Culture Warrior

Will Ferrell is a funny man. This seems to be a fact undeniable even to those who don’t otherwise care for his brand of comedy. Even though his schtick has become reliably familiar – he often plays variations of an over-privileged adult child who is hopelessly naïve in certain categories of social life and prone to random bursts of livid anger – its regularity has yet to prevent Ferrell’s comic talents from growing stale. There seems to also be some indescribable aura at the core of Ferrell’s comic talent, something about his appearance and demeanor that can’t be explained through analyses of timing and punchline, as evidenced by his strange appearance on Jimmy Fallon last May.

For many, Ferrell’s comic appeal has been this essential, indescribably funny core since his SNL days. Ferrell is funny not exclusively because of his physical comedy or imitable characters; he, as a force of nature, is pure farce (a farce of nature?). But as his film career continues to accumulate titles and as his unique comic sensibilities become better-known with his roles as producer and writer, it’s clear that, beneath his farce, Ferrell has a confrontational political and satirical streak underlying much of his work, which has naturally led to him portraying a politician in Jay Roach’s The Campaign. Ferrell’s roles, however, often exercise a fascinating and occasionally self-defeating tension between satire and farce, with one element substituting, rather than laying the groundwork for, the other.

Here’s an overview of the politics of Will Ferrell’s comedy, from his work on SNL to The Campaign

The SNL Years (1995-2002)

While Ferrell performed functional impressions of Clinton-era politicians Al Gore and Janet Reno during the 90s, his portrayal as George W. Bush – undeniably the most fundamentally (if tragically) comic president of the modern era – overlapped greatly with much of the public perception of the president himself. Ferrell channeled a Bush who frequently stumbled over words and had a difficult time understanding concepts intrinsic to executive office. In other words, Ferrell played Bush as a man completely unfit for the presidency; that, in of itself, was the joke.

Ferrell’s Bush was received as largely politically inoffensive to the right at the time, mainly because his portrayal seems more farcical (Bush/Ferrell treats the serious lightly) than satirical (critique-via-comedy). Ferrell’s Bush was an uncanny invocation of the president’s personality, not his politics. Ferrell would later revive his take on Bush for fake campaign commercials in 2004 and the 2009 stage play You’re Welcome America. Especially in the latter, Ferrell’s Bush was more cognizant of his own political agenda, and therefore, more reprehensible.

However, a certain sketch provided a more fitting preview of the politics of Ferrell’s comedy as it would later be manifested in film. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, comedy was rather delicate territory; but when hit right, some comic moments were transcendentally cathartic. In SNL’s second show after 9/11, Ferrell played an office worker wearing little more than an American flag speedo while his befuddled officemates sit shocked at the sight of his red, white, and blue crotch in their faces. The scene is a classic exercise in physical comedy; all Ferrell had to do was pretend nothing was amiss while his body is on display in the most confrontational of ways. So, once again, on the surface this skit seems apolitical: the joke is a slightly overweight man wearing a Speedo to an office meeting. But the skit also keenly calls into question of where the line can/should be drawn in superficial adornments of patriotism during insecure times.

Fitting Ferrell’s later works, the light satirical layer of this sketch wasn’t the source of its comedy, but persists there nonetheless.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

In an era where clear progress is being made in social issues, mainstream comedy made a decisive switch from making jokes at the expense of categories of people to finding humor the naïve perspective of the ignorant that reject social change. This conflict is at the center of Adam McKay’s Anchorman, which uses its 1970s women’s liberation-era setting to chronicle the resistance by old-school alpha males to changes in the gender makeup of the workplace. The film’s “past-ness” is a helpful cover in this regard: we are permitted to laugh at Ferrell and company’s overt sexism out of a complicit agreement that sexism was “then” and things are better “now.”

While undeniably one of the funniest films to be released by a major studio in the 21st century, Anchorman hardly resolves the socio-political tensions it portrays through humor. The film’s major comic instinct is embracing the patently absurd, but this clashes with the clear political context upon which that absurdity is built. Take the fights between Ron Burgundy and Christina Applegate’s Veronica Corningstone; “go back to whore island” and “I’m going to punch you in the ovaries” are, in initial affect, funny statements because of their brazen, over-the-top absurdity and Ferrell’s clearly semi-improvised delivery. But are these statements funny because we’re laughing at Burgundy the ignorant asshole, or because the movie itself is, to en extent, asking the viewer to join in on the boys’ club?

