The seed was planted firmly in the ground on April 13, 2013. The location, Saturday Night Live. The idea, a documentary about the history of punk. Footage detailed the political leanings of punk rocker Ian Rubbish, a character depicted by Fred Armisen who was a staunch anarchist except where the life of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was concerned. Whether real or fake, this documentary starring Armisen and Bill Hader struck a chord, pun intended. That year also saw the departure of Armisen and Hader from SNL. Writer and Weekend Update host Seth Meyers wasn’t far behind. But before they left, they agreed that there should be more of what “History of Punk” had to offer, there is something here. Flash forward to Tuesday, August 18. The premiere screening of Documentary Now!, a new docu-series for IFC set to launch two days later. The seed that had been planted over two years ago has grown into a full fledged television series hailing from Meyers, Armisen, and Hader. Season one in its entirety was set to include six doc-episodes, but with the buzz snowballing and early feedback overwhelmingly positive, it was announced that not only will there be a season two, a third will happen as well, topped off with a seventh episode for season one. All this before the show even premieres.
So clearly IFC is all in on the project. When I caught up with Meyers, Armisen and Hader at the event, I asked them about getting renewed before the public even had the chance to sink their teeth into the project. “We wanted to start stressing out before we could even enjoy the first episode airing” responded Meyers. Hader chimed in with a similar sentiment, “We can’t even enjoy it because now we’re like, ‘F*ck, what are we going to do now? We already did our 6 ideas.” Meyers added, “I think we might end up having to make our own documentary and then make a parody of that. We’ll make something serious about a very serious subject. No jokes. And then take it down.”
Documentary Now! also showcases some A-list guest stars including host Helen Mirren and an appearance by Jack Black as Jamison Friend, the man behind Dronez, a fictional institution not unlike Vice, which also doubles as the title of episode two. Also on hand at the event were Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, the directors behind the series. Thomas has been working with Meyers and Armisen at SNL since the pre-Hader days, eventually teaming up with Hader upon his arrival. You know that Wes Anderson parody trailer for The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders you love so much, that’s the brilliant work of Thomas. As for Buono, he also has ties to SNL as a cinematographer working on shorts, most notably SNL Fanatic for the Best of Molly Shannon. When I asked them about the key to a good parody, Rhys responded, “I think being as faithful as you can be and coming from a place of love rather than wanting to take a jab at someone or something. For us, that’s always the way we approach it. You want to pay attention to every little nuance that’s there. It’s enjoyable for us, we’re kind of nerds about that. So we try to invest as much as we possible can.” Buono added, “I don’t really think of it as parody. I’m sure it is parody on some level, but I really do think of doing it as this really authentic love letter to the thing we have so much respect for and having fun with it. The filmmakers behind these classic documentaries are real people and they have a great sense of humor.” He continues, “We’ve reached out to a lot of them and they are just as excited about this as we are. It’s really fun to be able to celebrate the documentary format like this.”
When I asked Meyers the same question, we talked about the more serious side of documentaries, “The documentaries that I always remember are characters you never forget. Characters that fiction couldn’t create in a weird way. I think the best of these are the ones that allowed Bill and Fred to play characters that were really rich and layered, that’s what was fun to do.” Armisen jumped in by saying, “I also think documentaries that make you go, ‘I had no idea! I didn’t know that existed and that was happening?'”
The first two episodes were then screened after the red carpet came and went with the response as expected, fantastic. New World Stages in New York City was at capacity with just enough room left for the laughter that came in the form of tidal waves. Before the night was over, I had to ask Thomas just one more question about the addition seasons. Would we eventually get to the point where we are going to see a parody based on a future doc that hasn’t occurred yet but is founded on current subjects. His response, “Oh sh*t. I’ll take that, I hadn’t thought of that. That’s a fun idea.” We can only hope.
Documentary Now! premieres Thursday August 20 at 10p on IFC. However, you can watch the entire aforementioned Dronez episode here.