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Christopher Guest: “It becomes apparent in five seconds whether an improviser is going to bomb.”

Christopher Guest, the director of "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show," brings his very specific, finely crafted form of improvised comedy to television with "Family Tree" an eight-episode HBO series which begins Sunday and stars Chris O'Dowd as a man who becomes interested in investigating his ancestry, encountering any number of oddballs on his search (including Guest regulars like Michael McKean, Ed Begley Jr., and Fred Willard).

Guest, notoriously serious when just being himself, spoke with me about the show, the pervasive influence of "This Is Spinal Tap's" mockumentary format, and how he identifies performers who are up to the "peculiar challenge" of improvising on camera.

Had you been wanting to do TV?

No, no. I hadn’t been thinking about anything really, which is typical. I finish a project and I take some years off. And in this case, I did a bunch of music after my last movie. I did two records and two music tours, and then I began to think about things, and this idea popped in my head. And because this is a never-ending story, it really couldn’t have been a film. There was no finite end to the idea. So HBO made sense and is a place where you can get the support to do things the way you do them, which is kind of vital for me.

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