A Look Back to When Ron Burgundy was “Kind of a Big Deal”…

As I listen to (and enjoy) the new Ron Burgundy Podcast, I’m reminded of conversations I had with Steven D. Greydanus and Paul Chattaway back when Anchorman first hit theaters in July 2004, and when Christian readers objected to my positive review of the film. The best apologist for Ron Burgundy turned out to be, strangely enough, G.K. Chesterton. I posted about that here.

What follows is an abridged, edited amalgam of my original Christianity Today review of Anchorman and the expanded version of that review that was then published.

I find it amusing now to see how hard I worked, and how formal I sounded, in trying to preach the Gospel of Ron Burgundy to Christian readers. But today, I find that Anchorman remains one of my all-time favorite comedies. My appreciation of its strengths deepened over the years as I revisited it again and again.

Will Ferrell is one of those comedians. Some people “get it.” All he has to do is stare poker-faced into the camera, and they start laughing. Others “don’t get it,” and think he’s just trying to be offensive or annoying.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy will do nothing to change that. Farrell’s fans will enjoy 91 minutes of what they’ll consider uproarious comedy, while others will again be repelled by his brand of buffoonery.

The Genius of Will Ferrell

To trace the history of bawdy humor, you’d have to investigate literature as timeworn as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and beyond. Writers as prominent as Shakespeare, Chesterton, and even C.S. Lewis appreciated risqué humor, so long as it was artfully delivered.

Television’s Saturday Night Live has been a factory of bawdy humor for decades. Most of it has been crass, cheap, and even mean-spirited. But occasionally, it has been sophisticated, and has helped us avoid taking ourselves too seriously. Further, it has sometimes poked fun at things that needed to be laughed at. Dan Akroyd and Steve Martin made a mockery of swinging ’70s bachelors with their “wild and crazy guys.” Mike Meyers lampooned the inappropriate sexual recklessness of James Bond in his Austin Powers series. And a few years back, Will Ferrell poked fun at brash, libertine sexuality with a series of hot-tubbing skits.

Now that Ferrell’s conquering the big screen, he’s bringing his own brand of bawdiness with him. And it’s my responsibility as a critic to inform you, much of the humor in Anchorman is off-color, sophomoric, and just plain dirty.

But, in the name of full disclosure, I must also admit that my funny bone gets clobbered almost every time Ferrell opens his mouth.

I’ve liked Farrell from the moment he stepped into the big shoes of Phil Hartman as the most talented all-purpose character actor on the show. When we watched Will Ferrell, we got something different every time, something unpredictable. Unlike Mike Meyers or Chris Kattan or Adam Sandler, he never winked at the audience. He focused on the character, and gave us a whole host of unforgettable buffoons: the bearded organ player, the uninhibited cheerleader, brilliant caricatures of President Bush and In the Actor’s Studio host James Lipton.

My favorite character, though, appeared only once. Ferrell appeared as an anchorman who lost his mind and his conscience when the teleprompter broke. When that happened, he and his news team revealed that without the teleprompter, they were nothing more than imbeciles and, in fact, savages. By the end of the news cast, they had degenerated into beastly noisemaking and killing each other. It was absurdly over-the-top. SNL had never taken a skit to such shockingly funny extremes since Dan Akroyd’s famous Julia Child sketch.

These skits established Ferrell as one of the greats, up there with Phil Hartman, Chevy Chase, Dan Akroyd, and frequent guest Steve Martin. He belongs in that pantheon because he has his own distinct brand of comedy, something that sets him apart from other SNL alumni. Ferrell’s portrayals are funny because he’s exposing commonly idiotic behavior by exaggerating it. Ferrell’s characters, from SNL to Elf, have one thing in common — they believe they understand how the world works, but they don’t understand it at all. Thus, they are completely unaware of every faux pas they commit. And when something suddenly awakens them to the truth, their righteous anger is even funnier. (Who can forget that great moment in Elf, when our poor Christmas hero realizes that a department store Santa is not the real Santa, and he roars, “You sit on a throne of lies!”?)

Unlike Robin Williams’ famously obscene standup comedy, Ferrell’s comedy is not indulging in the crass in order to make us laugh. It’s drawing our attention to the humiliating realities of ego and self-absorption. He’s not condoning his characters’ behavior; he’s highlighting the lunacy of it. We’re not laughing at the expense of those he insults, but at the fact that anyone could be so spectacularly oblivious to their own ego, selfishness, and childishness.

Further, while other SNL stars tend to wink at the audience and turn in lazy performances, Ferrell completely commits to his characters, investing the same energy in his performance as Oscar-caliber actors give to dramatic roles.

Ron Burgundy: Ferrell’s Perfect Character

Thus, the character of Ron Burgundy, “legendary anchorman,” is perfect for Ferrell. By inhabiting this egomaniacal, idiotic anchorman, he highlights the truth about television news. It’s entertainment disguised as information, a show of photogenic faces, glamorous hairstyles, and pleasant voices delivering sound bites of drama, shock value, and sentimentality. “He was like a god,” the narrator adoringly intones. “He had a voice that would make a wolverine purr.” When Burgundy is groomed for the cameras, he bellows, “Everyone come see how good I look!” And that’s funny. He’s not aware that he’s guilty of more journalistic crimes than Michael Moore. He believes he’s an authority, when really he’s just photogenic.

