Why Bill Hader and Fred Armisen Are Parodying Documentaries in Their Latest, Ingenious Project

The “SNL” veterans behind the sly new series “Documentary Now” add a layer of authenticity to the art of sending up nonfiction films

Bill Hader and Fred Armisen share a laugh at the Broadway Video offices in Beverly Hills, CA, surrounded by the tools of their trade for their new series, Documentary Now. (Brinson + Banks; Grooming: Catherine Furniss (Hader) and Sydney Zibrak (Armisen))
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Kunuk was an Inuk savant.

As chronicled in Kunuk the Hunter, a silent-era documentary by the Arctic explorer William H. Sebastian, he was an archetypal Eskimo who lived where nothing grew and subsisted on what he could kill. But as the sound-era exposé Kunuk Uncovered revealed, he was more or less invented for the screen by Sebastian. In real life, Kunuk was such a klutz that the filmmaker had to nail his gloves and boots to his dogsled to keep him from slipping off.

We learn that Sebastian actually went AWOL after the men of the Inuk village discovered he had been sleeping with their wives, and that the witless Kunuk had to take over the shoot. Though he was a natural, coming up with innovations like the tracking shot and point of view, he quickly turned on-set diva. In a series of crackly, Victrola-recorded tantrums, he whines about looking too old in the dailies, demands a craft services table and insists on filming during a blizzard because a storm would “fix [the movie’s] third-act problems.”

In case you haven’t already guessed, Kunuk the Hunter is a make-believe documentary. And Kunuk Uncovered is a make-believe documentary about the making of a make-believe documentary that sends up not only director Robert J. Flaherty and his 1922 classic Nanook of the North—long embraced as an authentic window on the Inuit way of life—but also Nanook Revisited, a 1990 follow-up that returned to the site of the original filming and showed that this milestone of early cinema contained many sequences that had been staged for the camera.

“Almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie,” says Orson Welles in F for Fake, a soi-disant documentary that was part hoax, part true story. In that same spirit, Kunuk Uncovered turns out to be an episode of “Documentary Now!,” a comedy showcase that has added a new layer of sophistication to film parody.

Each half-hour installment of the series, which premiered in August on IFC, is framed as a 50th-anniversary celebration of landmark docs from a fictional public-broadcasting series. Introduced in earnest deadpan by the plummy-voiced Dame Helen Mirren, the shows riff on a cherished documentary film or trope. “Saturday Night Live” alumni Bill Hader and Fred Armisen are the principal performers; fellow graduate Seth Meyers is the principal writer.

Enduring comedy is grounded in both surprise and recognition, and that recognition requires that comedy arise from the real world. We’re happy to report that the parodies of “Documentary Now!” are so needlingly accurate and filmed with such loving detail as to be homages. The anthology takes its source material seriously even while skewering it. “Authenticity is the key,” says Armisen, the Kunuk of Kunuk Uncovered. “That applies to form as much as content.”

Extraordinary care and cleverness have been devoted to approximating the look, period and style of such varied works as Albert and David Maysles’ cinéma-vérité Grey Gardens (1975), Errol Morris’ waking nightmare The Thin Blue Line (1988) and HBO’s achingly hip “Vice” news program. This attention to detail extends from shots and period graphics to lighting and film stock.

Bill Hader and Fred Armisen pursue multidimensional careers in front of and behind the camera, most recently with the IFC series "Documentary Now!," which premiered in August. (Brinson + Banks; Grooming: Catherine Furniss (Hader) and Sydney Zibrak (Armisen))
(Brinson + Banks; Grooming: Catherine Furniss (Hader) and Sydney Zibrak (Armisen))
(Brinson + Banks; Grooming: Catherine Furniss (Hader) and Sydney Zibrak (Armisen))
(Brinson + Banks; Grooming: Catherine Furniss (Hader) and Sydney Zibrak (Armisen))
(Brinson + Banks; Grooming: Catherine Furniss (Hader) and Sydney Zibrak (Armisen))

“It’s the kind of wonderfully anal art direction you don’t usually hear about in a comedy,” says Hader. “In fact, very few comedies are visually interesting. Which is why Terry Gilliam never really directed another Monty Python movie after Holy Grail. In one scene, the other members of the troupe kneeled uncomfortably in suits of armor while Gilliam held up the shoot for hours until he got the smoke right. John Cleese said, ‘Terry, how many laughs are in the smoke?’”

The elaborate put-ons of “Documentary Now!” shimmy along on the strength of its seamless ensemble—Armisen and Hader are, in a manner of speaking, perfectly mismatched—and its remarkable depth in storytelling. Kunuk Uncovered, for example, examines the relationship between documentarians and their subjects, the hubris it takes to make works of art, and the very nature of creative expression. The result is a hilarious and knowing lampooning of nonfiction formats and their tension between truth and tone.

