Laughing Matters — Documentary Now!, “Cocaine Tonight”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I am a latecomer to Documentary Now!, and for that I feel shame. Well, that might be too strong. I do admit it sheepishly, though. The co-creation of a cluster of Saturday Night Live pals, the series spoofs classic nonfiction films with an astounding level of specificity. And that precision leads to individual episodes simultaneously standing as expert comic explications of individual documentaries and the broader styles they represent. The series is unabashedly esoteric, funny enough without a working knowledge of the contextual references, I suppose, but also clearly comfortable with leaving huge portions of its potential audience blinking in uncomprehending silence.

The promised episode that caused me to break the seal on Documentary Now was “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” a loving tweak of a similarly titled 1970 D. A. Pennebaker documentary about the in-studio efforts to capture the Stephen Sondheim songs featured in the Broadway production Company. I will admit to only the barest knowledge of Sondheim’s work, but even I recognized the absolute brilliance in rendering his hyperverbal approach to lyrics as a racing admission of ingesting a heavy duty stimulant. “Cocaine Tonight,” written by Eli Bolin, John Mulaney, and Seth Meyers is a wonderful piece of apery, reasserting what’s deeply special about a work of art by embracing it with cheerful, brattish exaggeration.

And Alex Brightman and Renée Elise Goldsberry deserve some sort of gleaming award for their performances on the song. It’s one thing to write a song like this, it’s a whole other dizzying pirouette to sing it.


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