Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, & Bill Hader: Three of TV’s Funniest Guys on the Serious Business of Spoofing Documentaries
How the Saturday Night Live alumni created a show that parodies documentaries and turned it into one of the strangest, best shows on TV.
Fred Armisen gives one of the most intense, emotional dramatic performances of this TV season, playing the son of a restaurant worker in the hills of Colombia who is afraid of the chickens he must kill to cook for dinner.
Such is the absurdist joy of Documentary Now!, a sketch-comedy adventureland where Fred Armisen is sent to the jungles of South America to film a spoof-homage to the acclaimed food documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi and the resulting product leaves you with tears in your eyes.
The IFC series, which is competing for an Emmy on Sunday night, returns for its second season on Wednesday, carrying on its tradition of parodying classic documentaries with astonishing attention to detail.
Juan Loves Chicken and Rice, the aforementioned Jiro love letter, is the season’s standout second episode. Wednesday night begins in far more timely fashion with The Bunker, the Documentary Now! take on the 1993 Bill Clinton campaign documentary The War Room that transplants the action to the Ohio gubernatorial race with Bill Hader playing the James Carville figure and Armisen the George Stephanopoulos.
It’s a meticulous period piece, to the point that the same dingy ’90s vending machine from The War Room was used in the set for The Bunker. But especially when Hader’s campaign strategist gives an emotional speech about what it took to win the election, it’s impossible not to watch The Bunker through the lens of today’s political world—particularly with relation to Donald Trump.
“This all started with a bet in a restaurant,” he says. “A bet that we could get anyone elected to anything. And we did…We changed the way that election narratives are hijacked.”
“That got a big laugh,” Hader tells The Daily Beast, fresh from the show’s Season Two premiere screening. “But an also an, ‘Aww…’”
Hader and Armisen, who co-created the series with Seth Meyers and Rhys Thomas, star in every episode of the series. Dame Helen Mirren serves as the host of the fictional documentary show-within-the-show. After shooting two episodes in Iceland last season, Armisen traveled to Colombia for Season Two and, along with Hader and guest star Maya Rudolph, even played a live concert of completely original music for an upcoming episode.
That the show, candy for comedy nerds and cinephiles alike, exists at all is a glorious byproduct of this #PeakTV era. Documentary has never been the hippest, most commercial genre, after all. Delicately crafted parodies of them adds a whole other level of specificity—and, as it turns out, fun.
With Season Three premiering Wednesday night, we gathered Hader, Armisen, and Meyers to riff on the show’s unique challenges, The Bunker’s timeliness, and the tricky dance between parody and mockumentary. If we can sell you on the very particular pleasure of that trio riffing for three minutes about songs written by a band’s keyboardist, then this roundtable is for you.
After finishing Juan Loves Chicken and Rice I think I started crying.
Bill: A lot of people have been saying that!
What is the challenge in doing an homage-spoof combo that is so spot-on that, in the midst of this comedy series, people are actually crying?
Seth: I think we’re always in some degree a little inspired by the source material. We get to do six completely different episodes every year, so some of them can be a little bit jokier and some of them can be a little musical and some of them can be like that one. It’s just nice to have the freedom to not feel like they all have to be the exact same tone. That’s our emotional one, I guess.
Fred, what is it like when you get the opportunity to do a character like this, to be in the jungles in Colombia shooting this and playing it so straight that people are crying while watching?
Fred: Because of the environment it ends up being easier. Everyone around me is speaking Spanish in the middle of this rural part of Colombia. So your surroundings make it easy to do. And then, everything was already written out. It’s not an improvised show. So even that makes it more time efficient. It’s all laid out for me.
Seth: It’s also a real credit to our directors, Rhys [Thomas] and Alex [Buono]. Especially in that episode, when there are a lot of principal actors who aren’t from comedy and don’t know what we’re trying to do with this show, they think they’re doing a comedy but they have to play it as straight for it to work. I personally met one of them last night for the first time, and they were like, “I couldn’t even comprehend how this could be funny but I’m so happy to see that it was.”
