The documentary genre is coming off a banner year at the box office in 2018, and with new documentary films and docuseries dropping on Netflix every other week, the genre really is more popular than ever before. But the IFC series Documentary Now! was ahead of the curve, so much so that writer and executive producer Seth Meyers notes that while the show’s creators used to joke that the show’s title was strikingly dumb, you could probably sell it as an actual TV show now.
Documentary Now! began in 2015 as a love letter to the documentary genre from SNL alums Meyers, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Rhys Thomas, and Alex Buono. Each episode would parody a famous documentary, with Armisen and Hader taking on lead roles while Thomas and Buono would serve as the series’ directors. Famous docs like Grey Gardens and Jiro Dreams of Sushi were parodied in those first two seasons, with the secret sauce being that the show’s writers treated each episode as a vehicle for comedy, yes, but also took each one seriously as a standalone story featuring characters you could care about.
The prospect of the show continuing past two seasons was in doubt for a bit as the schedules of those involved—particularly Bill Hader, who created, wrote, directed, and starred in his own HBO series Barry, as well as Late Night host Meyers and now tremendously popular standup John Mulaney—proved difficult to align. But while Hader’s Barry commitment meant he couldn’t return in front of the camera for Documentary Now! Season 3, it presented the show with the opportunity to rope in new faces for new stories, while Hader, Mulaney, Meyers, etc. all still returned to write the episodes.
With Documentary Now! Season 3 premiering on IFC on February 20th, I recently got the chance to speak with Meyers about his work on the show. He discussed how they shifted their approach with Hader unavailable and Armisen only able to star in half the episodes, how they landed Cate Blanchett to star in one of the new episodes, working with Mulaney on the fantastic musical episode Co-Op, and how they specifically approach each individual parody. Meyers also talked about the massive contributions of Thomas and Buono to the series and whether they’ve already had conversations about Season 4.
This is a delightful and admittedly specific show, but I’m tremendously glad it exists, and believe me when I say Season 3 does not disappoint. I’m grateful to Meyers for hopping on the phone with me to discuss the nuances of creating memorable and effective documentary parodies. Check out the full interview below.
Coming out of Season 2, what were the early discussions about Season 3? Aside from the casting changes, was there anything you guys wanted to do markedly different this year?
SETH MEYERS: We didn’t really come out of Season 2 with any plans for Season 3, and then basically schedule got in the way, and especially with Bill doing Barry there was a sense that maybe we wouldn’t do any more of them. So then we finally, almost a full two years later, managed to rally the troops together and realized we could move forward with the problem solved of “How do you do this show without Bill at all and with only half of Fred?,” and realized the solution to that was reach out to other people. And kind of shoot for the stars, that was what IFC said. “Think big.”
And you came back with Cate Blanchett?
MEYERS: Yeah! They said, “Who is your dream for this?” and that was the answer, and they came back and said she was in (laughs). That was surreal. But because we all of a sudden weren’t just picking things that we thought Bill and Fred could be good at, we could just take any documentary and just cast based on what fit best. Obviously no one has more range than Bill and Fred, but there are still limits to that range and certainly Cate Blanchett’s a good example of how it would not have been the same if it was still a Bill and Fred only show.
It’s worked out. I miss Bill and I miss Fred in half the episodes, but it’s great to see people like Cate Blanchett or Michael Keaton in this. What’s the process of choosing the documentaries like? Does that happen before you cast the people I guess?
MEYERS: Yeah I mean Far Side was a holdover from Season 2 as far as an idea, but then everything else was new business. And then it was just trying to find things that felt unique versus previous seasons, so we’d never done a sports documentary which led to bowling, and we felt the art world would be a fun place to look which led to Waiting for the Artist. Fred, in the same way that he wrote sketches at SNL, he comes in with very tiny little germs of ideas that make us laugh, which was he just wanted to be a junkie musician and started doing the voice that he wanted to do (laughs). So then we kind of constructed that from the back and then we sort of worked our way to the documentary that we based that on. Then Rhys and Alex actually said they wanted to do a cult documentary and so we were starting with a different one, and in the writing of it is when Wild Wild Country came out, so we just kind of followed that as a new pathway because it was so good.
I wanted to get into a couple of the episodes specifically. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that Waiting for the Artist is very carefully constructed and the punchline is amazing. How did you hit upon the ending, and how was that one put together?
