The Real-Life Inspiration Behind Fred Willard's Best In Show Character

Ah, the dog show. We love the dog show, don't we, folks? The colorful showroom, the prestigious trophies, the informative commentary, and of course, the doggos. The Westminster Kennel Club, the American Kennel Club, all kinds of fancy-sounding institutions clear out the floor where citizens from all walks of life compete alongside their beloved, expensive pets for the ultimate honor in dog supremacy: Best in Show.

In 2000, "This is Spinal Tap" actor and "Waiting for Guffman" director Christopher Guest came in hot with another mockumentary, this time poking fun at American dog shows. "Best in Show" was co-written by Guest and Eugene Levy, both of whom star. The story is straightforward, following a quintet of trainers and handlers at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia.

"Best In Show" is less about the canines and more about the cadre of characters that handle them. The movie begins with neurotic new money couple Meg and Hamilton Swan (Michael Hitchcock and Parker Posey) in therapy with their Weimaraner Beatrice, who witnessed them having sex. The next couple is the formerly promiscuous Cookie and the gangly, awkward Jerry Fleck (Catherine O'Hara and Levy), who would be showing their terrier Winkie. Harlan Pepper (Guest) is a southern fishin' man with a ventriloquist hobby, showing his bloodhound Hubert. While the characters are individually exhausting and amusing, their actors play them all straight, with considerable improv done in each and every scene. One of the most memorable among them is the clueless commentator Buck Laughlin, played by the late, great Fred Willard. A frequent collaborator with Guest and featuring in several of his films, Willard has plenty of off-the-cuff lines leading to hilarity throughout the competition, but fans might not know that Buck was partly based on another wild card commentator: Joe Garagiola Sr.

'I have yet to see a dog hit a ball or catch a football'

Garagiola Sr. was many things: a baseball player (catcher for assorted National League teams), a sports announcer for NBC, and from the mid-90s to the early aughts, co-host of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Hosted at the illustrious Madison Square Garden, the show benefitted from the everyman entertainment he provided. Admittedly not an expert, Garagiola Sr.'s only connection to the competition was that he loved dogs, and the lack of knowledge, along with his genuine curiosity, made for a fun show. Especially for those of us who don't show purebred dogs but love – to use the technical terms – a boopable nose and a nice tuft of ear floofers. 

Speaking to CNN on the eve of the 2001 Westminster show, the Army veteran gave a perfect example of the kind of remarks that made their way into the creation of Buck Laughlin:

"Well, I love to talk to the trainers, the handlers, the owners, and different things intrigue me: why a guy would buy a $900 suit and put four pounds of calf liver in his pocket to feed the dog. That always is intriguing to me."

The same interview has Garagiola Sr. wondering aloud if dog handlers "scout" judges that might be partial to their dog's particular breed; asked if showing competition dogs is a sport, he remarked, "I have yet to see a dog hit a ball or catch a football." In fact, it's hard not to read the transcript in Fred Willard's voice.

'How much do you think I can bench press? Ballpark figure'

Guest's "Best in Show" released the same year as that interview, and by then Garagiola Sr. had been co-hosting for years alongside, no doubt, an infinitely more qualified commentator. The film's analog announcer Buck was also a former athlete, and modeled in a similar way. In Ringer's oral history of the film, Willard explains his process:

 "I was thinking of my character, and the lines that would come out of my character, who was supposed to be an ex-athlete, who has just signed on to be a color commentator, and who had no real knowledge of the dogs. In other words, he didn't value the different types of dogs. I pictured him as imagining that everyone has tuned in to hear what he had to say, as opposed to watching the Westminster Dog Show. So he contributed more about himself than he did about the dogs. He just made wild comments."

These comments would include, but weren't limited to:

  • Asking his co-host how much he thought he could bench press

  • A mercifully brief anecdote about toying with kinkplay

  • An observation that "in some countries, these dogs are eaten" on live TV

  • Dad jokes about Shih Tzus

Willard's counterpart Jim Piddock, as Trevor Beckwith, largely played catcher to his co-star's improvisational skills:

"I'd done very little improvisation since drama school. So nothing prepared me, other than the sheer terror that everyone feels about improvising without any rehearsal. I mean, I'd seen Guffman and Spinal Tap, so I knew the style. And I knew what Fred was about. I didn't quite know where he was going, and he wouldn't tell me what he was going to do or anything. I had done a ridiculous amount of research, studying a very boring book called "The American Kennel Club" something or other—it's like a bible. And it's extremely fascist. I just tried to keep things along the lines of reality, and react. And that kind of was perfect, to be the straight man. And luckily, Fred is, you know, genius. So he would go off on his stuff, and I would do the polite British thing of being at first mildly amused, then mildly annoyed, and then kind of really annoyed —but never saying anything, because (a) I'm British, and (b) we're on the air."

Lighten up, Francis

The peanut gallery approach Willard took is a tried-and-true way to make events like the Westminster (or the Mayflower) watchable for extended periods of time. American comedian Leslie Jones (seen here losing it over "Game of Thrones") gained a fanatical following on social media through her at-home Olympics coverage from 2016 onward, through good-natured live-tweets and reaction videos — that is, until NBC told her to pipe down, to the outrage of all. Luckily, internet bullying works, and the network backed down immediately following backlash demanding the beautifully profane and enthusiastic commentary. For many, that armchair analysis was the best part of watching the Olympics because it felt relatable; in curling, a T-line (which is apparently important) is defined as: "The line that passes through the button of the house across the width of the sheet." What in Zeus' butthole does that even mean? Jones didn't know, either, but that didn't stop her from screaming encouragement at the players pushing their little brooms like the in-laws were visiting. Likewise, Garagiola and Buck Laughlin create a similar accessibility to sports and the cultures that excel at them.

What did Garagiola Sr. think of the movie, though? He told CNN:

"I saw the movie. I think Fred was playing me. I think he used some lines I wouldn't use, but he's a funny guy and, hey, we all have our tastes."