role call

Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy Answer Every Question We Have About Best in Show

Photo: Doane Gregory/Castle Rock/Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

God loves a terrier, yes he does
God loves a terrier, that’s because
Small, sturdy, bright, and true
They give their love to you
God didn’t miss a stitch
Be it dog or be it bitch
When he made the Norwich merrier with its cute little derriere
Yes, God loves a terrier

Christopher Guest’s 2000 mockumentary Best in Show is largely about very privileged people, the sort of people who can choose “dog fancying” as a hobby or a full time gig — lawyers and Manhattanites and a wealthy nonogenerian’s wife — and how they use show dogs as avatars for their egos. Cookie and Gerry Fleck, middle-class Floridian Norwich Terrier enthusiasts played by Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, are the exception. The couple and their humble little terrier are the heart of the movie, she the former town bicycle and he the schmuck born with two literal left feet. The Flecks are behind on their credit card payments and have to sleep in the hotel storage closet but they refuse to let any of it get in the way of Winky’s dream. These were the roles that solidified O’Hara and Levy as a comedy duo in the collective imagination: they had been working together since the 1970s, but Best in Show was the first time they played a couple. Now, with O’Hara and Levy nominated for their roles as Moira and Johnny Rose in Schitt’s Creek, and ahead of this week’s Friday Night Movie Club screening of the 20-year-old film, we spoke to them about improvising Cookie’s sexual past, how O’Hara came up with that walk, and why Levy believes Fred Willard was the secret ingredient to the movie’s success.

Hello! First of all, congratulations on your Emmy nominations for Schitt’s Creek, as a huge fan and as a Canadian. 
Eugene Levy: That’s nice! Awfully nice.

Schitt’s Creek is a show about a family who’s essentially forced to quarantine together in a small space, unexpectedly. Did it prepare you at all mentally for the past few months of quarantine? 
Catherine O’Hara: [Laughs.]

EL: Interesting.

CO: It should’ve trained us, yeah.

EL: When you think about it, it really was a quarantine situation for that family. It kind of proves that when you’re stuck together in a small space, and you learn to become closer, good things come out of that.

C: I remember by the end of the show realizing how fortunate these parents were — and the kids too, I’d like to think — to be stuck together. Because your kids grow up, and they go off on their own. That’s what’s supposed to happen. And you try to stay in touch, of course you do. But you don’t have that 24 hours a day, where little things will come up, and opportunities for mundane conversations. And I missed that with my kids. So I was kind of envious of Johnny and Moira. And now I get to be with my two sons who are in their 20s, and it’s lovely.

Now, to move from talking about playing these parents of adult kids on Schitt’s Creek to talking about playing parents to a fur baby in Best in Show. You two have been in comedy troupes together since Second City in Toronto, which led to SCTV, and then the Christopher Guest movies. For most of SCTV you weren’t playing the sorts of pairings or couples that you would become known for, beginning with Best in Show. How did you develop these characters and decide to pair up?
CO: You had me in mind for another role, and I actually asked if I could be your wife. You were a single guy, to begin with.

You proposed!
EL: Refresh my memory. Do you remember what the role was, initially?

CO: I don’t want to say, because someone else played it. And they were obviously meant to play it, because they were amazing. I went to meet you and Chris about it, and I [said], “What about you? You don’t have a wife, right? Could we … ?” And then you came over to my house, and we talked about what our history could be with the dog, and how we weren’t that experienced showing dogs, which allowed us to not be as experienced as some of the other people, even though we did this training. Remember this?

EL: Actually it is coming back now, that initially there was another part we asked if you were interested in doing. I think the idea that Gerry Fleck initially was single was when we came up with the idea that he was born with two left feet. That kind of sets the stage for this character, that you would think, Well, this is not a magnet for women.

CO: Aw!

EL: No, no, this is a guy who probably spent most of his life living on his own. That was just a starting point for the character, because from there I went and grabbed a good set of teeth and said, “If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it.”

CO: And then you end up with a woman with whom men have had the best sex of their lives. What a twist!

EL: I think Cookie, pre-Gerry, kind of liked the bad boys. Would you call her a “make-out queen?”

CO: Or as they say in Monty Python, a goer. “She was a goer.” She hadn’t met Gerry yet. She hadn’t met Gerry, and Gerry gave her confidence and respect, and she was truly loved by a good man. And she didn’t need those other bastards.

EL: How funny a concept it was, for these two people to come together. Gerry at one point said that “you’ve been involved with dozens and dozens of guys,” and you say, “hundreds.”

CO: That’s not exaggerated. I’m thinking of how we didn’t really discuss with each other what we were going to look like. And we didn’t really see each other until … I guess Eugene was there a little earlier and went to a trailer, and I was in makeup and hair, and he came in the trailer in his sweater, and shirt — his look— and I had my big hairpiece on, my party outfit. And we looked at each other, and it was so funny. Like, “Okay, all right, that’s who I’m married to.”

