How IFC's 'Documentary Now!' Reminds Us It's Ok to Laugh at Docs
By KJ Relth
We might not consider it much, but the documentary form has always been ripe for parody. Look as far back as Rob Reiner's seminal This Is Spinal Tap (1984) or the weekly riffs on real-life events appearing in countless Saturday Night Live sketches for proof that spoofing docs is nothing new. Even shows as widely popular as Parks and Recreation take a page from the reality television-style confessional format to such successful effect that the convention has become all but invisible. But never has an entire style of filmmaking been so lovingly lampooned as in IFC's new series Documentary Now!, a six-episode, pitch-perfect and hilarious rewriting of the history of documentary films and the makers responsible for them.
Straight from the minds of former SNL collaborators Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers, Documentary Now! provides a tongue-in-cheek look at a form that traditionally wears the label of anything but "funny." Taking on everything from 1922's Nanook of the North to VICE's contemporary hipster journalism and so much in between, the new series delivers on its promise to "honor some of the most important stories that didn’t actually happen." Audiences expecting quick and easy jabs at the Ken Burns effect or overdone parodies of Oscar-baity tear-jerkers will be relieved to find jokes that work hard for their effect, some taking a full 22-minute episode for the entire scope of the punch line to be revealed.
The level of "ridiculous authenticity" behind the show's execution goes as far as hunting down the original camera lenses used by Robert Flaherty in the 1920s for one episode, while exquisitely mimicking the Maysles brothers' 1970s editing rhythm and 16mm aesthetic in another. While doc buffs everywhere might be completely tuned in to the entire breadth of each episode's broader joke, we were interested in whether these parodies would jibe with a wider audience. We reached out to series co-director Rhys Thomas to discuss audience comprehension, and what to expect from arguably one of the most niche series on television today.
The whole idea behind Documentary Now! started with Bill Hader and Fred Armisen's collaboration on 'The History of Punk', a mockumentary sketch in the style of This Is Spinal Tap. What made you want to stretch the concept even further into the episodic form?
Though we'd all worked together countless times over the years on different short films for SNL, this was our first foray into the documentary format. We'd shot things in the "documentary style" before—handheld camera, self aware performance etc.—but "The History of Punk", like Spinal Tap, went further in that we set out to invest as much reality as possible in the backstory of Ian Rubbish and his band. We wanted it to feel like a real documentary about a real life figure. We shot archival photographs, recreated an old BBC talk show, faked b-roll of different performances and interviewed a real-life punk, Steve Jones, all to help reinforce this. We had a lot of fun imagining the details and realized what a great format it was for all of us, as fans of the documentary genre.
At what point were you brought in to help execute this concept? With each episode created in a totally different style and with eras from the 1920s to the present represented, it seems a monumental task to pull off each episode effectively!
Fred, Bill and Seth invited me on board not long after they met with IFC. For about six months we just sent emails back and forth suggesting ideas, favorite documentaries, etc. About a year before we went into production, we all got together for a week to start pinning down ideas. It's always fun sitting in the room while wild ideas are being thrown around, knowing that at some point you're going to have to actually figure out how to execute them. My practical side is always doing its best to temper my ambitious side; rarely does it triumph. Fortunately, I had the help and support of Alex Buono (my co-director and DP); producers that supported all of our wild ideas; and the most amazing production team we could have hoped for. It was a monumental task but fortunately we had a formidable army.
This series touches on something so fundamental about human nature, so that even if you're not well-steeped in the rich history of documentary, you can find the humor in it. In a recent interview, Bill referenced the universality of Monty Python, even for a younger viewer. Was audience comprehension ever a concern, knowing you were referencing films from 40 or even 90 years ago?
It's always a concern in comedy. Ultimately you want people to laugh and rarely will they laugh if they don't understand the joke. While familiarity with some of the documentaries we're referencing will definitely enhance your enjoyment of each episode, we worked hard to make sure it wasn't a prerequisite. Each film has a beginning, middle and end and fairly preposterous stories. Couple that with some really wonderful character work from Bill and Fred (and our amazing supporting cast) and I think you'll still find something enjoyable. On the flip side, if you feel like you're missing something, there's no better time to go out and discover these documentaries. They're all amazing in their own right and we only chose them because we're massive fans of both them and the filmmakers behind them.
While it might be easy to lampoon something like a bleeding-heart social issue doc, every episode of Documentary Now! stops short of being a complete tear down of the documentary art form. Except the VICE-style exposé in Episode 2 that brilliantly mocks the whole concept of "hipster journalism," each of these spoofs come across as loving homages to the original works. What kept you from taking things too far?
We're all big documentary fans. That's what really brought us all together on this in the first place. To us, these aren't really "mockumentaries"; they're homages. Or altered remakes. One of our goals was to create something that you might confuse for the real thing if you were just flipping channels and landed on it. Hopefully it would take you a few minutes to realize there was something different going on. Part of that relies on keeping things dry and not taking too many liberties with the form.
In several episodes, the filmmakers themselves become the subject of parody—one doc turns into a found-footage horror film with the sound guy running for his life, while another calls the auteur theory into question. Was your intent to parody more than just the form, but also the artists behind the development of the form? We all need to laugh at ourselves sometimes, after all!
We never stated an intent to parody the artists themselves but because the frame of a documentary is factual and in most cases "objective" (or at least presented as such), you can't help but want to know more about the person behind the camera. Seth was behind both these particular episodes. In the case of Kunuk, our jumping-off point was the controversy surrounding Flaherty's Nanook of the North documentary. Seth took the idea that Flaherty staged the film to the amazing conclusion that in doing so he turned his Inuit subject first into a demanding actor and then eventually Hollywood's first true auteur. He was also behind the found footage idea—which is such a fun leap to make because the "found footage" genre functions on it's framing as "direct cinema," of which the Maysles brothers were pioneers.
In the marketing of Documentary Now!, the uninitiated might believe the series to be an actual PBS-style show currently celebrating its 50th anniversary on the air. What do you think this does for establishing the veracity of the series, especially in the casting of Helen Mirren as the show's host, playing herself?
As I said, we always liked the idea that you might stumble on this by accident and get lost in the lie for a moment and because we knew we wanted to span different eras we knew we needed a framework to justify that. What better than a PBS-style anthology show? Helen Mirren was our dream host when we started thinking about the type of person that would lend gravitas to an institution like Documentary Now!
Are you interested in continuing this series into another season? I, for one, would love to see an episode-long joke made about Errol Morris's Interrotron.
Absolutely. There are so many amazing documentaries out there to have fun with. We definitely left a few ideas on the table when creating this first season so it'll be fun to have an opportunity to pursue those now.
Documentary Now! premiered August 20 on IFC and airs Thursdays through September 24. The series was recently renewed for two more seasons.
Katharine Relth is the Digital Communications Manager for the IDA, and co-curator of Outdoor Movies in Atwater. She holds an MA in Media Studies and Film from The New School in New York City.