Can reality be just as funny as fiction? Eddie Cockrell counts down ten of the most humorous documentaries to date.
Until very recently, relative to the history of film, documentaries weren’t really meant to be funny. They were uniformly somber affairs, intent on revealing injustices, advocating for the disadvantaged or examining a historically significant event.
All that changed in 1978 when Errol Morris, fuelled in part by Werner Herzog’s vow to eat his shoe if he finished it, completed his directorial debut, Gates of Heaven (see below). Since then, an increasing number of non-fiction films have gone for laughs in the interest of making their points—a trend due in large part to the explosion of politically-themed documentaries and the large, easy, slow-moving targets they offer.
A prerequisite for this list was to avoid films that make fun of the mannerisms and/or misfortunes of individual people, and to emphasize, a la Morris, the way in which a director’s style can gel with unorthodox subject matter to create revelations laced with humour. It’s a fine line, but a few have balanced it. Here they are.
10. Despite the Gods (2012)
Rules were made to be broken, right? Director Penny Vozniak’s detailed look at the ill-fated 2008 eight-month production of director Jennifer Lynch’s Nagin: The Snake Goddess gets many of its more risible moments from the director’s, ah, unique personality, but in essence the film is about the vagaries and variables of moviemaking and the single-mindedness necessary to even attempt to ride herd over a disparate group of people whilst preserving an admittedly eccentric vision. The film, redubbed Hisss, was eventually taken away from Lynch, re-edited by others, and released in 2010. This represents all the films about the making of films out there, a cautionary tale about creativity and collaboration.
09. Super Size Me (2004)
Director Morgan Spurlock had a genuinely original and inspired idea: eat McDonalds at every meal for a month and see what happens. What happens, of course, is that the experience puts his health at grave risk and embroils him in controversy with the massive corporation. Gaining nearly 10 pounds in the first five days, he subsequently experiences depression, sexual dysfunction and heart palpitations. Yet despite this adversity, the film has a rueful yet jaunty approach to Spurlock’s self-imposed trial, rendering it unique in tone and valuable in message. It’s often quite funny, too.
08. Crumb (1994)
Sure, movies about eccentrics open themselves and their subjects up for humor that quite often spills over in to ridicule. The difference between those movies and Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is that the underground cartoonist and musician has been such an influential social force since the late 1960s that the tangled and provocative details of his personal and family life—and there are many—render him a tragicomic figure of towering proportions.
Nine years in the making, the film received rave reviews yet was snubbed for an Academy Award nomination. At least one American film critic has called Crumb “the greatest documentary ever made,” and it isn’t difficult to see the appeal in such an iconic subject, treated with such respect and integrity. Roger Ebert insisted on doing the commentary for the Criterion DVD of the film, and this speaks volumes as well.
07. Sherman’s March (USA, 1986)
Perhaps the most low-key film on this list, Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March began as a film about Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman’s crusade through the Carolina’s and Georgia. But that intent was derailed by a breakup with his girlfriend just prior to filming. So confused about his place in the world, McElwee began filming his own life and subsequent romantic quests, sprinkling in some nuclear apprehension just for the heck of it. The resulting film, rueful and mellow as it is, displays a universal humanity that is as poignant as it is humorous.
06. Religulous (2008)
Comedian and talk show host Bill Maher’s exploration of organised religion is as maddening as the comedian himself. On one hand smart enough to know and understand the task it has undertaken, the film also displays Maher in all his contrarian glory. An interesting companion piece to director Larry Charles’ earlier mockumentary Borat, the film is, in the end, as educational as it is humorous.
05. The Aristocrats (2005)
“A man walks in to a talent agent’s office…” When comedian Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza had the inspired idea to immortalise one of the most legendary dirty jokes of all time, their first inspiration was to make the punch line the title. Their second was to corral around 80 or so of their favourite comedians, old and new, to fill in the lewd and transgressive descriptions that make up the, ah, meat of the joke and the esteem in which it has been held amongst generations of people who make other people laugh for a living. Both sociologically important and, to some, hysterically funny, The Aristocrats is a completely unique film. Perhaps all for the best. The apparently fan-made trailer below is most definitely NSFW.
04. Sicko (2007)
Many fans of Michael Moore might choose Bowling for Columbine as the most accomplished and representative of his films as social satirist, but Sicko—made well after he turned more to politics and away from more general social criticism—feels more like his most complete and focused work to date. Investigating the sorry state of health care affairs in America, the movie is perhaps his most satisfying blend of investigative journalism and grandstanding stunts. No wonder one of the taglines in the trailer below is so pointed: “Laughter isn’t the best medicine, it’s the only medicine.”
03. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Documentary films are one part fresh subject and one part deft directorial execution, which is what makes Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters such an authentic slice of Americana. With tongue squarely in cheek and focus entirely on the beloved video game of Donkey Kong, Gordon explores the cutthroat competition between a smarmy reigning champ and an insecure challenger to be crowned the best… at something, anything, Donkey Kong. The sequence where the upstart finally breaks the record is one of those rare found shots that can never be duplicated for drama, humor and catharsis.
02. Gates of Heaven (1978)
The film that arguably started it all and was one of the late Roger Ebert’s favorite documentaries of all time, Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven was a fresh, daring and utterly new thing when it was first released. Few filmmakers before (or since, for that matter) displayed such a confident, unerringly benevolent sense of what is revelatory about the human condition and what is nothing more than ridicule. In his subsequent work, for cinema, television and print, Morris has displayed a prodigious intelligence, unflagging curiosity and a desire to bring dignity to stories long forgotten and/or misunderstood. As a footnote, Morris’ Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is pretty funny too.
01. TIE: Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (Australia, 1988) and Cane Toads: The Conquest (Australia, 2010)
What is truly great about director Mark Lewis’ pair of environmental films about the importation and domination of cane toads in Australia is the benevolent sense of humour on display. Clearly a man who loves his country and those who live there, Lewis, in the best Errol Morris tradition, more or less turns on his camera and lets the experts and average citizens speak for themselves (many of the same people are in both films). The sequences that are obviously staged, which involve all manner of toad elimination (“I don’t want a bloody toad in me freezer!” someone barks) and progress through the countryside, are so organically within the film’s jaunty spirit they barely register as such. Would that more non-fiction films struck the right balance of message and method as these gems.