Saturday, August 22, 2015
There's a glut of comedy sketch shows on TV right now (Inside Amy, Key and Peele, Drunk History, and so on), and some of these shows are funny-haha, some funny-weird, and many are funny-not. I would have to describe the first installment of Documentary Now, the new half-hour gig on IFC cooked up by Saturday Night Live veterans Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader as a combination of all three of those categories, but what wins out in the end is definitely funny-not.
First off, I love Fred Armisen. He has a mask-like face that registers stupidity and confusion without having to move a muscle, and he deploys that plastic expression throughout most of his impressions, giving each bit of mockery he does a sort of Armisen through-line that makes it all hilariously precise and also broad enough to be slapstick. I don't think I've ever laughed harder at him that earlier this year on the premiere episode of one of his other sketch comedy shows Portlandia, which just finished up its fifth season. The premiere segment featured the back-story of the owners of Women and Women First, a feminist bookstore, and Armisen played Candace, a stodgy, judgmental, hilariously un-self-aware activist, as she was in the early 90s, a sexed-up, man-hungry, careerist tiger-lady in beautifully garish power skirt and pant outfits, prowling the halls of Big Business, just itching for a fight or a fuck. That same dim but feverish face attached to that early-90s sense of what it means to be a glass-ceiling-buster was so hilarious because it was both parody and paean, over-the-top and yet sensitive enough to give Candace a break: she's a broken, dimwitted icon, but she's a goddamn icon none-the-less.
Documentary Now's premiere episode features a sendup of Grey Gardens, the 1975 documentary about Edith Beale and her daughter Edith who live in the Hamptons in a haunted house. Titled Sandy Passage, the mockumentary goes through the motions, with Hader playing the daughter and Armisen playing the mom, and at first you feel warm about it all, that the mockers are somehow enchanted by what's being mocked and we're in for great strangeness fortified by camp and homage. For about five minutes, it is all that, with Hader and Armisen riffing on all the many idiosyncrasies involved: the rotten-wood house, the raccoons, cats and possums who have taken over, the sweatpants turban, the poetic trash of lives lost in doldrums and regrets... Making fun of how the original movie looks and feels (the Maysles brothers original is a desperately sincere affair, but that only makes the camp of it exquisite and heart-breaking and kind of comforting) is easy to do of course, and fun, but not really that funny. Grey Garden's unique sensibility allows it to self-parody, thanks especially to Little Edie, who has a knowing countenance and glare every time she seems to be feeling she's being exploited. In fact, her performance in Grey Gardens is truly a performance. All the sad/creepy clothes she wears, the affectations she uses to express herself, that beautiful American flag-waving dance she does, all of that artifice, even if it is innocent and completely self-imposed, is completely controlled by her sense of decorum and ego. So mocking all of that is shooting little Edies in a barrel so to speak, and Hader does so with his usual smattering of otherworldly intonations and stares. Armisen takes on Big Edie with the same aplomb, giving us a slowed-down, stupider version, but also entering Big Edie into his personal wax-museum of freaks, right up there with Candace and the stolid Native American comedian he'd do on Weekend Update, sitting next to Anchorman Seth Meyers, who happens to be the writer and producer of Documentary Now.
Meyers, I think, is the main reason that Sandy Passage is funny-not. It's the narrative. After the initial and obligatory scene-setting and mockery, the story of Sandy Passage takes a turn into Blair Witch territory, turning the house and the ladies in it into "pure horror," both Edies suddenly turning into grocery-store-delivery-boys-killing witches. Grey Gardens definitely never wanted to go to that place Sandy Passages seems intent on going. Even while flirting with the gothic grotesqueries confronting them, the Maysles brothers were intent on both capturing the horror and the swetness. In fact both constantly intermingle.
It's just too easy to imagine Edie and Edie as malevolent forces, their story as witchy and horrible. It's a frat-boy take on something a frat-boy could never understand. Why go there? I guess for the laugh, but it's not funny, it's just dumb, in the way all lazy easy satire is: taking a situation that's sad and pathetic and layering on horror-movie kitsch only makes the show feel amateurish at best, and kind of hateful and phobic at the worst.
Edie and Edie's story is about surviving but also about caving in, about pride and sloth and lost chances and ego, but by the end of Grey Gardens there's definitely a sense that both Edies are in on the joke. In the end, watching Sandy Passage, you truly get the sense that parodying Grey Gardens, without understanding its essence and power, is the ultimate in redundancy, and even the ultimate in disrespect.