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Documentary Now! is the greatest and niche-iest show you’re probably not watching

The IFC show is tailor-made for a tiny, passionate fan base.

Cate Blanchett plays a performance artist in the third episode of IFC’s Documentary Now! season 3.
Cate Blanchett plays a performance artist in the third episode of IFC’s Documentary Now! season 3.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

“Yeah, we thought it was pretty pro-nerd from the top,” says Seth Meyers, the former head writer for Saturday Night Live and the current host of NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers. And sure: Both of those shows, when you get right down to it, are pretty nerdy.

But Meyers is not talking about either of those shows.

Instead, we’re discussing Documentary Now!, the show that Meyers co-created with fellow SNL alums Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Rhys Thomas, and Alex Buono in 2015.

Documentary Now!’s third season (or 52nd season, if the slyly winking, Masterpiece Theater-style intro to each episode by Helen Mirren is to be believed) premiered on the IFC Channel on February 20, to the great delight of a small set of very specific types of nerds — including, but not limited to, niche comedy fanatics, documentary enthusiasts, and cinephiles. (Hader did not return for this season due to being tied up with his Emmy-winning HBO show Barry.)

Bump into a Documentary Now! acolyte, though — probably at a film festival — and you’ll hear one of two statements within a minute: “I can’t believe this show exists!” and “I feel like they’re making a show just for me!”

“We knew it wasn’t This Is Us — let’s put it that way,” Meyer says of the show’s early days. But becoming a mega-smash hit was never the point. The aim was much more specialized.

Documentary Now! is a comedy show about documentaries. What else it is is difficult to describe, even for its creators.

To truly understand what Documentary Now! is, you just have to see it

“We don’t really like to call it parody. We don’t really like to call it mockumentary. We’re paying homage to, or we’re ‘inspired by,’ or set in the universe of …” is how Buono describes it to me, trailing off. Buono and his longtime collaborator Rhys Thomas direct every one of the show’s episodes; they first got involved with Documentary Now! because they were well acquainted with Meyers, Hader, and Armisen from working at SNL, where they had become known for making the sketch series’ pre-filmed parodies of commercials.

Buono must have described Documentary Now! hundreds of times in the few years it’s been on the air, but it’s still a challenge. “What’s really important to us is that what comes across is our genuine love for both the documentary format and also the documentaries we’re referencing,” he says after thinking for a moment.

Bill Hader and Fred Armisen in “Sandy Passage,” a spoof of Grey Gardens.
Bill Hader and Fred Armisen in “Sandy Passage,” a spoof of Grey Gardens.
Tyler Golden/IFC

Each episode of Documentary Now! is a recognizable take-off on a well-known documentary, usually an older one — albeit condensed into 22 minutes. The series premiered with “Sandy Passage,” a spoof of the classic 1976 Maysles brothers’ documentary Grey Gardens. The original film followed two eccentric, distant cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, mother and daughter — through their life in their ramshackle home.

In “Sandy Passage” (written by Meyers and directed by Thomas and Buono), Armisen and Hader play versions of the women, and it’s easy to appreciate how various lines and scenes spoof the original — if you’ve seen it, that is. But for a general audience, that’s probably still too big of an “if.” Even the most famous documentaries in cinema history rarely reach the status of, say, a Citizen Kane with the general public.

Other installments in Documentary Now!’s six-episode first season spoofed works like Robert Flaherty’s seminal 1922 film Nanook of the North and Errol Morris’s film 1988 The Thin Blue Line. In season two, the show gave us “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken,” which Meyers wrote as an affectionate send-up of the beloved 2011 David Gelb documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

“Juan Likes Rice & Chicken” is a particularly good example of the Documentary Now! approach, and how it expands on its source material. “Juan” draws out a thread that’s present in Jiro — which includes a side narrative about the titular sushi chef’s son who’s expected to take over his masterful father’s work, but feels conflicted about it — and magnifies it to make it the joke of the episode. In “Juan,” the son (played by Armisen) of the titular chef is supposed to take over his father’s tiny chicken and rice restaurant, located amid mountains so remote that it’s only visited by locals and yuppie food enthusiasts from the US, who take pride in having made the trip as much as they do in eating the food. (The joke, it turns out, is he’s scared of chickens.)