It’ll be compelling to see how these tensions play out in the film’s sequel, which seeks to address race in the 1970s, especially its release within the mirage of our “post-racial” present.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

I know several die-hard Ferrell fans that rank McKay’s Talladega Nights – one of Ferrell’s biggest financial successes – amongst his weakest entries. While Ricky Bobby is a notably less memorable character than Ron Burgundy or Buddy the Elf, and Ferrell himself is often overshadowed by a large supporting cast, scenes like the family dinner or Ricky Bobby stabbing himself in the leg to prove his paralysis leave me in stitches. But Talladega Nights is also Ferrell’s shrewdest political film yet. It’s the rare type of film that speaks directly to red and blue pockets of the US simultaneously, but in incredibly different ways. For some, it’s a comedy that uses the great American sport of NASCAR racing as its setting; for others, it lampoons the ridiculous sport and its associated red-blooded culture. For some, Sacha Baron Cohen’s French homosexual driver Jean Girard is a formidable villain opposite Ricky Bobby’s authentic Americana; for others, Girard is a parody that embodies absurd red state fears.

The “taste of America” kiss that ends the film is a perfect illustration of this dual function and its resulting tensions: it both signals Girard’s indocrination into American values and exceptionalism after Ricky Bobby’s win, and it threatens the image of the NASCAR driver as some sort of straight masculine ideal. I saw the film in theaters twice: once in Los Angeles, and the other time in Waco, Texas, my home town. The former setting met this moment with cheers, and the latter with proclamations of “ew” and uncomfortable laughter. Satire sometimes works best when an audience is oblivious to the fact that they’re being satirized. And Talladega Nights, perhaps more than any studio film released between 2000 and 2008, illustrates the schizophrenia of living in Bush-era America.

(For my take on the politics of McKay/Ferrell’s The Other Guys, click here.)

The Campaign (2012)

In anticipation of The Campaign’s release, some predicted that Ferrell’s Congressman Cam Brady would provide an updated take on Ferrell’s Bush, but Brady is more like a darker, oversexed version of Buddy the Elf: his end goal is simply to get people to like him. Besides the film’s welcome critique of Citizens United, the Koch brothers, and empty campaign rhetoric, The Campaign is surprisingly toothless and almost apolitical. We don’t, for example, ever even find out what political party Brady represents (though the film seems to chronicle something like a Cruz/Dewhurst primary).

However, The Campaign’s apolitical component may be very point of the film. It’s a reverse of the traditional Ferrell formula: on the surface, the film presents itself as a political satire, but at its heart it’s pure farce. The Campaign illustrates that very little of politics today actually is political, and instead works as an institution focused on character assassination and superficial nods to religion. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t missed opportunities to this formula. Take a debate scene late in the film, where a discussion of a childhood book Brady wrote titled “Rainbowland” quickly escalates into an all-out brawl. That The Campaign, a film so enamored by its own absurdity that it doesn’t acre to be logically consistent enough to let shocking moments actually shock, resorts to physical comedy so abruptly in this scene (which, illustrating its lack of inspiration, recycles one of its own jokes) signals that The Campaign is just as uncomfortable with lampooning policy as its characters are discussing it.

Final Thoughts

Will Ferrell is no Jon Stewart. He doesn’t use comedy as a podium from which to make a clear political critique. The value of his humor does not come from the satisfaction of bringing accountability to the corrupt by highlighting the absurdities of the powerful. Ferrell is also no Stephen Colbert; he rarely plays characters to manifest double-voiced satire; and when he does, it’s often so obvious that it falls flat. Ferrell’s comedy is rather deceptive. On the surface, his work is apolitical, rooted in farce, his signature shtick, physical humor, and abrupt changes in tone. By being, on the surface, “simply funny,” much of Ferrell’s work is accessible to and appreciated across the political spectrum.

But in tandem (and sometimes beneath) this farcical exterior is an attempt at satire that doesn’t always rest comfortably with the farcical surface elements. It seems that, with The Campaign, Ferrell has come to a decisive moment in these most politically divided and divisive of times in needing to firmly resolve where exactly he wants his comedy to come from and accomplish. But on the other hand, when Ferrell does mix farce and satire well (as he does in the patriotic Speedo skit on SNL and Talladega Nights), the result can be funnier and more subversive than either comic tendency on its own.

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