Documentary Now!

Before making their more popular documentary Grey Gardens, Albert and David Maysles self-funded a direct cinema documentary about door-to-door Bible salesmen sludging their way through American suburbs trying to meet looming sales quotas. They had trouble getting the film off the ground. It was dark and depressing and realistic, not exactly the kind of flashy and thrilling documentary distribution companies might jump at. They ended up self-distributing through their own company, releasing the film in 1969. By taking on Salesman, Documentary Now! sets itself up with a lofty goal. Putting a comedic spin on a documentary that was originally dark and depressing and realistic in its specific and personal depiction of capitalism sounds about as easy as trying to convince someone to buy a globe for $49.95. In another stunning display of this show’s strange genius, “Globesman” is hilarious without losing some of the darkness and themes of the film it’s spoofing.

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Much of the success of “Globesman” comes down to Fred Armisen’s portrayal of Tom O’Halloran, a.k.a. “The Possum.” Like the original, the four salesmen here are given nicknames: There’s Bob Campbell (“The Lummox”) Pete Reynolds (“The Scrod”) and Mike Stankowicz, whose sales nickname is… Mike Stankowicz. But “Globesman” focuses intently on O’Halloran, much like Salesman closely followed Paul Brennan (“The Badger”). O’Halloran and Brennan are two down-on-their-luck guys caught up in the lifestyle and competition of this shitty job. Like “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken,” “Globesman” is weirdly poignant, creating complex characters who have compelling emotions within the story. Armisen gives a funny performance as O’Halloran, but there’s darkness to it, too. He keeps shouting, unprompted, that he should have been a fireman like his dad. He’s abysmal at making sales. Whenever he comes close to making one, he says something overtly offensive and messes it up. Armisen has a lot of fun with those fuck ups, but he’s equally effective at conveying O’Halloran’s insecurities and inner turmoil.

O’Halloran’s personal struggle touches on themes of masculinity and pride and their interplay with capitalism. O’Halloran hinges all his self-worth on making sales. In fact, all the globesmen see their lives in terms of money and sales quotas. They lack compassion for O’Halloran, who is clearly struggling to keep it together throughout. They taunt him and peer pressure him into a drinking game, which he plays until he passes out because he’s so eager to just be one of the guys. The other men resort to violence when their rival Karl Richter comes to town to take away their sales by peddling atlases. Like “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken,” “Globesman” ends on a genuinely cathartic note, though it’s a bit darker than a reunion between father and son. O’Halloran finally makes a sale, and his dreams of being a master globesman are resurrected. Unbeknownst to him, Pete Reynolds (Bill Hader) actually paid someone to buy from O’Halloran, so his inflated sense of pride and joy hinges on Reynolds’ manipulation. It ends on this somber note. Yet again, Documentary Now! manages to be more than just funny, preserving the grimness of Salesman. But it certainly delivers the humor, too: The mere conceit of globe salesmen competing with atlas salesmen is funny in and of itself. And the salesmen’s tenacity and ruthlessness gets played up for laughs, like when Reynolds sells a globe to a barely breathing old woman who he finishes signing the check for when she nods off.

Like its source material, “Globesman” maintains a stripped-down vérité style, giving the episode a very naturalistic look and feel. It’s one of those installments of Documentary Now! that someone could happen across on television and—if they were ignorant of IFC’s brand and also of who Armisen and Hader are—think it’s real. Even the children weaving in and out of the frame as the globesmen make their sales contribute to the episode’s realism. “Globesman” paints a detailed picture of 1960s suburban life. The funniest scene of the episode features the globesmen at a diner, where one orders a salisbury steak in addition to asking the waitress to refill his prescription. O’Halloran asks for “mashed pastrami,” and Reynold’s orders a pack of cigarettes off the menu. It’s a funny commentary on a specific time and place in American history, and it effectively builds the world of “Globesman,” which maintains a strong sense of time and place throughout.

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This is a small detail, but a title sequence at the beginning of the doc reveals that “Globesman” was made by the Fein brothers—the same fictional team behind last season’s “Sandy Passage,” a parody of Grey Gardens. In doing so, Documentary Now! remains consistent with the fact that both of the original documentaries were made by the Maysles brothers. Again, it’s a small detail. But it just goes to show how thorough Documentary Now! is and also how even though it’s churning out fake documentaries, they’re still grounded in some sense of reality. Documentary Now! now has its own universe, connecting two of its episodes. It will be interesting to see if the show does more of that.

Stray observations

  • “My husband is in the hospital. He fell off a train.”
  • According to O’Halloran, he should be a fireman because he’s “good at finding smoke.”
  • “It’s dead, dear.”—Reynolds explaining how rabbits work to his wife
  • All the kids in this episode are so funny, but the Bermuba boy is especially funny.

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