The “family” in “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken.”
The “family” in “Juan Likes Rice & Chicken.”

Like many of the films that the Documentary Now! team chooses to tackle, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is well known to documentary buffs. For each season of Documentary Now!, Meyers and the show’s other writers (including Armisen, Hader, John Mulaney, and other SNL alums) work in tandem with Buono and Thomas to identify possible films to use as subjects, and to figure out the Documentary Now! take on those films. Season three, for example, includes a Meyers-penned episode called “Waiting for the Artist” — a send-up of the 2012 film Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.

In Documentary Now!’s version, which airs on March 6, Cate Blanchett plays an Abramovic-like character named Izabella Barta, and the result is as close to straight-up satire as the show ever gets, probably because the contemporary art world presents plenty to satirize. Instead of sticking to the confines of the original film, Documentary Now! constructs a winking acknowledgment of the complicated gender roles in the art world, with Armisen playing Barta’s “bad boy” ex-partner, who gets his due. It’s a thread that’s present in the world of the film, but it took “Waiting for the Artist” to pull it out.

Documentary Now! turns subtext into text

It’s a subtle task the show takes on — drawing some of the subtext present in nonfiction films and making it text, while keeping things funny. (You’ll never see a Doc Now! version of The Act of Killing, Meyers assures me.)

The season three premiere is a two-part episode called “Batshit Valley,” based on the hit Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, which won the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary Series in 2018. Owen Wilson plays a cult leader who gathers a group of acolytes, to the chagrin of the town nearby; Michael Keaton plays a law enforcement officer trying to track him down.

Owen Wilson in “Batshit Valley,” a send-up of Wild Wild Country.
Owen Wilson in “Batshit Valley,” a send-up of Wild Wild Country.

“We were actually basing [the episode] on a documentary called The Source Family,” Meyers said. “There’s another one called Holy Hell that we watched, but it was going to be Source Family. And then Wild Wild Country came out. We had by design tried to avoid things that were super recent, but that just felt like it had a bunch of fun characters, and it would be a fun way to combine the two.”

According to Meyers, it was Buono and Thomas — “the heart of the show,” as he puts it — who insisted they tackle a cult documentary in Documentary Now’s third season. “When you watch a bunch of cult documentaries, you can’t believe anyone fell for any of it, you know?” Meyers says. “And yet, even when you watch Wild Wild Country, you sort of think, ‘Oh, man, it seems like law enforcement isn’t really playing by fair rules, either.” So then you try to find a way to tell a story that tries to make both of those points.”

After “Batshit Valley” came the most talked-about episode of the show to date, at least by Doc Now! standards: “Original Cast Album: Co-op,” which takes its cues from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 film Original Cast Album: Company, a cult favorite within the musical theater community of performers and fans. The original documentary chronicles the recording of the live cast album for Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical, and a young Sondheim himself appears in it — along with the album’s producers and the show’s cast, which included Elaine Stritch. (The sequence in the film where she performs take after take after take of “Ladies Who Lunch” is one of the most memorable depictions of creative frustration ever committed to film.)

So to “adapt” it for Documentary Now!, Meyers and Mulaney wrote “Co-Op,” in which Mulaney, wearing plaid bell bottoms and mutton-chop sideburns, plays a Sondheim-like figure named “Simon Sawyer,” delivering withering backhanded compliments in a flat monotone. Richard Kind plays an actor who plays a doorman, and Broadway luminaries including Alex Brightman (School of Rock) and Renee Elise Goldsberry (who originated Angelica in Hamilton) join other actors to round out the cast of Co-Op, an ill-fated Sondheim-esque musical that is summarily canceled for bad reviews minutes into the cast album recording. The singers press on, undaunted.

