“Authentic. Loving. Celebratory. Time-specific.” That’s how Fred Armisen describes Documentary Now!, an IFC comedy (debuting Aug. 20) that spoofs and pays tribute to the genre with a six-episode showcase of mockumentaries about fictitious historical subjects (often rooted in real life), each unspooled in a different filmmaking style.
Armisen and Bill Hader star in each half-hour doc while serving as creator/executive producer/writers alongside fellow SNL vet Seth Meyers. The SNL connection extends to another executive producer (Lorne Michaels) as well as the show’s directors (Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono). And it was on that sketch show that the seeds for Documentary Now! were planted—specifically with “Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros: History of Punk,” a faux doc about a British punk band starring Armisen and Hader.
“IFC had always liked the Ian Rubbish thing and originally approached us about doing more of his story,” says “Rubbish” writer Meyers. “But we were really happy with how that had been a piece, and we didn’t really know anything more we wanted to say about Ian, whereas exploring other things like that was more interesting to us.”
And this show shares a similar comedy aesthetic with “Ian Rubbish.” “There really is no big joke in Ian Rubbish, “ says Armisen, “and that’s where we came from—where this isn’t a total punchline to any of it.” Hader, meanwhile, enjoyed trying on a series of disparate characters with his SNL co-star outside of their usual sketch playground. “It was fun for me and Fred because we never viewed it as more of a sketch show,” he says. “They were totally separate short films, but we get to play characters that have an A, B, and C story rather than a quick sketch character. There are sketches that are pretty over the top in it, but it was nice to get to play something over a full episode.”
Here’s your first look at the boys in three of their documentaries, complete with commentary from the trio:
“Sandy Passage,” a wink at Grey Gardens in which mother-daughter socialites live in a dilapidated mansion
MEYERS: It seemed like a real natural choice, because when Fred and Bill play women, they do it with a real integrity—they don’t do it for cheap or easy laughs. Those women had such integrity. It’s really fun to watch Fred and Bill play women who are holding on to this idea of their own nobility.
HADER: The wardrobe department loved that episode. They would put sweatpants on my head, and I was like, ‘What is this? This is so insane.’ And then I watched Grey Gardens and, yeah, she has, like, sweatpants on her head.
“Blue Jean Committee,” the story of an Eagles-esque Midwest-gone-California rock band in the ’70s
MEYERS: When we did Ian Rubbish, Fred wrote what are incredibly catchy, era-appropriate punk songs that are still on my iPod. We thought it would be a mistake if we didn’t have one that Fred could go off and write music for. That was a case of playing to Fred’s strengths. And if you’re doing a series about documentaries, it would be a shame to not have a music one, because I think we all agree that music docs are the best ones.
ARMISEN: We take it for granted now that something like soft rock exists, but it’s actually a really difficult thing to do, to play softly and in a pretty way. What’s the story behind that kind of music making? Were these people really soft people?
HADER: I think it’s funny that I have an electric bass and it looks like we’re playing acoustic. That’s the kind of subtle humor you’ll expect from the show.
“Dronez,” in which Vice-like hipster journalists from New York head to Mexico to infiltrate a drug cartel
MEYERS: “Dronez” has one of the best twists of all of them, which I leave to be revealed. Fred and Bill playing real risk-taking journalists on the hunt for a cartel is sort of a comedy goldmine.
ARMISEN: It’s less about those characters—it’s about a style, and that’s Vice when it goes to all these different countries. I know a lot of people from Vice, and Portlandia uses a camera person who works on Vice. It’s a tribute to that.
HADER: I would say those two guys are pretty stoked on themselves.