MEYERS: I really like The Artist Is Present, but there’s not really a narrative thrust other than just, “Here’s her career. Here’s the show.” And in the early drafts of it we felt it was lacking a narrative arc, because the reality is a lot of Abramovic’s art is pretty hilarious to begin with, so to do different versions of it felt a little one for one (laughs). We started watching other art documentaries and building out the character of Fred and sort of making that a character that, while you were paying attention to one thing, we managed to lay in that there was another thing happening, which is it wasn’t just a retrospective but it was also sort of a story about how even women who are incredible artists and you think have power, there’s always gonna be some guy who’s fucking it up for them (laughs). And again it was a perfect role for Fred to bring alive.
I’m fascinated by selling Cate Blanchett on this. I know she’s done comedy before, but this is such a silly and funny idea. Were there any discussions beforehand or anything?
MEYERS: I only heard she said yes (laughs). Really, three days after I said her name she said she was in. I had never met her and we sat down in New York for coffee one morning. I had heard she wanted to have coffee and so I went into it prepared to get her notes and hear what she wanted to do with it, but the only way to describe it was totally game. She had a take on how to play it, but she didn’t have any issues or suggestions for the script. Obviously if you watch it it’s like your dream for being a writer on it or for the directors of it, she just jumped in with both feet. It’s just a joy to watch. You think that there has to be this really protracted negotiation to get somebody like Cate Blanchett, but one of the things she told me was, “No one really asks me to do stuff like this.” And you realize sometimes you’ve just gotta take a risk and realize that somebody like Cate Blanchett’s just waiting for the day to go to Budapest and shoot for five days to make a fake documentary (laughs).
I mean she seemed to have a blast making Thor: Ragnarok. I think it’s funny that a lot of people think actors of her caliber aren’t interested in silly comedy, but clearly this shows her range.
MEYERS: It’s really true. There is something similar with the way she performs in Thor, which is, “Oh this is somebody who really likes to have fun.” Sometimes people who are as great an actor as she is, people just assume, “Oh what she does must be so arduous,” but the reality is to get a part like this or to get a part in Thor must just be such a relief to her to just let loose and have a great time.
Speaking about the cast this season, I think Co-Op is amazing, I love that episode so much and that ensemble is incredible. Paula Pell, Richard Kind. I was just curious how that one came about and what the writing process was like with John Mulaney.
MEYERS: That was actually one that we had talked about in Season 2. Mulaney loves Company, he loves Sondheim, he loves that documentary that we based it on. From the jump Richard Kind was somebody who we had to have. If Richard Kind had not been available that week we probably would have pushed it to the next season (laughs).
I saw him on your show, it was so good.
MEYERS: He’s so amazing. And then to get people like Alex Brightman or Renee [Elise-Goldsberry] was so much fun. I did very little on that script, but to get a John Mulaney script and to hear that the ask is, “We need you to go to Portland for two days, and when it’s done it will look like a movie.” It’s two days’ work, but the finished product in Rhys and Alex’s hands will be this really beautiful thing. The hope with all of these is that they’re timeless. It’s not like 10 years from now a Company parody is gonna be any less vital than it was today (laughs). The really fun one was that—and I don’t want to say who they were—there were some big Broadway names being kicked around for Paula’s part, and Mulaney and I talked on the phone and just realized we knew for a fact that Paula would be the funniest and the best, and I’m so happy that that conclusion was reached because it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing that part.
Is that something you guys are thinking about for after this season, seeing this as a showcase for actors to come in for one episode and nail it? Has that kicked up ideas for other seasons?
MEYERS: Yeah, I mean it’s mostly I think emboldened us to try and do more, and hopefully this season like previous seasons will be like a really nice business card you can give to an actor and say, “Hey, here’s what Cate Blanchett did. Would you like to do this?” (laughs). So not that it’s ever easy, but it might make it a little bit easier to try to get people.
There’s a really bad version of this show where’s it’s all very obvious and just kind of, “I too have seen and enjoyed that documentary,” but what makes Documentary Now! work as well as it does, I think, is a commitment to the bit to the point that you’re crafting narratives that are compelling all on their own, regardless of what they’re parodying. I assume this was a conscious decision, but I was curious how that manifests in the process of writing an episode of Documentary Now. How do you go about toeing that line between parody but also ensuring each episode exists and works as a compelling story unto itself?