EL: That was one of the great things about those movies. There was no prepping with the actors. There were no rehearsals for anything. Nobody really knew what anybody was going to look like.

CO: Or say.

EL: Chris and I, in the office, the more we were going through the characters and laying everything out, it was always, in a way, trying to top each other with what the character would actually look like. And I think in Waiting for Guffman, he definitely took the prize with Corky.

CO: Although you had great glasses in that.

EL: I was going through a phase of playing the guys that — it’s not necessarily “not the sharpest pencil,” [but] those are always great characters to play. Certainly there was a goofiness to these characters in terms of look that seemed to be a running thread in all the movies we did with Chris. Coming up with a look that I thought would be kind of funny and create some kind of empathy for the character. But the combination of Gerry and Cookie together was something. When you look at them, you go, “Okay, I’m not quite sure I’m getting it.”

It really clicks when they sing together. That’s when Cookie and Gerry make sense. 
CO: Eugene wrote some lovely songs for them.

Did you write those songs? 
EL: The terrier song? Yeah. There was [also] a suburbia thing happening with Gerry and Cookie. It was definitely fun to play. And Cookie keeps running into her old boyfriends. That really was a funny premise. They’re talking about the most intimate details in what they were doing, Cookie and these guys, and yet the conversations were had with the same kind of verve that they probably had years ago. The conversations still had them going. In front of Gerry.

CO: Those guys who came in, you had great ideas for them, but they improvised their dialogue along with everyone else. And they took it really seriously. I remember it was kind of spooky. They were so serious about what we had done, and I’d stand there like, “Yeah, yeah,” but inside, I was like, “Oh my god, you are scaring me.”

Do you remember any lines that didn’t make it in that were particularly freaky? 
CO: Oh, there was a lot that didn’t make it in. Because we filmed for around 90 hours, and cut it down to 90 minutes.

EL: The one guy on camera who added his little [adopts singsong voice], “I’m not wearing underwear.” That almost got me going on camera.

How did it complicate or change the loose, improvisational style of a Christopher Guest movie shoot, working with dogs on sets? You both have great chemistry with Winky. 
EL: It was interesting. You did most of the work training with the dog.

CO: Handling.

EL: Handling the dog. It was fun getting together with these dogs in this brief period of time that we had and learning how to show them, how to walk them.

CO: And show them for the judge. The woman actually was a judge in dog shows.

EL: Oddly enough, I came out of it kind of feeling bad for the dogs that take part in these shows, because I realized they spend a lot of time in cages. They spend a lot of time traveling to these shows. And then when they get to the shows, most of the time is either standing in a cage or tied up and being groomed and brushed for hours. It’s not really life.

CO: While we were shooting the backstage scenes in the giant arena in Vancouver, the DPs were always clear with the handlers or dog owners when we were on camera or off camera, so these people did not stop grooming. It was really funny, when it came to the final, and you won with Winky. We had real handlers and their real show dogs with us in the show, and several of them came up to me and said, “Why are you winning? Why is he winning?”

EL: It’s a bizarre world, dog shows.

Eugene, you co-wrote Best in Show with Christopher Guest. Why skewer dog shows? 
EL: Well, it was Chris’s idea. I thought it was a really interesting idea. I always had a problem with the end of the movie, with the third act, because I would say, “It’s a funny premise. What are we going to do at the end of the dog show, though? How do we make a dog show funny? It’s gotta be a legitimate dog show.” Unlike Waiting for Guffman, where we wrote the show and we could make that show funny, a dog show’s gotta be a legitimate dog show. And it wasn’t until Chris suggested, “What if Fred Willard was the color commentator for the dog show?” That opened the door for me. I said “Okay, got it, say no more. That’s brilliant, that’s great.” So the dog show itself was as legitimate as we could make it, and Fred was the secret ingredient. He just went crazy, he was so funny. He was the saving grace during the show.

CO: And Jim Piddock did such a beautiful job as straight man, for Fred to be able to go nuts. He kept it real, he was so legitimate and serious. It was a beautiful balance between the two of them.

EL: Let alone not laughing on camera.

CO: Talk about keeping a straight face.

EL: I would tune into Westminster for little bits over the years, because I love dogs. It was hard to watch the whole thing because it got a bit tedious for me, but the color commentator on the Westminster dog show was a former baseball player named Joe Garagiola. I think he was on the Today Show sporadically as well. The inspiration for the Fred character was what Joe Garagiola was to the Westminster, because he would make comments that kind of jumped out of what was going on. And you got a sense that he didn’t know that much about the dog show world. So, maybe, because I know that Chris used to watch that as well, that possibly could be the inspiration for doing [Best in Show]. I don’t know. It’s something I may want to ask him.

