There’s a moment in “Globesman,” the hilarious second season episode of the Documentary Now! that sends-up David and Albert Maysles’s 1969 film Salesman, that seems all too real.
A lowly globe salesman named Tom O’Halloran approaches an idyllic suburban house to hock his wares. Soon, O’Halloran becomes the target of some nasty kids. “Get out! We don’t wanna buy your stinkin’ globes,” the kids yell at him in near-unison, before forcing the down-on-his-luck schlub to retreat to his car without making a sale. It doesn’t happen quite that way in Salesman, but it could have. The unreal reality is what makes films by the Maysles brothers essential to the comedy of Documentary Now!
Despite already lampooning the work of documentary legends such as DA Pennebaker and Errol Morris, with previous episode “The Bunker” and “The Eye Doesn’t Lie,” the IFC series has returned to another Maysles film after its first episode, “Sandy Passage,” spoofed their 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. It’s no fluke.
The Maysles brothers (and their oft-overlooked colleague Charlotte Zwerin) are both worthy of their place among the great documentarians of all time, but the subject matter they documented is equally worthy of lovable mockery. The eccentric subjects of the Maysles films approached the tragically absurd, that’s what made the films so memorable. It’s exactly the type of ridiculous but real material that Armisen and co-star Bill Hader thrive on.
Salesman was the story of a group of post-war everymen marching through rural New England and Florida to sell expensive bibles door-to-door. It helped usher in what would be known as direct cinema, a cinéma vérité off-shoot that aimed to capture reality in a truthful way. But, cinéma vérité usually works only if you find compelling subjects; that’s why your shaky iPhone videos aren’t in the Criterion Collection. Yet, the real life subjects made each appear to be in works of fiction, blurring reality to create some sort of perfect nonfiction feature film.
It’s why Hader can get away with simply recreating Young Edie’s famous flag dancing scene from Grey Gardens in “Sandy Passage” as a straightforward homage and imitation. It’s already funny as a strange but perfect symbiosis of real life drama, imbued with an off-kilter sense of comedy. Like the embellished tail end of the snowball scene in “Globeseman,” the real version of Young Edie doesn’t ever fall through the floor as Hader does in “Sandy Passage,” but she honestly could (and should) have.
In Salesman, each real life “character is ascribed a nickname like “The Rabbit,” “The Bull,” and “The Gipper.” The de facto main character that emerges is Paul Brennan, “The Badger,” whose failure to consistently seal a deal drives the film’s mournful, failed-American-Dream subtext. Armisen and Hader’s “Globesman” episode — which also perfectly recreates the muffled sound and scratched black and white film grain of the Maysles original — doesn’t necessarily poke fun at that sadness as much as turn it into laughs.
Armisen’s version of Brennan and Hader’s character (the straight-laced Pete Reynolds, nicknamed “The Scrod”) aren’t mean-spirited precisely because the characters they’re copying from Salesman seem like exactly that: characters.
The comic pity we feel for Brennan in scenes like the famous opening where he desperately tries to sell an apathetic young mother a Bible while her equally uninterested daughter looks on is like a readymade sketch that would have been right at home on the SNL stage if it didn’t actually happen. The Documentary Now! episodes based on these moments from the Maysles films are impeccably believable recreations of those worlds, which are, bizarrely, somehow our own.
Who knows if Armisen and Hader revisit a Maysles film for another future episode. A hilarious send-up of the dual biographical portraits Orson Welles in Spain or Meet Marlon Brando would be too good to be true. But, with their versions of Grey Gardens and now Salesman, Documentary Now! has found its gloriously absurd sweet spot.