There’s an oft-repeated Lorne Michaels adage about Saturday Night Live: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready. It goes on because it’s 11:30.” A similar sentiment was in the air on a Thursday night this past July, as another Michaels production was about to take the stage at the Mission Playhouse in San Gabriel, California. The cast and crew of the nonfiction-film-skewering series Documentary Now!—many of whom got their start at SNL—had managed only half of a run-through for the live performance that would form the bulk of “Final Transmission,” an episode inspired by the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense.
It took weeks to find a location for the shoot. The performers—including Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, who created Documentary Now! with Seth Meyers and Rhys Thomas—learned a 10-song set list over Independence Day weekend. (Guest star Maya Rudolph had the most intense cram session of all, as production of her summer variety show, Maya & Marty, was still underway in New York.) In the show’s quest for verisimilitude, set pieces had been built to allow the fake band, Test Pattern, to build itself member by member like Talking Heads in the real Stop Making Sense. But at the 11th hour, an unfortunate discovery was made: The scenery was incredibly difficult to move. Thomas and his co-director Alex Buono were facing some tough decisions.
“We had to take a break at lunch time, and when we came back, we knew the concert had to start for real with an audience,” Buono told The A.V. Club two months later. “We were nowhere near ready to start it. I was walking to lunch thinking, ‘Well, we wanted to do a live concert. I think we’ll probably have to just stop and start, more like a traditional film shoot. It will be boring for the audience, but how many people are really going to show up? We are out in the middle of San Gabriel.’”
The taping was publicized online, its flier declaring “FREE FOR THE FIRST 200 PEOPLE”; “80’S [sic] ATTIRE GETS YOU BEST SEATS.” Buono expected a turnout in the range of 50 to 80 attendees.
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“And then someone tells us there’s a thousand people waiting outside to get in and they’re all dressed in ’80s outfits and they’re dying to see this band,” he said. “And we realize we’re going to have to do this real concert.”
“Final Transmission” would go on, but not because it was ready.
“We knew we wanted to do a music documentary again,” Thomas said, alluding to Documentary Now!’s first-season finale, “Gentle And Soft.” In its two-part send-up of History Of The Eagles, the show introduced breezy ’70s rockers The Blue Jean Committee, an act fronted by two Chicago jagoffs who met in a vocational school for sausage makers and wrote songs about California despite having never been there. (The band name was previously used for an SNL sketch about a musical act with a different geographical fixation.) “When we did Blue Jean Committee,” Buono said, “it was Fred reinterpreting ’70s music and he’s not a child of ’70s music—he has an ’80s music heart. Test Pattern was a sweet spot for how he grew up and what he’s comfortable doing.”
As Armisen told The A.V. Club at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, “I’m a fan of Talking Heads going way back.” That fandom shines through “Final Transmission,” though the final product doesn’t so much lampoon the band that recorded Remain In Light and Fear Of Music as much as it riffs on its legacy and inner tensions, filtering the history of 1980s post-punk, new wave, and college rock through Stop Making Sense’s distinctive visual palette. Working from source material that’s 100 percent performance footage, the episode needed some way to introduce the personalities and conflicts within Test Pattern. After abandoning a plan for a “Final Transmission” two-parter that would’ve divided the episode into onstage and backstage halves, interstitial interview segments patterned after The Last Waltz were integrated into the script. The segments tell of a splintering group who, like Talking Heads, met as art students and wound up becoming one of the most popular and influential bands in the world. “Nobody knows this band, so we had to sell this story,” Thomas said. “That’s the hardest thing with these music ones: finding the balance of music and story.”
With input from co-creator Seth Meyers, the episode’s co-writer Erik Kenward, “Gentle And Soft” contributor Jon Spurney, and gamelan musician Hiro Inuzuka, Armisen prepared nine original songs for the episode. (A 10th, the Rudolph-led “Save Time For Me,” is an era-appropriate Matthew Sweet cover.) For the remaining members of Test Pattern, the show drew on talent experienced with straddling the musical/comedic divide. Drummer Jon Wurster has put in time with Superchunk, The Mountain Goats, Bob Mould, and The Best Show. Alongside her “Final Transmission” co-star Kasey Foster, Bajillion Dollar Properties’ Tawny Newsome previously participated in live reenactments of Stop Making Sense staged by the Chicago-area tribute act This Must Be The Band. But it was non-musician Hader who pulled the biggest surprise on the post-production team.
