The hilarious and irreverent parody series from IFC Documentary Now! recently returned for its fourth season, and fans are excited to see which famous documentaries will be spoofed. Showing that no doc is immune to a good ribbing, the show’s best episodes are also some of the funniest parodies in television history.
Whether parodying award-winning documentaries like The Thin Blue Line or clever reimaginings of cultural touchstones like Gray Gardens, Documentary Now! has its own brand of clever humor. Although each episode is funny on its own, some made viewers laugh because of their perfect parody.
Juan likes rice and chicken (season 2, episode 2)
Food documentaries are popular because they manage to make audiences’ mouths water while connecting basic culinary and human struggles. Jiro Dreams of Sushi exemplified this principle and was equally about the interpersonal drama between man and his sons, and the art of sushi making.
The second-season episode “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken” is a perfect example of why documentaries were such a ripe subject for parody, and pokes fun at the original documentary by narrowing its scope. While sushi is seen as a delicacy, the Colombian restaurant’s simple yet effective chicken and rice recipes are treated with equal seriousness to a hilarious extreme.
Finding Mr. Larson (Season 3, Episode 5)
Comics are an art form that often doesn’t get much love from the community at large, but the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson aimed to change that. In search of the creator of the famous Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, the filmmaker explores the importance that the artist’s creation had on the world.
Replacing the enigmatic Bill Watterson with the much more public character of Gary Larson was a stroke of comedic genius in “Searching for Mr. Larson.” Just as recognizable as Calvin and Hobbes, Gary Larson’s funniest Far Side comics are still quoted to this day and that made the parody all the more relevant. Ultimately, the episode is so funny because it explores the nature of obsession with something as trivial as a goofy comic book.
Batshit Valley (Season 3, Episodes 1-2)
Netflix’s flagship series Wild Wild Country was one of the most binge-worthy cult series to ever grace a television screen, and fans were hooked from start to finish. It chronicled the clashes between a new age cult and the small Oregon town in which they settled.
The “Batshit Valley” episode resisted the urge to pick the low hanging fruit of directly parodying the content of the documentary, and instead poked fun at its form. The brilliant way in which the pacing and interview style were recreated showed not only that writer Seth Myers is a student of documentary filmmaking, but also a fan of the over-the-top documentaries produced by Netflix and its competitors.
Kunuk discovered (season 1, episode 2)
Prove this documentary now! Caters to a more captivating brand of television fans, the episode “Kunuk Uncovered” took a deep dive into documentary history. The famous ethnographic film Nanook du Nord is said to have captured the daily life of an Inuit man named Nanook who lived in the northern regions of Quebec.
The original documentary is mired in controversy due to its staged nature, so parody is as much about analyzing the fake as it is about spoofing the film itself. While the episode isn’t necessarily a laugh riot, it’s a rare treat for movie history nerds and features some of the more subtle humor that Documentary Now! has ever presented.
Globesman (Season 2, Episode 4)
The Maysles Brothers’ groundbreaking documentary Salesman is often considered one of the best documentaries of all time, and it was only a matter of time before Documentary Now! got into it. The film relates the lives of several street vendors who carry out their trade from door to door.
The episode “Globesman” has a field day with the Maysles’ signature cinema verité style, and it emphasizes humor about the odd characters the salesmen encounter on their travels. The show is stolen by the guest stars and in particular by Linda Porter who embodies an old woman who does not leave her bed. Like the best parodies, “Globesman” has plenty to be recognizable as a parody, but it also has new ideas that are funny on their own.
Final Transmission (Season 2, Episode 5)
Documentary now! co-creator Fred Armisen is also known as an accomplished musician, and it’s that spirit of musicality that was brought to the episode “Final Transmission.” Parodying several concert documentaries, the episode particularly focused on the film Stop Making Sense which captured the Talking Heads in all their live-action glory.
The “final transmission” is tricky because it is rewarding only for viewers who have seen the material it usurps. The episode accurately recreates moments from Stop Making Sense in an attempt to juxtapose it with the hilarious interview segments. Instead of just goofing off on film, the episode pokes fun at the behind-the-scenes fuss that was actually going on with the band.
The Bunker (Season 2, Episode 1)
Political documentaries aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the critically acclaimed classic The War Room has made the campaigning process much more accessible. The film follows campaign consultants George Stephanopoulos and James Carville as their unconventional methods help presidential hopeful Bill Clinton win the job.
Picking up where they left off from their years on Saturday Night Live, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen are in rare form as over-the-top versions of Stephanopoulos and Carville. Instead of getting bogged down in parodying specific film details, “The Bunker” instead emphasizes caricatures of its two protagonists, and they bounce off each other with unnerving efficiency.
Dronez (Season 1, Episode 4)
Vice News burst onto the scene as a legitimate force in new media, but their brand of reporting has also made them ripe targets for gaffes. Their association with hipster and alternative culture put them right in Armisen’s wheelhouse, and he spent a day in the field lambasting them.
“Dronez” isn’t a specific parody, but rather an overarching skewer of the over-the-top gonzo journalism that characterizes outlets like Vice. Featuring some of the show’s darkest humor, the succession of missing reporters is a recurring joke that never ceases to be funny. “Dronez” is an effective parody for anyone who’s seen Vice’s reporting for a second, but it’s also a trip for any viewer because of its mockery of modern youth culture.
The Eye Does Not Lie (Season 1, Episode 4)
Now best known as a true crime documentary that helped solve a case, Errol Morris’ brilliant The Thin Blue Line is also a pinnacle of documentary filmmaking that has rarely been matched. The film explores the murder of a police officer and the man who was apparently sent to prison despite the lack of evidence.
Morris’ flashy reenactments were used to perfection in the episode “The Eye Doesn’t Lie,” and everything was overdone to the extreme. Without commenting on the film’s content, the parody speculates on a series of storylines that turn the characters into silly caricatures. Demonstrating the power of the show’s writing, the episode is funny even if the viewer is completely unaware of the film it parodies.
Sandy Passage (Season 1, Episode 1)
Even if someone is not a fan of documentaries, the movie Gray Gardens has become a must-watch for moviegoers around the world. Chronicling the life of an eccentric mother-daughter duo, the film follows them to their run-down mansion.
Armisen and Hader step into their roles with insane glee in “Sandy Passage,” and they poke fun while amplifying the subtle, ominous nature of the original film. Just when the viewer thinks things have been taken as far as they’ll go, the episode goes even further for a hilarious result. “Sandy Passage” was the first episode of the series, and it set the tone to which all future parodies would be compared.