An improv master takes on TV: May HBO

Christopher Guest hates it when people call his films (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show) mockumentaries. So we’ll play nice and say that his new series, Family Tree, is not that. Instead it’s Guest’s (and co-creator Jim Piddock’s) first foray into television — done in his signature improv-heavy documentary style — starring Chris O’Dowd as a Brit who investigates his ancestry… and tries to make sense of all the nuts that fall out of his family tree.

This sounds like a very personal project.

Yes. I’ve been thinking about it for 15 years. The idea really started after my dad died. He left a lot of boxes, and there were family trees and things from my great-great-grandparents. I was originally going to do it as a record where I would do the voices of my family members and just tell stories. Then I realized it might be more interesting as a show. Chris O’Dowd plays a guy whose girlfriend has dumped him and he’s lost his job, and then he gets this box of treasures and figures, I have nothing else to do, so I’ll look into this. He meets these weirdos that everyone has in their family. Odd people keep coming out of the woodwork.

Family Tree is an HBO production. Why them?

I knew it could never be a network show because I can’t have commercials in what I’m doing. I look at it as one of my films, just broken into eight episodes.

What did you see Chris in that made you cast him?

The first thing was Bridesmaids. We were looking for someone who was an Everyman that people could relate to. And he’s unbelievable at improv.

That’s good, since he goes up against your stable of Guest players: Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., and Fred Willard.

I’ve been working with Fred Willard since This Is Spinal Tap. When I started, I drew on the people I knew who could do this kind of work. There are not that many people who can improvise on camera that way.

Are there scripts?

No. Each of these episodes is an eight-page outline. But we’ve written a huge back history for every character, which took us six or eight months to come up with. We’ve done an entire family tree going back to the 1700s. So when I talk to the actors prior to shooting, everyone knows who they are. It’s not just ”Hey, let’s start yapping here.”