The Mockumentary: The Long and Short of It

This Is Spinal Tap

No doubt about it, This Is Spinal Tap was one of funniest movies of the eighties. Why stop there? I’d say it’s one of the funniest movies ever! Written by and starring, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner (who also directed), This Is Spinal Tap is the story of an up-and-down rock band across two decades. Often referred to as just Spinal Tap, its actual full title is This is Spinal Tap®: A Rockumentary by Martin Di Bergi. Although its title calls it a “rockumentary,” this is the first movie that I recall being referred to as a “mockumentary,” as Reiner described it in contemporary interviews. The term, which surprisingly dates to the mid-sixties, conjoins the words “mock” and “documentary” to describe a work that parodies a subject via a distinct filmic style. This is Spinal Tap parodies metal bands that take themselves too seriously, while simultaneously poking fun at the documentary process itself.

The origins of the mockumentary are unclear. The seeds of the style date back at least to the 1950s, when variety shows would often use sketch comedy to lampoon current topics and public figures.  For instance, early television innovator Steve Allen – on the appropriately titled The Steve Allen Show – staged fake interviews with members of his comedy troupe for the ongoing “Man in the Street” segments. He also created a send-up of NBC’s nightly network news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report, which in his hands became “The Nutley-Hinkley Report.”

The difference between parody and mockumentary is that the latter takes it a step or two further. Whereas a parody is executed with the performers giving a literal or figurative wink at the audience indicating that they’re fully in on the joke, a mockumentary is carried out with straight faces, requiring the viewer to determine where the humor is contained. Mockumentaries are also created by copying a specific filming style that, in some cases, blurs the lines between truth and fiction even more.  In fact, upon the release of This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, some people thought that Spinal Tap was a real band and the movie was an actual documentary.

A Hard Day's Night coverPerhaps the first film that can be categorized as a mockumentary is director Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which seemingly records events occurring over a few days in the life of The Beatles at the height of Beatlemania in 1964. Four years later, satirist Pat Paulsen, a regular on TV’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, launched a mock presidential campaign as a running gag on the show. Paulsen, with his usual deadpan delivery, used lies, double-talk, and attacks on other candidates, to poke fun at the campaign process. It culminated in his own TV-movie, Pat Paulsen for President, which was narrated by iconic actor Henry Fonda! That mostly-forgotten program, however, provided the blueprint for the mockumentary format.

Stand-up comedian Woody Allen directed his feature-length debut in 1969 with Take the Money and Run, which documented the story of bungling bank robber Virgil Starkwell. Allen returned to the style twice later in his career: 1983’s Zelig and 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown. In 1978, Monty Python’s Eric Idle wrote and co-directed The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, a send-up of The Beatles. Idle also starred as one of the members of the imaginary rock band (fellow Python Michael Palin also had a supporting role), while much of the extended cast was made up of Saturday Night Live players. Albert Brooks, who has his own SNL connection and is sometimes called “The West Coast Woody Allen,” made his directorial debut, like Allen, with a mockumentary. In 1979’s Real Life: An American Comedy, Brooks drew direct inspiration from PBS’ pioneering 1973 documentary series An American Family.

Since helping to popularize the comedy subgenre with This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest has gone on to create a cottage industry of sorts with a continuing line of mockumentaries. Guest directed, co-wrote (with co-star Eugene Levy), and starred in 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, 2000’s Best in Show,  and 2003’s A Mighty Wind. Those films took on the subjects of small-town community theater productions, upscale dog shows, and folk music, respectively. Although they are not blockbuster hits, they have a proven audience, and all have received critical plaudits.

The biggest sleeper hit of 2006 was probably writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The story of a supposed Kazakh TV reporter who is sent to the United States to make a documentary about American life and culture, however, drew criticism from several quarters. Baron Cohen, a TV star in his native England, was able to dupe countless Americans into believing his cover story, making many of them look incredibly foolish in their filmed interviews.

The OfficeDespite the success of Guest’s films and of Baron Cohen’s film, the use of the mockumentary style has mostly shifted to TV sitcoms in recent years. The first to use it to great success was the original, British version of The Office, starring Ricky Gervais, which ran from 2001-2003. To date, it has spawned additional versions in seven other countries:  The United States, France, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel, and Sweden. The American version of The Office debuted in March 2005 and was an immediate hit.  It ran for nine seasons, propelled several cast members to stardom, and received six nominations for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, winning once.

You might think that The Office would have become so identified with the mockumentary style that no other television show producers would dare use it again so soon. Surprisingly, that didn’t prove to be the case, at all. In 2009, two more mockumentary sitcoms debuted – and both also found success!  NBC’s Parks and Recreation bowed in April of that year and recently began its sixth season, having been nominated once for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy. ABC’s Modern Family, premiered in September 2009, and has won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series each of its first four seasons. Apparently, the mockumentary is a comedic style that Americans just aren’t tiring of quickly.

Mockumentary, parody, straight comedy, or otherwise, the Des Moines Public Library has hundreds of movie and TV series titles from which to choose. DVDs rent for $2.00 apiece, checkout for one week, and no longer have a limit other than the fifty-item overall limit. Come in and checkout as many as you can carry!

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