This week the kooky off-beat comedy Documentary Now hit it out of the park with the wonderfully innovative and weird Parker Gail’s Location is Everything.
There are very few shows airing on television that wear their artistic inspirations as visibly as IFC’s wacky Documentary Now, a show that each week selects a famous documentary and puts its own creative spin on re-adapting it. The comedy occupies a strange space too subtle for all-out parody and too funny for straight-faced homage, wisely utilising the brilliant comic talents of Bill Hader and Fred Armisen to re-create a series of strange, lived-in characters. Helen Mirren introduces each show in delightfully straight-laced fashion, no doubt intentionally deceiving some viewers into believing they are watching a real documentary.
But this week the show outdid itself, creating one of this year’s funniest, most creative and deceptively thoughtful twenty minutes of television. “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” utilises a similar format to 1987 performance film Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia, but the overall concept strays far more into examination of wider non-fictional performative art territory. Fictional Parker Gail, played to perfection by Bill Hader, tells the story of how he moved house from one attic to another, accompanied by girlfriend Ramona, and faced an intervention for his excessive free-association that brought his dysfunctional family together. Or at least that’s how he tells it.
Because the episode is filled with interruptions from the characters he is describing, all of whom object to their presentation. Gail’s girlfriend Ramona (Lennon Parham) objects to his fantastical visions of romance and choice to give her an Australian accent, his parents butt in in the final minutes to announce that they are not divorced after all, and an angry subway worker goes on a tirade about Gail’s attempt to board the subway without the right change. The script builds these interactions from incredibly subtle and small-scale at first right up to hilariously absurd. Hader’s silent reactions, particularly following the subway worker’s rant, amusingly capture the performance artist caught for the first time without an impenetrable authorial space.
All of this would fall apart were the tone not meticulously pitched – and Hader nails it. He’s a masterful storyteller, vocally and physically, and sharp camera changes that find new manners of presentation throughout the episode are mesmerising. Sometimes Hader is shot close-up facing the camera, other times a tracking shot brings him back into reaction frame following an interruption, and in one moment he excitedly realises there is a camera on the ceiling and hastily plays to it. In a prelude to the act breaks, Hader even walks off into the backstage to go to the toilet, awkwardly pushing against a stage door in the background.
The in-studio lighting and setting is also consciously used to comic effect – at one point the lights dim on Hader only to abruptly come back up in close-up of his face for hilarious effect. In another moment, Hader pulls down a chart to illustrate his story only for the chart to snap back up behind him. Lesser shows would turn this tic into an extended comic sequences – Documentary Now knows a tiny glance and forced continuation is far more effective in this episode’s context. The quick pace allows the show to fill these twenty minutes with all kinds of jokes, a notable number of which were laugh out loud funny.
Early in Gail’s story, he uses the colourful image of “Dutchmen in pipes” to illustrate the sounds made within the home he is moving out of, yet later on this is turned on its head when Ramona reveals that this is no poetic invention – Gail genuinely believes there are Dutchmen in his pipes who want to kill him. Indeed, the image of Gail presented by his acquaintances is increasingly psychotic. He’s law-breaking, egotistical, and tries to blame everyone else he can for his failures. It seems only appropriate therefore when the show delivers its punchline – Gail is at a parole hearing attempting to justify himself to a board who promptly denies it.
Rarely is the notion of unreliable storytelling crossed over with comedy in this manner, nor so effectively, and Parker Gail is evidence that Documentary Now is the perfect format to explore these kinds of ‘pretentious’ themes that wouldn’t get air time anywhere other than IFC. At one point during a drug-infused vision, Gail is visited by an alien who asks about his monologues:
“Oh, like plays?” the alien asks. “Not really.” “Oh, so like stand-up comedy?” “You know, it’s-” “Well that doesn’t sound very good.”
It’s a tiny exchange that’s feels like it could be out of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, and it’s this level of wide influence that makes this episode work so well. So much modern American comedy feels a need to ham something up until it’s a guaranteed studio laugh, but Documentary Now understands that comedy doesn’t have to be funny to be good. It’s a show that last year delivered entrancing episodes without a single real laugh in them, something which IFC does across other shows like Portlandia or Comedy Bang! Bang!
And it’s that kind of freedom that makes episodes like “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” possible. It’s hugely experimental, and will absolutely not be to everyone’s taste, but those who are able to buy into it will find a hugely rewarding experience. Watch this and watch Portlandia – both are wonderful rebellions against the notion that TV comedy should be a laugh machine, and by doing so are able to create fantastic conceptual comedies like this one.
Documentary Now is difficult to find online but it’s well worth the search. This was the third episode of the second season, and the tenth episode overall.
If you’re interested in Portlandia I recommend the episode ‘Celery’. It casts Steve Buscemi as a vegetable salesman in a bizarre and thus far underappreciated John Grisham parody.
Written by Tom Besley