“I’m Parker Gail, and I do monologues.”
The bizarre Jonathan Demme picture Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia is a film that’s a more recent obsession of mine. Demme’s masterful, restrained way of capturing Spalding Gray’s sprawling narrative is a work of art and I couldn’t have been more excited upon immediately realizing Swimming to Cambodia was the parody piece of the week for IFC’s Documentary Now!
So full disclosure, this episode really knocked me back in a remarkable way. It’s definitely my favorite episode of the season and might even be my favorite installment of the entire series (although that Al Capone Festival episode is just so, so silly…). Bill Hader is the perfect conduit for this lightning rod of rambling necessary in the episode. Yet at the same time, I could just as easily see someone despising this venture and it being many people’s least favorite entry. That’s the beauty of something like this. It either connects with you in the deepest way possible or flies completely over your head.
“Location is Everything” is essentially Hader doing a one-man show as Parker Gail talks about what a “home” is. The three-camera setup captures the whole black box experience as Gail free-associates and monologues for the entire episode. It’s such a specific takedown of bad theater, not to mention an absolute placement of trust in Hader’s ability to carry a show. This is him baring his soul, mugging to the audience, and turning every emotion up to the max, like theater has a tendency to bring out in people.
Documentary Now! thankfully saw some Emmy recognition at this year’s ceremony and this will hopefully be Hader’s Emmy submission this time around. His whole “hot dog!” meltdown is a thing to behold, as is watching him becoming completely derailed when his table becomes wobbly and he refuses to continue until it gets fixed. To see that this episode is co-written by Hader and John Mulaney is not at all surprising. I could hear Mulaney’s voice in Parker Gail even before I saw the credits. This perfectly taps into Mulaney’s rambling, folksy, self-absorbed style. Parker Gail certainly feels like someone that would share a tuna prank with George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon.
While this episode is largely Hader’s time to shine, it’s not entirely a one-man show, with Lennon Parham doing a great job as Gail’s significant other, Ramona, who interjects with his life story to occasionally correct details. A big part of the joke here is learning that Parker Gail’s story is inherently exaggerated and given repeated creative license. Parham’s character and other figures from Parker’s narrative repeatedly interrupt with the truth, like a faithful reality check, with the funniest rift between fact and fiction being in his portrayal of his not-Nigerian landlord. Other people continue to deflate his stories and cast Parker as an increasingly unreliable narrator. They even begin to get bitter that they’re not the ones getting a monologue.
Another great joy with “Location is Everything” is in watching the tiny errors that go on during this quaint black box production. There are a number of flubs in the process that aren’t shied away from that act as a reflection of the realities of live theater as well as a poignant reminder of how out of his element Parker is here. Even though Swimming to Cambodia is the obvious comparison point, this episode couldn’t help but also remind me of Chris Elliot’s FDR: A One-Man Show, a comedy special that is as brilliant as it is underappreciated. Both still effectively convey the idea of an ego trip that’s steadily crumbling under an impossible man’s expectations. Or perhaps a better comparison point is Dinner With Family With Brett Gelman and Brett Gelman’s Family, where Brett Gelman is constantly re-writing his life’s history much to his family’s stupefied horror.
The ending “twist” of “Location is Everything” is damn wonderful and an unnecessary spin to a story that already goes out on a high note. It’s the perfect gag to go out on that re-contextualizes everything into an even more impressive light afterwards. I wish every episode of Documentary Now! could be as manic as this one.
In the mean time, God bless those tiny Dutchmen that are banging their hammers in the heat pipes…