After mining the insular worlds of rock stars, small-town theater, dog handlers, folk singers, and Oscar-hopefuls for exquisitely human comedies of desperation, Christopher Guest set his sights on some of the most overlooked souls in show business for his next film, Mascots. It would be Guest who’d take in the spectacle of a sporting event and gaze not upon the athletes on the field or the fans in the stands, but the guy dancing wordlessly, anonymously, and most of all thanklessly in a giant furry suit just to pump up the crowd.
“I decided there was something interesting about people who are performing but are hidden,” Guest told The Daily Beast after introducing the Netflix comedy, premiering Oct. 13, at the Toronto Film Festival. “I thought that was an interesting concept: that you’re out there performing in front of a big crowd, but no one knows who you are. What are you getting from that?”
“It’s kind of a weird psychological test, a profile of a person,” he mused. “Normally an actor has this narcissism where you walk down the street and somebody says, ‘Hey!’ This is absolute anonymity. Let’s say you’re going somewhere and you take the head off. There’s no one who’s going to say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy!’”
If there’s a recurring throughline in Guest’s sublime mockumentaries, it’s the tragicomic folly of ambition that lives in the desperate dreamers he and his company of improv kings and queens create. The same is true of Mascots, set in the days leading up to the annual World Mascot Association’s Golden Fluffy Awards, where the cream of the crop gather to compete in head-to-toe costumes ranging from a dancing armadillo to an oversize plumber to a giant angry fist on hockey skates.
“I guess there’s something that’s appealing to me about people that are aspirational-slash-deluded,” said Guest, who wrote and directed Mascots and also appears opposite standout/returning muse Parker Posey as dance choreographer Corky St. Clair. “A thin line, if there is a line at all. I talk to people of different ages, and a guy who’s 38 who says, ‘I could’ve played Major League Baseball, but I had this knee injury…’ Yeah, probably not. It’s a big thing with men and sports, where they think they could have touched that thing.”
That aspirational anxiety never goes away in some folks—whether they’re guys who swear they could’ve made it in the big leagues, mascots being the best mascot in the world, or any kind of dreamer. And that quality fascinates Guest.
“It’s like when you graduated from high school—you were the senior and now you’re the freshman. And it never ends, in life,” he said. “There’s something about that idea of looking up and hoping, and thinking, ‘I’m good.’ Some things, like show business, are absolutely subjective. People look at a TV show and think, ‘I could do that.’ And maybe they could do that. But they’re not.”
Guest speaks dryly and deliberately in real life, more reserved in nature than the outlandish characters he’s brought to life onscreen and in his own films. He very seriously mulls over the psyche of a person who’d choose a life of entertaining under cover of a full head mask gyrating to jock jams for the pleasure of pumping up strangers.
“I really don’t know if there’s a name for it, to be honest,” he puzzled. “There has to be some version of [narcissism] in this, which is even more peculiar, because you want to be appreciated. You’re hearing applause… if it works.”
There has, perhaps, never been an artist or scholar to ponder the inner lives of professional mascots so thoroughly as Guest did to make Mascots. As with all of his films, he did major deep dives into the world of mascoting but chose not to interview actual mascots about their personal and psychological motivations, their triumphs and failures, their hopes and dreams, and the soap-operatic dramarama that may or may not go down behind closed doors when mascots get together—as played out in Mascots with a cast that includes Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Chris O’Dowd, Fred Willard, Zach Woods, Sarah Baker, John Michael Higgins, and Ed Begley, Jr.
“In A Mighty Wind I grew up in that world, and Spinal Tap to some extent since I’ve been a musician my whole life, I had a leg up but I knew it from living it,” said Guest. “I didn’t want to interview mascots because if you’re interviewing real people you’re doing a documentary, in a way. It’s about the people ultimately, not so much about the big hippopotamus.”
If Mascots were only a mocking survey of cluelessly quirky characters who don giant suits to dance at halftime shows, “it would be a sketch that might last two minutes long,” he said. What gives the film a sense of pathos is that, beneath the straight-faced silliness of this world, his characters take their own emotional journeys that force them to confront why they mascot, after all.
