Documentary Now's Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono Talk Taboo Subjects and the SNL Influence

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<i>Documentary Now</i>'s Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono Talk Taboo Subjects and the <i>SNL</i> Influence

On a Friday in the middle of production on Documentary Now’s second season last year, the minds behind IFC’s Emmy-nominated docu-comedy series realized something wasn’t working with the episode scheduled to shoot that Tuesday. Instead of bringing in an emergency script doctor or delaying production, the creatives called a mulligan and started over.

“There was a whole other episode planned,” says show co-creator and executive producer Rhys Thomas, who won’t describe the scrapped episode in case they revive it for season three. “The script was never quite getting to a place where we felt good about.”

Luckily, Documentary Now’s creators—Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Thomas—along with cinematographer/co-director/executive producer Alex Buono, all had years of experience working on Saturday Night Live. The venerable sketch series has served as a proving ground for comedians for decades, with overnight writing sessions and last-minute changes de rigeur.

Thomas says that the team went into full SNL mode. Comedian John Mulaney, another Saturday Night Live veteran writer, had an idea for one of Spalding Gray’s most well-known works. “Mulaney is such a Spalding Gray disciple that’s it’s easy to understand he kind of had something up his sleeve,” Buono recalls. Mulaney and Hader then proceeded to bang out a script over the weekend.

By Monday, Thomas, Buono and team were prepping for the new episode; some crew members were understandably—to use the technical term—freaking out. “I don’t think it’s ideal for anyone,” Thomas says, “but I think because of our experience on SNL, we weirdly also get a kick out of rolling the dice and going for it.”

The all-weekender writing session and production cram turned into the episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything,” a take on Gray’s one-man show Swimming to Cambodia (1987). Hader’s deadpan and monologues win the episode as he deftly channels the playwright/performance artist.

While the scenario isn’t typical for the series, it illustrates Saturday Night Live’s influence on Documentary Now. Thomas points out that Documentary Now emerged from one of SNL’s filmed sketches. “We did one particular short called, ‘The History of Punk,’” he says, “And it was a kind of template for what Documentary Now would become.

“I directed it, Alex shot it, Seth wrote it and Bill and Fred were in it—and Fred wrote music for it, too,” he says. “It was this faux profile on this band. Obviously, it’s a band with a twist: the only Thatcherized punk band. Fred’s character was really-pro Maggie Thatcher.”

So when it came time for Armisen and Hader to pitch their concept to IFC, Thomas says, they showed execs the punk short and got the go-ahead for the anthology series. But the gang didn’t get around to fleshing out the show until about a year later. Hader, Armisen, Meyers, Thomas and a few others borrowed the Mulaney show’s production offices for a week to nail down the episodes.

“A few things floated to the top,” Thomas recalls. “Seth identified Nanook of the North as a documentary he really liked and had a pretty clear idea of the character and the joke of it.” The group also discussed their affinity for Grey Gardens and The Thin Blue Line. “Quickly a few of these slots filled up as direct references to these documentaries.” The Documentary Now team created, “Kanuk Uncovered,” “Sandy Passage” and “The Eye Doesn’t Lie” as episodic homages to those classic titles.

As fans of the series know, the episodes range from straight parodies to more sublime takes on source material. Globesman is filled with pathos, as Armisen subtly portrays a globe salesman seemingly taken from Albert and David Maysles’ 1969 documentary Salesman. Juan Likes Rice & Chicken, one of both Thomas’ and Buono’s personal favorites, mirrors David Gelb’s 2012 film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

The aforementioned episodes play up the emotional aspects of their stories and “feel slightly truer or slightly more authentic as documentaries because they’re slightly less joke-driven and more tonal,” Thomas notes. “I do love that we’re not beholden to jokes.”

While Documentary Now has been greenlit for a third season, fans will have to wait awhile for new episodes as the creatives and actors try to align their schedules.

“We had a bit of a hiccup because Bill Hader created a new show at HBO (Barry). It sounds amazing, but unfortunately made him unavailable during this summer window of shooting for Documentary Now,” Buono explains. Best case scenario is that the Documentary Now team regroups in the spring to develop the next batch of episodes.

While they won’t divulge what they’re considering for season three, Thomas and Buono reveal what Documentary Now won’t cover. “We’ll discuss [a film] as fans, but ultimately it’s not something you can make light of,” Thomas says, using Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing as an example. While the 2012 film is stylistically beautiful and features colorful characters, it’s still hard to poke fun of the Indonesian genocide (or any genocide for that matter). “By the same token, Michael Moore and Supersize Me are harder to tackle too,” Thomas adds. “There’s no point doing a funny version of something that’s already kind of funny or has a tone or commentary to it.”

“[Another] one that comes to mind is Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies,” Buono says. “It’s a really harrowing life inside of a psych ward, a mental health institution. It’s incredibly specific and has wild characters, but it’s really depressing and hard core. What would we possibly [do] to have fun with this?”

While season three isn’t on their radar yet, Thomas and Buono are keeping busy with their own projects. Thomas serves as an executive producer and director for Comrade Detective, the just-released Romanian-American cop satire on Amazon. Buono recently wrapped directing an episode of the Comedy Central show, Detroiters, in the Motor City.

For the second year in a row, Documentary Now has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Variety Sketch series. (The awards will be given out on Sept. 17 and broadcast on CBS.) This year, the show competes against Billy on the Street with Billy Eichner, Drunk History, Tracey Ullman’s Show and two other shows also tied to uber-producer Lorne Michaels’s touch: Saturday Night Live and Portlandia (Armisen’s other IFC show).

“I think Saturday Night Live is going to win,” Buono says. “They’ve had such a phenomenal year, and boy, they sure got handed a lot of material. I’d would love it if we won, but I’d be happy for my other friends if they win. If none of Lorne’s shows win, then that’s what I’ll be upset about.”


Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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