‘Documentary Now!’ Reinvents Sketch Comedy for IFC

Cynthia Littleton

In the hands of Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers, IFC’s “Documentary Now!” just might be the most elaborate sketch comedy series ever produced.

The show returns tonight for its second season with a spoof of “The War Room,” the 1993 D.A. Pennebaker/Chris Hegedus feature documentary that chronicled Bill Clinton’s rags-to-riches run for the White House. “Documentary Now’s” 22-minute homage, “The Bunker,” retains the early ‘90s time period but shifts the action to the long-shot gubernatorial bid in Ohio by a oafish local pol.

The first season of “Documentary Now” is up for Emmy honors on Sept. 18 for variety-sketch show. The elaborate staging of comedic takes on iconic documentaries — complete with having Helen Mirren introduce each episode in “Masterpiece Theater-esque” fashion — has become a calling card for IFC and its offbeat brand of original comedy programs. The show is a labor of love for the three “Saturday Night Live” alums, who produce the series with Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video.

“What Bill and Fred and Seth have really done is break the mold of what a sketch comedy series looks like,” says Jennifer Caserta president and general manager of IFC. “It is so in line with what we want to be known for — sophisticated, smart and off-kilter comedy that is authentic and of course very, very funny.”

“Bunker” recreates the look and feel of “War Room” in exacting detail, down to the soda machine found in the campaign offices. Hader is all-in with his James Carville impression — his campaign operative Teddy Redbones is the “Mississippi Machiavelli” rather than the Ragin’ Cajun. Armisen’s Alvin Panagoulious is George Stephanopoulos by any other name.

As evidenced by “Bunker,” season two of “Documentary Now” has raised the bar for the production effort on the series. Armisen wrote 10 original songs and a live concert was staged at a New York nightclub for the upcoming spoof of the 1984 Talking Heads doc “Stop Making Sense.” The final installment of the season takes on 2002’s “The Kids Stays in the Picture.” Hader’s embodiment of Robert Evans, young and old, is not to be missed, Caserta assures.

The six installments of “Documentary Now” will be followed in November by the launch of “Stan Against Evil,” a comedy from writer Dana Gould that blends comedy and horror. John C. McGinley plays a retired sheriff who battles supernatural demons in a small New England town. “Stan” is another effort for IFC to stand out in the crowded TV landscape with comedies that are anything but cookie cutter.

“We want to keep our audience surprised and engaged,” Caserta says.

IFC’s laser focus on comedy gives it a marketing advantage over other general entertainment networks. The cabler aims to reach younger comedy aficionados who identify with creatives like the “Documentary Now” trio and Gould.

“Comedy is such a personal thing for younger people,” Caserta says. “Who you like (among comedians) on social media says a lot about who you are as a person.”

Moreover, for some young adults, the boom in comedy programming — from standup tours and festivals to podcasts and TV programs — has become the all-consuming passion that music was for their parents.

“Our audience goes to comedy festivals like people used to go music festivals. It’s so intricately tied to the culture,” Caserta says.

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