Will Ferrell: Liberal Folk Hero

There is a certain kind of comedian – the best kind, really – who is more  truth-teller than entertainer. We laugh with them because they so perfectly capture with words what the constraints of polite society keep us from saying and sometimes even thinking. A short, incomplete list of these comedians would include Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Margaret Cho, Jon Stewart, Dave Chappelle, and Louis CK.

The medium of stand-up comedy lends itself to this type of truth-telling. A comedian’s weapons consist only of a microphone and a spotlight. There is an immediacy to stand-up comedy that requires truth. In essence, the comedian is just talking to us. Would we suffer through a two-drink minimum to have someone stand there and lie to us? Stand-up comedy, when it works, divulges something personal and something secret. Movies, on the other hand, are less reliant on truth. There are so many filters between an actor’s intellectual sensibility and what ends up on the screen – the director’s vision, the studio’s ideas of what will sell, the interplay with other actors, and, oh yes, the script – that rarely is a singular truth portrayed. But since film was invented and quickly became a medium for the masses, a few comic actors have broken through and have been able to craft a persona that reflects a singular political perspective.

Charlie Chaplin was the first to do this – he was also arguably the first movie star ever. As I wrote in this space on Chaplin’s birthday this year:

“His early films, starring Chaplin as the Tramp, were subtle commentaries on class in America. The Tramp was a friend to the working class and an enemy of authority figures. In one of Chaplin’s most famous films, “Modern Times,” the Tramp gets a job in a factory, and his follies there illuminate the difficult working conditions that the working poor faced on the assembly line.”

Chaplin would become more involved in politics, speaking out in opposition to the activities of the Nazis in Germany and anti-Communist efforts here in the U.S. His films would also become more overtly political, culminating in the brilliant “The Great Dictator,” which skewered Adolf Hitler a full year before the U.S. decided to enter World War II. But even when his films dealt explicitly in politics, Chaplin still played the role of the little guy. That character, which built up such good will from American audiences, earned him the capital with audiences to speak his mind more overtly.

Another example is Eddie Murphy, who was the first black comedic actor who talked about race in a way that was comfortable for white people. Murphy’s stand-up comedy was edgy, but his films weren’t. In most of his early films, he was an fast-talking, inner-city black man who earned the respect of the white establishment. In “48 Hours,” his first starring role, the establishment was embodied by Jack Cates (Nick Nolte), a hard-nosed, racist white cop. In the most famous scene, Murphy’s character controls a bar full of angry rednecks with confidence as his only weapon. This scene, which could have existed only in a blaxploitation film a decade earlier, signified a major shift in perceptions of race in America.

 

Murphy bring a similar dynamic to films such as “Trading Places,” in which his character become accepted in the world of high finance, and “Beverly Hills Cop,” basically the same premise as “48 Hours.”

But in this young century, a new comedic star has emerged and has pushed the political envelope in such subtle ways that practically no one has noticed. With his own production company, he has made a series of films that have reflected changing cultural morays in several key social areas, but because he is so revered by both the intellectual elite and the average American moviegoer, he has been able to push progressivism to a general public that would otherwise be dismissive. That star is Will Ferrell – and when he gets the recognition he deserves, he will one day be known as a liberal folk hero.

Ferrell joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1995. His cast was critically reviled at the time, but he quickly became the breakout star. He specialized in spoofing American cultural institutions, be it cheerleaders, Harry Caray, or the generic American suburban father. There was one sketch, though, that highlighted his willingness to push the boundaries of political correctness to new heights.

NOTE: Sorry for the quality.

 

This sketch, which amazingly appeared less than one month after 9/11, marks Ferrell’s first appearance as a chronicler and satirist of the post-9/11 American mindset. In the clip, Ferrell appears to be going for cheap laughs based on physical comedy (his willingness to use his flabby physique for laughs would also prove to be a trend), but listen to the laughs by the studio audience. This was not just another funny SNL skit; it was a moment of catharsis for a New York audience still very much living in the trauma of 9/11. The catharsis here comes not just from the sight of Will’s lily white posterior; it comes from a place of emotional release. Deconstructing the skit even further, it is worth noting that Ferrell is not making fun of 9/11 or its victims. He is questioning the patriotism and political correctness that surrounded 9/11. Laughing at a tragic event is a key part of the healing process, and it is a tribute to Ferrell and his writers that he found a way to do this less than a month after 9/11. It is in moments like these that comedy plays a key role in our growth as a nation.

Of course, on “Saturday Night Live,” Ferrell also was known for playing George W. Bush. His portrayal of our 43rd president was not particularly satirical; conventional wisdom on the left (and in the center) was that Bush was an idiot, so Ferrell played him as the first in a long series of macho, dumb, arrogant man-children. It was not a particularly cutting portrayal – no Republicans criticized him for it – but it cemented Bush’s legacy in the eyes of many. If there was every any doubt as to Bush’s legacy, it was erased when Ferrell took his impression to Broadway, stretched it out to 90 minutes, and put it on HBO.

