Pop Culture Advent Calendar, Day 24: Bill Hader Lists Streets On 'Documentary Now'
Once a day, until Dec. 25, we'll be highlighting a specific small, good thing that happened in popular culture this year. And we do mean small: a moment or image from a film or TV show, a panel from a comic, a brief exchange from a podcast, or a passage from a book.
Documentary Now!, IFC's mock-documentary series, offers a master class in the power of specificity in comedy.
Each episode riffs, with assiduous fidelity, on a different documentary — some more widely known than others — reproducing the look, the sound, and the tone in a way that feels deferential, if not loving. Each 22-minute film is a feat of close attention.
But if that was all it was, Documentary Now! would exist as an impressive cultural artifact of the sort that can only exist in this self-aware cultural moment. It would be interesting, notable.
But that's all it would be.
It's more than that, of course: an ingenious, consistently hilarious show that dutifully reproduces the stylistic trappings of the object it's satirizing — but then, crucially, does something. Remembers to move out of that starting position to find something new, and strange, and funny.
Take the third episode of its second season, "Parker Gail's Location is Everything."
It's a riff on the film Swimming to Cambodia, the 1987 documentary in which monologuist Spalding Gray recounts, among many other things, his stint as a day-player in the Roland Joffe film, The Killing Fields.
Hader plays monologuist Parker Gale, adopting Spalding Gray's trademark New England accent — as well as his rhythms, mannerisms, wardrobe and hair — with such uncanny skill that fans of Gray will find it eerie. (Given the episode's subject and tone, it's likely Hader also studied Gray's 1987 HBO special, Terrors of Pleasure.)
But once the viewer gets done admiring Hader's performance, the episode strikes out to find its own comedic gold: Gale's exasperated girlfriend (Lennon Parham) shows up to correct his version of events, as do many other people who figure in his story. As his monologue continues, we come to realize that Gale is more than simply quirky, he's deranged.
Spalding Gray committed suicide in 2004, leaving a unique hole in the world. For those of us who loved his work, "Parker Gale's Location is Everything" soothes that wound, because it seems so sincere, so knowing, and so devoted to Gray's idiosyncratic vision.
There's a moment, early on, when Hader starts just listing Manhattan street names in exactly the way, with precisely the same intonation, that marked a Gray monologue.
We have to move.
Ramona wanted to move to one of these elevator buildings with the green awnings. You know, the kind that always have a neo-Greek name like "The Promethean"?
But where to move?
Avenue of the Americas?
I've watched that run over and over again, giggling each time at Hader's precision, while aching, each time, that Gray isn't here to see it.
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