In an age where low-brow culture has given way to no-brow culture, where scripts and budgets are axed in favor of real people covered with real spiders, where dating has been reduced to a sport, it is in this savage, too-earnest time that a new genre has emerged, a genre of elaborate cunning, a genre that blurs the boundaries of illusion and reality, a genre filled with handheld cameras shaking on purpose. First, the Trailer Park Boys hit TV like a runaway shopping cart slamming into an SUV, and now it – and Borat – are crashing the big screen party. The mockumentary movement is in full swing.
This first entry deals with the beginnings of the movement up until the emergence of the Trailer Park Boys. The second part will look at new directions in the mockumentary movement, including Stephen Colbert and Borat.
On the surface, the Trailer Park Boys shares a lot of similarities with your average reality TV show. It’s full of shaky cameras, cursing, uncouth characters, and physical comedy. You might be tempted to say that it’s what you would get if you took The Osbornes out of the mansion and put them into a trailer park. But here’s the rub: the Trailer Park Boys is actually a satire of reality TV, a parody of shows like The Osbornes.
Upon closer examination, the differences between the two are obvious. Like all reality TV, the essential hook of The Osbornes is that you are seeing real people, not fictional characters. Of course, you expect that they’re probably hamming it up for the camera a little bit, but the idea remains that any acting is accidental. The intention is to let you laugh safely at people who are either dumber (e.g. Blind Date, The Fifth Wheel), or more outrageous (The Osbornes), or more trapped (Fear Factor, Survivor) than you are.
The original reality TV shows came out of the UK, and actually purported to illuminate something about the human condition by allowing the viewer to see how real people reacted under stressful conditions, a Lord of the Flies sort of experiment. Trailer Park Boys are more cunning than either reality TV or conventional fictional TV because they continually force you to question the authenticity of what you are watching. They entice the viewer into believing that you could be witnessing an unscripted event. For instance, when Ricky from the Trailer Park Boys gets pissed off, he sometimes attacks the cameraman, which gives the momentary illusion that you are seeing a live unscripted event, that is, until you realize that the cameraman is another actor. And yet when Bubbles tries to throw a defective shopping cart into the dumpster, how could he have known that it would bounce back off the lid and nearly take off his head? Surely that couldn’t have been planned – surely!
Now, I don’t mean to give all the credit for the cunning of the mockumentary to the Trailer Park Boys. The genre has been around since at least 1984 when This Is Spinal Tap came out. The term, mockumentary, was originally a perversion of rockumentary. Christopher Guest, who co-wrote This Is Spinal Tap, is the filmmaker who has continued to expand the genre past its rock roots. His mockumentaries, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, have been created from huge talented casts, making him the Robert Altman of the genre. What’s impressive is that the mockumentary continues to incorporate other genres. The Blair Witch Project took the basics of the horror film and transformed them, using the fake documentary style, and now the Trailer Park Boys has used the principles of reality TV to bring us a new flavor of irony.
But there is something else unique and brilliant about the Trailer Park Boys. It has realized that the very first mockumentary was the commedia dell’arte theatre. The commedia dell’arte was a genre of improvised theatre that has its origins in Italy in the 16th century. It satirized everything from tragedy to love intrigues, using stock characters, and completely insane physical comedy. Only in the Trailer Park Boys has this degree of mayhem been replicated, and, just like the commedia dell’arte theatre, the Trailer Park Boys aims to confuse. It mocks our need for control, our fear of being tricked. Why do why care so much what is real and what is illusion, what was planned or what was accidental? It’s the show that matters, and the show is damn funny. So, sit back and enjoy the chaos!