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Mockumentaries: For real?

Everything you need to know about mockumentaries in five minutes or less, including which famous one didn’t have a script.

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This story was published on our Quartz Weekly Obsession newsletter, an interactive email on the fascinating histories of everyday ideas
  • Morgan Haefner
By Morgan Haefner

Deputy email editor

Published

Winking at the audience

When Punishment Park came out in 1971, critics and viewers alike hated it. The mockumentary, set in what was then the near future, imagined former US president Richard Nixon rounding up and detaining protesters and other people thought to be a threat to national security. Detainees are given the choice between a long prison term or a 72-hour ordeal in which they are challenged to cross a desert and reach an American flag, without food or water, while being hunted by American military officers.

The movie, Amy Taubin argues in Artforum, came at just the wrong moment. Weeks before its release, Congress repealed the McCarran Act, the very real law that would have made the detention part of the movie, at least, legal. Mainstream media had become more critical of the Vietnam War. People weren’t in the mood for dystopia. Now, it’s seen as a brilliant early example of the form.

Mockumentaries have become so ubiquitous that we as viewers no longer even question why a film crew would follow an office selling paper supplies for years on end. A character being interviewed by a film crew, whether about their love life or their guitar, feels completely normal. And while some critics argue that reality TV has won out over the mockumentary sitcom format, Abbott Elementary’s historic Emmy wins beg to differ. Most of all, mockumentaries are a way to feel invited into a world in which we start as strangers, and end up as witnesses.

Are the cameras rolling? Let’s begin.


US actors (L-R) Chris Perfetti, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Janelle James, Quinta Brunson, Tyler James Williams and Lisa Ann Walter stand in front of a backdrop that reads "Abbott Elementary."
Image copyright: Michael Tran/AFP

Breaking the fourth wall

Mockumentaries are works of fiction. They use the convention of a fictional film crew—making a documentary about the cast of characters on screen—as a way to speak directly to the viewer. The format has the potential to create an intense sense of connection with the viewer—much like reality television. We know that these characters are just that, but whether it’s Leslie Knope’s sunny, can-do optimism in Parks and Rec or Parker Posey deadpanning to the camera that even if her acting career doesn’t work out she’s always got the Dairy Queen in Waiting for Guffman, there’s an authenticity that comes from breaking the fourth wall.

Typically, films stay encased on film, the characters captured on screen with no direct conversation with the viewer. Mockumentaries manage to connect us intimately with characters through using the convention of first-person interviews and what appears to be uncut footage. They’re also a way of looking at, or poking fun at, our preoccupations, fantasies, and experiences of daily life. The Office isn’t just a collection of wacky characters, it’s about how deeply capitalism shapes modern life; What We Do in the Shadows explores the immutability of the human character, how even immortality isn’t enough to keep us from complaining and holding petty grudges; Best in Show is about how following our passions bring out the best, or most essential, in each of us.


By the digits

20 million: People who watch the National Dog Show each Thanksgiving, the real-life version of the Mayflower Dog Show from Best in Show

$1.6 million: Estimated budget for the movie What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

$225 million: Estimated budget for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013). What We Do in the Shadows directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement had such a limited budget when shooting their film that they nicked green screens and timber from Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit movie, which had just finished filming nearby in New Zealand

$60,000: Production cost for The Blair Witch Project (nope, not missing any zeros)

$249 million: Earnings at the global box office for The Blair Witch Project

141: Cards Christopher Guest (more on him below) uses to chart out the backstories for his characters and the basic plotlines for his films—there are no written lines, other than for musical numbers


Quotable

“Usually when you have a house set, there’s bedrooms with beds. But there’s no beds on this, because it’s coffins. There’s nowhere to sleep. So everyone’s got to really search: ‘Ah, now that human character has a bed.’”

—Jemaine Clement speaking to The New York Times about trying to take naps during the nighttime filming schedule of What We Do in the Shadows


 Brief history

1971: The dystopian film Punishment Park depicts a film crew following American dissidents through the desert as the National Guard hunts them down.

1984: This is Spinal Tap, one of biggest films in mockumentary history comes out, starring Christopher Guest as heavy metal band lead, Nigel Tufnel. A sequel, which will come out in 2024, is in the works. Will it go to 12?

1985: John Candy and Eugene Levy star in The Last Polka as Yosh and Stan Shmenge, brothers who form the most famous polka band in the world. The film is a loose parody of the actual documentary, The Last Waltz about The Band.

1993: Gangsta rap gets the mockumentary treatment with Fear of a Black Hat. 

1996: Christopher Guest directs and stars in the mockumentary Waiting for Guffman about a small-town theater troupe preparing to perform for a critic from New York City.

1999: Was it pee-your-pants scary, or just kind of… dumb? The Blair Witch Project, a horror mockumentary in which film students head into the woods to investigate a local legend, was a phenomenon when it came out.

1999: Kirsten Dunst and Denise Richards face off as small-town beauty queens in Drop Dead Gorgeous, which started out as a critical and financial flop, but has become a cult classic.

2000: Maybe the best mockumentary of all time, Best in Show, directed by Christopher Guest, chronicles contestants in the Mayflower Dog Show, delving into a subculture with deep compassion for its characters and laugh-out-loud moments.