“We had a great music mixer,” Buono said. “And one of the first things he asks was, ‘Who’s offstage playing the bass for Bill? Who’s Bill faking to?’ And I was like, ‘That’s Bill playing, man!’ Bill Hader is not a professional musician. He’s never been in a real band; he’s never toured. He kind of plays the bass a little bit for fun. And that’s him playing the bass in a real live concert the whole time.”
That double take is in line with one of the driving philosophies of Documentary Now! Buono recalled a refrain that Armisen, Hader, and Meyers apply to the show: “We want you to turn on IFC and start watching a documentary and it takes you a long time to figure out, ‘Hey, what’s Fred doing in the middle of this?’ The sense of authenticity is one of the most important things to all of us.”
While developing the episode, the Documentary Now! team kept certain Stop Making Sense touchstones in mind: The dramatic uplighting during “What A Day That Was,” the playful backdrops for “Making Flippy Floppy” and “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody).” “We wanted to open it exactly the same way, in that David Byrne, solitary, walks to the mic,” said Thomas. “We knew we needed to get it started in that similar manner with the empty stage.” The directors keyed in on certain philosophical elements of Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense direction: no footage of audience members until the closing number, no clichéd shots of fingers on fretboards. And, as they do with all of the “filmmakers” showcased on Documentary Now!, they treated their Demme stand-in, Harrison Renzi (also responsible for season two’s “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything”), as a character within the episode.
“That’s the fun game for Rhys and I: to adopt these personalities in a way,” said Buono. “To become those filmmakers.”
Added Thomas, “You want Bill and Fred to fully embody their characters. For it to work, Alex and I also have to drop ourselves and be fully committed to the reality of this film and not be standing outside it looking for jokes or little tweaks we can make to make it our own.”
Asked if their experience on Saturday Night Live prepared them for situations like their night at the Mission Playhouse, Thomas responded: “We’ve come through this school where, no matter what, you have to deliver something. You kind of get exhilarated by that pressure of having to make something work no matter what. You can’t back off it once it’s happening.”
And on July 7, 2016, it was happening, whether anyone was ready or not. There was a bare stage under glaring lights, a future backdrop for main titles prepared in the bony, hand-rendered style of Pablo Ferro. Armisen strode to the microphone. He placed an object on the stage (just like David Byrne in Stop Making Sense) and began the first song of the set (just like David Byrne in Stop Making Sense). And, as Buono puts it, “It just magically happened.”
“There were a bunch of times that Alex and I were waiting for the concert to fall down or musically go wrong,” Thomas says. “And we kept passing those waypoints in the concert and looking at each other and giving thumbs-up because we just blew through them and they were better than we’d ever seen them.”
In the role of pretentious frontman Lee Smith, Armisen diminished the contributions of his former classmates and soon-to-be-former bandmates. As the under-appreciated bassist, Hader grimaced through the most indulgent of Smith’s musical experiments. Rudolph belted “Save Time For Me,” refashioned as the theme to a fictional hit film, Sun Warriors. “Originally we were going to shoot a movie trailer [for Sun Warriors] and it would play clips of this random ’80s movie behind them during the concert, and it was just sort of beyond our means,” Thomas says.
The show didn’t go on because it was ready. The show went on because it had the last component it needed to recreate Stop Making Sense: an audience.
“It was this real sleepy concert until the audience showed up,” Thomas says. “We were in this place of terror that we hadn’t seen this show actually work. It was that same energy on SNL, but you could feel it backstage, like, ‘This is going to happen.’ We were pacing nervously, but you could see [the people in the audience] were really excited. Those guys went out and all of their performances went up and got bigger.”