There is a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch that rarely fails to make me grab the remote and press the fast forward button. It’s called “Cinema Classics,” and it features Kenan Thompson as a Robert Osbourne surrogate, presenting a (clearly fictional) staple of the classical Hollywood era. It’s mostly an excuse for the show’s ensemble to dress up in swanky 1940s costumes and the show’s writers to poke fun at whatever they recently watched on Turner Classic Movies. In the skits, the characters are mostly caricatures, while the jokes rarely stick. As a fan of classic movies, it’s a painful slog to watch, since there doesn’t seem to be much affection for the kinds of films it’s trying (and failing) to parody.
It’s only going to get harder for SNL writers to keep the slim goodwill this bit has. Three of the show’s recent alumni – writer Seth Meyers, performers Bill Hader and Fred Armisen – recently premiered the seven-episode debut season of Documentary Now! on IFC. (Lorne Michaels is another of the show’s executive producers, as is English comedian Rhys Thomas.) The show aims to satirize influential documentaries, although its approach isn’t much different from “Cinema Classics.” It has a host (Helen Mirren, playing herself) introducing the clips, as well as an introduction with soaring music that features excerpt of beloved non-fiction titles like Roger and Me, Salesman and Don’t Look Back. It’s a spot-on parody of the kind of movie broadcasts on television where a stuffy older person contextualizes a classic before the film plays.
An uninformed IFC watcher could be fooled into thinking they are in store for an actual program instead of a parody. Unlike the misguided SNL sketch, Documentary Now! aims to make the viewer laugh at form and content. The episodes are uncanny doubles to famous documentaries: the first season boasts near-replicas of Grey Gardens, Nanook of the North and The Thin Blue Line. If none of those titles mean anything to you, you’re not part of the show’s fragmented target audience.
The Grey Gardens parody, “Sandy Passage,” explores a mother and daughter living in a dilapidated country home. Hader is Litte Vivvy Van Klimpton (the film’s “Little Evie” Bouvier Beale surrogate), the camera-hogging sweetheart with an eccentric style of dressing and dancing. Armisen is Big Vivvy, mostly relegated to lounging in her bed and speaking in a stern tone. “Kunuk Uncovered,” the second episode is not so much a parody of Nanook of the North – revered as the first popular non-fiction film – but a parody of a documentary that looks back at that early film’s production and explores what the doc is now best known for: its various digressions from the truth. “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” is the show’s Thin Blue Line installment, a loopy murder mystery that doubles as a legal defense for a wrongfully accused man on death row.
Documentary Now!‘s premiere season was made with much love and admiration for the form it’s aping, going so far as to mimic the logo to Janus Films, the distributor of many art-house classics, and feature an uncanny copy of Philip Glass’s score for its Thin Blue Line parody. Some of these jokes are very “inside baseball,” even for virulent cinephiles, but the show’s attention to meticulous detail is intricate and offbeat enough to warrant a second viewing. The nuanced, note-perfect parodies work primarily due to the performances. Hader and Armisen are two of Saturday Night Live’s most versatile performers, and that specialty is a major plus here. In “Sandy Passage,” the two men dress in outlandish garb but also manage to find the vulnerability in the outsider qualities of the Van Klimptons. This ensures their performances are more than just indelible impressions.
The short episodes mirror the style and structure of non-fiction films. (“Kunuk the Hunter” may be the easiest episode to start from, as the zooming into old photographs, reliance on talking heads and voice-over of handwritten letters are familiar aspects of many made-for-TV and educational docs.) Still, it would be unfair to label these episodes mockumentaries, since they so formidably pay tribute to the aesthetic and approach of non-fiction filmmaking. However, Documentary Now! is not merely satisfied with cleverly paying tribute to classic films. The stories in the 21-minute episodes all become more complex and have unpredictable twists, ones that would be sacrosanct to spoil.
The niche success of Documentary Now! isn’t a fluke. Earlier this year, Amy Schumer co-directed what is now widely considered the most innovative sketch to appear on her Comedy Central series. Running 19 minutes, “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” formidably and faithfully mirrors much of the look, style and dialogue of the 1957 big-screen adaptation of 12 Angry Men, directed by Sidney Lumet. Instead of debating whether a boy lives or gets the electric chair, the hotheaded jury argues over whether Schumer is hot enough to be on basic cable television. The choice is inspired: Hollywood boardrooms are still overwhelmingly male, so having nearly a dozen suited slobs harshly putting down female celebrities that don’t quite gel with their view of traditional beauty is cutting cultural commentary.
Beyond the timely satire, the attention to detail is exquisite. Director of photography Jonathan Furmanski (alongside Schumer and co-director Ryan McFaul) turns the smoky jury room into a near replica of the setting from Lumet’s film. The sketch also uses the same opening credits font and mirrors the blocking of the movie’s more heated scenes. (The 12 actors cast also resemble, although some more than others, the 1957 film’s cast.) Although running less than a fifth the length of its source material, the sketch hardly feels rushed. It breathlessly moves from one of the story’s most famous set pieces to the next, although instead of Henry Fonda whipping out a switchblade akin to the one used as evidence, John Hawkes slams down a dildo to stun his fellow jurors. Instead of Jack Warden’s belligerent baseball fan impatiently waiting to go to a game, actor Henry Zubrowski seethes as he hopes to make an Adam Levine-Blake Shelton concert.
Those who have never seen the 1957 classic still have plenty to laugh at: Schumer and her entire writing staff, all of whom are credited, pack in fresh jokes about Jenny McCarthy, Kevin James and The Facts of Life. On a second viewing, I realized just how much the sketch had to do, balancing its look from a starkly different era with crass jokes that would be bewilderingly out-of-place in any variation of Reginald Rose’s play. While a few of the lines are copied verbatim from the original text, they don’t halt the flow of the comedy.
The success of Documentary Now! and “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” is unusual. Cinematic parody has taken a hit, thanks to the Seltzer-Friedberg atrocity factory (that produced such unwatchable grotesqueries as Epic Movie). Meanwhile, with so many humour websites getting hits with bite-sized sketches that poke fun at recent pop culture targets, prescient satire has mostly moved to the Internet. Nobody was asking for comedy sketches done in the mould of films a half-century-old, but the series’ dedicated creators took a risk alienating an audience and ended up with programs that could delight cinephiles.
Yet despite the seemingly esoteric appeal of these episodes, there are ties to contemporary times. “Kunuk Uncovered” explores how a praised non-fiction work was widely manipulated to look like authentic truth, a vital commentary on documentary practice (and news judgment) today. When “Sandy Passage” descends into a horror film near its conclusion, we realize the thin line between an odd 1970s non-fiction title and the now-ubiquitous found-footage genre. It is nearly impossible to watch “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” without thinking of the success of true-crime shows like The Jinx or the popular Serial podcast. Meanwhile, Schumer’s sketch reiterates how the major decisions in show business (and beyond) still belong to a jury of men with views cloistered in the 1950s. These are not mere pitch-perfect replications, but powerful satires. They’re pastiches with a purpose, although they resonate better if you’re in on the joke.