My favourite TV shows have always been comedies, and as someone who watches much less television than he used to, I like to use the annual Emmy nominations to keep abreast with what’s going on in TV comedy. Eight shows are nominated for this year’s Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, and because I choose not to buy into every streaming service on the market, I have only been able to check out half of the nominees. I’m disappointed to see highly regarded shows still relying on a structure that I think was played out more than a decade ago.
Two of this year’s nominees (at least the two I’m able to watch) – Abbott Elementary and What We Do in the Shadows, employ the structure of the fake documentary – also known as mockumentary. I don’t have a problem with the idea of mockumentaries. I just feel as though too many people in television comedy incorrectly believe that shows must adhere to mockumentary structure, even if the show doesn’t benefit from it in any way.
Mockumentaries have been around for a while. Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds can, at the very least, be seen as an ancestor of the genre. The Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night is an early example of the form, as is Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run. In the seventies Eric Idle found success with his Beatles satire The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. Not long afterward came The Gods Must Be Crazy, a work of satire presented in the form of a nature documentary. The Gods Must Be Crazy was a huge international hit, being named the most popular film at the 1983 Montreal World Film Festival. However, the standard-bearer for the mockumentary genre would rear its head very soon.
This Is Spinal Tap descended upon cinemas in 1984. Directed by Rob Reiner, he also appeared in it as documentarian Marty DiBergi, who is following a veteran rock band known as Spinal Tap as they embark on an ill-fated North American comeback tour. Playing the band were Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest. The three sported ridiculous British accents, along with the worst of the hair, fashion and idiocy that could be mined from the then-burgeoning hair metal movement. All these decades later, it is still endlessly quotable and screamingly funny. (Everyone knows “These go to eleven.”) This Is Spinal Tap remains the example every mockumentary that follows strives to emulate.
Afterward, Guest directed and released a string of excellent feature-length mockumentaries, including Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, For Your Consideration and my favourite A Mighty Wind. Outside of Guest, there were only a few others, like the hip-hop Spinal Tap called Fear of a Black Hat. As good as mockumentaries could be on the big screen, it seemed they weren’t finding the biggest audiences there.
In 1999 a mockumentary entitled Trailer Park Boys was shown at the Atlantic Film Festival. In it, a man named Julian (played by John Paul Tremblay) documents his life after receiving a telephone psychic’s prediction that he would soon die. He hopes the resulting film deters others from the life of crime he’s chosen. The movie caught the attention of producer Barrie Dunn, who thought it could be adapted into a television series.
In 2001, the same year the first episode of Trailer Park Boys hit the television airwaves, a little British program called The Office debuted to little fanfare. In it, Ricky Gervais plays David Brent, the insufferable boss in a drab office setting. He gives grinning private first-person justifications for his destructive behaviour to the roving documentary camera. The airing of these two shows seemed inauspicious enough, but both would become unexpected hits internationally. In the twenty-three years that have passed since that Atlantic Film Festival, thirteen seasons of Trailer Park Boys have aired on Showcase, Netflix and, most recently, Swearnet. The original British incarnation of The Office may have only lasted two seasons and a dozen episodes, plus an extra two special episodes in 2003, but the show was sold worldwide, catapulting its star and co-creator Gervais to international stardom. Twelve different countries produced their own rendition of the sitcom, the most successful being the American version starring Steve Carrell which ran for nine seasons, and won five Emmy Awards, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series.
The success of The Office and Trailer Park Boys spawned a host of imitators. I’m guessing that the single-camera style, along with the first-person addresses to camera seemed like an up-to-the minute emulation of the then-vogue reality genre. Just like a contestant on Survivor would struggle to complete an immunity challenge, followed by a cut-away to their confessional to the camera, we’d see Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope try to extricate herself from an awkward scene on Parks and Recreation, then be treated to her direct commentary delivered to camera. The same can be said of Reno 911 and Modern Family, the latter another show to take home the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series.
What I find weird about these turns to camera is that, unlike in This Is Spinal Tap, we aren’t introduced to the documentarian. I have no idea why the filmmaker has come to Dunder Mifflin, or what interest they’ve taken in the Pritchett clan. What is the story they’re trying to find? Even in a reality show, a genre that repels me, we know why the cameras are there. Yet over and over again in 21st-century television comedy this structure is set up, and I have no idea how it’s supposed to assist in the telling of the story.
No matter what the medium – book, radio or television screen – writers are taught the maxim “Show, don’t tell.” To me, this fake documentary set-up gives comedy storytellers a lot more telling than showing. It makes it much too easy for characters to outright tell the viewer how they’re feeling, and art is always more powerful when the audience finds things out for themselves. Sure, there are many times in all these shows when the character won’t be honest with the camera, and we see in the actual scene the opposite of what they testified. I think we could have found a way to have that joke without the mockumentary device.
I, in no way, think that Abbott Elementary and What We Do in the Shadows are bad shows. I think both shows are chockfull of compelling characters, and Shadows has Natasia Demetriou, who is funny even with the sound off. I just think that the mockumentary structure is an impediment that neither of these shows need. The best shows in the Outstanding Comedy Series category at this year’s Emmys, like Ted Lasso and Only Murders in the Building are succeeding in telling their stories and drawing us in without this weight around their neck.