Bill Hader and Fred Armisen masterfully mock existing factual films on each episode of “Documentary Now,” which returns to IFC for its sophomore season this evening. While the comedic actors are equal-opportunity satirists, there are a few source movies that they won’t touch — docs that are “too grim,” in Armisen’s words, for starters.
“‘The Cove’ is just too big a bummer,” Hader added during our summer sitdown interview. The 2009 movie is about Japanese dolphin hunting, and he’s correct.
On the exact opposite side of that spectrum are those flicks that come from the Michael Moores and Morgan Spurlocks of the world. They’re already too funny for a jokey version, the “SNL” alums opined in our interview.
Then there’s the care taken to avoid being hacky — of the utmost importance in comedy — which eliminates other options. Ken Burns’ docs, for starters, have been re-done “to death,” the guys said. Another astute observation, as Burns even has his own photo effect named for his trademark zooming.
Of course, not everything that passes Hader and Armisen’s initial tests makes it to cable anyway.
“We wrote a ‘Staircase’ one, and it was the same joke over and over again,” Hader recalled a Season 1 example. “Fred was a guy who clearly killed his wife, but saying he didn’t … we just felt like it didn’t move.”
Based on the strict format and their own internal high standards, TheWrap asked the fellas if that means “Documentary Now” is destined for a short run.
Perhaps surprisingly, they essentially confirmed that’ll be the case. (Actually limiting series is rarely a goal in the town that coined the phrase “limited series.”)
“There’s a very, very small group of the right documentaries to do,” Hader replied. “I don’t want to sit here and say it doesn’t have a long life, but in my mind, to do it right … it feels like there’s a very finite amount of episodes you could do.”
While the setup opportunities may be few, the talent at “Documentary Now” is huge. Beyond these two, the creative team includes some of the best joke writers to ever pass through Lorne Michael’s School for Gifted Comics.
With all the funny fellas in the room, one might expect that some of the show’s best lines are improvised — they are not. If that is shocking to readers, you are not alone.
“I expected it would be more improvised,” Armisen told us. But there’s an economical reason for that: “The writing is so tight and solid that we pretty much stick to it … It’s Seth Meyers and it’s John Mulaney and — I don’t know how to put this — they don’t mess around with lines.”
“It wastes time if we sit there and try to show off how funny they are,” the on-again/off-again “Late Night” 8G bandleader continued.
“You have to do all this groundwork to make it an interesting thing to watch,” Hader added. “I sometimes watch things that are improv, and it’s just kinda like, it’s just not interesting to watch. I’m like, ‘Well, they’re having fun!'”
Season 2 of IFC’s “Documentary Now” premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m.