Co-written by Ferrell and head SNL writer Adam McKay, Anchorman was inspired by a documentary in which veteran news anchormen reminisce about how upset they became when women made their way into the boys’ club newsrooms of the ’70s. Burgundy’s inappropriate newsroom manner is based on the testimonies of anchors who sipped scotch and smoked right at the news desk. What many viewers will write off as mere political incorrectness was very much a part of the scene and the times.

But Ferrell doesn’t dwell on this or try to make the film important. Instead, he uses this rich context as the launching pad for wild departures. And he prefers surprising us with improvisational absurdities — “Knights of Columbus! Great Odin’s Raven! By the beard of Zeus!”” — to pummeling us sucker-punch expletives.

As in that classic SNL sketch, Burgundy relies on the teleprompter to make himself sound intelligent — something that becomes a fatal flaw. But when he’s not reading the news, he lacks anything close to eloquence, preferring to express his excitement with things like “That’s nice!” and “Neat-o!” His pickup lines and bedroom talk make the whole audience wince in unison.

The flimsy plot  assembled for the convenient sequencing of several SNL-style skits  begins with Burgundy’s initial infatuation with a newcomer to the studio, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). His unlikely seduction of Corningstone follows, and then his subsequent outrage at her ascent to the role of co-anchor in what had been until then a man’s game. The two engage in outrageous spats, ending in Burgundy’s ruinous defeat and banishment from newscasting, and, finally, his return, in which he must choose between a career-capping professional triumph or the heart of the woman he once loved.

A Better-Than-Average Supporting Cast

Next to his lecherous news team, a surprisingly funny array of sidekicks, Burgundy looks like a saint. Ferrell is restrained enough to let each actor create memorably wacky characters. Their attempts to woo Corningstone and the tantrums they throw when they fail only emphasize their immaturity. Behind their camera-ready facades, they’re spoiled brats and playground bullies, prone to crying when they don’t get their way.

Brian Fontana (Paul Rudd) is a sex-crazed reporter who tries to impress the ladies with a cologne that “contains pieces of real panther.” Champ Kind (David Koechner), the cowboy sports reporter, adores his anchorman a little too much. Brick Talmand (Steve Carell) is a scene-stealing weatherman who’s always a step or two behind his brainless cohorts. Carrell walks away having scored almost half of the film’s biggest laughs.

Like the summer’s other big comedy DodgeballAnchorman shows an inspired talent for surprise appearances. Burgundy and the boys face off with Wes Mantooth (Dodgeball‘s Vince Vaughn) in a scene that could be called Gangs of San Diego, and the scene escalates into an enormous, frenzied brawl that features more than one celebrity cameo.

Trying to keep this crew under control, news producer Ed Harken (Fred Willard, in another winning supporting role) is often sidetracked by telephone calls reporting the disastrous exploits of his offspring. In one of many playful references to ’70s naïveté, he confesses that his youngest boy is “on something called acid.” When he appeals to his crew to appreciate “diversity,” Burgundy guesses that the word is a reference to a Civil War-era ship.

Applegate’s Corningstone is the cookie-cutter women’s-lib champion, storming her way into the spotlight. “Ladies can do things now,” Burgundy is told in what seems to him a profound revelation, “and you’re going to have to deal with it.” Applegate was a good sport to play “straight man” to Ferrell’s insults and disgusting compliments, and even throws herself into some newsroom smackdown. At times, it seems like she’s struggling to keep a straight face while Ferrell shouts whatever wild notions come into his head.

(Attention, blooper fans: The end-credits run alongside a variety of goof-ups and losses of composure, and there’s an outtake pinned to the very end of the last reel.)

Lowbrow, Cheap, But Bound for Cult Classic Status

Everything leads to a preposterous finale set in a zoo. For those who have surrendered to Ferrell’s inanity, it may be the pinnacle of the film; others may give up entirely and head for the door. (One of my colleagues gave up on it and walked out long before that.)

I said it before, and I’ll say it again, just to be sure viewers don’t waste money on something they don’t want: Anchorman does indeed require a heavy caution to viewers. There is a great deal of innuendo-heavy dialogue and frequent genital-oriented punchlines. It’s not as objectionable as Old School, and compared to Dodgeball it looks like high art. But anyone expecting the safe, PG-quality humor of Elf may be shell-shocked by the frequent jokes about Burgundy’s sexual egomaniaParents, take note: This is not a kids’ movie. The film includes much that is inappropriate for young viewers, including a moment when Burgundy unwittingly utters the same “colorful” term recently defended by Vice President Dick Cheney. (Republicans, beware: The Bush administration is the butt of the joke that won the evening’s biggest laugh at the Seattle screening I attended.)

Seattle film critic Moira Macdonald mentioned to me that she thinks most of Anchorman‘s best jokes were done better by Ted Baxter, the anchorman on the ’70s television series The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I suspect she’s right.

But Anchorman is not as much about news as it is about the chance to unleash Ferrell’s irrepressibly zany personality. More than his famous Elf or the comedies in which he’s been a scene-stealing supporting player (Starsky and Hutch, Old School, Zoolander, Austin Powers), Anchorman establishes him as a formidable comic force reminiscent of Steve Martin when he was The Jerk or Chevy Chase when he was Fletch.

We can hope that Ferrell will discover he does not need the locker-room humor to make us laugh. It is precisely in his departures from this that he finds his most inspired moments. Until then, though, we have this mix of genuine comic bravado and sophomoric punchlines.