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Rise of the Talking Heads: Charting The Rise Of The TV Mockumentary Comedy

Where do the roots of the modern mockumentary begin?

It’s an oddly relevant question in a time when bingeing feel-good sitcoms seem to be our collective comfort food and we all seem to be doing our own version of talking-head confessionals on Zoom calls. Who do we thank for the straight-to-camera confessionals, the cringe-comedy, the voyeuristic shooting style that’s enticed audiences to return to these beloved TV shows? Do we look at Ricky Gervais’ British experiment, a pseudo-doc shot in an indistinct office building following a group of average workers with comedic quirks? Do we go further, to Seinfeld, the comedy about nothing, that introduced the idea of low-stakes television being used as a vehicle for multi-plot storytelling and evergreen jokes on network TV even without using the classic mockumentary style?

Maybe we go to Orson Welles and his boundary-pushing, mass-hysteria-inducing radio work of the late 1930s. He famously read a fake radio broadcast adapted from the H.G. Well’s sci-fi epic War of the Worlds on air to convince listeners that a hostile alien race had, in fact, invaded Earth. It’s the kind of screwball hijinks you might see on one of the more modern mockumentary experiments on this list – a crude joke Michael Scott might find funny, a prank David Brent might inflict on his employees, a disaster Leslie Knope might try to mitigate.

Or perhaps we jump forward, past The Rutles’ All You Need Is Cash parody to Christopher Guest – the Godfather of the mockumentary, though he’d probably hate being called that. Guest managed to popularize the genre on screen by following a group of earnest, heavy-metal rock stars on tour in 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap. A buffet of quotable dialogue, most of it improvised, and a honed ability to use the camera as a satire of the genre itself, the film launched a new wave of comedy, one that Guest has repeatedly gone back to and one that directly inspired creators like Gervais, who gave British audiences a riff on Guest’s work with The Office.

Perhaps chronicling the mockumentary’s decades-long history isn’t as important as charting its most recent evolution, from an intimate look at the trivialities of office life saturated in dry humor and wit to its Americanized predecessor, with quirky characters and a longer-running premise.

When The Office first came across the pond, it seemed dead on arrival. The insufferable nature of Gervais’ main character just didn’t translate to Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott and the plan to lift dialogue straight from its predecessor meant jokes often fell flat. It’s only when showrunner Greg Daniels suggested they lean into the likability of a cast that included Carrell, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, and Rainn Wilson, that the show found its groove.

“That thing was like a boot camp in learning how to write a mockumentary,” writer Dan Goor tells us. Goor would spend a short stint on the show before transitioning to Parks and Rec (and eventually, heading Brooklyn Nine-Nine). “It created a trend in sitcoms.”

At the very least, it opened the door for others to experiment with the shooting style. Goor and showrunner Michael Schur would employ some of the same techniques that endeared audiences to the employees of Dunder Mifflin in their government-centric follow-up.

“[The Office] really had a theory about how to use talking heads,” he explains. “You could use them as a shortcut for getting exposition out, because a person could literally narrate what was happening and there was comedy in that. That’s a huge advantage, especially on a show like Parks and Rec, which was about a world that people aren’t familiar with.”

This messier style of shooting also felt far-removed from the multi-cam sitcoms that had previously dominated network comedy. Shows like Friends, Cheers, and Everybody Loves Raymond were housed on well-lit stages in front of studio audiences with laugh-tracks that dictated where jokes would land. There were clear boundaries – the actors were playing to viewers, unlike mockumentaries that invited fans to feel part of the scene. Seinfeld worked to bridge that gap in many ways, slowly transitioning away from the tried-and-true model. Veep showrunner David Mandel got his start working on the show, arriving in the show’s later seasons.

“Even though it was technically a multi-cam sitcom being shot on a stage with an audience, there were huge sections of the show, week in week out, that were being shot elsewhere, as exteriors or more complicated sets,” he shares. “So, it practically was already almost like a single cam hybrid by the back end of it, even though no one was calling it that.”

Single cam may give comedy a more cinematic feel, but that’s not what appeals to mockumentary fans, or the people who create them. Looser scripts, more room for improv, and the ability to punch up the humor through quick-paced editing are all advantages of the genre.

“I think it gives you more of those moments where you can see genuine reactions from people,” says Jimmy Tatro, who’s worked on shows like Netflix’s American Vandal and created his own reality satire Real Bros of Simi Valley. “One of the cool things about American Vandal is, I wouldn’t know what they were going to ask me in the interviews, so they would get a genuine reaction from me hearing the question for the first time. I think that ad-libbing in general, it does make these things feel more real. It gives them more of an authentic vibe, more of a raw feel.”

