Documentary Now! is probably the niche-iest niche show on TV these days. If you’ve never heard of it (and who could blame you) -Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers write, produce, and star in the show that chooses a different documentary to retell and mock each episode. It’s weird, it’s hilarious. And last week I got to see their panel at the 92nd Street Y.
The evening included an advanced screening of season two’s premiere episode called “The Bunker” based on the 1993 political documentary The War Room. (Bill Hader plays a parody of James Carville and it’s everything.) There was a brief intermission and then the lights dimmed, and the curtain rose and Meyers, Hader, and Armisen were all sitting there. It was kinda like seeing Mickey Mouse at Disney World for the first time.
The moderator (who I’m pretty sure binged watched all of the first season the night before based on her pretty lame questions) was quickly swept aside as all three of the comedians riffed off the each other. It took them probably ten minutes to answer one question but no one cared because we were laughing so hard. Thankfully, though the magic of YouTube, you can watch the panel below.
Anyway, afterward they took a couple of pictures from the stage. From where I was sitting I couldn’t get there soon enough to get a selfie (so please enjoy these low resolution photos taken from farther away) but I did get to shake Seth Meyers’ hand which is still pretty cool.
Mockumentaries and Their Documentaries
Season 1 (on Netflix)
“Sandy Passage” — Grey Gardens (My personal favorite)
“Kunuk Uncovered” — Nanook Revisited
“DRONEZ: The Hunt of El Chignon”– VICE News
“The Eye Doesn’t Lie”– The Thin Blue Line
“A Town, A Gangster, A Festival”– Hollywood
“Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee, Parts 1 & 2” — History of the Eagles
For the third time this year I found myself in the Atlanta airport. Which was fine because being there usually means an adventure is unfolding. When you live in a small southern town like Montgomery, it’s common to fly through Atlanta before going anywhere else. So much so I’m sure that when I die, my soul will pass through Hartsfield-Jackson before going on its way. The flight between Montgomery and Atlanta is absurdly quick — only about 45 minutes. By the time the person who dropped you off is home, your taxiing into the gate. But suddenly you’re an hour in the future so isn’t that nice?
I haven’t seen enough airports to tell you if ATL is objectively elegant, but I’ve always liked it. It’s spread out over several terminals that are separate long buildings that are joined by the underground “Plane Train” (who doesn’t love a good rhyme?). Basically it’s easy to navigate and the separate terminals allows for a maximum plane capacity– an efficient design that I admire.
I enjoyed a disgusting breakfast from Subway because who says 8 AM is too early for a turkey sandwich with possibly expired American cheese. De-lish!
With CNN playing away in the background, I boarded my next flight. (I’m not proud to tell you it took me a looong time to realize they exclusively play CNN in the Delta terminals because they’re both Atlanta-based companies. Same for the Coke products on their planes.)
Have I even mentioned where I was going yet? I don’t think I did. But I’ll give you a hint that I’m in an “empire state of mind…” and they’ll “remember me to Herald Square…”
New York. I’m going to New York.
So we landed in LaGuardia after a delightfully uneventful flight. I got into a cab and went to my hotel: The Library.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the Travel Channel, back when it was more than an alternative to the Food Network. And there was one host whose job I wanted more than anyone else’s: Samantha Brown, a perky 30-something blonde woman who always looked dressed by The Gap. She had a show called “Great Hotels,” and I wanted to be her. Years ago she visited The Library Hotel where the floors and rooms are based on the Dewey Decimal system. It’s beautiful and bookish and I got to stay there my first night in Manhattan.
I got there before my room was ready, so I stowed my bags and went upstairs to their lounge with tea, coffee, and books. I sat and enjoyed the quiet of the room for a while and then started getting a little bored. So I put on some non blister-inducing shoes, grabbed my smaller purse that doesn’t weigh a ton and went to the New York Public Library which, wouldn’t you know it, was across the street.
I got inside, passed the tourists, and got a library card, like a good little English major. Despite getting ninety minutes of sleep the night before, I was suddenly wide awake (a new library card will do that to ya). So I thought, “You know what would be fun? A brisk stroll thirty blocks downtown.” So I set off to The Stand bookstore.
The Strand is fabulous (please hire me!). I think I went through every shelf a least three times and obviously bought several titles (it would have been rude not to) as well as a tote bag to tell locals even faster, “Hi, I’m a tourist.” But by the the fourth round on the basement floor, jet lag caught up with me hard. So I staggered zombie-like into the street, hailed a cab to the warm bed waiting for me.
Which it was. I stayed in room 904, putting me on the ninth floor (history and geography) in the fourth room– Asian history so the bookshelves were full of books on (you guessed it) Asian history. I took a few minutes to explore the volumes and them promptly passed out on the bed for a solid nap, having left CNN and the Plane Train behind hours ago.