CO: Maybe he’ll tell you that the whole movie was actually based around Fred.

EL: And it wasn’t until we actually started researching and going to dog shows — bigger dog shows, state dog shows, local dog shows — that we really got a sense as to what was going on with these people, and who these people were, who the trainers were, how the trainers related to the owners. It was a fascinating world once we got into it.

Cookie has one line where she holds Winky up to the camera and says, “Have you ever seen a sweeter face? A more happier-to-know-ya kind of attitude?” These dog show people seem to project so much of their own self-images and these stories they tell about themselves onto their chosen breeds, and onto their dogs. Even though Winky really does look like that. 
CO: Oh, Winky is a doll.

But I imagine that’s a really rich ground for building these characters. 
EL: It’s like those pictures online of dogs and their owners where there’s a similarity in look. I think that’s a fact with dog owners. Not all dog owners necessarily, but certainly some, who like to project their own thing onto their dog or get a dog that projects their image. Like a big macho guy will get a big Doberman. We had a ball with our dog, though. Winky. I can’t remember his real name.

CO: Brillo!

That’s so cute! 
CO: The owners of our dog were not really seriously into the game. It was perfect! Brillo-Winky had the right kind of plucky energy to be our characters’ dog, because his actual owners/parents/whatever they consider themselves were loose and cool about it. They didn’t take it too seriously. So he was the perfect dog for us.

It’s so perfect how your characters have this scrappy little terrier, and you get the underdog narrative. 
EL: He was a cutie, that’s for sure. It was a nerve-wracking experience actually walking the dog on camera during the dog show.

CO: Yeah.

EL: Because you just wanted to make sure you were doing everything the way you were supposed to be doing it, because you had a sense that dog show people would be watching this movie. And what you didn’t necessarily want was for them to say, “No, no no. That’s no way to walk a dog. They’re not doing that properly.”

Even though your character has two left feet. So it’s a real triumph when he shows Winky. 
CO: Brillo worked around that, too.

I want to ask about the scene where you, Catherine, trip and fall backstage, right before Eugene shows Winky. That wobbly walk is such hilarious physical comedy. I read somewhere that you took that walk from your dad. Is that true?
CO: That was my dad’s bit. He would walk ahead of us and do that walk, and we’d all laugh. I’ve got six brothers and sisters, and we all learned how to do it. But I got to do it in a movie. But yeah, I had to be out of the show, somehow, so that Gerry could show the dog. And the night before we were the arena, we’d shot that day, and we had a little meeting, Eugene, Chris and I. And they were talking about hurting yourself or falling, and I said, “Okay, what if I do this?” And I walked away from them. And Chris said, “Yes. Do that.”

EL: It was insane, it was so funny.

CO: And I loved being so mad, like I thought somebody had put something down to trip me and sabotage us.

I love how the stakes are so high, this is the climax of the movie, and that’s the action. 
CO: Isn’t it ridiculous?

The last we see of Cookie and Gerry, they’re recording an album of Terrier songs, making music together. Was this the origin for the next time you two would pair up, as Mitch and Mickey in A Mighty Wind
EL: There was no link from this movie into A Mighty Wind. It was just Chris, talking about doing a movie about folk music. And I jumped to that right away because I did sing folk music years ago. You know, not in a major way, just around town. And Chris was also into folk music back when he was in New York, in the ‘60s.

When we were shooting Best in Show, one of the most fun aspects of actually shooting it was working with Michael Higgins. He’s kind of a savant when it comes to musical and vocal arrangements. So when we’d finish a scene, Michael, Catherine and myself and Jane Lynch would run off, find a room with good acoustics, and he would teach us these arrangements. So we were always learning these great vocal arrangements, the four of us. And I think possibly the fact that there was so much musical talent in the cast may have been a trigger to even thinking of folk music.

CO: Yeah. And Michael did arrange all the vocals for the Main Street Singers in A Mighty Wind, didn’t he?

EL: He did all the vocal arrangements for them. And in a way, when you heard the first vocal arrangement that he came up with, didn’t you kind of think, “I’d kill to be in that group”?

CO: Yeah! Oh, it’s really fun to sing with him. He and his wife would have Christmas parties, and a lot of their friends are in the L.A. Chorale, so they’re serious and they’re all amazing sight-readers. And he had maybe less than 20 people over, and he would have these four- or five-part songs, really old, strange Christmas songs. And he’d play the parts for us and e’d all go off to different parts of his house. He gave us like 15 minutes to learn our parts, and we’d come back together and sing five-part harmony. The wildest harmonies. And it was so fun to do that.

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These Two Answer Every Question We Have About Best in Show