Staunch Characters pays tribute to great character actors by singling out a specific performance that illustrates their mastery.
Buck Laughlin, the gloriously idiotic television personality played by Fred Willard in 2000’s Best In Show, does not make his first appearance until the 45-minute mark, when the film is half over and we have already been introduced to all of its other characters, a motley crew of obsessives of varying degrees of ridiculousness competing in the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show.
Dating back to his early days as Martin Mull’s sidekick on Fernwood 2 Night and later America 2 Night, Second City veteran Willard has specialized in playing genial idiots, goofballs uncomfortably comfortable with their own grinning, oblivious cluelessness. Laughlin fits perfectly within this niche. He is the quintessential Fred-Willard type. Yet within the context of the film, Laughlin, despite being a raging moron, also serves as something of an audience surrogate, an outsider who approaches this insular, cryptic, rule-bound world with a sense of curiosity only outmatched by his innate cluelessness.
Much to the chagrin of his eminently qualified co-commentator Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock), who understands the world of dog shows and dog-breeding intimately, Laughlin asks the kind of questions the general public would ask about dog shows if they weren’t too afraid of looking stupid to ask. One of Willard’s great gifts as an improviser and as a comic actor is his willingness, even eagerness, to look stupid. Few actors are as brilliant at playing the fool without any overarching sense of distance or irony.
So where saner, smarter men would proceed with caution, Laughlin happily blunders his way through the climactic dog show, an American institution that the general public enjoys but does not understand. What exactly is being judged at a dog show? Is it, as it appears to be, primarily a matter of determining which dog is fanciest, and consequently best? And why does this process seem to center on a thorough examination of the various dogs’ crotches?
Laughlin is unafraid to ask these questions with the cornball bonhomie of your uncle who can’t stop laughing at his own jokes no matter how often he’s repeated them. In one of the film’s subtler gags, when a dog-show judge is subjecting a canine to a suspiciously thorough crotch inspection, Laughlin quips that it reminds him of his proctologist, and in a variation on what might be the oldest, most hack joke in existence, says that he told his proctologist he should buy him dinner and a movie before inspecting his bathing suit area. Beckwith notes with the perfect note of barely suppressed irritation that he remembers Laughlin making the same joke the previous year.
Piddock’s performance hasn’t been praised to the extent Willard’s has, but that’s because Piddock is playing the innately less flashy and attention-grabbing role of the straight man. Part of what makes their scenes work so beautifully is that Beckwith perpetually seems on the verge of cracking and calling his colleague out on the stupidity of everything he says, without ever quite going over the edge. Beckwith heroically maintains the professionally mandated fiction that Laughlin is a reasonable grown-up in a way that lends an exhilarating comic tension to their chemistry.
Laughlin is the quintessential jock out of his league, prone to offering baseball metaphors in lieu of expertise or even basic information. What makes Willard’s crowd-pleasing performance so inspired is that it touches upon how cute pets bring out the idiot in all of us, how the sight of a particularly darling dog or cat reduces us to an almost sub-verbal state of rapt appreciation. Animals have a way of clouding the adult part of our brains and bringing out the idiot in us all, and Willard plays that to a hilt, whether he’s asking why the dogs can’t be dressed up like Sherlock Holmes or proposing a calendar of sexy women washing dogs in revealing outfits as a way to raise money for the dog show.
Best In Show can be mean-spirited and more than a bit cruel, but there’s a likability to Willard’s performance that helps save the film from misanthropy. The film is full of characters who are lying to themselves and to the world about who they really are, but Laughlin, God bless him, has no pretensions or delusions. There’s no filter between his idiot brain and his mouth, and there’s an ease in this performance. In Willard’s oeuvre, that helps explain why he’s one of the most beloved and consistent figures in comedy. Willard is an absolute genius at getting inside the foggy, easily distracted minds of absolute morons.