The History of the Mockumentary Artform

“I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.” – David St. Hubbins, This is Spinal Tap

One of the countless memorable quotes from the title that spawned—and defines—an entire genre, blurring the lines between scripted satire and improvised comical genius. And while Spinal Tap is arguably the most well-known and oft-quoted of the mockumentary genre so far, it wasn’t strictly the first mockumentary…and it definitely won’t be the last.

As such, join us outside the classroom of your documentary school for this tour of one of the most quirky genres in cinema as we explore:

The History of the Mockumentary

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The first major English language example of the genre—and also the first to leave a long-lasting impact on popular culture—came to us way back in 1938 in the form of a radio play.

When Orson Welles read out a fake news broadcast based on and adapted from H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, his delivery and the format of the program reportedly led many people to believe that Earth was, in fact, being invaded by a genocidal martian army.

While there was a disclaimer at the start of the show, it’s suspected that many people missed it due to crossover scheduling and tuned in ten minutes too late to catch Welles describing the invasion in media res. With heightened tension in the face of the real war looming in Europe, the broadcast hadn’t even ended before authorities swarmed CBS and tried to shut it down based on reports of public mass hysteria (they were met with physical resistance from radio executives).

Without any commercial interruption, even with 70 years of hindsight it’s easy to see why the realism unintentionally deceived people (especially if you imagine just tuning in at the 2:30 minute mark.) Here’s the complete broadcast, and it’s every bit as good even when you know it’s a dramatization:

While the scale of the public hysteria is under debate, there’s no doubt that the 1938 War of the Worlds adaptation put Orson Welles squarely on the path to stardom and kickstarted the whole idea of fiction presented as fact, even if it was unintentional.

A Hard Day’s Tap

Not much occurred in the genre for the next few decades following the Welles broadcast, though it should be noted that ‘joke’ news articles and journalistic satire did see a rise, and the tradition of running April Fool’s news segments on both screen and in print was cemented shortly afterwards. The latter was achieved mostly through the ready availability of stock footage, coupled with ludicrous voice over content.

But it wasn’t until the 60s that we saw anything approaching what we currently know as a ‘mockumentary’ feature; that came in the form of A Hard Day’s Night, which served as a strong precursor to the aforementioned This is Spinal Tap:

The format and writing really resonated at the time with the legion of Beatles fans who were afforded an inside look—albeit tongue-in-cheek and scripted—at the Liverpudlian quartet’s everyday lives. And its appeal has endured, frequently being named as one of the most influential music films ever produced.

Approaching the Apex

With the momentum of the mockumentary artform now building,  few more titles embraced the style—namely, the extremely meta David Holzman’s Diary (1967) and the forgettable Pat Paulson for President (1968)—but it was Woody Allen who took the ball and ran with it, pushing the genre to new heights with 1963’s Take the Money and Run and later with 1983’s Zelig.

And then along came Christopher Guest, the grandfather of the improvisational mockumentary.

Directed by Rob Reiner and co-written with Guest (along with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer), the 1984 masterpiece This is Spinal Tap changed the game forever and arguably hasn’t been topped since.

We’ll let this iconic clip speak for itself:

There’s not much more to be written about the comic and cinematography genius that hasn’t already been stated over the past three decades since its release, save for another recommendation to immediately go and watch it if you haven’t already.

The Modern Era

A few mockumentaries have tried to turn the dial to eleven since then, to varying degrees of success. Sascha Baron Cohen put a fresh spin on the genre and brought it to a new age with Borat, at the same time pushing the limits of how awkward and cringeworthy unleashing a character actor into real-world settings can be:

But proving that you can have too much of a good thing, his subsequent efforts—Brüno and The Dictator—failed to capitalize on the format Cohen invented.

When it comes to television, however, the mockumentary genre has flourished with some seminal titles coming particularly out of Britain: The Office revolutionized the genre for the medium (and spawned many international versions), and many heralded the black comedy, spoof news series Brass Eye as being the pinnacle of satirical TV news (NSFW language warning):

Going forward however, it’s the new mockumentary series Documentary Now! which looks set to steal the spoof TV crown back for America.

Written by notable Saturday Night Live alumni Seth Meyers, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen and inspired by the likes of Spinal Tap—though intentionally trying not to mirror it. The show recently wrapped up a successful first season that included such documentary punching bags as a parody of Nanook of the North and a lampooning of Vice’s journalistic practices. We’re eagerly awaiting the upcoming second season to see which sacred cows of documentary film they take on next.

Certainly one to watch, and we’d love to know what you think of the new show (and any other favorite mockumentaries we might have missed.) Head on down to the comments below and let your voice be heard!

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