In honor of the forthcoming Lonely Island comedy Popstar, which parodies different nonfiction styles, we started thinking about the best mockumentaries ever made. Naturally, our mind went to Christopher Guest, who directed classics like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, and starred in This Is Spinal Tap. But you’re smart; you knew that already. So we decided to come up with a list of the greatest mockumentaries that don’t involve Guest. And while many of these owe a debt to Guest, as you’ll see, the genre has evolved in plenty of brilliant ways.
Tanner ’88 (1988)
This landmark Robert Altman miniseries doesn’t fit the standard definition of a mockumentary, but that’s the term the legendary director used to describe his comedy-drama about Democratic presidential hopeful Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) on the campaign trail in 1988. Shot on the fly, Tanner ’88, which was written by Doonesbury mastermind Garry Trudeau, had its phony candidate bump into actual candidates like Pat Robertson and Bob Dole, creating a weird mixture of reality and fiction that play into the story. Consequently, the miniseries became a running commentary on the artifice that goes into all presidential politics. In our modern era, when Barack Obama will show up on The Colbert Report to yuk it up with a pretend conservative commentator, this sort of surreal spectacle feels familiar. In Tanner ’88, it felt shockingly new.
Fear of a Black Hat (1994)
The entire history of hip-hop’s late-‘80s/early-‘90s golden age is embedded in writer-director-star Rusty Cundieff’s directorial debut, which takes aim at everybody from Public Enemy to N.W.A to P.M. Dawn. At its core, Fear of a Black Hat is a very affectionate ribbing of rap’s cultural ascendance — parody songs and deaths of multiple band managers are a knowing nod to This Is Spinal Tap. But more than 20 years after its release, Black Hat now possesses an unexpectedly nostalgic pull, the film’s chronicling of the chart-topping, hardcore act N.W.H. (Niggaz With Hats) a time capsule of a hip-hop era that feels relatively quaint and innocent. (Black Hat takes place before the murders of Tupac and Biggie.) Cundieff would serve as one of the directors on Chappelle’s Show about a decade later.
Bob Roberts (1992)
In part inspired by 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back, which followed Bob Dylan on tour in the U.K., Bob Roberts was actor Tim Robbins’ debut as a filmmaker, chronicling a folk-singing conservative (played by Robbins) running for Senate against a fiercely liberal incumbent (Gore Vidal). Where Dylan’s underdog counterculture hero spoke truth to power with his poetic lyrics and acoustic guitar, Roberts’ polished poster boy for Reaganomics chastised the poor and saluted Wall Street, warping the folk movement’s progressive politics in the process. Bob Roberts is Guest-ian in its portrayal of dingbat political operatives and ditzy TV journalists, but the movie is very angry underneath, scolding an electoral process in jeopardy of being hijacked by shallow sensationalism. Robbins was so concerned, in fact, that he refused to release the movie’s original folk songs (which he helped write) as a soundtrack, lest some right-wing candidate decide to use them on the stump.
Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm (2008)
Before Seinfeld co-creator Larry David launched Curb Your Enthusiasm, he did a one-off HBO special in which he plays a fictionalized version of himself preparing to do a one-off HBO special. Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm is very similar to the show it inspired, except in three important regards: David does stand-up routines; there are talking-head interviews from the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander; and the whole thing is shot as a behind-the-scenes documentary. Otherwise, all the Curb templates are here. Watch Larry argue over minutiae — so what if he mispronounces Caroline Rhea’s first name? — when he isn’t getting into fights with people he’s trying to impress just because they weren’t Seinfeld fans. Larry David is a fascinating glimpse into what would become Curb, and a very funny first draft.
Unfortunately, HBO has made it impossible to stream Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Woody Allen has incorporated documentary elements into his early comedies (Take the Money and Run) and his later serious relationship films (Husbands and Wives). But his best mockumentary is this 1983 movie, which purports to tell the story of Leonard Zelig (Allen), a nonentity who changed his worldview (and even his appearance) to suit whatever time period he inhabited. A forerunner to Forrest Gump’s infamous trick of placing a fictional character into archival footage, Zelig ingeniously looks like 1920s newsreels, right down to the beat-up black-and-white footage. But the technical brilliance is in service to a thought-provoking story about the ways that people subvert their personality in order to find favor with the majority, in the process losing themselves. More than 30 years after Zelig’s release, its look remains remarkable — and its message hasn’t gotten any less timely.
