Will Ferrell's marathon publicity campaign for "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” has landed his Ron Burgundy character everywhere from car commercials to actual newscasts, which is the last place his pompous creation belongs.
As Ferrell put it during a rare recent appearance as himself at New York's 92nd Street Y: "He's terrible... He's not a good newsperson.
Burgundy, though, is exceptionally good at making us laugh (at him, never with him). But far more than cheap laughs fuel what we’ll call "Anchormania": The buffoonish Burgundy, who tells viewers to "stay classy,” helps us to stay silly.
With Burgundy, Ferrell is riding, to an extent, a current wave of the comedy of the uncomfortable. But unlike, the humor of, say, Larry David, Louis C.K. and Ricky Gervais, we’re somehow not squirming in our seats as blowhard Burgundy stomps across nightclub tables while tooting jazz flute. Instead, we’re enjoying the ridiculous, anti-social trip.
While a pint of Guinness with Gervais’ David Brent might be a slow pour, a scotchy scotch scotch or three with Burgundy and his gang might be fun. His entertainment value is tied to his goofy outrageousness.
Ferrell possesses a rare, perhaps underappreciated talent for sustaining films built around cartoonish protagonists with little surface likeability – from Ricky Bobby of “Talladega Nights” to Brennan Huff of “Step Brothers.” It’s an ability he shares with the master of the genre: Steve Martin, who made the title character of “The Jerk” into a comedy-movie icon.
Even if most Ferrell screen alter egos arrive as jerks, he projects an almost comforting innately decent, man-child-like quality, as best seen in his family friendly turn a decade ago in “Elf.” Ferrell’s appeal, along with the gags, keep us watching – in some cases, again and again.
Burgundy, with his 1970s porno star mustache, has grown on us since “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” was unleashed in 2004. The movie, initially not a huge hit, attracted a cult following that’s made the sequel probably the most anticipated – and certainly most heavily promoted – movie comedy of the year.
Credit Ferrell and partner Adam McKay with creating a throwback character who was ahead of his time. The 1970s newsroom satire came as the Jon Stewart-led “Daily Show” won its second Peabody Award, solidifying the program as the strongest fake news-fest since Chevy Chase first sat behind the “Weekend Update” desk in 1975, during the fictional Burgundy’s glory years.
In 2005, Stephen Colbert upped the ante by expertly playing an arrogant commentator night after night. A year later, Seth Meyers followed Ferrell’s former “Saturday Night Live” cohorts Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to “Weekend Update.” By the time he leaves in February to take over “Late Night” for “Tonight Show”-bound Fallon, Meyers will have served the longest and perhaps most influential “Update” stint.
That’s all evidence that the news game, which has changed vastly in the years since we met Ron Burgundy, is particularly ripe for parody. The new movie puts Burgundy and his team smack in the early 1980s advent of the all-news network cable era, which seems quaint in our Internet-driven world.
Less quaint is the pre-PC, sexist, male-dominated culture that “Anchorman” lampoons. The original film is less a celebration than a funny evisceration of a moronic machismo that’s (hopefully) dissipated over the years (though we would love to see the Fox News, CNN and MSNBC crews rumble "West Side Story"-style, ala Burgundy and his rival San Diego news teams).
Ferrell gets away with risqué and potentially offensive humor by playing a harmless fool (and the flute), and by giving us a strong character in Christina Applegate’s Victoria Corningstone, who found something to love in the goofy egomaniac that is Ron Burgundy.
Ferrell’s also smart enough to surround himself with actors equally adept at playing clueless bumblers, including Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Steve Carell, who softened the edges in forging his version of Gervais’ character in the US edition of “The Office” while never dulling the humor.
If nothing else, Ferrell’s endless “Anchorman 2” promotional campaign shows us he’s willing to put serious work into making us revisit a character no one should take seriously. As we wait to see whether the flick delivers delight in the afternoon (or any other time of day), check out a preview below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.