How the Saturday Night Live alumni created a show that parodies documentaries and turned it into one of the strangest, best shows on TV.
Fred Armisen gives one of the most intense, emotional dramatic performances of this TV season, playing the son of a restaurant worker in the hills of Colombia who is afraid of the chickens he must kill to cook for dinner.
Such is the absurdist joy of Documentary Now!, a sketch-comedy adventureland where Fred Armisen is sent to the jungles of South America to film a spoof-homage to the acclaimed food documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi and the resulting product leaves you with tears in your eyes.
The IFC series, which is competing for an Emmy on Sunday night, returns for its second season on Wednesday, carrying on its tradition of parodying classic documentaries with astonishing attention to detail.
Juan Loves Chicken and Rice, the aforementioned Jiro love letter, is the seasons standout second episode. Wednesday night begins in far more timely fashion with The Bunker, the Documentary Now! take on the 1993 Bill Clinton campaign documentary The War Room that transplants the action to the Ohio gubernatorial race with Bill Hader playing the James Carville figure and Armisen the George Stephanopoulos.
Its a meticulous period piece, to the point that the same dingy 90s vending machine from The War Room was used in the set for The Bunker. But especially when Haders campaign strategist gives an emotional speech about what it took to win the election, its impossible not to watch The Bunker through the lens of todays political worldparticularly with relation to Donald Trump.
This all started with a bet in a restaurant, he says. A bet that we could get anyone elected to anything. And we didWe changed the way that election narratives are hijacked.
That got a big laugh, Hader tells The Daily Beast, fresh from the shows Season Two premiere screening. But an also an, Aww
Hader and Armisen, who co-created the series with Seth Meyers and Rhys Thomas, star in every episode of the series. Dame Helen Mirren serves as the host of the fictional documentary show-within-the-show. After shooting two episodes in Iceland last season, Armisen traveled to Colombia for Season Two and, along with Hader and guest star Maya Rudolph, even played a live concert of completely original music for an upcoming episode.
That the show, candy for comedy nerds and cinephiles alike, exists at all is a glorious byproduct of this #PeakTV era. Documentary has never been the hippest, most commercial genre, after all. Delicately crafted parodies of them adds a whole other level of specificityand, as it turns out, fun.
With Season Three premiering Wednesday night, we gathered Hader, Armisen, and Meyers to riff on the shows unique challenges, The Bunkers timeliness, and the tricky dance between parody and mockumentary. If we can sell you on the very particular pleasure of that trio riffing for three minutes about songs written by a bands keyboardist, then this roundtable is for you.
After finishing Juan Loves Chicken and Rice I think I started crying.
Bill: A lot of people have been saying that!
Fred, what is it like when you get the opportunity to do a character like this, to be in the jungles in Colombia shooting this and playing it so straight that people are crying while watching?
Fred: Because of the environment it ends up being easier. Everyone around me is speaking Spanish in the middle of this rural part of Colombia. So your surroundings make it easy to do. And then, everything was already written out. Its not an improvised show. So even that makes it more time efficient. Its all laid out for me.
Seth: Its also a real credit to our directors, Rhys [Thomas] and Alex [Buono]. Especially in that episode, when there are a lot of principal actors who arent from comedy and dont know what were trying to do with this show, they think theyre doing a comedy but they have to play it as straight for it to work. I personally met one of them last night for the first time, and they were like, I couldnt even comprehend how this could be funny but Im so happy to see that it was.
All three of you have other projects and are quite busy. What is the experience like coming together to do this show? Is it a respite from other tasks, to come and work on this, or is it sometimes an obligation?
Bill: I never feel like its a chore. Its never a chore. I think I can speak for everybody when I say were so very thankful that we have the opportunity to do such a crazy show. I cant tell you how many timeslike shooting the Test Pattern episode, the live concertwe looked around at each other and said, Can you believe that were able to do this? This is insane. Or when we saw the first cut of Parker Gail, which is a parody of Spalding Grays Swimming to Cambodia. We were watching that like, This is an episode of television? Thats so bananas. Its all me at a desk. So its never a chore. When were doing our other stuffIm happy now that its done so that I can free up my head a little more, but Im always thinking of it. Its never a thing we forget about.
Seth: And if I had time off I wouldnt want to golf. Its really kind of nice that this is a nice, relaxing thing to do, to work on this show that doesnt have the pressure of being the next Empire.
Are any of you on set when Helen Mirren is filming?
Seth: We just go to say hi to her while shes getting ready. That is the thing that I cant wrap around, that Helen Mirren does this.
Bill: Its weird. Its Helen Mirren, then we also have Peter Fonda and Mia Farrow and Anne Hathaway and Peter Bogdanovich this season.
Seth: Helen really understands that the joke is just that shes there. We dont give her any jokes.
Bill: Shes very dry and just says it like it was a real show. And the opening titles arent very funny. Its supposed to feel big and important and then let the show kind of slowly develop. I always felt that if we did our job right people would be watching it and thinking its a real documentary, you know? And then go, Whoa, what are Bill and Fred doing in this? It should have that attention to detail and gravity in it.
Do you get feedback from people who watch the show and then are inspired to go back and watch the originals?
Fred: Oh yeah.
Bill: I had a funny onethis is not a jokeI had a 15-year-old kid watch Sandy Passage, our Grey Gardens one, and then he went back and watched Grey Gardens and he was like, But theyre not killers at the end!
Bill: He was like, I was waiting for us to find out they were like monsters! I was like, oh no, yeah, we made that up.
Fred: We take it for granted that everyones seen these movies.
Bill: Im the worst at being like, Well, everyones seen all of these. Im a film nerd and Im like, Everyones seen Land Without Bread. Come on! We should spoof that. And theyre like, No
Obviously The Bunker is a spot-on timepiece. But its hard not to watch it without watching through the lens of politics now. Were you expecting people to sort of watch it through the lens of today?
Seth: I think it was a far simpler beginning for us, which was that it would make sense to do this episode in an election year. And then of course with the lead time, none of us predicted it would quite be in this place. But then watching the premiere last night, the line about were changing the way elections are hijacked
Bill: That got a big laugh, but also an, Aww
Seth: But I do think this election is sort of a continuation of that 1992 election, in a lot of ways. Things began there that led to here. But I dont think we put as much thought into that. It feels more topical than I think we tried to make it.
Bill: That started with, Whats a cool look, and whats something that Fred and I could both play? I had done James Carville on Saturday Night Live, and so it just seemed like, Oh yeah. Me as Carville. Fred as Stephanopoulos. Thats also where the whole style that we now see in comedy and everything, you can really trace it back to The War Room and that kind of docu-style. I always associated with The Larry Sanders Show and I read that they had seen The War Room.