Man Bites Dog (1992)
One of the forgotten treasures of 1990s indie cinema, Man Bites Dog came out the same year as Reservoir Dogs — the two films share a kinetic, bratty, violent energy. This Belgian comedy stars co-director Benoît Poelvoorde as Ben, a likable gent who happens to be a serial killer. A documentary crew decides to follow him, hoping to explore the heart of a madman; instead, the filmmakers become willing accomplices, sucked in by Ben’s lifestyle. Just as Quentin Tarantino made bloodshed shocking and funny, Poelvoorde and co-directors Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel take the seeming gentility of documentary filmmaking and flip it on its head, rendering Ben’s murders with such matter-of-fact brutality that Man Bites Dog becomes a pointed satire of our fascination with psychopaths.
All You Need Is Cash (1978)
Mockumentaries didn’t start with This Is Spinal Tap. This cheeky 1978 TV special created the template that Tap followed, presenting a fictional history of “The Rutles.” A sendup of the Beatles’ career — mocking everything from the Fab Four’s woeful Magical Mystery Tour movie to Yoko Ono’s eccentric fashion sense — All You Need Is Cash is also a very funny satire of the canonization of rock and rock history that had already started taking place in the late 1970s. The Beatle sound-alike songs are great and the re-creation of 1960s footage remains sterling, but what was especially innovative was the decision to get real-life musicians like Mick Jagger and Paul Simon to play themselves, doing sit-down interviews about this faux-legendary band. Co-director, cowriter and costar Eric Idle will always be best known for his work with Monty Python, but All You Need Is Cash may be just as influential.
A meaner, nastier Candid Camera for George W. Bush’s America, Borat found Sacha Baron Cohen revising his Kazakh journalist character from Da Ali G Show, sending Borat on a cross-country road trip to discover what made the U.S.A. tick. The whole film was structured as a televised report, interweaving scripted segments with hidden-camera bits where Borat would interview everyday Americans, unleashing misogynistic, racist comments to see if they’d get a response. (They often did, humorously so.) What could have been a gimmicky gotcha conceit instead became an oddly touching portrait of this screwed-up country with its mixture of patriotism, xenophobia and good-hearted folks. (And the actor’s naked wrestling match with his producer, played by Ken Davitian, remains a high-water mark in shock comedy.) Baron Cohen would try to repeat Borat’s magical alchemy three years later with the far-less-successful Bruno, which only demonstrated what a happy little miracle the first film was.
Real Life (1979)
By the late 1970s, Albert Brooks was already a celebrated stand-up and director of funny short films, a favorite of Johnny Carson’s and a staple on Saturday Night Live. In ’79, he made his first feature, which might still be his best. Spoofing the acclaimed PBS series An American Family, Brooks plays a fictionalized, jerkier version of himself as he sets out to document a regular American family, setting his sights on Phoenix clan the Yeagers, led by Charles Grodin in typically hilarious deadpan mode. Soon, though, Brooks decides the Yeagers aren’t interesting enough, so he invents phony dramas to raise the stakes and make for better television. Real Life predicts the entire universe of fake reality television in which we now reside, which just goes to show that great satire eventually becomes depressing real life.
The Office (2001–2003)
The American remake helped make Steve Carell a star, but the original British series launched an entire comedy format. The conceit of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office was that a television documentary crew wanted to make a film about a normal office environment but instead stumbled upon the psychotic antics of David Brent (Gervais) and his long-suffering underlings — including Martin Freeman’s Tim Canterbury, who’s hopelessly pining for sweethearted receptionist Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis). Cringe comedy done brilliantly, The Office also revolutionized the idea of breaking the fourth wall by having the characters speak directly to an off-screen filmmaker, admitting their darkest secrets or, in the case of Brent, perpetuating their delusion of being far more interesting and talented than they really were. It’s a device we now see everywhere, from the U.S. Office to Modern Family to Parks and Recreation, but none of those offshoots so perfectly captured the silent horror that made The Office so piercingly funny. Suddenly, ordinary workplaces seemed frighteningly real.
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including a biography of Public Enemy.