Large scale feature film parodies might be a thing of the past, but the genre continues on in YouTube videos and genius TV fare like Documentary Now! Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers and Rhys Thomas’ show, which spoofs either a classic doc or an established style of documentary storytelling in each episode, practically created a new sub-genre by going after a mostly untapped resource for parody. What makes Documentary Now special is that it’s obvious the gang loves the docs they spoof. They put as much effort into their characters and stories as they do the jokes poking fun at them. With the third season beginning tonight (featuring special guests Owen Wilson and Michael Keaton), we decided to rank all episodes from the first two seasons. Or if you want to be technical about it, seasons 50 and 51.
This lighthearted human-interest-type episode is charming in how much it seems to be emotionally engaged with its silly premise. It’s about a small town in Iceland celebrating Al Capone—yes, the gangster and mass murderer—with an annual festival. The joke is of course centered on the humble and lovely citizens of the town so giddily having fun with Capone’s pop-culture persona while ignoring his atrocities. But that’s also pretty much the only joke, so it runs out of steam early with its repetitive nature. Fred Armisen is affable as an Iranian immigrant who enters a lookalike contest, and a gag about tiny deep dish pizza served in giant pizza boxes might be the best in the series so far, but there’s a lot of dead air in between.
D.A. Pennabaker’s The War Room, about the ins-and-outs of the 1992 Bill Clinton presidential campaign, was a fresh piece of work in the way that it provided unfiltered access to how the dirty and greasy political sausage is made. One of the elements of “The Bukner” that shows the audience how much the creative team loves the documentary form and the films they spoof is in the great care they showcase in emulating the look and feel of the source material. In the case of this parody, about a local election, they certainly capture Pennabaker’s grainy newsreel and fly-on-the-wall style. Bill Hader is hilarious as the James Carville placeholder, and I had to pause the show to breathe from laughing when the final twist took place. Even so, the episode relies a bit too much on mimicking the original without much embellishment its own.
This send-up of Nanook of the North is special in the way it finds an unexpected focus for its comedic twist, but it might be a tad hard to relate to for everyone except the 14 film professors who saw the original. The source material was criticized when it turned out that director Robert J. Flaherty faked a lot of the “daily activities” of his Eskimo subject. Writer Seth Meyers predictably begins with his Flaherty placeholder (John Slattery) finding increasingly fake ways to sell his subject, a borderline mentally challenged Inuk man (Fred Armisen), as a fierce hunter. Soon, the episode refreshingly turns into a pointed Hollywood satire: Kunuk lets his newfound fame go to his head and turns into a narcissistic prima donna.
The best parodies work because they usually don’t require the audience to have seen the original to get the jokes. Being able to get the references should be a bonus, not a requirement. That’s the problem with this episode, an even more artistically boisterous (if that’s possible) tribute to the great Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. Jonathan Demme’s trailblazing doc broke through the established mold of the concert film and incorporated the band’s panache for performance art, exuberant designs, and artistic experimentation. This episode takes that and punches everything to 11. It’s equally funny and delightful for fans of the band and the original film, but everyone else might be confused as to why Armisen and Hader spend the whole runtime screaming like banshees into the mic.
In this two-parter season one finale, we get a VH1 Behind the Music-type rockumentary about a folk rock band that was “popular” in the ‘70s called The Blue Jean Committee. Instead of taking the Spinal Tap or Popstar route of ridiculing the fake band at the center of the story, the jokes are played mostly straight, pointing out some of the actual gaudy and cheesy design choices soft rock made during the period. Armisen and Hader, who play the two “currently” estranged leads of the band, create such camaraderie during the “vintage concert footage” that it would be easy to dupe someone into thinking The Blue Jean Committee actually existed. If I’m allowed to be as schmaltzy as the band for a second, I’ll say that this one is light on jokes, but big on heart.
One of the universal tips for great comedy is to keep repeating the same joke until it’s not funny, then to keep pushing it until it comes full circle. This Vice News parody is about well-meaning journalists letting their unearned gusto send them to the heart of a Mexican drug cartel, until they’re brutally murdered and replaced with new reporters. The repetition of this joke almost becomes frustratingly episodic, but then comes around to extract uncontrollable chuckles. Bill Hader and Fred Armisen play every reporter, and have fun giving each character their unique look. The episode also brilliantly captures Vice’s smug “millennial cool” attitude.
The Documentary Now folks must have a special connection with iconic Jonathan Demme docs, so now we get a parody of Demme’s minimalist take on Spalding Gray’s one-man show Swimming to Cambodia. The episode starts off as a straight spoof on Gray, with Hader succinctly capturing Gray’s thousand-words-a-minute manic personality. Then it gradually turns into something else, and it would be uncouth of me to ruin that surprise. I’ll only advise you that perhaps not trusting every word a performer says in a one-man show would be a smart approach.
The Maysles Brothers’ 1969 masterpiece Salesman broke new ground in the documentary art form by exploring its subjects, door-to-door salesman, without any narration, commentary or interviews. This technically impressive bit of loving mimicry by the Documentary Now crew retains the raw feel of the original and only adds one obvious humorous flair: The salesmen are selling globes, and are trying to compete against those who are peddling those filthy, inaccurate atlases. What makes this episode so special is that it can easily work as a dramatic short film with instantly relatable and grounded characters. It’s like watching a mockumentary version of Glengarry Glen Ross, and that alone is worth some extra points.
As entertaining as The Kid Stays in the Picture is, it’s nevertheless a fluff piece for legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans. John Mulaney and Bill Hader seem to have been fully aware of this while penning this two-episode season finale, a self-fellating treatise on Hollywood’s obsession with the Oscars. Hader plays an Evans placeholder who somehow manages to be even shallower and more full of shit than the real thing, a producer who craves an Oscar all his career yet can’t resist the temptation of turning any material into pure schlock. This running joke brilliantly crescendos with a grim Holocaust survival project eventually turning into Beach Blanket Bingo.
It’s hard to parody Grey Gardens, the Maysles Brothers’ fly-on-the-wall doc about Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric shut-in relatives. Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Little Edie are already exaggerated camp icons, so there isn’t much upward mobility towards comedic exaggeration. The genius touch of this Seth Meyers-penned episode occurs when it stops being a straight parody of the original doc, complete with Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in drag as doppelgangers of the originals, and gradually decides to switch genres until we get to the riotously batshit finale. To reveal the genre it becomes would ruin the fun, so you should dive into this with as little information as possible.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi admires its subject’s otherworldly obsession with creating the perfect sushi, resulting in some eccentric behavior along the way. The location switches to Colombia and the food to rice and chicken, but this parody creates an almost scene-by-scene remake. Of course the joke is the ridiculously arbitrary standards the chef (Hector Elias) employs. If he can’t catch the chicken on his own in under 20 minutes, he won’t cook it. Don’t even get me started on how the meat and a cannon go together. The episode is almost entirely in Spanish, making its authentic feel balance the ridiculousness of the content.
The joke in this The Thin Blue Line parody is simple: Fred Armisen plays a guy who’s so obnoxious and smug, that an entire town decides to pin a murder on him just so he can die and finally shut up. The premise is a hard sell, since we’re supposed to identify with townspeople who put an innocent man to death, but Armisen’s trademark ability in capturing vain douchebags is so on point here that we almost want to pull the switch ourselves. Documentary Now goes the extra mile in capturing the feel of the original, hilariously skewering Errol Morris’ use of melodramatic reenactments and ethereal Philip Glass music.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.