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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Documentary Now! lifts the curtain on one-person shows

Illustration for article titled Documentary Now! lifts the curtain on one-person shows

After two weeks of playing it relatively straight, Documentary Now! has turned in its most absurd episode of the season and one of the most ambitious installments of its run. It has a remarkably clear thesis, which it argues intelligently and with great depth. “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” is undoubtedly funny, with Bill Hader giving one of his best performances of the series. But it’s whip-smart, too.

A parody of the performance film Spalding Gray’s Swimming To Cambodia, “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” starts with the least amount of material to work with. In the original film, renowned monologist Spalding Gray merged his solo theater piece about his time in Southeast Asia shooting the film The Killing Fields with documentary film. In 1987, director Jonathan Demme filmed Gray doing the performance at The Performing Garage in New York, where Gray, flanked by two pulldown maps, sat behind a table topped with a glass of water, a microphone, and notebook. With this barebones stage design, he delivered his monologue, which by this point had been tightly edited and rehearsed over the course of a theater tour a couple years prior. “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” assumes that same simple staging. The pulldowns, the table, the glass of water, the microphone, and the notebook all appear. Bill Hader sits behind the table as Parker Gail, recounting the tale of when he was forced to move from his loft in Manhattan. For a moment, it looked like Documentary Now! might play this one incredibly close to its original. Then things got weird, incisive, brilliant. The series once again found exactly what parts of its original source material to tinker with and does so in a way that makes a point.

Things start off simply enough, with Parker Gail languidly setting up his story. Like the real-life Gray, Gail adds his own sound effects, uses his hands to gesture and punctuate dramatically, uses the cadence and volume of his voice to convey different energies and emotions. Both are master storytellers who can sit in place and still evoke a dynamic visual world with their words. They both use accents and vocal affectations to present dialogue from the other people in their stories. They both lament that New York is no longer what it used to be.

But after a couple minutes of talking about his girlfriend Ramona, a key player in his Manhattan housing tale, the camera cuts away to Ramona herself, played by Lennon Parham, so that she can share her side of the story. The rest of “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” follows that pattern, breaking away from Gail every time he recounts an interaction with another person to share that other person’s perspective, which is always in direct opposition to the romanticized picture Gail paints. Ramona informs us that Gail’s colorful “Dutchmen in the pipes” metaphor was actually something he literally believed to be true. And she doesn’t have environmental illness, as Gail reports, but rather chronic food poisoning thanks to Gail’s dining preferences.

The cutaways gradually get more absurd, with the scrappy young boy from Gail’s story revealing that he’s actually a high school student. The subway attendant that Gail claims shared words of wisdom when he explained he didn’t have any tokens for the subway sets the record straight, saying that Gail tried to jump the turnstile and expressing disgust that she has been cast in his superfluous story about being forced to move from one Manhattan loft into another Manhattan loft. His psychiatrist was actually just a guy who works at a walk-in clinic who gave Gail a flu shot. And the Nigerian super that Gail puts on an accent in order to imitate? “Hi, I’m not African,” he says when the camera cuts to him. He also didn’t give Gail a massive spliff. Even a bodega cat challenges Gail’s retelling of the “truth.”

These cutaways inject the episode with steady humor, but they do more than that. Documentary Now! digs into the flaws in its reference material. Swimming To Cambodia is remembered as a masterful work of storytelling and as a creative marriage between theater and documentary. But though Gray tries to make seemingly objective observations about global politics, it all gets filtered through his experiences. Though historical context gets woven into his story, Gray exploits the Cambodian genocide, providing a self-aggrandizing account that recasts the people he encounters as characters in his own hero’s journey. Yes, he’s an engaging storyteller, but Swimming To Cambodia tells a white savior story, centered on a white visitor who navigates spaces that are not his and uses the experiences of brown people to learn about himself. Gray’s ego cuts through Swimming To Cambodia, and with Gail, Documentary Now! exaggerates that egoism for comedic effect. Gail presents himself as a tortured but brilliant artist. He free associates to the point of mania. But this extreme characterization works on a much deeper level than just comedy, honing in on what makes this style of storytelling inherently flawed, even if it’s entertaining.


Documentary Now! incisively explores that self-interested part of storytelling. Gail casts people in his narrative without their permission. What would Swimming To Cambodia have looked like if the people Gray talks about were allowed to speak for themselves? Documentary Now! doesn’t answer that explicitly, but it gives agency to the figures in Gail’s story, thereby bringing attention to the fact that they’ve been stripped of their agency in the first place. Despite all the over-the-top humor of the episode, it also provides a very nuanced critique of how Gail frames his story, a critique that holds significance beyond the confines of this fictional work of television.

Look, it’s not only monologists and storytellers like Spalding Gray who are guilty of distorting the truth and of presenting a single side of the story. Writers do it. Stand-up comedians do it. An artist’s work gets filtered through their own experiences, and that’s true even when the artist purports to be telling or capturing a “true” story. Haven’t we all embellished a story for comedic or dramatic effect? Sometimes, these embellishments are harmless, but sometimes they’re insidious. Gail relies on racial stereotypes in his retelling. He gives his characters fake accents, uses them as props, renders them flat, without real feelings or perspectives of their own. Documentary Now! isn’t just critiquing its reference film; it’s going after storytelling as a whole, especially the kind of storytelling that is controlled by a white man who recasts women and people of color as he sees fit, stripping them of their autonomy and individual identities for the sake of a better story. Gail’s poetic platitudes are built on a bed of lies. Documentary Now! remains reverent of Swimming To Cambodia’s filmmaking style, but it’s an homage that interrogates the process and ideas behind its reference material, too. Documentary Now! isn’t admonishing Gray and his famous story equivocally, but it asks the right questions about agency, perspective, ego, and bias when it comes to one-person shows. “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” provides an absurdly unreliable narrator, effectively highlighting the very real dangers of a story told by one voice.


Stray observations

  • The final twist—that the episode has all unfolded at a parole hearing instead of in a black box theater—is the cherry on top of this episode. It works so well.
  • “This old George Washington-looking ass”
  • “Could you name all the different avenues again?” That sequence of Gail emphatically listing a bunch of Manhattan avenues was my favorite moment of the episode, and I’m so glad
  • While the episode certainly belongs to Hader, Parham gives a fantastic performance, too. Her interjections at the end are especially hilarious.