MEYERS: I mean that’s the hybrid of it that you’re always trying to balance, but looking back at Season 1 you realize, “Oh the part I really remember is Bill and Fred in Blue Jean Committee having a very well-acted real moment backstage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction,” and realizing the potential of the show which is, you tell a story but also in the way a great documentary makes you feel something you haven’t felt before. There’s a way to tell things a little bit quicker than you would in a non-documentary format because you can have talking heads connect the dots, so that’s the only way to sort of squeeze these full stories into 22 minutes I think. But that’s sort of the sleight of hand that we try to do, which is oh these are fictional people that are based on real people but if we tell the story well enough you’re gonna kind of forget about the real person and start thinking that this is the real person, or you’re gonna start caring about this version as opposed to the one it was based on.
You and Fred and Bill and Alex and Rhys all have other jobs that you’re doing as well. What’s that collaboration process like, and how do you kind of calibrate and make sure these scripts are in working order?
MEYERS: You know Rhys and Alex are such incredible quality control for this show, and we sort of filter everything through them, and the end product is so director-dependent. When you send them scripts, they’re the ones that sort of come back and say—and this is for me personally—“I wish we cared a little bit more about this. I feel like this is maybe a little too joke-y.” I’ve said this before but when I wrote Juan Likes Rice and Chicken, they were really good at sort of believing in it having some emotional heft, whereas as a comedy writer I was a little worried there weren’t wetter jokes. And looking at it now I’m really happy that I trusted them, so again when something turns out like that, then moving forward you just sort of trust them implicitly.
So what’s it like for you to write these episodes, send them off to Rhys and Alex, and get the finished product back? You said you don’t think a Company parody would be any less vital 10 years from now, but Co-Op looks like a film that was actually shot in 1970. Their directing skills are so impressive.
MEYERS: Anybody who comes out of SNL is so spoiled because the whole time you work there, you know writers are just these creatures of whimsy who come up with ideas because they’ve either had too much or not enough coffee, and then you just turn it over on paper to people who have to build sets and costumes and wigs and do actual real labor (laughs). Rhys and Alex are an example of that. They were incredible when we worked with them at SNL, and they just take it very seriously. They want you to not limit yourself with the idea of, “Oh we’re only gonna have a few days to do this.” Their plan is, “Let us try to solve that part. Just write it the way you want it to be written, and we will go about trying to make it happen.” I mean again for me, I’m really proud of Late Night and I love it and I am so happy I get to come in here every day, but I’m also aware that more often than not we’re making a show that by tomorrow already seems a little dated, so it’s really fun to have this other project where you can make something that I genuinely feel like, oh people will discover this for years hopefully and enjoy it just as much as if they had seen it the night it aired on IFC.
Yeah that’s why I’m glad the show is on Netflix, because it just exists there to watch whenever. But the documentary genre at large just kind of had a huge year last year, and now Netflix is just being flooded with new documentaries. Does that make you feel like there’s possibly a new interest in the show, and have all these new documentaries sparked new ideas for you guys? Or is there still a backlog of older documentaries you want to get to?
MEYERS: No it’s good that there’s an influx, because as far as documentaries everyone knows, you hit the wall fairly quickly (laughs). And now, just in my everyday life, more people I know have seen standup specials and documentaries more than anytime in my life. It’s impossible to divorce it from the Netflix effect that you just hear people talking about. So the joke for us was that we truly thought Documentary Now! was the dumbest title for a show and I bet you could actually sell it as a regular show now (laughs).
That’s very true. The documentary genre is huge right now. And I also kind of hope someone stumbles upon this show on Netflix thinking it’s real.
MEYERS: Yeah I do really like every now and then someone will find a comment under a YouTube video of somebody saying like, “This isn’t real,” and they’re very proud that they figured it out that it wasn’t real (laughs). And I take great pride in that, that it wasn’t obvious to them right away. But they figured it out.
How much longer would you like to do the show? Have there been any discussions about Season 4?
MEYERS: Yeah we’re talking about it. Again it comes down to—you know obviously I think Bill blew it with Barry. Nobody likes that show. A complete loser at all the awards (laughs). But it’s nice to realize that people that I want and think should be successful are being so successful that it’s making the show a little bit harder to do, but it’s been really great to take as much time off as we did and have people be excited about it coming back.
Yeah again, I’m sad to see Bill gone, but I love seeing people like Bobby Moynihan getting a showcase this season.
MEYERS: And it’s great. Obviously there’s a reason we did it with Bill and Fred and there’s nobody I value more than those two as far as collaborators, but at the same time, each of us had a really long list of people we were lucky enough to work with over the years or people we were fans of and it’s great now to be able to turn to that list and say, “Oh, there’s really no limit to what we can pull off here.”
Documentary Now! Season 3 airs Wednesday nights on IFC.