How Margaret Thatcher and an ‘SNL’ afterparty led to ‘Documentary Now!’
The idea for the IFC series "Documentary Now!" emerged, as good ideas so often do, over drinks late one Saturday night.
At the afterparty following a "Saturday Night Live" taping in April 2013, Bill Hader got to talking with Seth Meyers about a short film, "History of Punk," they'd created for the episode. A fake documentary written by Meyers and Fred Armisen, it starred Armisen as a Johnny Rotten-esque British punk rocker named Ian Rubbish who fell out with his bandmates, including one played by Bill Hader, over his love for Margaret Thatcher.
A tribute of sorts to the conservative prime minister, who'd died that week, the film worked so well in part because of its meticulous, period-authentic production values, down to simulated concert footage with the grimy look of late '70s 16mm. It dawned on Armisen, Hader and Meyers that the sketch could provide the template for a television series.
That concept comes to life when "Documentary Now!" — a series written, created and executive produced by the trio — premieres Thursday on IFC.
The idea, Meyers said in an interview over coffee with Hader and Armisen at Rockefeller Center, where "Late Night With Seth Meyers" is taped, was "to take very specific styles of documentary and tell stories within those frameworks."
The debut episode, "Sandy Passage," stars Hader and Armisen as an eccentric mother-daughter duo living in a derelict seaside mansion in a fastidious parody of "Grey Gardens," Albert and David Maysles' 1975 cinema verite classic.
Other installments take on "Nanook of the North," the silent-era documentary about an Inuk hunter in the Canadian Arctic, and "The Thin Blue Line," Errol Morris' influential true crime account of a man wrongfully convicted of killing a police officer.
For an extra dash of authenticity, Helen Mirren — yes, the Helen Mirren — introduces each episode, the conceit being that she's the host of a PBS-style documentary anthology series. The end result is a mockumentary with a unique appeal to movie buffs.
"I always felt there was this thing that comedy couldn't be cinematic and couldn't be beautiful," Hader said.
"I like watching things that are well shot and well-edited and you can tell a lot of attention went into the color timing and the sound design. I feel like you can't do that with comedy, but every once in a while you'll see something that really looks beautiful and is uproariously funny."
Apparently IFC, which has already renewed the series for two more seasons, is confident that "Documentary Now!" is both these things. Since repositioning itself as a niche comedy network several years ago, IFC has become the destination of choice for "Saturday Night Live" alum looking to get a little esoteric with their humor.
While still at "SNL," Armisen launched his acclaimed, hipster-satirizing sketch-comedy show, "Portlandia," on IFC in 2011. Last year, Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell starred in "Spoils of Babylon," an absurdist spoof of the melodramatic miniseries of the 1970s and '80s.
With a combined 32 seasons on "SNL," Armisen, Hader and Meyers are launching "Documentary Now!" at a time when TV documentaries — most notably HBO's "The Jinx" and "Going Clear" — are having a cultural moment.
Not that the timing was planned. The project took more than two years to come to fruition, thanks to the packed schedules of its creators.
Armisen continues to write and star in "Portlandia," and is also the bandleader on "Late Night," which is hosted by Meyers. Meanwhile, Hader has been busy with roles in films, including the recent "Trainwreck."
There was also a fair amount of deliberation over which documentaries to spoof. "The Jinx" was tempting, but instead Hader, Armisen and Meyers looked to the film that clearly inspired it, "The Thin Blue Line." Ken Burns' oeuvre was an easy pass, since it had already been lampooned many times, at "SNL" and elsewhere.
"The criteria was like, do we know it well enough, does it have enough of a story to lend itself to comedy and characters, and then what's the look?" said Hader, whose encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic history came in handy during the selection process.
"In the way that Fred would always hip me to music I should be listening to, Bill was our staff movie person in general at 'SNL' and would always recommend films," Meyers said. "I wouldn't be surprised to find out years later that Bill was getting a cut from Criterion."
Added Armisen: "When Bill starts asking me whether I've seen something, I'm already shaking my head no. 'Did you ever see...?' I'm like, 'No, whatever you're about to say.'"
In the time it takes Hader to consume two carafes of French-press coffee, he references Frederick Wiseman's "High School," Werner Herzog's "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" and, for good measure, "The Epic That Never Was," a BBC documentary about the never-completed film version of "I, Claudius" starring Charles Laughton.
The appeal of documentaries, he said, is that "you get this warts-and-all look at humanity." A film like the Oscar-nominated "The Act of Killing" "is so authentic and strange, and reminds you how strange people are."
Not that an advanced degree in cinema studies is required to appreciate "Documentary Now!" One episode, a sendup of "Vice's" guerrilla-style journalism, features Hader and Armisen as a pair of clueless hipster journalists trailing a notorious drug lord in Mexico.
And the two-part finale, "Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee," is a retrospective look at an Eagles-like soft rock band.
The series was co-directed by Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, who as key members of "SNL's" Film Unit helped create "History of Punk," as well as exacting parodies of Wes Anderson ("Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders") and Quentin Tarantino ("DJesus Uncrossed").
Their eye for detail, Hader said, was essential to "Documentary Now!"
"You'd say, 'Thin Blue Line': go! And they really would. They would get the actual lenses — not the type of lenses, the actual lenses that Errol Morris used on 'The Thin Blue Line.'"
IFC has marketed "Documentary Now!" with a similar commitment to verisimilitude, running an ad during the Republican debate on Fox News that hyped the show's topical subject matter ("Guns, healthcare and Mexicans," went the tagline) while making no mention of its fictional qualities.
While the series can, for lack of a better term, be called a mockumentary, there are no winks or knowing glances to signal to viewers that they're watching something fake, nor are there any of what Meyers called "big, wet jokes."
The goal, Hader said, is to create something that "when people were flipping through the channels, they'd go, oh cool, 'Grey Gardens' is on. Then they're like, wait, why is Fred Armisen in it?"
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.