For three seasons now, Documentary Now! has expertly spoofed some of the most notable documentaries from the non-fiction genre. The show absolutely excels at tapping into the kernel of an idea that’s present in a doc and then finding a hilarious way to extrapolate it. The series continues to prove that it’s not only one of the funniest shows on television, but one of the best shows for cinema geeks.
Whether you’re aware of the original film that the show uses as its reference point, it’s always clear that there’s a lot of love and passion in the parody that the show pushes forward. That’s perhaps never been more clear than in the show’s most recent installment, Original Cast Album: Co-Op, that satirizes D.A. Pennebaker’s musical theatre doc, Original Cast Album: Company.
The episode’s Sondheim spoofing script is credited to John Mulaney and Seth Meyers, but after extensively chatting with Taran Killam, James Urbaniak, and Richard Kind, it’s clear that the episode’s cast are just as big musical theatre nuts. Here’s their account of how this impressive episode came together and just how much went into it.
DEN OF GEEK: How did you all get involved in this episode? Did Mulaney just call you up?
RICHARD KIND: John knows me from Big Mouth. I guess they figured I could sing, cause I’ve done musicals. And I love ‘em, so maybe John knows that and they just asked me to do it. It was thrilling. I had no idea it would be as good as it was, so when that happens, it’s really good. I had the most fun.
When they asked me to do it, I knew about the show, and I used to see the posters around in New York, but I hadn’t watched it. When they asked if I was going to do this, I watched the Grey Gardens one, which was good. Then I started watching a lot of them. They’re smarter than me. They’re smarter and funnier than me, and I love it when they do that.
JAMES URBANIAK: I didn’t know (John Mulaney) that well, but I worked with him once and I knew him a little bit and then I was just offered it and then when I got the script it said my name in parentheses next to the character which I’d never seen before.
TARAN KILLAM: That’s very touching.
JAMES URBANIAK: And in New York and LA they had done readings of scripts when they were developing them. So I had been in some table reads just to help out, just to read and pick up parts and things for different scripts. So I just think he knew I was like a showbiz geek that would be good casting for this thing, as you too, a man of the theater.
TARAN KILLAM: I personally was so excited when they said, “It’s a documentary about a musical cast recording.” I was like “Yes!” And then I found out I don’t sing anything and I was like “Awwwww.” But it was still such a blast it was so fun.
JAMES URBANIAK: That character sings in a metaphorical way.
TARAN KILLAM: He eventually does. He forced his way in there. I feel like Alex (Buono) and Rhys (Thomas) sorta’ knew how I’d feel and were like “And if you wanna’ sing the last line you can.”
DEN OF GEEK: Had you heard of the original documentary, Original Cast Album: Company beforehand?
RICHARD KIND: I know and love the documentary and I was raised on Company. Company’s great. Do yourself a favor and listen to the whole album. I hate to say it, but Sondheim—listen to it two or three times and you will appreciate it. Sondheim writes songs that are not the melodies you expect. Some people write melodies, two and two equals four. He writes a melody, one to the power of nine times six to the power of seven equals four. That’s how he writes. His mathematical mind goes in ways that ours don’t. It then becomes more melodic and memorable. It was groundbreaking. It’s such a good score.
JAMES URBANIAK: I had heard of the documentary, but I don’t think I’d seen it. I knew the musical because I grew up as a theater geek kid and my community college put it on. I wasn’t in it.
TARAN KILLAM: I knew the musical and knew that “The Ladies Who Lunch” was a breakout song from it, but the documentary was not on my radar at all.
JAMES URBANIAK: And there’s a copy on YouTube.
TARAN KILLAM: Yeah, I watched that because it’s less than an hour, or just over an hour.
JAMES URBANIAK: Yeah, it’s like an hour long because the original was conceived as a pilot for a series for PBS on something about cast albums or something like that, but they just made that one. I’d seen other things beforehand, like there’s another—I’d seen the. Elaine Stritch documentary.
