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.