2001: The mockumentary hits the small screen with the Trailer Park Boys, a Canadian comedy about a group of trailer park residents who are ineptly up to no good.

2001: The British version of The Office launches, created by Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais. The American version would follow in 2005.

2003: Christopher Guest takes on the folk music scene, and gives the world more Eugene Levy-Catherine O’Hara magic in A Mighty Wind.

2006: Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was written by and stars Sacha Baron Cohen, who pretends to be a Kazakh journalist, traversing the US, making a documentary about American customs. It was followed by Brüno, about a gay fashionista, in 2009, and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm in 2020.

2009: Amy Poehler brings us into the somehow enchanting world of small-town bureaucracy, playing the ever hopeful Leslie Knope in the sitcom Parks and Recreation.

2014: What We Do In the Shadows started as a film directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, about three centuries-old vampires sharing a flat in Wellington, New Zealand, and dealing with the petty annoyances of modern life. Even though it wasn’t a box office smash, it rose from the dead as a sitcom set on Staten Island, in New York City in 2019.

2022: Abbott Elementary brings the mockumentary to a public school in Philadelphia, and wins three Emmys in the process.


Children join B.J. Novak to work on drawings.
Image copyright: Mary Schwalm

Pop quiz

Which of the following is true?

A. Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy are married in real life

B. B.J. Novak of The Office wrote a children’s book

C. Psychic vampire is an official diagnosis with a listing in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

D. One of Spinal Tap’s songs is called “Lumbar Puncture”

Find the answer below!



Fun fact!

After This is Spinal Tap came out, Guitar Center offered the Marshall JCM900, a Nigel Tufnel-endorsed amp with one distortion knob that went to 10 and another that went from 11 to 20. Friedman-Runt also created a Spinal Tap-inspired amp where both knobs went to 11.


Christopher Guest, king of the mockumentary?

Yes, television mockumentaries like The Office, Parks and Rec, and What We Do in the Shadows clock more minutes on screen, but Christopher Guest, star of This is Spinal Tap, and writer, director, and actor in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration, may have a lock on the title of King of the Mockumentary. Guest’s work takes the viewer deep into a subculture, whether it’s small-town theater, dog shows, or Hollywood itself through character studies.

For his mockumentaries, Guest and co-collaborator Eugene Levy start with a basic outline that gets the actors from point A to point B. The rest is improvised, although the musical numbers are written in advance. What happens in between is comedy magic. “There’s no rehearsal,” Guest told Charlie Rose in 2003. “I would equate it to jazz musicians [...] knowing what the song is, knowing what key you’re playing in, and then listening, to see whether it’s time to solo.”


Two people are talking to each other and guitars can be seen in the background.
Image copyright: YouTube

Watch this!

Perhaps the most famous mockumentary quote of all time comes from This is Spinal Tap. Christopher Guest, playing the guitar player Nigel Tufnel, explains to documentary filmmaker Marty DiBergi, played by Rob Reiner (the actual director of the film), that all of Spinal Tap’s amps go to 11, rather than the standard 10, so that they can be louder if need be.


Take me down this 🐰 hole!

Look at any best mockumentary list and you’ll find Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. In it, Baron Cohen interviews actual Americans, going to a private supper club in the South and singing a made-up Kazakh national anthem to the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner at a rodeo in Virginia.

In most mockumentaries everyone is in on the joke—the audience and the actors. Whether it’s an over-the-top caricature of an enthusiastic shih tzu owner or a knowing look at the camera from a long-suffering character, the whole thing is scripted, or at least sketched out and improvised. While most mockumentaries are funny, sometimes darkly so, even in the deadly serious Punishment Park, all the participants are in the know. The Office’s Dwight Schrute may be awful, but he’s crafted to be that way. The marketing around The Blair Witch Project suggested that it might be a real documentary, but everyone had the same information at hand—no one was tricked into appearing on camera.

In the case of Borat, many of the people who participated in the film really thought that Baron Cohen was from Kazakhstan and that an actual documentary was being filmed. This led to more than a few lawsuits, and plenty of hot takes about the light in which Borat cast the US of A and the ethics of Baron Cohen’s undercover characters.

Is Borat a meta movie? Sure. Does it break the fourth wall? Absolutely. But that’s the problem. The movies and audience gang up on the unsuspecting, if sometimes racist and awful, interview subjects. A true mockumentary engages the audience in such a way that we’re called to reflect on ourselves or our society—what we’d do if we had eternal life on our hands, or got lost in deep, dark woods at night. Borat conspires against its participants with the audience, outside the typical realm of mockumentary. It’s about laughing at, rather than laughing with.


Actor Sacha Baron Cohen holds two mini flags and is aggressively smiling.
Image copyright: Evan Agostini

Poll

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Today’s email was written by Annaliese Griffin (who will not stop naming nuts), and edited and produced by Morgan Haefner (enjoys a good slice of Baltimore pizza).

The correct answer to the pop quiz is B., B.J. Novak of The Office wrote a children’s book. It’s called The Book With No Pictures that children love and adults, at least non-performative adults, hate to read. *Based on a sample size of two children and two adults.

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