The comedic subgenre used to be ubiquitous – then, it wasn't. What happened?
When the mockumentary first infiltrated popular culture in the early aughts, it was only a few short years until the style was inescapable. Audiences couldn't seem to get enough of the single-camera shots, awkward silences, and bumbling dialogue. Traditional sitcoms and their laugh tracks suddenly had to share the primetime spotlight as comedies like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family dominated airwaves and demanded coverage in the fledgling TV blogosphere.
But a decade has passed since our entertainment hit peak mockumentary, and the genre has been all but forgotten, pushed aside for the current wave of high-stakes drama and dark comedy known as prestige television. So, where exactly did all the mockumentaries go?
Like many things in comedy, you can trace the genre back to the hilarious ingenuity of Monty Python and Albert Brooks. In 1969, the first episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus featured "The Funniest Joke in the World," a documentary-style sketch based on the premise of a single joke being so funny that anyone who hears it will die from laughter. Ten years later, Brooks directed and released Real Life, a full-length documentary spoof of the PBS reality show An American Family. However, it's the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap that is widely credited with launching the mockumentary style onto the larger pop-culture stage.
The now-classic comedy was hardly a success upon its theatrical release, but found greater fame and a cult following after it was released on VHS. The movie featured Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer (who also acted in Brooks's An American Family), and Michael McKean. The cast would go on to find their own respective success in comedy, but Guest in particular would make his name synonymous with mockumentary.
In the late 90s, Guest wrote and directed Waiting for Guffman, a mock docu-style movie with improvised dialogue about the community theater production of a musical. During the opening weekend, the film made an insultingly low $37,990 off a $4 million budget. The poor opening numbers hinted that American moviegoers weren't ready for the particular comedy of a mockumentary. Luckily, Guest never gave up on the genre, releasing Best in Show in 2000. It made more than ten times the opening weekend sales as his previous effort and went on to gross $20 million.
Around this time, Larry David was working with HBO on developing an hour-long comedy special in which David would play himself returning to stand-up, with an unknown actor cast as his wife (so those watching might mistake her for his actual wife) and everything shot as if it was a real documentary. The mockumentary-style special would eventually turn into the breakout show Curb Your Enthusiasm, and although the series strayed from the style of the special, it never lost the cringeworthy quality often associated with the genre.
It took a couple of seasons before Curb Your Enthusiasm found a following, but audiences' comedic tastes were starting to change anyway. Guest struck gold again in 2003 with his movie A Mighty Wind, another mockumentary that was praised by critics and audiences alike. Comedy Central teamed up with comedy troupe the State for the Cops spoof Reno 911; Canadian TV was airing the mockumentary-turned-series Trailer Park Boys; over in the United Kingdom, the BBC began broadcasting Ricky Gervais's The Office, a bone-dry mock documentary about an everyday workplace that became the first British comedy to ever win a Golden Globe Award.
All of this proved that viewers were finally ready for comedy that blurred the lines between reality and farce. The repeated pattern showed the suits in showbiz that the success of the genre wasn't a one-off. Hollywood finally saw that the mockumentary had the potential for both financial and cultural success—but could it thrive on basic cable and win over a mainstream-sized audience?
True to typical Hollywood form, the first major network foray into the mockumentary sitcom was a remake. NBC looked to BBC's The Office to woo American audiences. It was a slow start; the first season lacked the same punch of the original, but by its second and third seasons, the show had swept the nation and was a full-blown cultural phenomenon. The larger success of the mockumentary wasn't limited to the small screen either. In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen unleashed Borat on the world, bringing in a staggering $261 million at the box office along with two Academy Award nominations. Both projects were a case study of mockumentary success, and that was all it took for the style to overtake our TV screens.
A couple of seasons into The Office, NBC greenlit another mockumentary project from its alumni: Parks and Recreation, which applied the same mock-doc lens to a ragtag team of government employees in small-town America. That same year, ABC premiered a mockumentary series of its own: Modern Family. Primetime television suddenly had three mockumentary-styled comedies running at once. All shows were award-winning, long-lasting hits: The Office ended in 2013 after nine seasons, Parks and Recreation in 2015 after seven seasons, and Modern Family is currently in its ninth season. There are currently at least 184 award wins (of a whopping 651 nominations) between the three shows.
Within the past few years, though, the majority of new attempts at the genre have fallen flat or outright failed. Last year, ABC canceled a mockumentary-style version of The Muppets after just a single season; Documentary Now! on IFC can't seem to break through the TV landscape to a larger audience; Saturday Night Live alum lost more than $10 million with their mock-doc movie Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. (Though it should be noted that both Documentary Now! And Popstar found some cult success.) Even the 2016 Christopher Guest mockumentary Mascots scored a dismal 51 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. (All of the aforementioned Guest mockumentaries have ratings between 88 percent and 95 percent.)
The wants of audiences and thematic trends in entertainment change. AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad ushered in a new era of envelope-pushing TV. So did HBO's Girls and Amazon's Transparent. Family dramas like NBC's Parenthood and This Is Us also came into the picture. TV was suddenly either highbrow with a glossy finish, brutally sentimental, or unpolished and raw. Audiences no longer wanted television to masquerade as real for the sake of comedy; they wanted shows to mimic real life purely for the authenticity. Our current definition of TV comedy has gotten weirder, more political and everything in between. Complex, layered comedies like FX's Better Things and Atlanta, Netflix's Master of None and ABC's Black-ish are all thriving on both critical and cultural levels.
The days of the deadpan half-characters and intentionally shoddy camerawork may be behind us, but it wasn't coldly calculated; audiences seem to have simply moved past the mockumentary. The state of broadcast and cable comedy is sharper, darker, and sometimes more surreal, but ultimately still as wonderful as it's ever been. Like a lot of things in pop culture, nothing gold can stay—and the mockumentary was one of them.
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