A Guide to the Talking Heads Songs 'Documentary Now!' Lampoons

The 'Documentary Now!' episode lampooning 'Stop Making Sense' had some spot-on inspiration.


Director Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, which features an iconic live performance by the Talking Heads, is an undeniably unique classic … which is why IFC’s mockumentary series Documentary Now!’s spoof of the film, Final Transmission, is so spot-on great.

Over eight songs as the faux-Talking Heads band Test Pattern, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Maya Rudolph lovingly poke fun at the continually sprawling concert experience. Co-director Alex Buono told Inverse that they deconstructed not only the Demme film, but an entire generation of stadium concerts when figuring out the structure of their episode.

“The whole thing was how bands from that era would have a few hits and then would get into deep cuts, then they would get political, then the lead singer would get into world music and go off into a weird direction,” Buono told Inverse. “Fred was certainly more familiar with this era of music than anyone on the Documentary Now! team, and the songs were supposed to be jumping off points, but it became more of an homage to the whole era of music.”

So what were those jumping off points that helped inspire some ridiculously funny satire? Here’s our best guesses.

Test Pattern song: “This Is the Street”

  • Talking Heads song: “Psycho Killer”

Armisen walks onstage in “Final Transmission” in basically the same exact manner as Byrne does in Stop Making Sense, except whereas the Talking Heads leading man has a boombox, Armisen has a toy robot to lead off the bleeps and bloops that lead into the jaunty opener. “This Is the Street” is much more innocent than “Psycho Killer,” but they complement each other nicely.

Test Pattern song: “Art + Student = Poor”

  • Talking Heads song: “Found a Job”

A commentary on the humble art school beginnings and rock band fame of the Talking Heads themselves, Test Pattern’s “Art + Student = Poor” has the same abrupt staccato new wave sound that typified the real band’s second record, More Songs About Buildings and Food, specifically the track “Found a Job.” Thankfully someone found employment.

Test Pattern song: “I’m Alert”

  • Talking Heads songs: “Burning Down the House” / “Making Flippy Floppy”

Full of weird solos, a ton of overdubs, and a concert performance in which people run in place for some reason, “I’m Alert” is meant to send-up (in the catchiest way possible) the idea the Talking Heads were just on the cusp of getting too big for their britches. They could clearly still write the kind of incredible songs that got them to that point.

Test Pattern song: “Indeng Indeng”

  • Talking Heads-related album: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

This hilarious song, which features Armisen playing along with an antire Balinese gamelan band, nails the point at which a band starts to get experimental and pretentious. The corollary here is Byrne’s 1981 collaborative album with Brian Eno My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which incorporated world music, found samples, and electronic soundscapes.

“It was quite difficult to find an actual Balinese style group in LA, so we ended up going to the Indonesian consulate where they happened to have a weekend gathering of traditional Balinese musicians,” Buono told Inverse. “Fred went and met with them, jammed with them, and they all created the song with traditional music and Fred playing over it.”

Test Pattern song: “Everybody’s Moving Around”

  • Talking Heads song: “Making Flippy Floppy”

Besides the monochrome, Americana-tinged visuals in the background of both Stop Making Sense and “Final Transmission,” there isn’t a real one-to-one comparison between the actual songs. The Documentary Now! song seems to share its danceable beat once again with the Talking Heads track “Making Flippy Floppy.”

Test Pattern song: “Save Time For Me

  • Talking Heads song: “Genius of Love”

Perhaps the most audacious moment in Stop Making Sense is when Byrne leaves the stage and Weymouth and Frantz appear as their separate side project Tom Tom Club and sing their single, “Genius of Love.” It’s out of left field, just like Test Pattern’s Maya Rudolph-fronted ballad.

“Save Time For Me” was the only song from the episode not written by Armisen.

**Test Pattern song: “I.O.U. 7 Cents”

  • Talking Heads song: “Swamp”

There isn’t a song that is this much of a departure from the band’s typical repertoire in Stop Making Sense, but Armisen’s “Final Transmission” departure into a smoky Tom Waits-esque rasp seems modeled after Byrne’s own sandpaper wail in the song “Swamp”.

Test Pattern song: “Time to Go”

  • Talking Heads song: “Take Me to the River”

Another incongruous pair, “Time to Go” is a simple farewell that doesn’t match up with any particular musical styles from tracks in Stop Making Sense. Still, the finale lyrics of “Take Me to the River” do take after the send-off of both songs in their respective documentaries.

Documentary Now! airs on IFC every Wednesday.

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