In his 2000 improvisational comedy Best in Show, scenarist and director Christopher Guest plays Harlan Pepper, a good-natured soul from the rural south of America heading north so his bloodhound, Hubert, can compete at the prestigious Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia. Driving in his RV, Hubert ensconced behind him, the genial Harlan can’t help but talk to the camera shadowing him.
“I used to be able to name every nut that there was. It used to drive my mother crazy. She used to say, Harlan Pepper, if you don’t stop naming nuts…’ – and the joke was, of course, that we lived in Pine Nut, and I think that’s what put it in my head at that point,” notes the fly fishing shop owner from North Carolina. “So I’d go to sleep, she’d hear me in the other room and she would just start yelling. I’d say, ‘peanut... hazelnut... cashew nut... macadamia nut…’ That was the one that would send her going crazy. She’d say, ‘Harlan Pepper, you stop naming nuts!’…”
"It’s difficult to think of a milieu now that a mockumentary can explore that reality television hasn’t already annexed"
Guest’s monologue, so dry that it becomes deliriously funny, is a subtle way of sending up the politely conservative mindset of his character. Here is another version of Harlan Pepper, a bearded Louisiana native who makes his living creating duck calls – the whistle that attracts ducks to hunters – named Phil Robertson.
“The more make-up a woman wears the more she’s tryin’ to hide. Make-up can hide a lot of evil,” Phil will note to the camera shadowing him. Or: “if you can find a nice pretty country girl that can cook and carries her Bible, now there’s a woman.”
Phil has snappy lines whereas Harlan delivers lived-in monologues, which is somewhat odd given that Phil Robertson is actually a real person. Along with his eccentric extended family, Phil stars in Duck Dynasty, the hit American reality television series about the Robertson family and the duck call business.
The pair’s convergence is a prime example of how the mockumentary’s comic power and observational charm has been eroded to the point of replacement. As much as he dislikes the word, Guest has been the celebrated godfather of the mockumentary, but the co-creator of Spinal Tap and the helmsman of Waiting For Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration and the aforementioned Best in Show has been edged out of his unique position by the seemingly endless procession of reality show goofballs and their attention-seeking escapades.
It would appear that any situation writers such as Guest and Eugene Levy can come up with for their troupe of improvisational comedic actors can be easily topped by the inhabitants of a reality show. Guest’s Corky St. Clair, the somewhat deluded Broadway hanger-on directing a community theatre production in small town Missouri in 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, has nothing on Lee “Poodle” Thompson, the gay uncle of reality television tot Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, star of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
In no way is Here Comes Honey Boo Boo better than, or even comparable to, Waiting for Guffman. The comic travails of the Thompson family are often horrifying, whether it’s the sugar strong “go-go juice” Alana drinks before taking the stage at beauty pageants or her mother June’s flagrantly wrong diet, which would probably make a diabetes specialist curl up into a fetal ball. It’s the inspired versus the insane.
But the likes of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty, Toddlers & Tiaras, the endless Real Housewives variants (different cities, same manufactured drama), Mob Wives, The Bachelor and the literally hundreds of other shows from the booming genre undercut the creative ground that the filmmakers behind mockumentaries reside on.
The ‘real life’ of reality television – and, of course, in most cases it’s barely real, with story editors, multiple camera shoots and vast editing resources required to approximate the everyday – dishes up the bluntly ridiculous where the mockumentary reaches for the sublime. Like those many monkeys with typewriters, a reality television show cast member occasionally strikes gold – “I’m Gone With the Wind fabulous,” Real Housewives of Atlanta diva Kenya, an African-American, once announced mid-barney – but it’s mainly ludicrous car crash trash.
Would audiences be as taken with Kenny, the 2006 Australian mockumentary about a sweet-natured and philosophical porta-loo installer directed by Clayton Jacobson and starring his brother Shane, if it was released now? “There is a smell in here that’s going to outlast religion,” observes Kenny at one point, but the film ultimately offers him understanding, respect, and a second chance in life. The reality television equivalent would just stick with the poo jokes.
Revenge of the subculture
It’s difficult to think of a milieu now that a mockumentary can explore that reality television hasn’t already annexed. And the essentially open-ended nature of reality television means that the shows can run dozens of hours in a single season, overwhelming the essentially 120-minute limit the mockumentary has. Reality television is the revenge of the subculture, sending themselves up as a means of celebrating, and profiting from, their peculiarities.
It’s not surprising that the recent New Zealand mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows, drolly focused on a group of vampires living in a share house in Wellington. The comic talents of creators Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) had to find a subject that was inured to reality television’s gravitational pull. As with 1992’s Man Bites Dog, the Belgian mockumentary about a self-important hit man, the duo start with an unbelievable concept and explore it with almost mundane detachment.
The case has been prominently made that television’s high-end dramas are more arresting and relevant than most movies, downgrading the latter’s cultural relevance, but as ever it’s the trash we have to watch out for. We need our oddballs and self-obsessed personalities back, so that they can inspire genuine creativity. It’s not just the ducks who are worse off if Phil Robertson replaces Harlan Pepper.