clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Rise and Fall of the Mockumentary Sitcom

The mockumentary boom of the early aughts—highlighted by ‘The Office’—ran parallel to the reality TV boom. Now, as reality TV has become entrenched, its parodic cousin has waned in popularity.

Ringer illustration

The path of the mockumentary series arcs from a trailer park in Nova Scotia to a McMansion in Los Angeles. In 2001, the Canadian cult comedy Trailer Park Boys inaugurated a soon-to-be-ubiquitous style of show: deliberately messy, handheld camera work paired with confessional interviews and presenting scripted fiction in the style of candid reportage. In 2020, the ABC megahit Modern Family wound down after 11 seasons and 22 increasingly aggravating Emmy wins. Between those two events lies the rise and fall of a genre that was not reality TV, but came up alongside it and echoed its conventions.

The mockumentary show does live on; at this very moment, What We Do in the Shadows is midway through a confidently silly second season on FX. It’s nonetheless fitting that TV’s foremost mockumentary is now quite literally undead, a Real World–like look at a house of vampires trying and failing to terrorize the people of Staten Island. While late-period innovations like American Vandal have arisen in recent years, the mockumentary’s peak is clearly past, making the trend easier to dissect in hindsight.

In its small-screen incarnation, the mockumentary’s influences are twofold. The template has a long and proud history at the multiplex, from the works of Christopher Guest to the scatological satire of Borat. But it’s also rooted in the aesthetic of reality television, which began its path to cultural ubiquity shortly before, and as evidenced by, its more metafictional cousin. The very first scene of Trailer Park Boys is a grainy shoot-out in the style of Cops, the first of many overt influences that would lead the mockumentary to diversify along with its source material. As reality expanded from vérité voyeurism to conspicuous consumption and true crime, mockumentaries would too.

The original, British version of The Office began airing just three months after Trailer Park Boys, an instance of parallel thinking that hinted the shows had a shared source in the zeitgeist. Survivor had premiered the year before, as had Big Brother. Such series introduced a new visual vernacular to consumers and creators alike: dirt-cheap digital photography (an indelible calling card of the aughts) and one-on-one interviews between cast members and producers, spliced into the main action through the magic of editing. The former device gave an immersive feel, stripping away the artifice of glossy production values; the latter gave context and comedic potential, an attribute seized on by reality editors and actual comedians alike.

The British Office was unusual in how literally it took the mockumentary device, a fourth wall its American counterpart would only break in its later seasons, in case of creative emergency. Ricky Gervais’s David Brent demonstrated his desperate showmanship by constantly mugging for the camera, seeking the approval of his observers over the respect of his employees. As the mockumentary evolved, the format would become far less literal, leaning on a recognizable set of tics and abandoning the pretense of an actual documentary in progress. By the time Leslie Knope became governor of Indiana, she didn’t bother to explain why a camera crew had been following her since her days at a small-town parks and rec department.

As both reality and mockumentary became entrenched in the culture, their trademarks began to spill over into genre hybrids. Curb Your Enthusiasm may have originated as a 1999 comedy special about Larry David pitching a comedy special, but the heavily improvised show it became isn’t technically a mockumentary, despite its use of figures like David and Ted Danson as ruder, nastier versions of themselves. 2003’s Arrested Development was a family sitcom, but it’d be hard to imagine smash-cut jokes like “I don’t care for Gob” without its antecedents and analogs. Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It (2005) and Veep (2012) both use shaky camera work to give the impression we’re witnessing actual government dysfunction, not just an expertly heightened spoof of it.

Soon, the mockumentary became established enough to have subgenres of its own. Reno 911!, now resurrected on Quibi, took on Cops as an entire series, not just a scene. Kevin Hart’s Real Husbands of Hollywood, Hulu’s Hotwives, and 30 Rock’s seminal “Queen of Jordan” all adopted the drink-throwing and tagline-tossing of Real Housewives, Bravo’s lucrative franchise exploring the intersection of new money and middle age. (“I’m drunk, high, and drunk,” Kristen Schaal’s Hotwives character declares by way of introduction. “Now that’s what I call a triple threat!”) Netflix’s American Vandal expanded a dick joke into a deft parody of just-asking-questions whodunnits like Making a Murderer, a riff echoed by NBC’s short-lived Trial & Error. The more kinds of docuseries there were, the more tools comedians had to appropriate toward their own ends.

Mockumentary is but one layer of dozens in The Comeback, the two-season Lisa Kudrow vehicle The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum described in its second season as “a scripted series about a reality series about a reality star making a scripted series about the time she made a reality show about a scripted series.” Still, the saga of Valerie Cherish might just be the form’s peak, using a candid-camera setup to both showcase and push through Cherish’s performance of a “woman totally fine with the objectively terrible things that happen to her,” including a largely male crew of TV writers simulating sex with her while they think she isn’t watching. As Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High would show during The Comeback’s long hiatus, mockumentary can be a perfect lens on the fragile, showbiz narcissism of figures like Mr. G.

But the mockumentary is also built on a technological stopgap: portable, budget-friendly equipment that democratized filming—though not nearly as much as smartphones and social media eventually would. The intentionally janky look of the American Office, once jarring in the appearance-conscious context of broadcast TV, no longer squares with a time when TikTok has taught a generation of teens the fundamentals of editing and post-production. Much of reality has also lost the unvarnished look so many mockumentaries took as a jumping-off point; this year alone, Making the Cut and The Goop Lab have proved that “unscripted” and “aspirational” don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

One of the most beloved comedies of recent years, albeit by a small if fervent fan base, is Documentary Now!, a collaboration of SNL alumni that’s a mockumentary in the strictest sense of the term. Instead of drawing on reality TV, however, Documentary Now! skews decidedly highbrow, meticulously recreating classic features from The Artist Is Present to Nanook of the North to Jiro Dreams of Sushi in lieu of trashier contemporary fare. It’s a proudly niche product, one that symbolizes the mockumentary’s drift from the defining style of the mid-aughts to a more specialized technique.

The days of the biggest comedy on television being a mockumentary are over, a trajectory seen in the CVs of its foremost practitioners. The Office’s Greg Daniels has moved on to the high-concept science fiction of Upload and Space Force; Parks and Rec’s Mike Schur sheared the testimonials from the similarly civic-minded Brooklyn Nine-Nine before heading off to The Good Place. Spoofs of reality TV feel less urgent now than they once did. After being a new disruptive force, the genre has settled into a cultural presence with decades of foundation. And as “reality” has become more entrenched, we’ve moved on from laughter to acceptance.