This is my only thought as I hustle down West Burnside Street in the rain, paper Target bag slowly disintegrating under my arm. I’m on my way to Voodoo Donuts – my second visit in three days. On my first trip I didn’t order the maple-bacon donut that several people recommended to me. Instead I was distracted by the Oreo-peanut butter, Rice Crispie, and the brown sugar chocolate drizzle. The order resulting from my telling the woman at the counter, “Just pick out three.”
I can’t remember the last time I even looked at a salad.
I arrive at Voodoo to see a small line stretching out the door. I don’t pause to consider what I should do (knowing that I still need to pack). I question if the paper bag slowly turning to mush in my hands will survive the walk back to my hotel. I question the water-resistance of the new white puffer jacket I’m wearing. I question if I’ll be able to remove the red stain said Target bag has left on said jacket. But I never question if I should stay to get the donut.
The first sign that I am in Portland is in the PDX bathroom. Literally, a sign. Next to the hand dryer where the paper towels would be, is a small placard that reads: “Let’s keep Portland green: use this piddly-ass hand dryer that will just blow the germs into the air instead of those paper towels that you really want!” with a picture of an accusatory owl glaring up at you. Or something. You get the point. Yep, I thought I thought about that little owl and all its little woodland buddies as I jump in my Uber (maybe it was a Prius?) and then cranked up the A/C in my hotel room.
I resisted the urge to just pass out in my hotel room (I gotta tell you – I don’t miss college very often, but I do miss the stress as an excuse to sleep all the time). Instead I did what every 21 year-old does on a Friday in a new city: I walked to the nearest book store.
But stay with me: it was Powell’s Books! The bookstore so large they have maps available at the entrance! And rooms that cover…Okay, so not terribly exciting but for any bibliophile, it’s pretty fabulous. And after it getting over my excuses to not buy anything, about how I didn’t need any more books and when would I have the time to read whatever I purchased? I laughed at the little lies I tell myself as I waited in line with a small armload.
“Do you want a bag?” the cashier asks me. “Yeah, that’d be great!” I give her a much larger smile than I probably need to, but she’s already pissed at me. I was staring into space waiting for the next available cashier, thinking that it’s probably best not to stare into space when you’re the next person in line because you might miss the cashier waving you over and then you’d be holding up the line and wouldn’t that be embarrassing. And as I was congratulating myself on my attentiveness to the situation while simultaneously checking at the doo-dads they always have in line, the cashier waved me over. Which I totally missed so she had to walk all the way other to where I was standing to get my attention. So yeah, I probably was a little over-eager to seem like I was not an idiot when she offered me a bag. A paper bag without any handles.
“And Voodoo Donuts is just down the street?” I ask as she stuffs my books into this little bag. “Yeah, just out the door and to the left.” My naviguessing instincts were correct. I still get lost in the small town I’ve lived in for 21 years, but six hours in Portland, and I’ve got it down.
It helps that the streets are numbered.
I arrive at Voodoo to discover there’s no line. As I look up at their menu, I realize I have no idea what donuts to get. My uncle recommended the maple-bacon, but then I remember that it’s a Friday during Lent, and I’m Catholic. Which means I can’t have meat. So I ask the cashier to pick out three which turn out to be Oreo-covered, Rice Crispie-covered, and brown sugar-coated. Hey, it’s tough to forgo the delicious maple-bacon in favor of Oreo-covered vegetarian options, but Lent’s all about self-sacrifice, you know? I walked backed to the hotel with my pink donut box, balancing my paper bag on top.
The next day, I Uber everywhere because it’s on the other side of the river. My first stop is the Japanese Botanical Gardens which look beautiful despite it being early March and chilly. This is the first city I’ve visited on my own, and I only really felt it at the Gardens. Museums and shops I can get around without needing to turn to someone and chat about it. But I know nothing about plants, and it would have been nice to turn to someone and ask, “What the hell is that?”
Same goes for the rose garden located at the foot of the Botanical gardens.
There’s a really excellent show on IFC called Portlandia , a little sketch show all set in Portland (as the name implies). The best (I think) running sketch about Toni and Candance, a couple that owns a feminist bookstore, Women and Women First. And lucky for me, it’s a real bookstore in Portland, In Other Words.
I told myself I wasn’t going to buy anything, but I’ve read about the place may close, and I’d feel like a jerk if I just stood around and took pictures. So I bought a copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And the cashier (didn’t have to wave me over) slipped it into another paper bag. And I began to think
On my last day in Portland, a Sunday, I decided to walk to Target for some shoes. Which is very dull so I’ll just say that I grabbed a couple of things. Which they put in another little paper. How do Portlandians carry anything? None of their bags have handles!