All three of you have other projects and are quite busy. What is the experience like coming together to do this show? Is it a respite from other tasks, to come and work on this, or is it sometimes an obligation?
Bill: I never feel like it’s a chore. It’s never a chore. I think I can speak for everybody when I say we’re so very thankful that we have the opportunity to do such a crazy show. I can’t tell you how many times—like shooting the Test Pattern episode, the live concert—we looked around at each other and said, “Can you believe that we’re able to do this? This is insane. Or when we saw the first cut of Parker Gail, which is a parody of Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia. We were watching that like, “This is an episode of television? That’s so bananas.” It’s all me at a desk. So it’s never a chore. When we’re doing our other stuff—I’m happy now that it’s done so that I can free up my head a little more, but I’m always thinking of it. It’s never a thing we forget about.
Seth: And if I had time off I wouldn’t want to golf. It’s really kind of nice that this is a nice, relaxing thing to do, to work on this show that doesn’t have the pressure of being the next Empire.
Are any of you on set when Helen Mirren is filming?
Seth: We just go to say hi to her while she’s getting ready. That is the thing that I can’t wrap around, that Helen Mirren does this.
Bill: It’s weird. It’s Helen Mirren, then we also have Peter Fonda and Mia Farrow and Anne Hathaway and Peter Bogdanovich this season.
Seth: Helen really understands that the joke is just that she’s there. We don’t give her any jokes.
Bill: She’s very dry and just says it like it was a real show. And the opening titles aren’t very funny. It’s supposed to feel big and important and then let the show kind of slowly develop. I always felt that if we did our job right people would be watching it and thinking it’s a real documentary, you know? And then go, “Whoa, what are Bill and Fred doing in this?” It should have that attention to detail and gravity in it.
Do you get feedback from people who watch the show and then are inspired to go back and watch the originals?
Fred: Oh yeah.
Bill: I had a funny one—this is not a joke—I had a 15-year-old kid watch Sandy Passage, our Grey Gardens one, and then he went back and watched Grey Gardens and he was like, “But they’re not killers at the end!”
Bill: He was like, “I was waiting for us to find out they were like monsters!” I was like, oh no, yeah, we made that up.
Fred: We take it for granted that everyone’s seen these movies.
Bill: I’m the worst at being like, “Well, everyone’s seen all of these.” I’m a film nerd and I’m like, “Everyone’s seen Land Without Bread. Come on! We should spoof that.” And they’re like, “No…”
Obviously The Bunker is a spot-on timepiece. But it’s hard not to watch it without watching through the lens of politics now. Were you expecting people to sort of watch it through the lens of today?
Seth: I think it was a far simpler beginning for us, which was that it would make sense to do this episode in an election year. And then of course with the lead time, none of us predicted it would quite be in this place. But then watching the premiere last night, the line about “we’re changing the way elections are hijacked…”
Bill: That got a big laugh, but also an, “Aww…”
Seth: But I do think this election is sort of a continuation of that 1992 election, in a lot of ways. Things began there that led to here. But I don’t think we put as much thought into that. It feels more topical than I think we tried to make it.
Bill: That started with, “What’s a cool look, and what’s something that Fred and I could both play?” I had done James Carville on Saturday Night Live, and so it just seemed like, “Oh yeah. Me as Carville. Fred as Stephanopoulos.” That’s also where the whole style that we now see in comedy and everything, you can really trace it back to The War Room and that kind of docu-style. I always associated with The Larry Sanders Show and I read that they had seen The War Room.
Oh, that’s super interesting. That’s where it came from.
