Seth Meyers On Making Something With Permanence On ‘Documentary Now!’

Sprung from the minds of SNL alums Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Rhys Thomas, and Alex Buono, Documentary Now! continues to add to its legacy as an impossibly layered love note to documentary storytelling and varied examples of human weirdness in this, its 4th season (which premiered last week on IFC).

If you’re up on the latest episodes, you’ve already seen a two-parter with Alexander Skarsgård in Werner Herzog mode, trying to hold together dueling projects in a remote Russian village (written by John Mulaney) and Cate Blanchett and company operating a salon. The last one, as with the next two (an exploration of Welsh rock throwing and a look at a filmmaker who gets uncomfortably intertwined with the life of his primate subject) are written by series co-creator Seth Meyers, who somehow found the time whilst also delivering nightly episodes of Late Night. But finding that time is, according to Meyers, part of the secret to what allows him to function at such a high level on Late Night, scratching an itch to be just impossibly British and specific in his comedy about documentary source material that may or may not be on the radars of the audience.

Uproxx spoke with Meyers last week about those episodes, that seemingly challenging balancing act between late-night host and the pursuit of outside projects, the show’s attention to detail, finding the right inspiration, and making something with permanence. But first, we had to briefly compare shelves, a lingering new tradition of our current reality.

I like how you have books for your backdrop. I had had only toys for the longest time on my bookshelf and then I started feeling like people were like, “What’s your story?” So I had to add some books just to make it a little more grown-up.

Unfortunately, the books are directly behind your head. [Laughs]

Oh, of course.

Mine is only because it’s a hiatus week and I’ve decided to take advantage of my wife’s design touch.

I’ve taken over my wife’s side of the office with Batmans, so she gets a lot of comments from people at work, “Oh, you like Batman?” “No, I married a large adult child.”

Yeah. Well, my kids would be far more excited to see your backdrop than mine.

You wrote three episodes this season. Do you all establish, “Okay, here are the ones we want to write this season,” and then you divvy them up, or do you come to the table with these and they’re ones you’re passionate about doing?

This year was a bit of a smash-and-grab situation, where everybody was so busy with other things, and with the times we were living through. So as far as the three I had, one was a situation where Cate Blanchett brought an idea to us, and I had written her season 3 episode and loved the idea of trying to do it again. I’m very rarely asked to write for Oscar winners, so when the opportunity arises, I try to jump at it.

[Laughs] Yeah.

Monkey Grifter came out of how we’re always looking to put our finger on the documentary that maybe more people have seen. Not a high bar, because a lot of people haven’t seen any of these. [Laughs] But it did seem like Octopus Teacher was the documentary that most people had seen last year. And then I had a take on that, so I just sort of grabbed that. And then the final one was my tribute to Rhys Thomas, our Welsh director. Once I realized we were shooting in the UK, I challenged myself to write an episode that would be shot in Wales with an entirely Welsh cast as well as our Welsh director. So I think I’m the only non-Welsh person involved in the production.

Yeah, yours are very UK-centric this season.

It’s usually a lot less that we sat around and came up with some grand plan, and a lot more that one event was the first domino to how things broke. But once we knew we were going to do our Three Salons By The Seaside episode, it was impossible to imagine shooting it anywhere but Blackpool or somewhere nearby. And once we were there, and due to the economics of the show, we saw it as an opportunity to lean into the European/UK season. Also, it’s the most British American TV show that exists. I bet the English were just pulling their hair out that they didn’t think of something this niche years ago.

[Laughs] The detail work specifically that Rhys and fellow director/showrunner Alex Buono put in here…

It’s incredible.

It’s the supercharged engine of the show.

In my life, there’s never been a thing where you’ve written it with the expectation that you were very much putting on the first coat of paint, and they do so much, there’s so much writing detail in the direction. Because you could never predict what you need. There is a Wide World Of Sports-esque opening to the rock throwing competition, which again, that’s just in post. This might be my favorite 30 seconds of the season, and it’s in an episode I wrote, but it’s fully the people behind the scenes who made it sing.

