Part scripted prank show, part documentary, Nirvanna the Band the Show follows two best friend non-musicians on their quest to score a gig for their fake band. The SBS VICELAND comedy series is taking the mockumentary genre to new and exciting places.
But where does it sit in the pantheon? What are the best in the category? We're glad you asked...
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
The iconic mockumentary from Rob Reiner and a trio of stupidly talented comics (Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest) took aim at the excesses of heavy metal and rock bands in general. Many of its jokes immediately entered the cultural canon, whether it’s amps that go up to 11, an album cover that’s entirely black, spontaneously combusting drummers or a teeny, tiny Stonehenge. The fictional band went on to release three real albums.
Best in Show (2000)
Christopher Guest graduated from Spinal Tap’s painfully tight pants to become a master of mockumentary, bringing together talented improvisers like Parker Posey and Eugene Levy to explore situations rich in possibility. Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind are both excellent, but the pinnacle of the trio is Best in Show, a look at all the weirdness and intense rivalries of dog shows. Actual best in show is Fred Willard as the commentator.
Fear of a Black Hat (1993)
Doing for gangsta rap what This is Spinal Tap did for rock, this film follows the band N.W.H. (Niggaz With Hats – so named because they believe their slave ancestors were forced to toil bare-headed in the sun, making them too tired to rebel). Mostly a satire on Public Enemy and N.W.A, writer/director/star Rusty Cundieff also takes aim at bands like PM Dawn and Salt 'n’ Pepa. Chris Rock covered similar ground the same year with CB4, but Fear of a Black Hat has better fake songs.
Series 7: The Contenders (2001)
Predicting a future that’s surely just around the corner, Series 7 appeared at the beginning of the reality TV boom. Taking the format to its logical conclusion, the fictional show at the heart of the film sees six contenders fighting it out for the grand prize – literally. They have to kill each of their rivals to be crowned champion. Among the ostensible seventh-season contestants are a pregnant woman, her terminally ill ex-boyfriend and a 57-year-old nurse. In a post-Arrested Development world, it’s worth rewatching just for Will Arnett’s voice-over work.
Not every movie character gets the honour of inspiring an adjective, but “zeligesque” – describing a person who changes themselves to imitate anyone they’re near – comes from this Woody Allen piece. The man in the title becomes a circa-1920s celebrity for his chameleonic abilities, and part of the genius of the film is how Zelig is inserted into real newsreel footage from the time.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
Rare in the sense that most of the participants were unaware they were participating in a fake documentary, Borat uses the time-worn trope of a fool who “inadvertently” exposes the prejudices of the people around him. Sacha Baron Cohen is in top form here, expertly maintaining character at fancy dinners and racist rodeos alike. Hilarious and nerve-wracking in equal measure (his gay/fashion-themed follow-up, Bruno, probably leans more towards the nerve-wracking end of the spectrum).
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Most of the entries on this list use the mockumentary format for humour, but The Blair Witch Project pioneered the framing device of found footage to terrify audiences across the world. Originally presented as the true story of three amateur filmmakers exploring a creepy forest in search of the legend of the Blair Witch, it achieves a measure of verisimilitude partially because the actors – who actually were camping together – were often not privy to what was going to happen to them on a given day.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
It’s got everything – Kirsten Dunst as an underdog, Kirstie Alley as an obsessive stage mum, Denise Richards dancing with a crucified puppet Jesus, beauty queens blowing chunks everywhere... Not only is this movie stupidly funny and subversive, it’s quite educational on the subject of Minnesotan beauty pageants. Endlessly quotable.
Shooting Shane Jacobson to fame, this very Australian take on the mockumentary format focuses on the bloke in the title – Kenny is a plumber who specialises in portable toilets. Effortlessly upbeat, totally professional and dedicated to his craft with a passion that you rarely see in the sewerage industry, Kenny updated the national stereotype of the little Aussie battler for a new generation.
The Office (2001-3)
It’s not often that a TV series changes the format in such wide-ranging ways, but the piece-to-camera trend in the past decade owes its genesis to Ricky Gervais’s masterpiece of cringe comedy. Across two seasons and a Christmas special, the staff of Wernham-Hogg suffer under the increasingly delusional fame-hungry antics of manager David Brent, who can’t stop showing off for the documentary crew.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
The best recent mocko comes from New Zealand, courtesy of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, who previously collaborated on the excellent Eagle Vs Shark. A vampire movie with a difference, this is more like a tragic look at a share-house full of old guys who haven’t kept up with the times. Of course, they still brutally murder people now and then – a vampire’s gotta eat.
Nirvanna the Band the Show airs Wednesdays at 8pm on SBS VICELAND. Watch the first episode at SBS On Demand:
If you're still in the mockumentary mood, watch these films at SBS On Demand: