Published on May 17th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Eulogy – Fred Willard
Yesterday, an unsung comedic legend passed away. Willard was a tireless journeyman for the craft and was at the forefront of improv comedy’s big boom.
Fred Willard, who passed away yesterday at the age of 86, is probably best remembered for the numerous characters he lent to Christopher Guest films like Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and Waiting for Guffman. Or from appearances in Anchorman, Modern Family, or Everybody Loves Raymond. Additionally, he famously created a sketch group called Ace Trucking Company that went on to perform on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson over fifty times. Willard was also a Second City Theatre alum and cut his teeth in the art of improvisation at a very early time for the craft. He was no stranger to the kind of sketch and improv sensibilities that came to prominence in major film comedy over the last thirty years.
His contributions to the mockumentary sub-genre cannot be overstated. He sat at the cool kids table with Christopher Guest, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, et. al. Working as a kind of featured player in a sketch outfit, he appeared in every one of Christopher Guest’s famed mock-docs. These films were heavily improvised and really set a precedent for the spontaneity and true-to-life blathering that improvisation can bring to life. He also featured on Fernwood 2 Night in the late ‘70s, a clever fake talk show setup that took on a similar cadence well ahead of its time.
His commentator character, Buck Laughlin, in 2000’s Best in Show is the best example of this. A character with very little screen time, he made every moment count as the joylessly clueless sportscaster who was clearly not in his element. What makes his role great is the seamless way the film uses him as a comedic buffer while the actual dog-showing is going on. It’s a kind of line-o-rama that they keep cutting back to throughout the entire third act of the film. It may seem cheap—this strategy of throwing funny lines spoken by a spectator into a scene to prop it up. But Willard makes it work incredibly well, forming a character who plays like your average, painfully pedestrian, American joe. He kind of relates to the audience as well as play to them.
Another great example of Willard’s wit was this scene in A Mighty Wind. His character is put in a position where he walks the audience through his role in the folk music scene, a story as long winded and self-indulgent as Willard has ever performed. What was so brilliant about Willard was his ability to play characters who are blissfully unaware of their stupidity. Mike LaFontaine is egregious in this regard, smiling his way through a rather embarrassing and sad kind of personal flex. I’m not sure exactly how much of this was improvised, but I really, really hope he came up with those catchphrases on the fly.
But my favorite Willard moment is not something a lot of people remember him for. It’s Adult Swim’s cult favorite Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show Great Job. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim put Willard right in his comfort zone, embracing surreal absurdity with a big, goofy smile. In his sketches, he is either a man who is on TV selling his patented “slop” or a “man-cierge” who flagrantly overwhelms himself with phone books and road maps. Willard performs both characters with his signature jovial-but-dim wit. Once again, he embraces the complete lack of self-awareness of the absurdity. That schtick, mixed with the completely disgusting and abject nature of the bit, produces the perfect comedic timbre.
Fred Willard will be missed, but his contribution to film and television will not be forgotten. A very humble man, Willard would probably scoff at all the praise he has been showered with since his death. Always committing to the bit, he’d probably smile and say, “I don’t think so!”