I fell in love with the show with the one that was the (James) Carville War Room documentary. The hood decoration on the Camaro or whatever it was, and I had just seen the original documentary for the first time a couple of weeks before, and that was like, “Wow, okay. ” So yeah, the detail work is amazing there.

The most jarring thing about watching that is I watched the original War Room documentary as well right before we did that. And the first scene takes place in my hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire. And, you know, obviously that’s a very political place, especially in 1992. And it was during my senior year of high school, and you couldn’t believe how old the cars look. Because in my head cars look the same way. But it was like watching Hoffa. That’s how old the cars look to me.

[Laughs] Obviously the last few years have been such a golden age, really, of popular documentaries from the true crime stuff, to stuff like Last Dance and the Beatles doc. I’m curious if you ever watch a documentary blow up like that and it’s like, “This is not something we can really handle. We can’t hit this.”

For sure. I think with Last Dance it was just a reminder that sports documentaries are a really important part of that genre right now. But also realizing that we’re never going to be able to recreate the scale of a documentary about an American professional sport. So I guess How They Threw Rocks would be our second sports documentary. Any Given Saturday, which was the Tim Robinson bowling one, was the first. So it’s really about finding what you love about sports documentaries and then scaling it down to something that works. We try so hard never to get caught looking fake. By the way, even major Hollywood films with big budgets, when there’s a scene at a basketball game, you can tell when it’s only shot from one side of the stands. Like, “Okay.”

Obviously, everybody’s doing so much on the team with their other jobs. As you look forward, is there the impulse to continue bringing new voices in for the benefit of their perspective and also the benefit of easing some of the burden of getting this out? Also, we’re seeing with Trevor Noah, we saw with Conan, there’s a lot of, I don’t want to say angst or ache to do other things. But do you ever feel like when you go through the process with Documentary Now!, “Man, I wish I had more time to be able to do some other stuff too?”

I mean, no. I like that I find the time to do something like Documentary Now!. It’s really important for me to also find time to go out and do standup. I don’t want to let those skills atrophy due to just doing Late Night. But I feel like I try to spread it out. Weirdly taking these side projects, I think, keeps me more in love with Late Night than the other way around. I think if it was the only thing I did that would be where maybe boredom would sink in. So I almost think it’s my responsibility to do other things outside of it, to make sure that that feels fresh to me too.

And then the craziest thing that happened this year, is it was such a scramble and we had, Tamsin (Rawaday) and Matt (Pacult) came in and wrote the final episode, which I think is maybe the most Documentary Now! episode that Documentary Now! has ever documented. It’s really special and it was really exciting, knowing that the solution was coming from inside the house, for lack of a better term. And that’s always the risk, especially in this era where there is a lot of comedy that I think is born out of the idea of what is a documentary. Not just Spinal Tap, but just The Office. And so it’s so mainstream, and we fight really hard, not that we don’t love all those styles, but we fight really hard not to fall into a trap where we look like one of those. And so we can be a little precious about what we want from an episode of Documentary Now!. And so when Tamsin and Matt came in, it was really great, because they knew exactly what the show was. And so having those guys come in and write an episode was great. And I think that in the future would be the kind of thing we’d want to do more of.

There is a desire to keep going?

I mean, yeah. It’s so exciting when they’re out. It’s also, I’ve said this before, but it’s really exciting to work on something that started out of date, because then you don’t worry that it will go out of date. [Laughs] It’s when you’re writing a parody of Grey Gardens in 2015, you’re not worried how it’s going to look in 2025. Like, it started 50 years too late.

I love going back and watching them. I love watching the ones I had nothing to do with. They all are these really beautiful ships in a bottle because so much care and attention went into them. While I take Late Night very seriously, and no part of it more than the writing of it, we’re also aware as we write A Closer Look, they’re far more disposable art. By tomorrow, they already feel a million years old. So it’s nice to also work on something that has a little bit of permanence to it.

Yeah, I mean these are going to stand the test of time, whereas hopefully one-day people will forget about everything ever said about Donald Trump, ever.

Yeah, and then I will slowly fade like Marty McFly.

New episodes of ‘Documentary Now!’ come out Wednesdays on IFC.