Anyway, I walked back to Voodoo because I wanted that maple-bacon donut, dammit. Just as it started to rain. The first real rain of my trip which was kind of a relief because I was beginning to wonder if wet weather just a really big PR trick. But the weather began to slowly turn that darling little eco-friendly bag in my bag to mush. But that donut was totally worth it.
One of my most vivid memories of Paris is not standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower or touring the opera house. No, the thing that often comes first to my mind when I think of Paris is the time we walked down the street knawing on baguettes we bought at Paul, a chain bakery a friend of mine later called “The French McDonald’s”. It was our second day in the city, and we were on a (incredibly disorganized) walking tour. We thought we looked so Parisian enjoying fresh bread, but I’ve since learned that it’s considered so American to eat on the go so I doubt we fooled anyone. But we enjoyed the snack that kept us from passing out in the heat as we reached mile ten that day.
I also remember visiting Shakespeare and Company the day after the walking tour – one of the most famous bookstores in the world located near Notre Dame. (You can read about this random guy who slouched all over me in the shop thinking I was in his group here.) I didn’t exactly need any more books, but when you’re an English major in Paris for the first time, you’d have to be an idiot not to buy something. So I did and later regretted not buying a tote bag, too.
Spending time in Paris reminded me that I knew nothing about the Fench Revolution which is always a topic I’ve wanted to learn more about (apart from what Les Miz has taught me – all set to a catchy score).
Enter The Beginner’s Guide to the French Revolution by Peter Davies whose cover features Delacroix’s Lady Liberty Leading the People (1830), a painting we saw earlier that day at the Louvre (so meta). I mean, how could I not get it?
At checkout, they asked me if I wanted them to stamp with their logo. Hell yes, stamp my book! I didn’t come all the way here to buy a stamp-less book like an idiot.
But in typical fashion, I read about three pages, saw something shiny, and left it to collect dust on my bookshelf. Adding it to my Books I Meant to Read list. I read it after that Marie Antoinette biography (for the sake of chronology), and then tried my hand at making French bread (a food I don’t know how to cook). And let me just say that Paul (the bakery chain or Hollywood) isn’t racing to hire me.
I used the recipe in Joy of Baking (that’s right- a recipe out of an actually book) which actually worked pretty well. Even if the loaves didn’t look particularly pretty. I think what went wrong was my over-kneading the dough so the loaves didn’t rise properly.
If you have any good French bread advice (everyone always does), let me know. I think I’d use the same recipe again, but not mix for the 12 minutes Joy recommends.
Anyway I think if the Champs-Élysées is not just around the corner like it was this summer, French bread is best enjoyed with Les Miz (That’s right Aaron Tveit [or Ramin Karimloo, depending on which adaptation you’re watching] To the barricades! With these delicious homemade baked-goods. No revolution is complete without baked-goods.) Or, you could just enjoy this from Key & Peele:
I would like to take a moment to say that I know next to nothing about the NFL. In fact, the only quarterbacks I can identify are the ones with Niquil commercials. So when we drove to New Orleans in October, I didn’t realize that the Falcons were playing the Saints at the Superdome that weekend. Which explained why everyone was in the French Quarter.
I had to go to New Orleans to work on my capstone art history paper on Holy Name of Jesus Church and had to go through Loyola University’s archive (everyone goes to New Orleans for schoolwork, right?). My mom and I spent most of the drive listening to The Dead Authors Podcast and then wandered around the French Quarter with the NFL fans.
My mom used to live in New Orleans so I got to relax while she played tour guide. We checked out an exhibition on Mardi Gras (Because heaven forbid that I go anywhere without visiting a museum)
and then had beignets at Cafe Du Monde. Which I enjoyed with chocolate milk instead of coffee because despite being 21, I have the palette of a 10-year-old.
We spent the next day in Loyola’s Special Collections and Archives which was about as much fun as it sounds so I’ll gloss over it. But their campus and the church I was working on are beautiful. Their campus has a statue of Jesus that faces St. Charles Avenue. I think the sculpture’s official title is probably something like “The Resurrected Christ,” but the way his arms are raised looks like a cross between a shrug and a touchdown – earning it the nickname “Touchdown Jesus.” Which is as close as I came to football that weekend.
I love traveling with fellow smartasses. It makes the journey so much more enjoyable when you can trade snide jokes with the person standing next to you. Bath was a haven for us in that respect. But let me back up.