RICHARD KIND: The thing with Elaine Stritch is, she was there for many hours performing and then they gave her her song, which is an iconic, Broadway one-person song. As good as it gets. It’s brilliant and incredible and Sondheim at his peak. So she had to come back the next day because she was so tired and you see what the one day looks like. She was good; I mean she was Elaine Stritch. And the next day it’s iconic. Because I’ve listened to the record 400 times, because I was a geek when I was a kid, a Broadway geek.
DEN OF GEEK: Someone had said that there’s a rumor that Elaine Stritch intentionally was kind of blowing it because they wanted the documentary to have some sort of narrative.
JAMES URBANIAK: Sure! It’s a movie! You need some tension. I’d buy it.
RICHARD KIND: They act for thirteen hours. She’s not gonna’ make up how tired she was. I think that she was trying her hardest that night. She was okay. She did okay. But the way she performs that first night was good. Now, maybe the producers and the people doing the record were making it up, so they could come back and do it the next day, but I don’t think that’s right. I’m going to guess that’s not right. Now, was she a whore for publicity and to be singled out? Yes. After thirteen hours I can buy that she wasn’t giving her best and she didn’t sound her best. And when you see it, she’s going, “Shit. Shit. That sucks. You’re terrible.” She isn’t, and it’s not good. Or it’s just not what Sondheim wanted.
DEN OF GEEK: When doing a project of this nature, do you think it’s helpful to watch the original film? It’s not just a straight parody, so what are you looking to get out of that original documentary?
TARAN KILLAM: I think what’s fun is you want to make the episode succeed on its own. If you don’t know what it’s referencing you want to make it engaging and funny and humorous, and I think Mulaney’s joke writing is enough to make it successful, but then on top of that you want to honor the source material and you want to wink because I think in this world of saturated content where it’s really hard to break through, something where you can create an experience for the viewer is important to cultivate. So if I’m watching this and I know it’s based on something, then I’ll go off and watch that, I’ll appreciate that, and then I’ll come back and I’ll re-watch this and I’ll have a greater appreciation for the original thing. So I know for me and the character I played, I was like “I want to give as much of a wink and a nod to the original, to Thomas Z Shepherds!”
JAMES URBANIAK: I mean it’s explicitly referencing the actual creators of the show and the performers, and also they’re all incredibly theatrical, the original people. And they’re just a wealth of material to lift from. Like with Taran, there’s really not much difference between what you’re doing as a comic actor and what Shepherds is doing as the real guy. I could see someone seeing that and going, “Well that’s clearly an over the top caricature,” and then watching the real guy and going “Oh no, that’s a meticulous homage.”
DEN OF GEEK: I think the specificity in it is what makes it so funny.
TARAN KILLAM: Well Documentary Now! has always had that. They do such an incredible job of not just recreating the characters or the setting, but the look of the film, like Alex and Rhys are such tech nerds that they’re using authentic cameras. They find out what the documentary that they’re emulating was shot on and then they’re renting that kit out, basically.
It’s a little like if impersonation is the highest form of flattery, this is the highest form of impersonation, do you know what I mean? They really love the subject matter and the source materials that they’re mimicking.
RICHARD KIND: Three of our songs in this are takes on the song, “Getting Married Today, Not Getting Married” from the original.
JAMES URBANIAK: That’s true though, but you don’t necessarily have to have seen any of these to enjoy the shows, but then there’s just an extra layer of appreciation when you know what its specifically referencing.
TARAN KILLAM: Well Fred Armisen is such a genius. His genius to me is nuanced neuroses, right? He just latches in on someone’s neurotic tick or behavioral thing and then just explores it to the nth degree and it becomes the most brilliant, odd, left of center and yet familiar thing you’ve ever seen. Some of my favorite stuff at SNL were just sketches he’d put up at the table read that wouldn’t get picked but to me were the most brilliantly funny things I’d ever seen. They did a sketch his last season, Ian Rubbish, who was a Sid Vicious takeoff. So I was in the original short they did, they did a digital short, and then he did a live version of it as well towards the end of the year. But they had so much fun recreating the style, that was kind of the genesis of Documentary Now!
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.