This Is Spinal Tap: 11 Fun Facts at 40

The fake movie band has had very real success.


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The best comedy has always been rooted in truth. Here are two truths: The travails of being in a working band are frequently hilarious, and This Is Spinal Tap is one of the greatest comedies ever made. Forty years ago, four actor friends created a film that not only set them on remarkably successful paths, but also produced a sequel to their original masterpiece. Here are ten —wait, make that eleven — fun facts about Spinal Tap.

1. Getting the Band Together

Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer were all firmly established in show business by 1983. Reiner was perhaps the most famous; the son of comedic genius Carl and singer/actress Estelle, Rob had been part of the cast of All in the Family from 1971-1978 and had written for The Smothers Brothers and Happy Days, among other shows. Guest had been steadily working in film, TV, and theater. McKean was best known as Lenny on Laverne & Shirley. And Shearer had been in the business since he was a child, making early appearances as young Jack Benny on the The Jack Benny Program on the radio and turning up in movies like Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. McKean and Guest had known each other since the 1960s and had played music together, but all of their paths had crossed among various TV and film projects. By 1978, the four of them would work on a pilot together called The TV Show.

2. A Failed TV Show Leads to a Movie

The TV Show was positioned as a sketch comedy show. One of the bits in the pilot involved a fictional band that the gang named Spinal Tap. Guest and McKean each improvised characters that they would name, respectively, Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins. In an odd bit of foreshadowing, Guest had also used the Nigel alias to perform on McKean’s 1979 album, Lenny & Squiggy Present Lenny and The Squigtones. That album was based on the fictional band that McKean’s character, Lenny, led on Laverne & Shirley.

3. Help is Occasionally All in the Family

As the four partners began to develop the idea of a longer-form Spinal Tap project, they framed it as a documentary of the fictional band. The plot would investigate the history of the group as they embarked on a bumpy tour of the U.S. While there was some precedent for a fake musical documentary (notably All You Need is Cash, a 1978 NBC TV movie centered on Monty Python member Eric Idle’s Beatles parody group), the idea of a feature film was different territory. After failing to secure backing, Reiner found it in the form of $2 million provided by Norman Lear, the developer and co-producer of his former show, All in the Family.

4. Making It Up As They Go Along

This Is Spinal Tap trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

While Reiner, McKean, Shearer, and Guest had put together an overarching plot, nearly all of the dialogue in the film was improvised. Scenes had starting points and ending points, but what happened in between largely relied on the actors playing off one another as the camera rolled. As such, hours and hours of footage existed that would be edited down into the eventual final product.

5. Almost Famous

A number of other comedic actors appeared in the film prior to major breakthroughs. Billy Crystal had already been in Rabbit Test and TV’s Soap, but he got a memorable turn as a seriously annoyed mime waiter. That would also be his first film with Reiner; the duo would follow that up by collaborating on two future classics, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. Crystal’s mime waiter apprentice, who appropriately doesn’t speak, was played by Dana Carvey. Fran Drescher, who had appeared in small roles in Saturday Night Fever and Doctor Detroit, got more, frequently hilarious, screentime as Bobbi Flekman, the artist relations specialist from Polymer Records. Other famous faces seen in passing or single scenes included Howard Hesseman, Angelica Huston, Patrick Macnee, Ed Begley Jr., Bruno Kirby, Fred Willard, and Paul Shaffer.

6. And Musicians, Too!

The creators of Spinal Tap on Entertainment Tonight in 1984 (Uploaded to YouTube by Entertainment Tonight)

It’s well-known at this point that Guest, McKean, and Shearer wrote (with Reiner) and performed all of the Spinal Tap songs used in the film. But the other two on-screen members of the band, keyboardist Viv Savage and ill-fated drummer Mick Shrimpton, starred working musicians. Savage was played by David Kaff, best-known as the keyboardist in prog-rock band Rare Bird. Shrimpton was played by R.J. Parnell, who drummed for, among others, Atomic Rooster, Nova, and Jon Anderson; he was also the drummer on Toni Basil’s ’80s smash, “Mickey.” Other music makers with cameos included Paul Shortino (of Rough Cutt, The Cult, and Quiet Riot), legendary session guitarist Danny Kortchmar (seriously, look up his credits), and drummer Russ Kunkel (whose discography is equally staggering).

7. Lasting Hit

Spinal Tap appeared on Saturday Night Live to promote the film in 1974 (Uploaded to YouTube by Saturday Night Live)

This Is Spinal Tap hit theaters in March of 1984 and struck a chord with critics. Widely praised, the film received four-star ratings from the immortal duo of Siskel and Ebert. It would more than double its budget in theaters and earned a spot as a cult classic on video. So revered is the film for its wit and insight that it was selected in 2002 by the Library Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

8. Too Much Perspective

One group of movie-goers received the film in a slightly different way: working musicians. While it is much loved in musical circles, the initial reaction from a number of bands was the shock of the familiar. Many, many musicians actually thought the film was about them, given how accurately it skewered touring, and metal in particular. Among the acts that saw themselves in the movie were Ozzy Osbourne, Quiet Riot, and Aerosmith. Rockers particularly felt the scene where the band gets lost on the way to the stage in Cleveland, explaining that this is a shockingly common occurrence in large venues.

9. Non-Stop Touring

The trailer for A Mighty Wind (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

After This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner, Shearer, McKean, and Guest continued to build on active careers with a frankly astounding body of work. Reiner’s filmography as a director includes gems like the aforementioned When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride, as well as Stand by Me, Misery, and A Few Good Men. Guest started directing comedies in documentary style and struck gold with pictures like Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. McKean and Shearer repeatedly turned up in Guest’s films (in Wind, they notably play a folk trio). McKean took a turn as an SNL cast member and has a frankly daunting list of stage, TV, and movie credits; standouts include playing Perry White in Smallville and his Emmy-nominated role from Better Call Saul. Shearer’s list is equally amazing, but the obvious topper is his place as a pillar of The Simpsons, where since 1989 he’s voiced both Mr. Burns, Smithers, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and many more.

10. Comeback Tours!

Thanks to the pervasive place This Is Spinal Tap has earned in American consciousness, the band that wasn’t has returned on a number of occasions. In 1992 they did a new album, Break Like the Wind, and a subsequent tour. Tap has turned up for one-off appearances and live shows over the years. In 2022, it was confirmed that the band was getting back together for a sequel film, Spinal Tap II, which is set for release in 2024.

11. Why?

Because this one goes to eleven.

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