While I’m in London, I actually have to go to school (which totally cuts into my wandering-around-aimlessly time). I think I’ve already alluded to the Shakespeare class I’m in, but I haven’t mentioned the other, far more enviable class. It’s called “Jane Austen to Downton Abbey: Literature of the Country House” and the reading list is spectacular. We just finished Pride and Prejudice and are now 100 pages into Wuthering Heights. Tough work, but someone’s gotta do it. Every class we take a field trip to some literature-y place in London. Thursday we went to British Library and toured their “Treasures of the British Library Collection.” A bit of a step up from the Special Collections I work in back home. Their collection includes a Gutenberg Bible, Jane Austen’s manuscript for Emma, and the original lyrics to “Yesterday” in Paul McCartney’s handwriting. And this is only a few objects. Literally every single major British writer (Shakespeare has his own section) is represented in this display case. (They don’t allow pictures inside or I would share some.)
We were there specifically to see Jane Austen’s writing desk. Now when I said desk, you’re picturing like a chair and table, right? Like something we all had in our college dorm rooms? Nope, it’s like a little tray-thing that flips open to be a flat surface. A little underwhelming but still– How cool! Jane Austen literally write on this thing. You almost want to press your face against the glass and see if you can catch some of that creative spirit, but not really because that would look really weird.
We wandered around until making our way to (where else?) the gift shop. Let me just say that the British Library is losing its mind over this whole Magna Carta anniversary thing, and it’s really starting to show. The Magna Carta will be 800 years old this year (Isn’t it marked on your calendar?), and the British Library is super excited and wants you to be, too. They sell (I’m not making any of this up): Magna Carta facsimiles, bound copies, CDs, pillows, soap, whiskey, and rubber ducks. So you could hypothetically sit in the tub listening to Magna Carta music, drinking your Magna Carta whiskey, while you read the Magna Carta to your Magna Carta rubber duck before going to sleep on your Magna Carta pillow. But there’s this desperation in their celebration. Like “Please care about this as much we do! This is such a big deal until 2040 when the Magna Carta is 825, and we try to sell you the same stuff all over again!” (For real though, as someone who has written papers about obscure works of art, I totally get their vibe.)
I just bought a Jane Austen Christmas ornament. Because it didn’t happen unless you got the Christmas ornament to prove it, right?
Friday we went to Bath where Jane Austen spent some time during her life. Bath totally embodies my theory that England can perfectly balance past and present. Like, you pass an Apple store on the way to the Roman baths. Which prompted many smart-ass remarks of “Did Jane Austen get her iPhone here? Did she shop at that Urban Outfitters? Isn’t there a scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy goes into a Tesco?” We had lunch at a local pub where they display Jane Austen’s picture (making all of my #JaneAustenDrankHere dreams come true!). I don’t think she actually drank here, but whatever. Let me dream, okay?
We toured the Roman baths for about an hour. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bill Bryson has a little audio tour here. I’m trying to read his book on the U.K. called Notes from a Small Island, and I can’t get into it yet. But he has a nice voice. Also, I hate to brag, but I’m basically an audio guide connoisseur at this point. Just a little something for the CV. (But can I still be a connoisseur if I had to look up how to spell “connoisseur”?)
The baths are really cool, or well, warm. They take you through a tour about how it used to be a huge temple complex, too. I won’t bore you with all the history of it because I have already forgotten most of it. However, I do remember that at the end there is little tasting room. Well, not a room. More like a corner with a sink in it. And the famous Bath water. It reminded me of the scene in The Office when they get the aluminum water bottles from Sabre, and they’re like “It tastes like I’m drinking batteries!” Yeah, Bath water is like drinking batteries. Or, as Charles Dickens said, like “warm flat irons.” They put that quote on the wall next to the sink! Like they’re proud of their weird water! And we all have to go along with it because it’s historic. It’s the Emperor’s New Water.
Their gift shop was really cool, though. They sell lots of soap. Bath bath soap. And little bottles of their water which you would buy, presumably, for your enemies. (The sore throat I’ve had this weekend developed after drinking the water in case you were wondering why I’m so bitter about it.) And they had Latin translations of the first two Harry Potter books. Which I kinda regret not getting. Because no one taught me Latin in my 13 years of Catholic school, then I should probably learn it from a book about witchcraft, right?
After the baths, we went to the Royal Crescent which was basically the Hollywood Hills of 18th-century Britain. More “Did Jane Austen touch this lamppost?!” jokes. After that some of use noticed a church higher up the hill (Bath is like a giant hill), and when you’re wearing shoes with poor arch support and you see something that’s far away on a hill, you should go look at it. Bonus points if you’re a little dehydrated.
After we traipsed up the hill and discovered the church was locked, we walked around Avon Lake that runs though the town. They have a small pet cemetery in the park next to it. Then we bought some gross sandwiches for the ride home.
Okay, before I end this: is Bath named for the Roman baths? Like, was everyone just like “We have these bath things, let’s just call it “Bath”? Bill Bryson did not talk about this in the audio tour.