'SNL' Alumni Mine Humor From Serious Cinema In 'Documentary Now!'

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Fred Armisen and Bill Hader send up the classic documentary Grey Gardens in the first episode of their new TV series, Documentary Now! (IFC)
Fred Armisen and Bill Hader send up the classic documentary Grey Gardens in the first episode of their new TV series, Documentary Now! (IFC)

Former Saturday Night Live cast members Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader are making TV together again. Tonight their new show, Documentary Now!, which features fake documentaries satirizing some of the most famous nonfiction films, premiers on IFC.

To sell the faux-class and seriousness of what's about to unfold, it's presented as a golden anniversary show of the best documentary films hosted by none other than Oscar-winner Helen Mirren.

"We really wanted someone who had gravitas, but also a sort of winking humor," says Seth Meyers a co-writer of the series. The Late Night host leaves the acting on Documentary Now! to Hader, most recently seen in the movie Trainwreck, and Armisen, Meyers' Late Night bandleader and star of another IFC show, Portlandia.

The first episode is a send-up of Grey Gardens, the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles. Armisen and Hader play the reclusive mother-and-daughter team living in a dilapidated mansion.

"You know the Maysles brothers, I mean the whole thing is that it's verite style — it's hanging out with insane people," Hader says. "They were just such weird characters and it's such a weird setting — they're in this house and there's possums and snakes and stuff in it."

In Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon, Armison and Hader play a pair of hipster reporters on the trail of a drug lord.
In Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon, Armison and Hader play a pair of hipster reporters on the trail of a drug lord.

Each of the show's mockumentaries is 20 minutes long. Hader says they aim to satirize not only a film's premise, but also the filmmaker's style. One episode spoofs Errol Morris's 1988 film Thin Blue Line — with Documentary Now!'s cinematographer using the exact same camera lenses as the original film.

In another episode, they traveled to Iceland to shoot a fake documentary about a hapless Inuit named Pippelock, a satire of the 1922 silent classic Nanook Of The North.

For more recent material, the guys turned to one of their favorite shows: the HBO series Vice, associated with the magazine, which sends its correspondents to conflict areas around the world. In their take, Hader and Armisen are hipster reporters on the hunt for a notorious Mexican druglord, wandering through a village, calling out his name and ignoring warnings to not wave their cameras around. Jack Black plays the head of Vice stand-in "Dronez."

And of course, the "rockumentary" does not escape their treatment. They do a parody of Alex Gibney's two-part documentary on the iconic 1970's rock band the Eagles. Hader says theirs is about a band called "The Blue Jean Committee."

"Fred said 'I want to do an idea about a Chicago band that wants to be a California band,' " Hader says. "It was more of an excuse for Fred and I to talk ... like real Chicago guys. We also love the idea of really macho guys that sing really kinda not-so-macho music, you know?"

Hader says he's always admired the comedy of the Monty Python crew, who clearly enjoyed working with each other. And Meyers says they were inspired by the classic 1984 music mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, starring Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean.

"Those are the guys that, I think, pretty much inspired the idea of playing around with documentaries," Meyers says. "And that form — they just sort of showed everybody, oh, you can do stories about characters, you can still have jokes, but it also sort of moves at a nicer pace. It doesn't feel as dependent on having a joke every 15 seconds."

Meyers says they came up with their idea of doing a mockumentary show when they were all regulars on SNL. In one bit from those days called "The History of Punk," Fred Armisen starred as Ian Rubbish, a punk rocker with a soft spot for the British prime minister.

"We had such a great time making that," Armisen says. "That's something that we didn't have like a punchline to it? It was more about the look and accuracy of the time we were trying to recreate, which was 1977 London."

Hader says he remembers suggesting a show like Documentary Now! to Meyers at the afterparty after that show.

"The timing was right because Fred and Seth and I, we were all leaving, and we wanted to keep working with each other somehow," he says.

Meyers described it as "like when you're with you're with your friends, you're like 'hey we should go on a trip together!' " — only they actually followed through and did it.

The comedians and IFC are betting there are a lot of film nerds and documentary fans out there — the channel has already picked up Documentary Now! for two more seasons, even before the first episode has aired — but Meyers says he, Armisen and Hader mostly made the show for their own amusement — and that they'd be jealous if somebody else had made it.

"That's the goal, I think, of all comedians, is to try to make other ones jealous and bitter," he says. "Fingers crossed."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I'm David Greene with news of a "Saturday Night Live" reunion. Some former cast members - Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader - are making television together again. Tonight, their new show, "Documentary Now!," is premiering on cable channel IFC. The show features fake documentaries that satirize non-fiction films. Here's NPR's Mandalit Del Barco.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The series presents itself as a golden anniversary show of the best documentary films, hosted by one very famous movie star.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCUMENTARY NOW!")

HELEN MIRREN: I'm Helen Mirren, and you're watching, "Documentary Now!"

