Working on the latest ‘Documentary Now!’ episode is like ‘SNL’ all over again for Armisen and Hader

‘Documentary Now!’
Fred Armisen in character and performing at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse during the filming of an episode of “Documentary Now!”
(Jordin Althaus/IFC)

“Get ready for a lot more of this,” a spotlighted  Bill Hader said from the stage as he scanned a dark San Gabriel Mission Playhouse during filming for the IFC series “Documentary Now!” “Waiting around,” he added as the crew reset for another take. 

Outside the theater, a young crowd cheerfully waited under the sun for a chance to be extras in an episode of the series  — cooked up by Rhys Thomas and “Saturday Night Live” alums Hader, Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers — that lovingly, painstakingly and incisively pays homage and pulls comedy from some of the most acclaimed documentary films ever made. (The current second season will take on everything from “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” to Robert Evans’ showbiz memoir, “The Kid Stays in the Picture.”)

On this roasty summer afternoon, the show’s creators were tackling “Stop Making Sense,” the landmark 1984 Talking Heads concert film directed by Jonathan Demme for an episode called “Final Transmission,” set to air Wednesday night.

The crowd, decked out in ’80s gear as instructed, has been assembled, and it’s almost time to play. 


The series set a high bar for rock-doc satire with the story of an Eagles-esque ’70s band called Blue Jean Committee in its first season, and the music of this episode’s fictional band, Test Pattern — mostly written by Armisen — is as important as the visuals. And on this day of filming, that aspect was struggling to come together.

“Some people came all the way from San Diego to see us not know these songs,” Hader cracked at the side of the stage between takes. Later, wearing the vaguely dazed expression of someone midway through cramming for a final exam, he explained, “This one got put together incredibly fast. We just learned the songs like 48 hours ago. And we have two more songs to go through with Maya.”  (That would be fellow “SNL” pal Maya Rudolph, who guest stars on the episode and plays keyboards in the band.)

“So, Maya is in the dressing room learning the songs —  she just flew in,” he said with a shake of his head. “It’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ all over again.”


At center stage, wearing a chalk-colored and big-but-not-that-big suit is Armisen, who plays the David Byrne-esque frontman of Test Pattern. 

“Really overdo your entrance,” Armisen noted between takes to a few backing vocalists who came onstage atop moving black risers. “Take up way too much real estate. This is your moment.”

His character is expanding the band’s palette with an assortment of guest musicians, whose presence begins to overshadow the original group, which in the case of Test Pattern also includes Jon Wurster of Superchunk on drums.

“The amazing thing about ‘Stop Making Sense’ is what’s told about the band without interviews,” comic and “Documentary Now!” co-writer John Mulaney said backstage as rehearsals continued. In the original film, intra-band tension and dynamics between the musicians can be divined by viewers only through the performance and its staging.   “Where [the band] might be fraying, who leaves the stage on certain songs. So that type of storytelling, of a musician in a shot being pushed out of the way, tells a lot,” Mulaney said.

It’s that kind of obsessive eye for detail that elevates “Documentary Now!” beyond the skit-length parodies of “Saturday Night Live.” In the first season, Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” was turned on its head with Armisen as a man jailed for a crime he didn’t commit, but the show plays its comedic twists straight by replicating the details of Morris’ film, which were placed at such a premium that directors Thomas and Alex Buono borrowed the lenses used by Morris’ director of photography.

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“They’re amazing at capturing a feel,” Mulaney said. “So as soon as we knew it was that type of joke, they really knew how to orchestrate it.”

Hader said the details of the upcoming two-part season finale, which was inspired by “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” were close to exhausting. “We want it to look authentic as possible, so there would be times when I’d be like ‘Can’t you just Photoshop me into the shot?’ And [the directors] would be like ‘No, we’re going to re-create the Oscars from the ’50s for a couple of photos,’ ” he said with a laugh. 


That said, authenticity and duplication are not the same thing. “We didn’t want to do beat for beat everything,” Armisen said of “Final Transmission,” which eschews more obvious touchstones like Byrne’s colossal suit. “The vessel is ‘Stop Making Sense,’ but we get to throw in all these other fun ideas and references,” added Hader.

Back at the Playhouse, the crowd arrived with the rapt enthusiasm required for Test Pattern’s crowning concert. Despite the rushed rehearsals, the performances coalesce around Armisen’s song-length homages, such as the appropriately twitchy “Flashing Lights,” and moments that include a Balinese gamelan orchestra and a raw-throated, cabaret-style solo spoof of Tom Waits by Armisen. 

Between takes, Armisen, Rudolph and Hader thank the crowd with an  “SNL”-tilted Q&A. Rudolph’s impression of Oprah makes a cameo (“I love bread!” she enthuses), along with a return of Hader’s beloved Stefon and a venture into L.A. traffic free-association straight from “The Californians.” On a fan’s request, Armisen breaks off to pose for a Polaroid selfie at the side of the stage. 

Clearly energized, a giggling Hader revealed that for all the rehearsals, Armisen’s Waits impression still surprised him.

“I thought I was going to throw up,” Hader said with a cackle. “I did not know that was happening.”

‘Documentary Now!’

Where: IFC

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday


Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

Follow me over here @chrisbarton.


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