Why mockumentary works

Sorry for another sitcom-theory post so soon after the last one, but a reader asked me if I had a specific post where I outlined why I think the mockumentary format is the modern version of the laugh track – or at least, as we saw on How I Met Your Mother last week, that it’s okay for a laugh-track show to turn off the track when they do a mock-documentary segment. I think I did write a longer post explaining this, but I can’t find it, so here is sort of a quick summary of my thoughts on the mockumentary and why it seems to work.

1. Single-camera comedies, once as mainstream a comedy form as you could get (back when they were forced to have artificial laugh tracks), struggled to break out as mainstream hits after M*A*S*H went off the air. But in the 2000s, two new comedies managed to break through as genuine hits: the U.S. version of The Office, and even more so, Modern Family. Both were done in the mock-documentary style of the original UK Office. After the U.S. Office goes off the air, the most popular comedy on its network will be its only other mockumentary, Parks & Recreation. While you can’t say that a mockumentary will automatically be a hit – after all, Parks nearly got canceled a couple of times before building its current small-but-loyal audience – its batting average is pretty good.

2. The idea that you don’t need a laugh track if you have a documentary format goes all the way back to M*A*S*H, where the documentary-styled episode “The Interview” was done without a laugh track – since the episode was supposed to be a film, the laugh track would have been inappropriate and redundant. That’s why How I Met Your Mother could turn off the track when they were showing excerpts from a fake documentary: not only does a fake documentary seem almost inherently funny by now (thanks to Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais and so many others), but it would just be confusing, begging the question of whether the track is part of the documentary or part of the world of the show. We accept the laughter within the show’s world; within the world of a show-within-a-show, it just seems weird.

3. An advantage of the mockumentary form is that it brings the feeling that the laugh track used to bring to shows like M*A*S*H and The Beverly Hillbillies and what have you: the feeling of watching a show with other people, or through someone else’s eyes. Creative people are famously frustrated that the average, casual viewer doesn’t always seem to know when to laugh without some kind of cue – not necessarily a laughter cue, but an emotional cue. This is why we get all those wacky music stings, reaction shots, and other things designed to reassure us that it’s okay to laugh. The mockumentary, which has little or no music, provides a more effective cue by creating the warm, comforting feeling of watching a show in a crowd. In M*A*S*H, you’re watching with an invisible crowd of people that has somehow turned up in Korea; in Modern Family, you’re watching with an invisible documentary crew that is capturing the events and interviewing the characters. In both cases (unlike The Office, where both versions do acknowledge that there’s a documentary being made) the device is completely artificial, but it works; the overlay of artifice may actually make it clearer that the show is supposed to be funny.

4. The casual channel-flipper – who any broadcast network show needs as much as the more engaged, passionate fans – may flip to a comedy and not realize it’s supposed to be a comedy; after all, dramas have jokes too. The mockumentary style has become familiar enough as a comedy device that I think the casual viewer may recognize it as comedic right away. At least he or she will suspect it’s not a drama, since very few dramas are shot that way (and the ones that have tried haven’t really taken off; the form almost belongs to comedy). Much as our childhood experience teaches us that The Simpsons must be a comedy because it’s a brightly-coloured cartoon where the dad sounds like an idiot, the association of mockumentary with comedy may be hard-wired into us at this point. Whereas your Go On and your Happy Endings still have this long-standing problem: they are shot like dramas, and you have to watch them for a minute or two before knowing they’re comedies. Ever since the invention of the remote control, a TV show rarely has a minute or two to make its point to an on-the-fence viewer. And that viewer has even more options now.

5. Mockumentary allows for a rougher, less polished visual style than a show that strives to be “cinematic.” It may be faster in some cases, but more importantly, it looks like it was shot faster. Since visual beauty and comedy often don’t go together very well on film, a show that has beautiful cinematic lighting and shot setups may actually detract from the jokes a bit. The mockumentary, which aims to look like it was shot on the fly (even if it wasn’t) places the emphasis on the performances and jokes.

6. The mockumentary form is heavily influenced by reality TV shows, like the docu-soaps that helped inspire The Office in the first place. It could be that viewers are more used to that particular style and the conventions of it – including the talking heads – because of decades of reality television viewing. Watching Modern Family feels comfortable, like watching our favourite reality show, except better written and at least somewhat more plausibly plotted.

7. Talking-head sequences allow some hard, jokey-jokes to be planted into the middle of scenes that might otherwise not have enough of them. A talking head scene is usually structured as a little blackout gag with a clear punchline (think “I’m boring myself just talking about this” from Tim/Jim’s early talking-head on The Office). Apart from allowing the characters to express themselves more and come closer to the viewer, it also avoids the usual single-cam comedy problem of not having enough hard punchline jokes. A Dwight talking-head can almost be comic relief within a comedy episode.

8. Using the documentary format opens up a huge number of editing tricks the producers can use to fix an episode. All single-camera shows are easier to fix in editing than their multi-camera brethren, which is part of the reason why the former tend to be better these days (if the script isn’t right when you shoot a studio-audience comedy, it will never be right). But a mockumentary provides even more choices in terms of fixing the pacing, removing scenes or parts of scenes that aren’t working, putting the audio of a talking-head scene over some silent footage that makes it funnier, and so on. In trying to get a show down to 20 minutes, keep all the plots coherent and still make it funny, there is probably no more useful form than mockumentary.

9. Mockumentaries have no fourth wall, so they allow for aside glances to the camera and those other little tricks that may be over-played, but make us feel like we’re in the room with the characters. On a multi-camera show we imagine we’re part of the audience and the characters are playing to us; in a mockumentary, we feel like we’re part of the documentary crew and when a character looks at the camera, he’s looking at us. It’s that feeling of connection with the characters that is a little harder to achieve when they’re only reacting to each other, rather than an invisible audience or camera crew.

So those are at least some of the reasons why I think mockumentary is a form that works, and why I’m surprised more shows haven’t embraced it. A lot of the reasons have to do with appealing to the casual, un-engaged viewer who doesn’t necessarily know what the show is and is looking for the famous LOP (Least Objectionable Programming). Since I don’t think TV can or even should get along without the casual viewer, I’m all right with that. But at the very least, talking to a nonexistent documentary crew seems less damaging to a show aesthetically than slathering on the mood music, or having everyone mug to prove it’s a comedy. Since the laugh track is pretty much dead for single-camera shows, the mockumentary seems like the most appropriate alternative.