SETH MEYERS: We really wanted someone who had gravitas but also a sort of winking humor.

DEL BARCO: Seth Meyers who also hosts "Late Night," on NBC is a co-writer on the series. He leaves the performing to Bill Hader and Fred Armisen.

DEL BARCO: The first episode is a send up of "Grey Gardens," a 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles. Armisen and Hader play the reclusive mother and daughter team living in a dilapidated mansion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCUMENTARY NOW!")

FRED ARMISEN: (As character) This is where I first learned to dance. I have the memories of...

BILL HADER: (As character) ...What happened?

ARMISEN: (As character) I fell through the floor again.

HADER: (As character) It's because you stopped.

ARMISEN: (As character) I don't stop.

HADER: (As character) I'm always telling you. You got floor all in my lima beans.

HADER: You know, the Maysles brothers, I mean the whole thing is that it's the verite style, just hanging out with insane people. (Laughter).

DEL BARCO: Bill Hader says their performances in drag were an homage to the original film.

HADER: They were just such weird characters and in such a weird setting. They're in this house, and there's possums and snakes and stuff in it.

DEL BARCO: Each of the show's mockumentaries is 20 minutes long. Hader says they aim to satirize not only a film's premise but also the filmmaker's style. One episode spoofs Errol Morris's 1988 film, "The Thin Blue Line." On "Documentary Now!" the cinematographer used the exact same camera lenses as the original film. In another episode, they travel to Iceland to shoot a fake documentary about a hapless Eskimo named Pipulak (ph), a satire of the 1922 silent classic, "Nanook Of The North."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCUMENTARY NOW!")

HADER: (As character) He wasn't just bad at being an Eskimo. I mean, there was something fundamentally wrong with this guy.

DEL BARCO: For more recent material, the guys turned to one of their favorite shows, the HBO series "Vice," which sends its correspondents to hotbed areas around the world. In their take, Hader and Armisen are hipster reporters on the hunt for a notorious Mexican drug lord.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCUMENTARY NOW!")

HADER: (As character) We were ready to turn Juarez upside down to find El Chigon(ph). El Chigon.

ARMISEN: (As character) Chigon, where are you?

HADER: (As character) El Chigon, where are you? But as it turns out, tracking down the most wanted man in Mexico wasn't as easy as you might think.

ARMISEN: (As character, speaking Spanish).

HADER: (As character) Luckily, we got hooked up with a local professor-o who had some sweet insider information.

DEL BARCO: And of course, the rockumentary does not escape their treatment. They do a parody of Alex Gibney's two-part documentary on the iconic 1970s rock band, The Eagles. Hader says theirs is about a band called the Blue Jean Committee.

HADER: Fred said, I want to do an idea about a Chicago band that wants to be a California band. (Laughter). It was more of an excuse for Fred and I to talk like this through a whole episode, like real Chicago guys. We also love the idea of really macho guys and then they sing really kind of not-so macho music, you know?

DEL BARCO: Meyers says they were inspired by the classic 1984 music mockumentary, "This Is Spinal Tap."

MEYERS: You know, those are the guys that I think pretty much inspired the idea of, like, playing around with documentaries. And the way - that form, they just sort of showed everybody, oh, you can still do stories about characters. You can still have jokes, but it also sort of moves in a nicer pace. It doesn't feel as dependent on having a joke every sort of 15 seconds.

DEL BARCO: Meyers says that they came up with their idea of doing a mockumentary show when they were all regulars on SNL. In one bit from those days called "The History Of Punk," Fred Armisen starred as Ian Rubbish, a punk rocker with a soft spot for the British Prime Minister.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ARMISEN: (As Ian Rubbish, singing) 1, 2, 3, 4 - Hey Maggie, thanks to you alright. Thanks to you I sleep at night.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We thought he was being ironic.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We thought it was a joke. It turned out he just really liked her.

DEL BARCO: Meyers, Hader and Armisen say they had a great time making "The History Of Punk."

MEYERS: That's something that we didn't have have, like, a punchline to it. You know, it was more about the look and the accuracy of the time we were trying to recreate - which was 1977 London.

HADER: We were at the after-party of that show, and I remember saying to Seth, we should do a whole show like this, you know, where each one is a different parody of a documentary. It was just the timing was right, where Fred and Seth and I were all lea5ving and we wanted to keep working with each other somehow.

MEYERS: You know, like when you're with your friends and you're like, hey we should all go on a trip together? And then sometimes it doesn't happen. This was something that worked out, where it did happen.

DEL BARCO: Meyers says they're betting there are a lot of film nerds and documentary fans out there, but mostly they made the show for their own amusement.

MEYERS: This is a show we would be jealous if somebody else made. That's the goal I think of all comedians, is to try to make other ones jealous and bitter - fingers crossed.

DEL BARCO: Their competition may get that bitter pill sooner rather than later. IFC has already picked up "Documentary Now!" for two more seasons, even before the first episode is aired. Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.