Oh, mockumentaries how I love thee. Mockumentaries – or simply mock documentaries – have entertained and inspired the world for decades. But what is a mockumentary? We’re going to break down the history of this subgenre, including the first mockumentary, by looking at iconic examples from Woody Allen, Christopher Guest, and more. By the end, you’ll know why these hilarious films are important along with some of the best mockumentary movies of all-time.
Definition & Characteristics
First, let’s define mockumentary
The mockumentary subgenre is closely related to another form of comedic homage: parody. But there are some distinct differences that we'll discuss below. In the meantime, let's define mockumentary before running through some of the best and hilarious examples.
What is a mockumentary?
A mockumentary is a work of fiction that’s presented in the style of a documentary. Its linguistic roots lie in the conjunction of the words "mock" and "documentary" (i.e., mock documentary, or fake documentary). Filmmakers have used the mockumentary format to criticize, satirize, and generally make fun of various subjects.
- A Mighty Wind (2003)
- I'm Still Here (2010)
- Borat (2006)
This tradition actually goes back further than you think. The comic style of the mockumentary was preceded by dramatic docu-fiction stories like Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds and Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread.
To give you a crash course on these pseudo-documentaries, here's a top 10 list.
With our definition and characteristics set, let's look at some of the most iconic examples and what makes them great.
First Mockumentary Movies
Swiss Spaghetti Harvest (1957)
On April, 1, 1957, the BBC aired a three-minute segment about a family in Switzerland who cultivated a spaghetti tree. It was presented by famed broadcaster Richard Dimbleby in a documentary-style so authentic that thousands believed it was real.
You can judge the veracity for yourself by watching the clip below.
The “Swiss Spaghetti Harvest” is regarded by some as the film that began the mockumentary movement in cinema. More than 60 years later, I’d argue it holds up quite well.
Take the Money and Run (1969)
Allen stars in the film as a career-criminal that’s not very good at his job. The film is presented in a documentary style with interviews and narration.
Woody Allen’s renowned mockumentary Zelig is a newsreel-styled story of a man who will do anything to fit in.
Zelig has become an immensely popular film with directors and special effects artists due to its impressive use of VFX and greenscreen technology. The film is also (unsurprisingly) popular with writers due to its dry wit – but be warned: the film is subtly tragic as well.
What is a Mockumentary?
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
This is Spinal Tap – considered by many to be the greatest mockumentary ever made – ushered in a new era for mock documentaries.
Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer star in the film as a trio of rockers who tour the world playing songs such as “Tonight I’m Gonna’ Rock You Tonight” and “Sex Farm.” Spinal Tap was so popular that McKean, Guest, Shearer, and a rotating cast of drummers later toured the world for real.
What is a Mockumentary?
Waiting for Guffman (1996)
Waiting for Guffman follows the story of a small town’s theater troupe and its enigmatic cast; Guest, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara all star.
Best in Show (2000)
Have you ever watched a dog show and wondered: what really goes on behind the scenes? Well, Best in Show has the answers.
Best in Show features an unbelievable ensemble cast, including Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, John Michael Higgins, Michael McKean, Fred Willard, and more. “And to think in some countries these dogs are eaten” – don’t miss Best in Show for classic quotes like this.
Mockumentary Movies & TV Shows
The Office (2001-2003) & (2005-2013)
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office aired on the BBC from 2001 to 2003. It was then adapted for American audiences by Greg Daniels in 2005. The Office (U.S.) went on to become one of the most popular shows of the 21st century during its nine year run.
Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and its 2020 sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, are two of the most popular mockumentary films ever made.
Sacha Baron Cohen stars in both films as Borat: a fictional journalist from Kazakhstan who’s sent to America to learn about our culture.
Sacha Baron Cohen is known to push the boundaries of the mockumentary format – but it’s hard to argue against his methods. Ludicrousy is always exposed, either at his character's expense or his target’s. One could argue that the Borat films are satirical documentaries, considering many of the personas are unknowing participants to Baron Cohen’s game.
What is a Mockumentary?
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
What We Do in the Shadows features new-school comedy pioneers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement in starring and co-directing roles.
The film is a horror/comedy mockumentary that follows a group of vampires who live together. What We Do in the Shadows was so successful that it spawned a spin-off TV show with the same name.
Documentary Now! (2015-present)
Fred Armisen. Bill Hader. Mockumentary show. Book it – that’s all I needed to hear. That’s how I imagine the pitch went when Armisen and Hader went to IFC with fellow executive producers Lorne Michaels and Seth Meyers in tow.
Documentary Now! is unique in how it directly mocks famous documentaries, such as The Thin Blue Line and Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In that way, it’s a parody – but it’s also a mockumentary because it sticks to the doc-formula.
Fake Documentary Shows
American Vandal (2017-2018)
I’d be remiss if I wrote about mockumentaries without mentioning American Vandal. This “lightning in a bottle” series from Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda is shockingly good.
The first season chronicles a chronic “dick-drawer” who becomes embroiled in a wide-reaching legal investigation.
Good mockumentaries have been hard to find in recent years; which is all the more reason to laud American Vandal. The show is hilarious, engrossing, and most surprisingly, profound.
Types of Satire Explained
Satire is an important part of mockumentary filmmaking – but what is satire? In our next article, we break down satire by looking at its three major types: Horatian, Juvenalian, and Menippean; as well as specific examples from Dr. Strangelove, South Park, and more. By the end, you’ll know the basics of satire like the back of your hand.