The Office, much like the Netflix true-crime parody, would eventually evolve to become a commentary on the mockumentary genre itself, introducing fans to members of the crew that had been “shooting” the series and suggesting relationships had been formed off-camera that viewers had no idea about.

But the success of the series also meant that shows like Parks and Rec would have to evolve too. Goor says crafting a copy-cat of the workplace comedy wouldn’t have worked. Instead, Schur’s follow-up cherry-picked the best of the genre and slowly shrugged off the meta. The show’s characters still gave lively confessionals,— though those began to teeter off as fans became more familiar with the inner-working of Pawnee’s government — but eventually, the mock-doc’s presence could only be gleaned whenever Adam Scott’s character would raise a questioning brow or Aziz Ansari would direct a surprised smile to the camera.

What stuck was the use of the camera as simply another character – one that could whip, float, or accentuate a joke by directing our view to a certain interaction. Believing these shows were shot as documentaries meant creators could play a bit loose with continuity, the camera could miss something and have it be excusable.

“[On] one episode of Parks, Ron Swanson gets shot in the head with a shotgun on a hunting trip,” Goor shares. “We couldn’t break it. We just couldn’t figure out what happened next. And, one of our writers said, ‘This is a documentary and the documentary doesn’t have to see the moment he got shot. And, if the documentary doesn’t see that moment, then it’s a mystery. And then, the episode can be a mystery.’ And, that was how we cracked it. And then that was exactly what happened, that they tried to figure out who shot Ron in the head.”

Perhaps it’s that freedom that makes the style of shooting in a mockumentary so appealing, even on shows that aren’t classified as strictly part of the genre.

“Having done Curb, having done Veep, I think there’s a naturalness to it,” Mandel says. “It feels more real to me. And I don’t know whether that’s the camera movement or the editing patterns.”

Veep, like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is a show that employs the same frenzied camera work and quick-hitting comedy as more traditional mockumentaries, but, save for a few episodes, the shows’ characters never acknowledge why or how the audience is able to look in on their most vulnerable moments.

“As professional politicians, as incompetent as they were, had there been a crew there shooting, I think they would’ve been more self-conscious about what they allowed to go on camera or not. And I think that would’ve undone certain things,” Mandel explains.

Similarly, Goor took what he learned on Parks and adapted it to a different government workforce.

“One of the reasons we use flashbacks on Brooklyn is to have that same sort of rhythmic pop as the talking head. To be able to have a little bit of comedy at the top of the scene, and then maybe pop back for a funny flashback, and then come in and have the bulk of the scene — that was, in some ways, so we could scratch the itch we felt once we’ve lost talking heads,” Goor explains. “But yeah, I like the frenetic camera. I like the camera that can punch in, the camera that can find the joke. That sort of cinematic vocabulary of cop shows in the drama world is similar to a mockumentary camera. It’s often a little bit dirty, a little bit shaky, a little bit handheld.”

Why do some shows choose to go “all-in” with the mockumentary format while others simply borrow some of its more established techniques? It depends on the kind of storytelling the comedy wants to do. When we’re invited to share private moments in people’s lives, when the action feels more mundane, when there needs to be some excuse for the style of camera-work, shows seem to more readily fall under that mockumentary label – think #blackAF, Real Bros of Simi Valley, and Reno 911.

Kerri Kenney-Silver, who helped create one of the first cult mockumentaries for Comedy Central (Reno 911), says the idea of a pseudo-doc about a bumbling police squad in Nevada was a bit of a Hail Mary, but it ended up inviting the kind of improv the show is now known for.

“The writing process is really more about creating an outline of scenarios and letting the actors guide the story as we go,” Silver says.

Similarly, Tatro found that to be the case with his Facebook Watch series as well, adding that the cheat of using confessionals for exposition often helps jokes to land harder.

“For Real Bros of Simi Valley, there are so many improv moments that come up on set where all of a sudden we’re talking about something that isn’t in the script and we riff on that, Tatro says. “A lot of times it’s like the funnier it gets, the further away from the storyline it goes. That’s why it helps to shoot those confessionals after the fact so that we can address those moments where it kind of starts to veer off the storyline and you use it to bring it back.”

And with more mockumentaries popping up on streaming platforms where creators are given more control and leeway to tinker with how their subjects are shot and which narrative paths they want to take, expect the lines between what’s real and what’s not to blur even more in the comedy realm.

“I’m not sure anyone’s going to reinvent the wheel, but maybe there’s just a way of gussying it up a little bit so it seems a little different,” Mandel speculates. “Maybe there’s a way of putting some zooms here and there that might give you a really interesting feel that is at least different than Veep but still in the ballpark. I don’t know. I haven’t really gotten there yet.”