“The reason ‘Documentary Now!’ is so groundbreaking is that it harkens back to the early days of film when people saw footage of a train and dove out of the way,” says onetime “SNL” head writer Adam McKay, the director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights. “There is nothing more exciting than believing something fake is real unless you’re conned and your money is taken. And even that is kind of cool. To this day, I love crank calls and old ‘Candid Camera’ episodes for the same reason.”

McKay credits Hader, Armisen, Meyers and director Rhys Thomas with reinventing the mockumentary, that most hidebound of motion picture genres. The faux-real tradition dates at least to Welles’ radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, a series of simulated news bulletins that unleashed considerable mischief way back in 1938. Two decades later, the BBC broadcast a piece of fudged realism about a “Swiss spaghetti harvest” that purported to show a family plucking strands of pasta from a spaghetti tree. Hundreds of viewers phoned in asking how they could grow their own.

“Helping to build something like a mockumentary that’s its own real estate is very cool,” Armisen says. “When we came up with the premise for ‘Documentary Now!,’ I asked myself, ‘Is there vegetation back there?’ After reading Seth’s first script, I realized, ‘Oh yeah, I could live on that property.’”

Armisen stars as Kunuk in Kunuk Uncovered. (Gunnar Orn Birgisson/IFC)
Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee (Rhys Thomas/IFC)
Sandy Passage (Rhys Thomas/IFC)
Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon (Rhys Thomas/IFC)
Armisen performs as Liberace and Hader as Vincent Price in a “Saturday Night Live” skit from 2009. (Dana Edelson / NBC / NBCU Photo Bank / Getty Images)

Documentaries that seemed more about the filmmakers than the film were scrupulously avoided, as were those with a comic tone. “Why rework stuff that’s already funny?” says Armisen. “As Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins said in This Is Spinal Tap, ‘It’s such a fine line between stupid, and, uh, clever.’”

A genuine pop-culture touchstone, Spinal Tap (1984) traces the history of a heavy-metal band on its final, futile tour. From spontaneously combusting drummers to the guitarist who thinks “sexist” and “sexy” are synonyms, no one else has eviscerated rock ’n’ roll so completely—except real rock stars themselves. “Among so-called mockumentaries, I don’t think anything really touches it,” observes Hader. “‘The Office,’ ‘Modern Family,’ ‘Parks and Recreation’—every recent single-camera sitcom with jokey talking heads owes its existence to Spinal Tap.”

Still, Hader insists that the biggest inspirations for “Documentary Now!” were Woody Allen’s moc-docs Take the Money and Run (1969) and Zelig (1983). The former recounted the criminal career of the hapless Virgil Starkwell; the latter was a historical pastiche about Leonard Zelig, a “human chameleon” who took on the physical, mental and emotional attributes of any strong personality he was with, and whose discovery prompted headlines, psychiatric studies and Jazz Age dance crazes.

“I was really impressed with the interviews in Take the Money and Run,” Hader recalls. “The ones with Starkwell’s teachers, his music instructors, his Groucho-glasses-wearing parents—‘I tried to beat God into him!’—made you feel like you were witnessing an actual conversation.”

Hader found Zelig as moving as it was ambitiously mischievous. He loved how the disparate elements meshed. During the early days of “Documentary Now!,” he sent DVDs of the film to Rhys Thomas and co-director Alex Buono. “I told them, ‘This is the mood of the show: very serious, very dry, but with insane jokes and crazy moments. You don’t want to wink too much at the audience.’”

When mockumentaries go awry, he says, it’s often because they don’t play by the rules of documentaries. Which is why only one camera was used in the Grey Gardens takeoff, which is titled Sandy Passage. “That’s all the Maysleses had, so that’s all we had,” Armisen says. “Again, it all goes back to authenticity.”

He and Hader are both gifted mimics. Armisen’s expressions of breathtaking inanity—a highlight of his other IFC show, “Portlandia”—seem to come with worrying ease. For his part, Hader’s physical and vocal quirks allow him to sketch characters as if by shorthand. Over eight seasons on “SNL,” he developed an unequaled range of wiggy characterizations (the flamboyant Stefon, Italian talk-show host Vinny Vedecci) and eerily precise impersonations (Al Pacino, Vincent Price).

One of his finest moments on “Documentary Now!” came while playing a lightly fictionalized version of Grey Gardens’ Little Edie Beale, a down-and-out socialite living with her mother in a derelict mansion overrun with cats, raccoons and the flotsam of regret.

Like Little Edie, Hader’s Little Vivvy wears head wraps, though in her case they are sweatpants. (The legs are built-in scarves, she explains.) As self-effacing as the Cheshire Cat, Hader disappears into the role with a smoky smile. Whimsy morphs into menace, and this small masterpiece of mocku-poetry takes a late-game turn, mixing in morsels of Psycho and The Blair Witch Project.

“We’re all fans of the movies we’re parodying,” says Hader. “We’d like nothing better than for unsuspecting viewers to tune in to an episode and, halfway through, figure out that they’re not watching a real documentary. If our remake makes them curious enough to watch the original, we’ll be very, very happy.”

More from Documentary Now!

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About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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