From “Original Cast Album: Co-op,” a Sondheim/Pennebaker spoof.
From “Original Cast Album: Co-op,” a Sondheim/Pennebaker spoof.

What emerges from the episode is something that exists in the background of Company but not quite explicitly: the joy of creating something with friends, and the trench-buddy mentality that comes from working alongside artists you respect for a marathon stretch of time that tests stamina and sanity.

Which, of course, is something the SNL gang is familiar with. In an interview with the New York Times ahead of “Co-op”’s February 27 airdate, Meyers and Mulaney spoke about the “smoky haze of exhaustion” that arises in high-intensity writers’ rooms, where “you’re talking to someone you admire and love and are close friends with” but will absolutely cut with a withering rejoinder, like “Maybe we could try it, but funny this time,” as Mulaney suggested. That dynamic, of “a very creative atmosphere and also one where people were excellent at passive aggression,” as Meyers put it in the same New York Times interview, is baked into “Co-op.”

Documentary Now! is more than comedy — it’s an expression of love

What makes Documentary Now! so fun to watch is not just all the referential humor, little of which is really intelligible unless you’re familiar with the relatively esoteric source material. While that part is great — it produces the feeling of being in an exclusive club — the show’s true strength is rooted in the genre it operates within.

Documentaries, after all, are by their nature about “real” people. Even when they blur the lines a little between fiction and nonfiction, between staged and spontaneous, their subjects are people who exist in the same world as the audience does. You can’t help but feel connected to someone in a documentary in a way that’s a little different than an actor playing a part in a movie, however relatable or real that part may be. With a fiction film, the assumption that the cast is play-acting is always there. With a documentary, you know that even if people are “performing” for the camera, they’re still real people.

Cate Blanchett and Fred Armisen in “Waiting for the Artist.”
Cate Blanchett and Fred Armisen in “Waiting for the Artist.”

Documentary Now! smooshes those two realms together. Now actors are playing versions of stories that we knew first as nonfiction, and we’re seeing those stories through different and comical lenses. What we might have overlooked — the way that a documentary’s filmmakers can change our perception of “reality” through what they leave in and what they take out and how they cut the story together — gets pushed a little closer to the surface.

That’s something that the “mockumentary” form has been doing for a long time, from the community theater satire Waiting for Guffman to the mock-rockumentary This is Spinal Tap! to The Office to Netflix’s pitch-perfect true crime send-up American Vandal.

But the affection for documentaries built into Documentary Now! is unparalleled among other similar films and series. When I tell Meyers that I showed Grey Gardens to my own college students, several of whom realized belatedly that they’d only seen “Sandy Passage,” he laughs. “I would be happy if people thought, ‘Oh, now I wanna see what this film is based on.’ That’s the way I felt as a kid, if I was watching sketch comedy and saw a parody of a film that I knew.”

And that affection is a good fit for the documentary film world, anyhow. Nobody gets very rich or famous making a documentary. When I mention this to Buono and Thomas, they both laugh.

“You have to love it, for sure, and be very dedicated,” Thomas says. “We can dip in and within a few months send around a version of a version of a documentary that someone else might have taken years to make, and poured their heart and soul into it. But, there you go.”

“Right,” says Buono. “Making a documentary, I always tell people, is not your ticket to becoming famous and wealthy, if that’s what you’re after.”

Neither is making Documentary Now! A few days after we speak, I message Meyers to tell him that I recently judged a student filmmaking competition, and two of the 10 entries were spoofs — of Documentary Now!

Is a spoof of the spoof just an original? I propose a show called “Ouroboros Now!”

“You’ve done the impossible,” he writes back. “Come up with a show for FEWER people!”

The third season of Documentary Now! is airing on IFC. The first two seasons are streaming on Netflix.