Bill: And now every comedy show has that kind of loose handheld style. So it’s fun. We did the same thing with The Thin Blue Line, where we looked at The Jinx and similar documentaries where they had very cinematic re-enactments. They were all kind of thrillers and always had Philip Glass music and stuff. You trace them all back to The Thin Blue Line, and then you’re like, oh, let’s just do The Thin Blue Line and get it where it started.
Is there something that makes the style of each episode, because they’re all so different, click for you guys while doing it?
Fred: That might be more Rhys and Alex, the directors. They’ve got to work the hardest to make that happen, whereas Bill and I show up and our costumes are waiting there.
Bill: I also feel that when I walked on the set of The Bunker that they had done such an amazing job of re-creating The War Room, that you then are like, “Oh, my performance now has to match this. I can’t phone it in.” It made me excited but also a little anxious. Everyone’s at the top of the game, so that brings up my level.
Seth: When we sat down to break the season, all we’re really doing is figuring out what documentaries we’re going to do. Alex and Rhys have things they want, which is to do styles they haven’t done yet. I feel like there’s been a boom in the last decade with documentaries. So we’re trying hard not to do stuff from the last 10 years. Doing some black-and-white stuff. Making sure it’s not all talking heads.
Bill: When we were at a writers’ retreat this season, they were both adamant that we doing the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman, which in ours is called Globesman. And that was very much because they wanted to do that style. That’s also a style of documentary that was around a lot then. There were all these movies that had this black-and-white, 16 mm look to them. Not all documentaries are talking heads and stuff. We did The Eagles documentary last year with The Blue Jean Committee. So we did the rock doc history of a band, this year let’s do a concert documentary. You know what I mean? Let’s not just re-create that again. We did it already.
Seth: I think every year we’re going to try to do something about show business, something about music, but try not to do two of those a year. Try to make sure the topics are disparate enough. We like to believe that in the show Documentary Now!, that’s been on for 51 years, the producers really cared a lot about making sure no season had any do-overs.
What is the challenge in resisting the urge to lean toward mockumentary when you’re doing this?
Fred: It comes up all the time when we’re trying to put these together. It is a little bit of work to steer away from it.
Bill: I think the nice thing is that Rhys, Alex, Fred, Seth, and myself all have the same tone in mind. I always find that’s the hardest thing with any project. You can always tell when something goes wrong because one person had another tone in mind. For each of these it’s just a big conversation of figuring out what’s the tone. You kind of just feel it. It’s hard to explain. You can’t intellectualize it. You just kind of feel, “Oh, that joke’s a little over the line.” For this episode. But another episode that joke totally works. It’s whatever the tone is.
Seth: There’s sort of a moment like that in Test Pattern. Fred plays the sort of band head who wrote all the songs and there’s one song in it that Bill’s character had wrote. It’s like one of those bands where they gave the one guy his one song in the album, and it’s so different. You’re like, “They are not the same writers.”
Bill: We start personifying that in the Test Pattern episode.
Fred: And Bill really did write that song, too. That’s what makes it different.
Bill: It’s a terrible song. We’re making fun of the thing where there’s a band and there’s the one song that the keyboardist wrote and they sing. And you’re kind of like, “What is this?” You know.
Fred: Their singing is always not rehearsed enough, not practiced enough. You can hear it. “This person does not sing often.”
Bill: You can also hear the desperation of, “This is my moment. God, I hope this goes well so I can sing more songs.” And it never works.
Seth: I really want to credit you because it’s terrible. You’re not trying to sing terribly. You’re trying absolutely your best.
Bill: I’m trying to absolutely sing the best I can and I’m an awful singer.
Seth: I guess that’s the difference. In a mockumentary you would have someone sing poorly on purpose.
Bill: You would make sure people know this is a joke, you should be laughing here. But this is more, “No, this is how it would really feel.” He’s trying really hard to sing.
Seth: It’s not the worst song. It’s just bad.
Bill: The time signature on it is all over the place.
[It is at this wrapping point that the conversation becomes unintelligible, drowned up by the trio’s uncontrollable giggling.]