With Documentary Now!, the Joke’s in the Details

IFC’s mockumentary series, from Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers, gets its comedy from meticulous attention to detail rather than easy punchlines.


The most admirable thing about IFC’s new spoof series Documentary Now! is also the element that makes its premise so challenging for viewers—its utter devotion to the form it’s sending up. Starring Bill Hader and Fred Armisen and produced by their former Saturday Night Live co-star Seth Meyers, the series astutely satirizes some of the most famous examples of the documentary form, from its earliest days (Nanook of the North) to its most notorious moments (Grey Gardens). Can you laugh if you’re not aware of the source material? Certainly, but these are no SNL sketches—the gag plays out over 22 finely crafted minutes, and easy punchlines are nowhere to be found.

Armisen described the show as “a celebration” of the works it’s satirizing at a panel discussion about the series hosted Tuesday by The Atlantic and IFC. Since breaking into comedy programming with Armisen’s sketch show Portlandia in 2011, the network has become a hub for alternative humor that appeals to niche audiences, and Documentary Now! epitomizes that brand, taking the “mockumentary” genre in the opposite direction from goofier entries like Borat or the sitcom framework employed by The Office. The jokes are in the details, and series director Rhys Thomas (another SNL alum) makes sure to get them exactly right.

That’s not to say the initial two entries are lacking in punchlines. The first (the aforementioned Grey Gardens spoof, titled Sandy Passage), debuting Thursday at 10 p.m., features one of the best on-screen pratfalls Hader has ever executed. But it’s safe to say that not every Stefon fan has seen the Maysles Brothers’ famous 1975 examination of the lives of a reclusive mother and daughter connected to the Bouvier family. There’s plenty to be enjoyed from scenes of Armisen and Hader in drag, alternatively shouting and singing at each other, but fans of the original film will probably derive extra laughs from the episode’s core aesthetic, and the shots and cuts that perfectly mimic the Maysles’ approach.

The second episode, a send-up of Vice News called Dronez, affirms the effort Thomas and his crew have made to mirror the style of each entry’s target. “We'd reach out to filmmakers as much as we can, find out what lenses they used, what film stocks,” Thomas said. “We have a very accurate film grain applied. We really try to pay attention to every detail.” At SNL, Thomas was responsible for some of the show’s most on-target visual parodies, like the fake Wes Anderson horror film, “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders,” that aped the director’s style so well, it felt less like an imitation and more like the real thing.

Documentary Now! goes for the same approach, and even contracted Helen Mirren (apparently a big Portlandia fan) to introduce the series’s six episodes in order to endow it with an extra degree of prestige. It’s a style of parody IFC has attempted before in the recent Will Ferrell/Michael K. Williams/Kristin Wiig spoof The Spoils Before Dying, which mocked the big-budget premium cable miniseries, but that show made sure to draw attention to its absurdities, even having one of its cast members be played by a mannequin. Documentary Now! is more in the old-school mockumentary style: It never quite wants to let on that there’s any funny business afoot.

“Everything we used as a jumping off point was something we loved,” Meyers said. “We always wanted these things to be companions … We tried very hard for all of them to have beginnings, middles, and ends.” Source material that already had a comic tone, like the work of Michael Moore, was off-limits, as was anything “anybody had nailed before,” like This is Spinal Tap or the guerrilla-style approach of Sacha Baron Cohen, who splices real, unwitting participants into his films.

“I love that you can make a show that’s funny but also really cinematic, as a film-lover,” Hader added, noting that in his early takes making Sandy Passage, he would try to go for the laugh, tilting his character’s antics towards slapstick. Thomas encouraged a more emotional approach, and it shows in the episode: The joke, if anything, seems to derive from the absurdity of the source material, that Armisen and Hader barely need to heighten their takes on Big and Little Edie (nor wear much makeup) to replicate the strange, natural comedic chemistry the original pair had.

Dronez takes a more aggressively silly approach, following several hipster journalists in their efforts to track down a Mexican drug lord, but it fits with the self-aggrandizing model of HBO’s Vice News series, which often seems to spend a little too much time with the filmmakers rather than their subjects. Following in subsequent episodes are the Nanook of the North parody and a crime drama in the style of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, scripted by the great John Mulaney (yet another former SNL staffer), whose stand-up comedy bits suggest a strong interest in the true-crime genre. In true IFC style, the show has already received a second season order, from a network that holds on to its stars as much as possible—its talk show parody Comedy Bang! Bang! received a 40-episode order for its fourth season and is still going strong.

Like any other IFC show, Documentary Now! won’t be for everyone, but there’s something refreshing about its commitment to the style of its source material. With the success of The Office in 2005, the mockumentary became a sitcom style that encouraged a glut of single-camera comedies that punctuated scenes with an easy joke from a talking head—a format mimicked by hits like Parks & Recreation and Modern Family. The laugh track of the multi-camera sitcom wasn’t present, but its rhythms could be retained. The only problem was that the “show-within-a-show” for these series became more and more nebulous—it was hard to imagine just who the cast of Modern Family were addressing every week. Documentary Now! is a comedy first and foremost, but it never forgets that it’s parodying filmmaking rather than real life.