Visionaries of the New School of Comedy

Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas are revolutionizing TV comedy, and the world is taking notice.
By  · Published on July 13th, 2017

Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas are revolutionizing TV comedy, and the world is taking notice.

Documentary Now! just received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, the second year in a row it has deservedly earned the honor. The documentary parody series represents a unique style of comedy in which attention to detail is just as important as the laugh. The two-part Season 2 finale, “Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid,” is in particular an astounding work of fiction. Its extensive use of archive footage is an incredibly ambitious undertaking for a short-form comedy program, and the show pulls it off wonderfully.

Alex Buono and Rhys Thomas are the showrunners behind Documentary Now! and also co-direct each episode. Buono is an Oscar nominee for his work with Lexi Alexander on her 2002 short film Johnny Flynton. A multifaceted creative who has shot and produced both fiction and nonfiction features, Buono grew up attending lectures by Gus Van Sant at The Northwest Film and Video Center in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. Although he was immersed in Portland’s indie film scene, his aesthetic was just as informed by growing up in the 1980s of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron.

While studying film at USC, Buono showed precocious enthusiasm as a filmmaker, crewing on graduate films before most other undergraduates were allowed to. Not beholden to one position on set, he was able to contribute in multiple capacities. “Even at that point it wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to be a cinematographer,’ he tells me by phone. “It was like, ‘I want to be in the film business.’”

Buono and Thomas direct Fred Armisen for Documentary Now!

Legendary USC professor Bruce Block and cinematographer Dean Cundey advised the young film major, and Buono now recognizes a theme of similar guidance throughout his life. “My story had so much to do with other people helping me along the way and mentoring me,” he says. Director and cinematographer Jan De Bont became another mentor after Buono sent him a fan letter, and that led him to an early career as a camera assistant on such movies as Twister. Then, after a few years shooting commercials and low-budget features, Buono began working at Saturday Night Live in 1999.

Thomas, who has already won an Emmy for producing SNL‘s 40th anniversary special, took a very different path to get where he is today. He hails from Flemingston, Wales, a village that he tells me consists of “50 houses and a phone box.” And a video store. Growing up, he would rent a new video every day after school.Spielberg and Alan Partridge were two major influences in his early life. As a child actor, he played small roles on local programs, including the Welsh soap opera Pobol y Cwm.

“I owe Alex for getting me through those first few ventures.”

He became a theatre major at Trinity College in Dublin but quickly realized he did not want to study acting. Eschewing the performance aspect of theatre, Thomas dove into the philosophical analysis of representation and liveness in the theater. He began editing short films to be viewed along with the theater’s live performances, and The National Theater of Ireland took notice, tapping him to create media to augment the company’s plays.

Buono on the set of Documentary Now!

After graduation, Thomas moved to America and in 2004 became a production assistant for SNL, where film unit director Jim Signorelli mentored both him and Buono. In Thomas’s case, he quickly took on responsibilities outside of his job description, helping with color and editing sessions. Buono was the cinematographer for the film unit at the time, so naturally the two did not have much initial interaction.

“I vaguely remember Rhys as a PA, but he was elevated to producer almost immediately,” Buono recalls. “When I came back to ‘SNL’ [after making the documentary Bigger Strong Faster] Rhys was producing. He definitely made this big step forward while I was away.”

The two were off to an auspicious start, and by 2011 Thomas had worked his way up to a directorial role in the film unit. The sketch “British Movie Trailer” was the duo’s breakthrough production together. “I remember that being my moment of ‘I feel like I can do this,’” Thomas explains, adding, “I owe Alex for getting me through those first few ventures into directing.”

“We’d shoot for 24 hours. You kind of get reckless.”

With the release of “British Movie Trailer,” a new style of SNL sketch was born. Its hallmark was attention to detail. Buono, Thomas, and SNL editor Adam Epstein pushed themselves to create cinema-quality content on the show’s microscopic production schedule. Thomas admits, “That became my addiction, going after something really hard. We would shoot for 24 hours. You kind of get reckless.” But the risks kept paying off.

Thomas on the set of Documentary Now!

When Signorelli retired and Thomas took over the reins as primary director of the unit, the filmmaking style naturally evolved. Focus shifted from broad commercial parodies—SNL‘s bread and butter for more than 30 years — to more filmic pieces. “Authenticity became the goal,” Buono says, “The audience is already in on the joke.”

Verisimilitude became king. Just as Signorelli created a new language of advertisement parody when he started the film unit in 1975, this new school of filmmakers was innovating again. The sketch “History of Punk: Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros,” filmed by Thomas and Buono, stood out for its substance and ultimately led to the creation of Documentary Now!

“Authenticity became the goal.”

At the advent of Documentary Now!, Buono was brought on as a co-director with Thomas, a new role for him. However, the title did not feel like a drastic change. “It felt really comfortable,” he says, “as far as our shorthand and our mutual aesthetic.”

On Thomas’s end, the biggest growing pain was felt in sharing the decision-making process. “Early on it was unnerving,” he admits. But the collaboration has proved to be the saving grace of the show. “I honestly don’t know if there’s a way that one of us could do it by ourselves.”

Thomas and Buono in Iceland for Documentary Now!

Scheduling for Season 3 of Documentary Now! is still being sorted out. In the meantime, Thomas just wrapped Comrade Detective, a “Romanian noir” that feels more like a film in six parts than a half-hour comedy series. The show is shot in Romanian but presented with English dubbing. Thomas enjoys directing in other languages because of the freedom it gives a director. Instead of concentrating on the lines being delivered, he has to focus on the feeling the actor is delivering. The stripping of language goes all the way back to his college fascination with representation in theatre. The audience must try to make meaning for themselves through the unconventional use of language.

Buono is currently directing episodes of the Comedy Central show Detroiters. For that he re-teams with fellow SNL alums Tim Robinson, Zach Kanin, and Joe Kelly. Buono and the Documentary Now! team previously brought Robinson out to Iceland to work on their Season 1 parody of Nanook of the North. “It’s exciting to find new ways to work together,” Buono says of such continued partnerships.

While Buono and Thomas are no doubt enjoying their show’s Emmy nomination, they are not resting on their laurels. The duo is currently developing two new shows, though they are closely guarding further details. However, what we can expect is innovative comedy from two of the most distinctive voices in the genre.

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Currently on the lam from three California public library systems.