‘Documentary Now!': Bill and Fred and Seth's Excellent Adventure

"Late Night" team Seth Meyers and Fred Armisen, along with "SNL" pal Bill Hader, spoof documentaries in a new IFC miniseries.

It looks like a scene uprooted from "Grey Gardens": A woman in a Norma Desmond-esque head wrap implores her bedridden mother to sing one "for the boys," like she used to years ago. Mother obliges with a rambling, high-pitched, out-of-tune song.

The characters and camera angles evoke the classic 1975 Maysles Brothers documentary "Grey Gardens," which chronicled the lives of Bouvier family kin Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, a mother and daughter lost in eccentricity and squalor in East Hampton, N.Y. But the new spectacle, "Sandy Passages," is all about Big Vivvy and Little Vivvy, who are played – for intentional laughs – by Fred Armisen and Bill Hader.

The "Grey Gardens" parody kicks off "Documentary Now!," a six-part IFC series that reaps humor from two patches of fertile ground: serious documentaries and former "Saturday Night Live" stars exploring new comic territory.

"Documentary Now!," which debuts Thursday, marks an “SNL” mini-reunion of sorts. It’s produced by Seth Meyers, host of NBC’s "Late Night," which Armisen serves as bandleader. The series also marks the latest summertime foray into TV quirk for "SNL" alumni.

Will Ferrell and Kirsten Wiig recently teamed on a Lifetime TV movie – “A Deadly Adoption” – that satirized the form by playing it straight until the final goofy dance coda. The duo also returned to IFC for a second “Spoils” 1970s miniseries parody, joined this time by fellow “SNL” veteran Maya Rudolph, who headlined a fun 1970s-style variety special last year on NBC. Ferrell, meanwhile, is the subject of an upcoming HBO special about his exploits playing in Major League spring training games as part of a cancer-fighting fundraiser.

Ferrell and Wiig likely could make more money sticking solely to movies – a common past route taken by previous “SNL” breakout stars, who largely eschewed returning to the television, save for hosting their old show. But Ferrell and Wiig have bounced seamlessly between the big and small screens, along with the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. 

Meanwhile, Meyers, Armisen and Jimmy Fallon are busy extending the “SNL” late night TV comedy banner to weeknights. Will Forte’s off-beat sitcom, “The Last Man on Earth,” draws a devoted audience, while his fellow Fox primetime comedy star and former “SNL” cast mate Andy Samberg has a hit with “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – and is set next month to host TV’s biggest celebration of itself, the Emmys.

The turn to TV seems a natural fit for former “SNL” stars, who launched their careers on the wings of largely television-driven pop culture satires. The tube focus also reflects the current new golden age of TV, which provides increased creative freedom – and more to lampoon. “Documentary Now!” seems like an equally natural fit for IFC, whose offerings include documentaries and humor shows, among them “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” “Maron” and Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s "Portlandia."

The conceit of “Documentary Now!” is that it’s a respected anthology series marking its 50th season. The faux air of respectability is reinforced by the presence of Helen Mirren, who delivers deadpan “Masterpiece Theatre”-like introductions. Upcoming installments range from takeoffs on the silent granddaddy of the genre, “Nanook of the North,” to VICE’s current gonzo take on the form – complete with Jack Black channeling VICE honcho Shane Smith (the episode, currently online, is well worth watching).

Perhaps the documentary genre resonates with performers who came of age on one of the most scrutinized television shows of all time. “SNL,” which celebrated its landmark 40th season this year, inspired two recent documentaries – “Live From New York!” and the bittersweet “I Am Chris Farley.” Show alum Mike Myers even directed and produced a documentary about show business manager Shep Gordon in 2013.

Check out a preview of “Documentary Now!” – a show that could provide fodder for a future documentary on life after “SNL.”

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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