When the sad news came down this weekend that comic great Fred Willard had died, fans all across the internet looked back on some of his greatest roles. Some recalled his hysterical portrayal of KVWN news director Ed Harken in the Anchorman films, while others remembered travel agent Ron Albertson in Waiting For Guffman, Grandpa Frank Dunphy on Modern Family and folk music manager Mike LaFontaine in A Mighty Wind.
It was his work in the 2000 Christopher Guest mockumentary Best In Show, however, that generated the most conversation, and with good reason. Despite his minimal screen time and an ensemble cast packed with comic heavyweights like Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parkey Poser, Michael McKean and Jennifer Coolidge, Willard’s take on dog show color commentator Buck Laughlin is the single funniest part of the movie.
Like many of Willard’s best characters, Laughlin is a buffoon without even a tiny shred of self-awareness. He doesn’t know the first thing about purebred dogs or how they are judged, but he’s somehow secured the position of a color commentator at a prestigious dog show. Working alongside him is dog expert Trevor Beckwith — played with glorious self-restraint by British actor Jim Piddock — though Laughlin barely lets him get in a word.
“I don’t think I could ever get used to being poked and prodded like that,” Laughlin says while watching a judge examine one of the dogs. “I told my proctologist one time, ‘Why don’t you take me out to dinner and a movie sometime?'” Beckwith does his best to mask his irritation at this line of conversation. “Yes,” he says. “I remember you said that last year.”
Here’s a scene where the hounds come out and Laughlin shares an idea that pops into his head. “Why don’t they put the bloodhound — put on one of those Sherlock Holmes hats and put a little pipe in his mouth?” he asks. “Are they ever allowed to do anything like that? Dress up the dog in a funny way? It would really get the crowd going. You know what I mean? The Sherlock Holmes hat with a pipe. I don’t know if you could make it look like smoke is coming out of the pipe.”
Willard worked steadily until shortly before his death. He even shot a recurring role on the upcoming Netflix show Space Force where he plays the Secretary of Defense. The show debuts later this month and expectations are very high since it’s the first collaboration between Steve Carell and Greg Daniels since The Office. The cast also features John Malkovich, Ben Schwartz, Jane Lynch and Lisa Kudrow along with Carell, but we have little doubt that Willard will find a way to steal the scene every time he’s on camera. The man was a comic genius.