Reel Estate

IFC's "Documentary Now!" sends up the NYC apartment-hunting experience

Bill Hader as a real estate fabulist and monologuist. 

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How much total do you plan to tip the building staff this year?

If you've yet to see IFC's Documentary Now!, now's the time to start. In what may be one of the funniest episodes yet of the show—a mockumentary series produced by a heavy-hitting team of Saturday Night Live alums that includes Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Myers—New York City's labyrinthine apartment-hunting process is the inspiration for one particularly inspired turn: "Parker Gail's Location is Everything."

It's both a send-up and an homage to writer-raconteur Spalding Gray, whose memoirs he brought to life when he performed them on a stage (and sometimes on camera), with nothing but a desk, a glass of water, and a microphone. (There are also pull-down maps behind him; the set actually comes very close to the set-up Gray had for Swimming to Cambodia, his seminal work.)

Here's how it starts: Parker Gail, the monologuist, sits behind the desk and proceeds to tell the story of how he and his girlfriend, Ramona, are thrown into the real estate search after Ramona informs him that their loft building on Broome Street is turned into a chain store called "Stereo City." "The neighborhood is turning over," he says. "The flophouses are now selling designer jeans, and the discotheques are now selling fro-yo." (It's not clear what time period Gail is in, but the references sound late 1980s through mid-1990s; it's hard to imagine his outrage now at a modern-day SoHo with block after block of Uniqlos and Banana Republics.)

So off they go to find a replacement for their loft that, though so noisy he wonders if there are "little Dutch men banging hammers in the heat pipes," he doesn't really want to leave. (We find out later that Parker literally wonders if there are actual "little Dutch men," but as Ramona says, dating in NYC is hard and well, he's cute, so she ignores this streak of quackiness.) This displacement appears to have sent Parker off down a melancholy road to his childhood, when his parents divorced. 

The hunt, of course, is "overwhelming." So to ground himself, he goes to the park to practice tai chi, which sends him off on another remembrance. There are a number of digressions like these, a la Spalding Gray, and as they build, it becomes clear that Parker is, well, more of a fabulist than a monologuist.

Thank goodness we get to hear the truth from Ramona herself, as well as an African super showing him a place who, in Parker's telling, practically forces him to smoke a spliff after telling him that "these apartments go fast, nothing stays open in this city for long," and a bodega cat who features into his stories—all of whom separate Parker's wheat from his lies. 

A plot twist near the end adds a layer of real estate-related bitterness to the mix, but the episode is worth a look, if only to get affirmation that, yes, the NYC apartment search, and the reasons why you might be thrown into one unexpectedly, can be so unnerving  it could make you do crazy things.  

For a peek into the inspiration for "Parker Gail's Location is Everything," check out this clip from a staging of Swimming to Cambodia of Gray expounding on how NYC, specifically your noisy neighbors in NYC, can change you: