guitar nervously chews on a thumb while staring over her shoulder at the audition room’s door. And then we see Bob, standing next to the row of lockers, his back against the wall, his eyes seemingly set on stardom, totally unmoved by the commotion around him—at first.

When Guffman was filmed in 1995, Odenkirk was still two decades away from landing acting award nominations for Better Call Saul. Although he had starred on The Ben Stiller Show and made multiple appearances on Saturday Night Live while writing for it, he was still primarily considered a writer and not a performer—and certainly not an actor. Mr. Show hadn’t even premiered yet when the movie was filmed, although its first two seasons had aired by the time Guffman was released. And yet, despite that lack of experience—or, should we say, lack of opportunity—in this brief two-second clip, you can see the startling range and power that Bob had already developed as an actor.

Halfway through his one scene in Guffman Odenkirk slightly tilts his head. He almost imperceptibly moves his eyes. And in these minor gestures Bob reveals all about Caped Man at Auditions. We can see the fear bubbling within beneath that facade of confidence, the anxiety all but the most accomplished of performers feel before baring their soul before a room full of strangers. In his eyes we can see Caped Man at Auditions suddenly gaze into the deep, bottomless sea of doubt and sadness that always threatens to drown us all if we let it. In that most minute of motions we can feel, keenly, acutely, the existential dread washing through Caped Man at Auditions, and we know, without ever seeing a second of his audition, that his dreams of starring on the stage will be denied, probably forever.

In Waiting for Guffman Bob Odenkirk doesn’t just play a Caped Man at Auditions. He plays every Caped Man at Auditions, everybody who’s ever reached for their dreams and then realized they’re no longer on solid footing, realized they’ve stretched too far before catastrophe falls but not soon enough to correct course. 20 years before the Emmys or Golden Globes took notice, Bob Odenkirk gave the world a master class in acting, a spare, restrained, naturalistic depiction of that powerful moment when regret seizes your entire soul. During those two seconds of Waiting for Guffman, we are all Caped Man at Auditions.

Also though there’s a deleted scene. Here it is. Bob sings. Seems okay.

Not to take anything away from the other comic giants in Waiting for Guffman—Levy, O’Hara, Willard, Guest, and Posey are unforgettable in this movie—but Bob Odenkirk—humble, polite, uncredited, becaped Bob Odenkirk—makes the largest possible impression in the smallest amount of time. Going by the international conventions of movie critic math, that means, by default, that he wins the movie. Bob Odenkirk won Waiting for Guffman, because all movies are contests to see who wins, and he won this one. Christopher Guest clearly realized this, as Odenkirk never appeared in another one of his films. This Caped Man nailed his audition, resulting in one of the most iconic performances in the history of cinema.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.

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