Humorous homages, deep laughs: From SNL to IFC and “Documentary Now!”

It’s no secret that some of Saturday Night Live‘s most striking work in recent years has not come via live TV, but come alive via lightning-quick production of thrilling tributes to film via short films.

Think of the Wes Anderson Halloween tributeNew Horror Trailer,Louis CK as Lincoln, or Ian Rubbish and The Bizzaros: History of Punk.

They’ve been brought to life over the years by Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono behind the cameras, and with former SNL stars Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers, they’ve teamed up to expand the concept to stunningly precise and funny homages to some of their favorite Cinéma vérité styles over the years. Actually, Cinéma vérité is a documentary style itself. Do they get to it in Documentary Now!? You’ll have to tune in and find out.

“We wanted these things to be companions, too — nothing would make us happier than if people saw Sandy Passage (their season debut), and if they hadn’t seen it yet, it made them go and see Grey Gardens,” said Meyers, who co-created Documentary Now! with Armisen and Hader.

Documentary Now!, premieres tonight on IFC with host Dame Helen Mirren introducing each episode as if they’re already on Season 50. In reality: They did already win renewals for a second AND third season ahead of its debut.

“This two-season renewal ahead of the show’s initial debut is a huge nod to the creative and comedic genius of Fred, Bill and Seth,” said IFC President Jennifer Caserta.  “We’re immensely proud of what they’ve created alongside Rhys, and thrilled with the buzz and critical acclaim the show is already receiving.” Here’s a teaser trailer of what they’re bringing in the first season:

“Sandy Passage” channels the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles about an eccentric mother-daughter duo on Long Island who were related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In the version starring Armisen and Hader, things take a turn for the satirically sinister when men around them start disappearing.

The second episode, “Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon,” tackles VICE’s HBO series, featuring Jack Black in a winning performance inspired by VICE’s own Shane Smith — while Armisen and Hader play three sets of Dronez reporters sent to find a Mexican drug lord. Any resemblance to El Chapo is coincidental. Any resemblance to VICE is highly intentional, and the Brooklyn-based “edgy” “correspondent” “journalism” shop was so happy to cooperate they posted the episode online 10 days early. Which helped spur buzz and the renewal.

“It’s the edgiest (episode), because I would think that VICE would even say that their style is the edgiest,” Meyers said.

“They really liked it,” Hader added. “Because it’s about them. They were actually really helping us a lot. Because it’s about them.”

Other episodes include “Kunuk Uncovered,” which heads to Iceland to find Armisen’s Inuk character finding unique celebrity, taking its notes from Robert J. Flaherty’s silent documentary set in northern Quebec, 1922’s Nanook of the North. They filmed a second episode while in Iceland, “Al Capone Festival in Iceland,” which is as weirdly straightforward as it reads. “This is the most Fred idea,” Meyers said.

Their take on the documentary on The Eagles focuses on fictional band Blue Jean Committee with the two-parter, “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee,” and Armisen and Hader got the band together for a cross-promotional performance this week on Late Night with Seth Meyers.

“They’re a Chicago band, that decided they wanted to be a California band,” Hader said.

They also have an Errol Morris tribute of his 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, with “Under 45 Seconds,” about a man sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit.

“We really wanted it to be authentic to those films,” Hader said Tuesday at a panel hosted by The Atlantic and saved only by what moderation MSNBC’s Alex Wagner could muster to counter The Atlantic’s Washington editor’s need for comedic validation by the panelists. Wagner wondered whether filming a mockumentary meant they encountered the same problems of actual documentaries in sifting through so much footage they couldn’t use.

“Some of it’s funny,” Hader said. “But the funny thing is, so many mockumentaries, if you go, OK, we’re going to do something in the Maysles Brothers style. What we would do is we’d go, we’ll just cut away to Fred during this, and then we’d go, oh no, they wouldn’t –”

“They wouldn’t. They would only have one camera,” Thomas said.

“They’d only have one camera,” Hader replied. “So we’d have to figure out a way of motivating the camera over.”

“Right. Your instinct in comedy is always to cover everything, in case you need to pull up a joke,” Thomas said.

That attitude extended throughout the first season of production.

“I’m a big film fan, so…I get excited when they said we actually got the lenses that they shot The Thin Blue Line on to do The Thin Blue Line parody,” Hader said.

“We tried very hard for all of them to have beginnings, middles and ends,” Meyers said. “We had obviously spent so much time in the framework of SNL sketches, and those kinds of sketches are what led us to this.”

Thomas said he and Buono underwent “a lot of investigation” to get the details of each style just right. “We reach out to filmmakers, if they’re around. Whatever research we could do to find out what lenses they shot it on, what film stock they used…But actually, we’ve got a very accurate film grain applied to it.”

“Even the Nanook of the North one, we tracked down some old glass from the ’20s.”

In addition to Jack Black, other guest stars in the first season will include John Slattery, Irving Azoff, Aidy Bryant, Mike O’Brien, Paula Pell and Tim Robinson.

Lorne Michaels oversees Documentary Now! as an executive producer, with his Broadway Video producing and Andrew Singer also executive producing. Former SNL colleagues John Mulaney and Erik Kenward worked on the first season, too, as consulting producer and supervising producer, respectively.

Documentary Now! premieres tonight on IFC.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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