Mockumentaries: Comedy for the Not-So-Serious Thinker

Art Gib asked:

In the late 1990s the documentary hit it big with the huge successes of A&E’s Biography, and the History Channel. Now the not-so-serious offspring of the documentary is all the rage as mockumentary rules the comedy scene.

Mockumentary is a film genre of fiction calculated to parody the non-fiction documentary. The crux of mockumentary humor is usually centered in taking trivial matters very seriously, and mocking those who feel strongly about inconsequential issues.

Mockumentaries are presented as if they were documentaries recording real life using stereotypical documentary techniques such as narrated footage, interviews, talking heads, etc.

The roots of mockumentary go back to the 1950s when radio programs would stage fictitious explorations of foreign planets, but the term mockumentary was not widely used until coined by Rob Reiner, who used it in interviews to describe his 1980s film This Is Spinal Tap.

To give a mockumentary the authentic, true to life feel like that of the documentary, mockumentaries are often unscripted and improvised. The organic structure of the film production is unpredictable, but is part of what gives it charm. Usually there is no laugh tract in a mockumentary, as they tend to lend a canned, prepackaged feel that mockumentaries, like documentaries, avoid.

The new mockumentary genre has become so popular in recent years it has spawned its own film festivals, like it’s proud but serious parent the documentary. Three day long festivals are held throughout North America and the UK showcasing the latest indie mockumentaries attracting cult followings.

Some of the most famous and ground breaking early mockumentaries to come out are “The Blair Witch Project” and “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” one being humorous and the other scary.

Drop Dead Gorgeous is an irreverent parody of a Minnesota beauty pageant and follows the traditional over the top people-are-stupid mockumentary line.

The Blair Witch Project capitalizes on the current obsession with reality TV. It combines elements of show everything documentary with the urban legend horror stories traditionally told around the campfire to produce a truly frightening effect. These movies helped to define the mockumentary genre as it is today.

Some other notable mockumentaries include All You Need Is Cash (aka The Rutles), parody telling of the Beatles’ story, while also parodying documentary makers themselves, 1979. Believe, story of multi-level marketing and a failed pyramid scheme US, 2007. The Big Tease, a Scottish hairdresser’s journey to the US for a hairdressing competition. And God Spoke, about a director-producer partnership trying to create the definite cinematic version of The Bible on a shoestring budget US, 1999.

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