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

Fred Armisen and Bill Hader send up the classic documentary <em>Grey Gardens</em> in the first episode of their new TV series, <em>Documentary Now!</em>
Tyler Golden
Fred Armisen and Bill Hader send up the classic documentary Grey Gardens in the first episode of their new TV series, Documentary Now!

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."

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.

In <em>Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon</em>, Armison and Hader play a pair of hipster reporters on the trail of a drug lord.
Tyler Golden / IFC
In Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon, Armison and Hader play a pair of hipster reporters on the trail of a drug lord.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.