He didn’t audition his cast, per se, because there wasn’t a script for them to read. Instead, Guest sits down with his actors for a chat to figure out if they’re right for the project at hand. “It’s coming in and just talking about stuff for half an hour, and at the end of it I have to decide if they can walk onto a set without rehearsal and start talking,” he explained of his methodology. “This wasn’t a virgin birth. Every single person, with the exception of Michael McKean who I’ve worked with before, I had to assess whether this person was going to be able to work in this style.”
I decided to test Guest’s knowledge of mascotery with my own high-school mascot: The noble gaucho, aka the Argentinian cowboy—a choice that always seemed a bit random growing up in a Northern California town with no discernable connection to the country or culture of Argentina.
“Ah, the gauchos. There are a bunch of gauchos in California,” Guest nodded. “I remember reading about the gaucho because when you do research, names stick out, like the Banana Slugs in Santa Cruz. When my daughter played volleyball in school they were the Wildcats. Well, there are about a million Wildcats. Why don’t you come up with another name?”
One scene in Mascots ponders the politics of these emblems, alluding to controversial teams like the Washington Redskins whose names have come under fire for their cultural insensitivity as the world has become more woke. In the film, Posey’s Cindi Babineaux must face a private tribunal of judges when it’s revealed the women’s college she mascots for was once called the Leaping Squaws.
“I thought this was a very interesting area to get into in the States, where we have an American football team which I just call ‘Washington’—that’s how I refer to them,” he said of the NFL’s Redskins. “I think it’s despicable that that’s not a long-dead issue. And there are other teams like that. The Atlanta Braves had a guy in the stands named Chief Noc-A-Homa, and he would come out of a teepee when someone hit a home run.”
“I think locals that grow up with this would say it’s a tradition,” he continued. “I think it’s insane that this is even discussed. This goes deep in a culture where I think they perceive this as a traditional thing. There was a football team in the South and their mascot was a plantation owner—a slave owner. It wasn’t until recently that they changed it, and they would say, ‘But this is our tradition.’ That’s why that scene is in the movie. It touches on that, and in an interesting way it almost flips it and shows the ignorance of some of the people there. It’s one of my favorite scenes.”
Guest is aghast at the thought of picking his favorite character in Mascots. “I’m the oldest child. I have two children—you can’t pick one! They’re different people,” he said. And although his critics have suggested otherwise over the years, Guest says he’s never purely mocking or making fun of his quirky characters—and neither should you.
“You should be on their side,” he said. “There are always exceptions, there are asshole people. But for the most part if you’re compassionate you’re seeing this aspirational condition they’re in, most of them want to get some place. Some of them are deluded and some of them kind of get it at the end.”
While he enjoys turning the lens on the extraordinarily ordinary lives of other kinds of people, Guest downplays the part of his life few people are aware of: that he’s an English baron by birth, which gave him a seat in Britain’s House of Lords for a few years and technically makes him Lord Christopher Haden-Guest.
“You’re supposed to say, ‘What’s THAT all about?’” a bemused Guest answered when I brought up his title. “What the hell is the deal with that?”
“It’s not connected to real life in a sense. My wife calls it ‘The Lord thing,’” he explained. (Guest is married to Jamie Lee Curtis.) “But it was interesting. I don’t know if fun was the word, but it was interesting.”
“They abolished the hereditary peers and in my mind they should have an election system, to be honest,” he continued. “But it doesn’t affect anything I do. Occasionally when I’m in England they call me that. But it’s probably more interesting to people who aren’t those people. It’s kind of like a weird fairytale thing where people say, ‘Your Lordship, would you like to do something?’ And I say, ‘No.’”
Guest admits he’s tempted to make a movie set in the world of politics, which one imagines would fall perfectly in line with his penchant for comedies about cringe-inducing ambition.
“I do find politics intriguing from a… personality standpoint. It’s all the same, everywhere I’ve ever been,” he said. Choosing his words carefully, Guest’s eyes glinted as he offered a brief commentary on the current presidential election—one that would certainly make a potent backdrop for a Christopher Guest mockumentary. “This election is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he said with a wry smile. “I’ll just leave you with the idea that I have two passports.”