In April 2013, Saturday Night Live aired The History of Punk, a short film that spoofed the Sex Pistols rockumentary The Filth and the Fury.
It starred Fred Armisen as Ian Rubbish, a snarling rock icon cut from the same anarchic cloth as the Pistols’ Johnny Rotten. At the episode after-party, Armisen and SNL cohorts Bill Hader and Seth Meyers tossed around an idea for a series that would spoof other seminal documentaries.
The result is Documentary Now!, an IFC series debuting August 20, created and executive produced by the trio and introduced by none other than Dame Helen Mirren. The show stars Armisen and Hader in parodies of such documentaries as Grey Gardens and Nanook of the North; Meyers’s schedule as host of NBC’s Late Night prevented him from appearing.
The trio recently shared with emmy contributor Bruce Fretts the process that led them from post-party dream to the screen.
Seth Meyers: I had a lot of fun doing The History of Punk with Fred, who was one of the people that introduced me to punk music, which I enjoy a great deal now.
We did it with Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, our director and cinematographer, and they did such a great job of making all the archival footage look so real.
Fred Armisen: We saw it as something that could keep on living. We enjoyed the idea of making something that isn’t necessarily parody.
Bill Hader: I’ve seen a bunch of documentaries, so I thought it would be cool to do stuff that had a wide range of styles — and to do it like American Masters.
Meyers: Fred having a relationship with IFC on Portlandia helped.
Armisen: We went through pretty normal channels. In my experience, TV isn’t as easy as, “Oh, I know somebody there, so we’re in.” It’s such a financial gamble; it’s very unforgiving. It’s a pretty cold world, which it should be.
Hader: We had to watch the original documentaries. Rhys and Alex studied them. For the one that’s like [1988’s] The Thin Blue Line, they got the exact same lenses [that filmmaker] Errol Morris used.
Meyers: I watched [the 1975 documentary] Grey Gardens seven times, and it was the best. I had a real appreciation for not just the Maysles brothers as filmmakers, but for the two women who were their subjects.
Armisen: It’s really funny watching films again, because there are things you forget. You also forget how great they are. It’s like, “How did they capture these wonderful moments?”
Hader: I’ve shown our episode to people who have no idea what Grey Gardens is, and they were like, “What is this?” The people who have seen Grey Gardens really get a kick out of it.
Meyers: I wouldn’t mind if people saw our show and realized, “Oh, this is inspired by something.” If it makes people watch Grey Gardens or The Thin Blue Line, we’d be happy.
Armisen: There’s no requirement to have seen the original films to watch Documentary Now. We’re trying to make it engaging on its own.
Hader: When Seth and Fred called and said, “We got Helen Mirren to host,” I just started laughing.
Meyers: She did SNL when we were all there, and we were all madly in love with her. But as much as I’d like to say Prime Suspect super-fan Seth Meyers was the one who convinced Helen Mirren to do the show, I think it was Fred.
Armisen: Oh, that’s so flattering. For me to agree would mean I’m bragging. She is a fan of Portlandia, and I love her — she’s great. But everyone agrees on that. That’s not just my personal view. She brings a bit of a serious tone, which gives it more weight.
Hader: You want there to be some semblance of a story in the episodes. They’re not sketches. You want the stories to unfold.
Armisen: It’s a matter of writing that’s thought out — you’ve got to expand everything. We had to plan it out, without having the safety net of, “Oh, we’ll just cut it down, and it’ll be fine.”
Hader: We had a total blast doing it. I would do another season if we could figure out our schedules. We’ll see what people think of it.
Armisen: I never think of anything in the future. I only think about a month ahead. That’s the only way I can maintain any passion.
Meyers: With a show like Late Night, 99 percent of my focus has to be there. But Documentary Now was really fun to do. It’s not like anything I’ve done before.
Hader: It would be great if people enjoy it, but the whole reason we did it was for us. We just wanted to see this show.