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Does Documentary Filmmaking Always Have to Be Serious?

Tanner Shinnick

Documentaries, as a form of journalism, often cover important, serious topics. But is this all that the genre is capable of?

It can seem like documentary filmmaking solely focuses on serious issues or topics. While most of the documentaries that saw recent success have covered international espionage or outrageous crimes, documentary filmmaking also can also be funny. With documentaries now easier to access than ever, and consumption constantly increasing, we’re beginning to see a steady rise in this comedic documentary sub-genre — and the filmmakers creating it.

In this article, we’ll take a quick look at some of the classic funny, quirky, and offbeat documentary comedies you should check out if you’re considering making one of your own.

Vernon, Florida

The first film by legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, Vernon, Florida, follows the inhabitants of a small Florida town. It features such quirky residents as an obsessive turkey gobbler and an eccentric preacher.

If you dive into the career of Errol Morris, you’ll discover that these quirky and offbeat documentaries are what made him a famous documentarian. Morris’s work proves that you can forge a career as a documentary filmmaker without focusing solely on serious issues.

Air Guitar Nation

This absurdly unique docu-comedy feels like the comedic sibling of the classic documentary and competition film, Spellbound. Air Guitar Nation follows a wide range of characters who compete in the first National Air Guitar Competition held in the U.S., which started above a strip club in New York City.

The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters

This classic comedic documentary follows two avid classic arcade Donkey Kong players who are competing for the title of world champion of the classic arcade version of Donkey Kong. The two meet at a competition in Florida to battle for the title. The strong characters of The King of Kong make it a memorable film and textbook example of this sub-genre.

Winnebago Man

Before viral videos even existed, the footage behind Winnebago Man slid into pop culture thanks to his perverse language and demeanor. Through strong character development and a constantly unraveling plot, this comedic documentary comes recommended by most documentary lovers.

American Movie

This classic documentary took home the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 1999. American Movie follows a young Wisconsinite on his quest to make his horror film, Coven, over a three-year period. With a $3,000 loan from his uncle and a Mastercard, this self-referential documentary follows the filmmakers as they try to finish the film while subjecting their actors to injury-inducing stunts and battling their own demons.

While most documentaries are, indeed, serious, the genre can still hold up even when comedy is involved. These comedic films still follow the same story structures as their more serious counterparts — they all feature characters who must overcome something against all odds. While doing so, they undergo a change of character.

If you’re a documentary filmmaker, you don’t need to feel pressured to always create something serious. If you find a quirky, offbeat, or strange subject, follow it. There have been many great comedic documentaries, and there will be many more to come.

Cover image via Hajakely.

Looking for more information on documentary filmmaking? Check out these articles.

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