In a career that dates back more than 50 years and holds more than 300(!) credits, the thing that I will remember most about Fred Willard is the simplest and most obvious.
He was never not funny.
It’s impossible to know where to start when trying to cover a career that encompasses Bob Newhart’s 70s sitcom and carried all the way through Modern Family, so I’m just going to focus on my favorite portion of Willard’s career:
The Christopher Guest movies.
Their relationship began on the Guest-written, Rob Reiner-directed mockumentary classic, This Is Spinal Tap, which supplied Willard with a hysterical bit as “colonel on a military base.” It didn’t matter how small the part, as I said, Fred Willard: never not funny.
When Guest took his turn behind the camera as a director, Willard had parts in all of his best films:
Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration, and, okay, Mascots too.
Like many people, it’s his work in Best In Show that resonates with me the most. Inspired by former baseball color broadcaster, Joe Garagiola, who covered the Westminster Dog Show from 1994 to 2002 with more enthusiasm than expertise, Willard was an out and out laugh riot.
To describe as mere comedy what he was doing in the part of the ridiculously named Buck Laughlin is to confront the terribly confining limitations of language. As Laughlin, Willard was a variation of that incredibly inappropriate uncle at Thanksgiving who never knew when to stop talking and had no sense that his opinion might not be shared or even desired. The thing is, that uncle is usually annoying if not downright offensive. In Willard’s hands, Buck Laughlin was a far past his prime sports announcer who was so happy to be anywhere that his joy was infectious. You simply couldn’t hold anything against him.
It didn’t matter if he was opining on the method a judge used to cup the testicles of a prized beagle, or suggesting that a bloodhound might be more appealing if he were wearing a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat, every word out of Willard’s mouth created a euphoric state of amusement. Guest’s films are known for encouraging actors to improvise. I don’t know that Willard made up every line he spoke in Best In Show or not, but it certainly feels like he did.
Every word out of his mouth felt spontaneous. As a viewer, there was no way to prepare yourself for what might come next.
Here’s just a sampling:
“And to think that in some countries these dogs are eaten.”
“Tell me, do you know the difference between a rectal thermometer and a tongue depressor?”
[after Beatrice the dog jumps up on the show judge] “He went for her like she’s made outta ham.”
“Excuse me if this is off the subject a little bit, but just take a guess at how much I can bench press. Come on, what do you think? Take a guess. 315 pounds, at the top of my game, maxing out at 500!”
All credit to Jim Piddock who played Laughlin’s long-suffering co-host, Trevor Beckwith, for keeping a straight face. I honestly don’t know how he did it.
And really, how did anyone hold it together in Fred Willard’s presence? I would start laughing whenever I saw him onscreen, in parts big or small. I’m not saying Fred Willard was necessarily the funniest human being to walk the planet. What I am saying is I will offer no counter argument to anyone who would say that he was.
I mean, really, what would you even say back? He was truly “best in show.”
Fred Willard died today. He was 86 years old.