Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Taika Waititi in What We Do In The Shadows

Christopher Guest doesn’t care much for “mockumentary.” “It’s a term I don’t like or use,” he once told New York magazine. “I think it’s a bit cheesy.” His misgivings about the shorthand aside, few have done more to advance the cause of the mock-doc, starring in and co-writing This Is Spinal Tap before undertaking a series of documentary-style films (Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind, and the forthcoming Mascots) and the TV series Family Tree. The style, format, and off-the-cuff feel of those projects has informed entire chapters of modern screen comedy, influencing some of the best and biggest sitcoms in recent decades, and providing a vehicle for The Muppets’ return to the small screen. But not every example of the genre can be The Office; cherrypicking from the past five years of what Christopher Guest doesn’t want us to call “mockumentaries,” The A.V. Club compiled this checklist for faking a documentary the right way. (The list is restricted to comedic works, so you won’t find any examples from the similarly booming realm of found-footage horror.)

1. Don’t be afraid of the boring subtleties of your source material (What We Do In The Shadows)

The filmmakers behind this year’s brilliant What We Do In The Shadows don’t ignore either word in vampire mockumentary: The jokes are both vampire- and reality-show based, and mixing those two worlds proves hilarious. It’s the attention to detail that sells Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s film, with each playing a long-dead vampire trying to make it in the modern world. Waititi is the movie’s secret weapon: As the 379-year-old Viago, he captures the nervous earnestness of the typical documentary subject, trying to impress whoever’s behind the camera with a childlike goofiness—even as he’s, you know, stalking human prey. It’s the little grace notes that take the film’s iffy premise and make something fantastic from it. [Josh Modell]


2. Get very, very specific (Documentary Now!)

Like much of the comedy programming on IFC, the new joint effort from Saturday Night Live alumni Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, and Bill Hader presumes that the audience has already done its homework. An anthology series grounded in sketch comedy, Documentary Now! follows in the footsteps of such famed SNL-related short subjects as “The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash,” “Synchronized Swimming,” and the Armisen-and-Hader-fronted “History Of Punk: Ian Rubbish And The Bizzaros,” applying a studious eye and a bone-dry sense of humor to the entire history of documentary filmmaking. The true stars of the project are directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono and the Documentary Now! editorial team, who expertly mimic the primordial docudrama techniques of Robert J. Flaherty (and the investigative retrospective that called those techniques into question) or the Direct Cinema of Albert and David Maysles. The episode that riffs on the Maysles’ classic Grey Gardens makes no excuses for those unfamiliar with the names Big Edie and Little Edie, diving right into the lives of two fallen socialites (played by Armisen and Hader) with eccentric fashion sense and squalid living arrangements. The humor is in the commitment, from the grainy filmstock to Hader’s take on Little Edie’s “best costume for the day” speech. That gives Documentary Now! solid footing from which to escalate its premises to wildly comedic heights, be it treating VICE News correspondents like Wile E. Coyote or connecting the dots between the feel of Grey Gardens and popular trends in contemporary horror cinema. [Erik Adams]

3. Enlist people for outrageous cameos (7 Days In Hell)


Christopher Guest-style mockumentaries are always good fun, but if you’re going to make a faux-documentary about some legit topic—tennis, let’s say—then you better damn well have some real tennis players in there, and preferably ones that the public has always taken fairly seriously. That’s what 7 Days In Hell does, adding at least a modicum of authenticity to its absurdist Wimbledon tale. Even spouting nonsense dialogue, aces like Chris Evert, Serena Williams, and John McEnroe kicked up the mockumentary’s degree of realness. Bonus points are also always awarded when filmmakers convince anyone seen as straitlaced to cuss up a storm. [Marah Eakin]

4. It’s never too late for a follow-up (The Comeback)

While the original run of The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow’s cringe-comedy takedown of Hollywood narcissism, had a small but devoted following, it never inspired the kinds of feverish calls for a return engagement that, say, Arrested Development provoked. Sometimes, however, that time away, combined with the removal of the weight of expectations, can be a boon: When the series returned in 2014, it didn’t have to worry about fan service, or providing answers to lingering questions demanding resolution by loyal viewers. All it had to do was be funny. Which it did to delicious effect, the nearly decade of time between installments suggesting Kudrow and Michael Patrick King had been saving up great ideas all those years, just waiting to unleash them. Call it the Fury Road advantage: all that time away to plot and plan made the return that much sweeter. [Alex McCown]


5. Go ahead: Shoot fish in a barrel (Community, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”)


During its second season, Community opened a Thursday-night lineup that contained a solid hour of handheld spy shots and talking-head confessionals. Without antagonizing The Office and Parks And Recreation, writer Megan Ganz and director Joe Russo take on those shows’ defining characteristics, putting the study group’s amateur filmmaker, Abed, behind the camera to document the mind games of master manipulator Pierce. With a lower degree of difficulty than its follow-up, the Hearts Of Darkness spoof “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” performs the signature trick of its inspirations: As a bedridden Pierce doles out double-edged “bequeathings,” his friends tell the director things that they’d never tell each other. It’s the type of shortcut that’s below Abed’s typically lofty standards, but he pursues it nonetheless, stealing moments like an inventory of Britta’s debts and Troy freaking out about meeting LeVar Burton. (“I’ve told Pierce a thousand times, I never wanted to meet LeVar in person! I just wanted a picture! You can’t disappoint a picture!”) “It’s easier to tell a complex story when you can just cut to people explaining things to the camera,” which is, of course, an example of someone telling a complex story by cutting to himself explaining things to the camera. [Erik Adams]

6. Talking heads are a seasoning, not the main course (Parks And Recreation, “Win, Lose, Or Draw”)


As Parks And Recreation worked its way out of The Office’s shadow, its use of mockumentary trappings matured in turn. The climax of the show’s fourth-season election arc, “Win, Lose, Or Draw,” deploys two talking heads up top, then drops the device for the remainder of the episode. To some extent, it’s a practical consideration: As the votes are registered, tallied, and reported (and loose ends are tied up), there’s no time to pause for personal reflections. At least not in the usual way: Few emotional expressions on the show are as direct as Leslie Knope punching her own name on the city council ballot, and no talking head could get that across the way Amy Poehler’s silent satisfaction does. (And it’s still punctuated by a punchline, when Paul Rudd’s sweetly naïve Bobby Newport pokes his head through the curtain dividing voting booths.) Even without airing their innermost thoughts, “Win, Lose, Or Draw” still finds spots where the characters can bare their souls, through the realization of a lifelong dream, a glance to the camera, or the end of a speech expertly laced over footage of a satisfied protagonist. [Erik Adams]

7. When all else fails, throw to the monkey puppet (Family Tree)

The HBO/BBC comedy Family Tree is staffed with Christopher Guest regulars like Fred Willard, Michael McKean, and Ed Begley Jr., but it’s a newcomer to the fold that steals the most scenes. Adapting a character from her stage act, ventriloquist Nina Conti supplements her portrayal of Bea Chadwick with Monk, a cynical primate/therapeutic tool perpetually attached to Bea’s right hand. Monk’s presence is a new twist on mockumentary honesty, relaying Bea’s unfiltered thoughts without the assistance of the confessional camera. In a show that’s all about tracing genealogical roots, Conti reaches back to one of mankind’s oldest ancestors for the biggest laughs. [Erik Adams]


Share This Story

Get our newsletter