These productions are often used to analyze or comment on current events and issues by using a fictional setting, or to parody the documentary form itself. While not always comedic, comedic mockumentaries are common. A dramatic mockumentary (sometimes referred to as docufiction) should not be confused with docudrama, a fictional genre in which dramatic techniques are combined with documentary elements to depict real events.
Mockumentaries are often presented as historical documentaries, with B roll and talking heads discussing past events, or as cinéma vérité pieces following people as they go through various events. Examples emerged during the 1950s when archival film footage became relatively easy to locate. A very early example was a short piece on the "Swiss Spaghetti Harvest" that appeared as an April fools' joke on the British television program Panorama in 1957.
Mockumentaries are often partly or wholly improvised, as an unscripted style of acting helps to maintain the pretense of reality. Comedic mockumentaries rarely have laugh tracks, also to sustain the atmosphere, although exceptions exist.
Early work, including Luis Buñuel's 1933 Land Without Bread, Orson Welles's 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, various April Fool's Day news reports, and vérité-style film and television during the 1960s and '70s, served as precursor to the genre.
Early examples of mock-documentaries include A Hard Day's Night, 1964, (written by Alun Owen, purporting to describe several days in the lives of The Beatles, that would be the first feature-length mockumentary), David Holzman's Diary, 1967, Pat Paulsen for President, 1968, Take the Money and Run, 1969, The Clowns, 1970, by Federico Fellini (a peculiar hybrid of documentary and fiction, a docufiction), and All You Need Is Cash, 1978. Albert Brooks was also an early popularizer of the mockumentary style with his film Real Life, 1979, a spoof of a PBS documentary.
Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run is presented in documentary-style with Allen playing a fictional criminal, Virgil Starkwell, whose crime exploits are "explored" throughout the film. Jackson Beck, who used to narrate documentaries in the 1940s, provides the voice-over narration. Fictional interviews are interspliced throughout, especially those of Starkwell's parents who wear Groucho Marx noses and mustaches. The style of this film was widely appropriated by others and revisited by Allen himself in films such as Zelig (1983) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999).
Early use of the mockumentary format in television comedy may be seen in several sketches from Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969–1974), such as "Hell's Grannies", "Piranha Brothers", and "The Funniest Joke in the World". The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour (1970–1971) also featured mockumentary pieces which interspersed both scripted and real-life man-in-the-street interviews, the most famous likely being "The Puck Crisis" in which hockey pucks were claimed to have become infected with a form of Dutch elm disease.
Since the beginning of the 1980s, the mockumentary format has enjoyed considerable attention.
The 1980 South African film The Gods Must be Crazy (along with its 1989 sequel) is presented in the manner of a nature documentary, with documentary narrator Paddy O'Byrne describing the events of the film in the manner of a biologist or anthropologist presenting scientific knowledge to viewers.
Woody Allen's 1983 film Zelig stars Allen as a curiously nondescript enigma who is discovered for his remarkable ability to transform himself to resemble anyone he is near, and Allen is edited into historical archive footage.
In 1984, Christopher Guest co-wrote and starred in the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner, and went on cowriting and directing himself a series of films in the same genre. Films such as Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind, all written with costar Eugene Levy, were critical successes.
In 1995, directed by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes, Forgotten Silver claimed New Zealand "director" Colin McKenzie to be a pioneer in filmmaking. When the film was later revealed to be a mockumentary, Jackson received criticism for tricking viewers.
Dark Side of the Moon is a 2002 French mockumentary by director William Karel. The premise for the film is the theory that the television footage from the Apollo 11 Moon landing was faked and actually recorded in a studio by the CIA with help from director Stanley Kubrick.
First on the Moon (Russian: Первые на Луне, Pervye na Lune) is a 2005 Russian mockumentary about a fictional 1930s Soviet landing on the Moon.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is a highly controversial yet successful film from 2006 which uses this style, as does Brüno, a similar film from 2009.
REC, a 2007 Spanish film by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, uses journalism aesthetics to approach a horror universe set up in a real building in Barcelona. The film was remade in the United States as the 2008 film Quarantine. As the first installment of the REC film series, it was followed by three sequels; REC 2 in 2009, REC 3: Genesis in 2012, and REC 4 in 2014 as the final installment in the franchise.
What We Do In The Shadows is a 2014 horror/comedy mockumentary film directed and written by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement; the aforementioned directors also star in the production. The film is centered on vampire flat mates living in Wellington.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a 2016 mockumentary musical comedy starring Andy Samberg as Connor4Real, an over-the-top parody of Justin Bieber. It is filmed in the style of a typical concert documentary such as Katy Perry: Part of Me and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.
The 1983 The Comic Strip Presents... film Bad News Tour was a spoof rockumentary about a British heavy metal band. It preceded Spinal Tap by a year, but is not known to have been an influence on the U.S. film. The film led to LPs being released and the band really touring, and was followed by a sequel, More Bad News in 1987. Stella Street was a mockumentary which ran on the BBC from 1997 to 2001. It was written by Phil Cornwell, John Sessions, and Peter Richardson, and featured Cornwell and Sessions playing all the characters between them. The series was shot on handheld camcorders. Operation Good Guys, another low-budget BBC sitcom, ran for three series starting in 1997.
In television, the most notable mockumentaries in the 2000s have been: ABC Australia's The Games (1998–2000), Canadian series Trailer Park Boys (2001–present), the British shows Marion and Geoff (2000), Twenty Twelve (2011–2012) (which follows the fictional Olympic Deliverance Commission in the run-up to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games) and W1A, which follows the main characters of Twenty Twelve as they start work at the BBC, The Office (2001) and its many international offshoots, Come Fly with Me (2010), which follows the activity at a fictional airport and its variety of staff and passengers. British comedy duo Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French often presented short mockumentaries as extended sketches in their TV show French & Saunders. Discovery Channel opened its annual Shark Week on 4 Aug 2013 with Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, a mockumentary about the survival of the megalodon. Notable popular examples include sitcoms The Office (U.S.) (2005–2013), Parks and Recreation (2009–2015), and Modern Family (2009–present); the American improv comedy Reno 911! (2003–2009); the Canadian sitcom Trailer Park Boys and its films; the comedy series The Muppets (2015); the UK streaming sitcom Derek (2012–2014); the Australian Chris Lilley shows Angry Boys, Summer Heights High, We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian of the Year, Ja'mie: Private School Girl, and Jonah from Tonga.
One of India's digital mockumentary is Not Fit (2015-2016), which was created by Pocket Aces.
The BBC series People Like Us was first produced for radio in 1995 before a television version was made in 1999.
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