 

But in displaying such arrogance, jingoism, and detachment from reality, Ferrell was not just skewering Bush; he was taking on the entire overly-patriotic mindset propagated by those in government and the media – for our purposes, let’s call this the Freedom Fries mindset. The exaggerated, macho patriotism of the post-9/11 era would be the subject of a number of Ferrell’s films, and in satirizing that viewpoint, Ferrell planted himself firmly on the side of liberals.

“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” was his first solo starring role and his first unqualified cinematic hit. As newscaster Ron Burgundy, Ferrell embodied many of the principles discussed above. He was certainly arrogant (“Don’t you know who I am?”) and unquestionably dumb (“I’m Ron Burgundy?”). But the crux of the plot was Ron’s offense at the presence of a strong, intelligent woman in the workplace. In some ways, “Anchorman” was in fact Veronica Corningstone’s story as much as Ron’s. She is often the audience entry point in the script, and her reaction to Ron, which usually settles somewhere between deep revulsion and unexplained attraction, is a guidepost for our own. As further demonstration that she is a key figure for the audience, Veronica even gets her own voice-over at one point.

While “Anchorman” was set in the 1970s, women are still fighting for equality in the workplace. The Lily Ledbetter Act, the first bill that President Obama signed into law, ensures that females in the workforce have proper opportunity to file equal-pay lawsuits. While we certainly cannot demonstrate causality between the popularity of “Anchorman” and the passage of this important legislation for women, it is clear that the film was addressing an issue that was not a thing of the past. It was an issue that was largely hidden from the public debate – until Democrats fought for and achieved the bill’s passage in 2009 – but by setting the film in the 1970s, Ferrell neatly avoids any controversy over its political content.

Part of the way that “Anchorman” dramatized this point of view was by peeling back Burgundy’s macho, arrogant exterior to reveal his insecurities underneath. For an example, examine the following sequence, in which Ron displays comically exaggerated grief – a level of emotion usually associated with women – while Corningstone calmly and professionally puts her emotions aside and delivers under immense pressure.

 

“Anchorman” was directed by fellow Saturday Night Live alum Adam McKay. Ferrell would later go on to found Gary Sanchez Productions with McKay, but immediately after “Anchorman,” the duo made another film that promoted a progressive social agenda. That film, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” lampooned red-state culture and took viewers on a journey towards tolerance. Ferrell played the eponymous Ricky Bobby, an alpha-male, freedom-loving athlete who further embodies post-9/11 patriotism. Even his catchphrase – “if you ain’t first, you’re last” – sounds like something George W. Bush would have said. Ricky Bobby is the best racer in NASCAR, but his supremacy is threatened by a formidable foreign enemy: the French. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Jean Girard, an espresso-drinking, Perrier-sponsored, gay French Formula One racer who is making the switch to NASCAR. The choice of this villain’s nationality is telling – in the era of “Freedom Fries,” the French were an imaginary enemy conjured up by the right-wing media in order to encourage patriotism. Ricky Bobby, apparently, has bought into it. But after Jean wins his first race, Ricky Bobby goes on a journey of self-discovery – similar to how our assumptions about Burgundy were flipped – in which he learns the error of his ways. In this final scene, Ricky Bobby shows that he has learned humility…and a whole lot more.

 

The scene – and the movie in general – works on two levels. To an urban intellectual, the movie reinforces one’s negative perceptions of those who live in fly-over country. If you think that they are dumb, you will find that Ferrell agrees with you, but it will also show that red-state Americans have the capacity for growth – who woulda thunk it? For those who would be more inclined to sympathize with Ricky Bobby, “Talladega Nights” takes them on a true journey towards tolerance. But much like the American thong SNL skit, they can accept it because it comes in familiar packaging – a movie by the guy who made “Anchorman” – and it never asks too much of them. Even in this final scene, after the kiss, Jean goes in for another, and Ricky Bobby, reverting back to his homophobic self, pushes him away. With such progress on the issue of gay marriage and LGBT rights, it worth considering that “Talladega Nights” may have pushed Americans a little closer to those developments. Although we cannot draw a direct line between them, it is clear that Ferrell and McKay were championing progressive causes in their first two films together.

Ferrell’s next comedy, “Blades of Glory,” took on the same issue. It is a story of rival male figure skaters, barred from singles’ competition, who team up to become the first male pairs team. Ferrell plays the same character as always – Chazz Michael Michaels is Ron Burgundy with longer hair. Joining him is the thin and effeminate Jon Heder, as his new partner. The film lays on the romantic and sexual tension pretty thick, and the premise – two men trying to gain respect as the sports’ first same-sex pair – is directly applicable to efforts to secure gay marriage rights. It even uses standard romantic comedy conventions, such as the “public reconciliation”:

 

By employing the type of rhetorical devices usually seen in male-female romantic comedies, “Blades of Glory” signifies a paradigm shift in the way we think about romantic relationships.

After “Blades of Glory,” Ferrell re-teamed with Adam McKay for “The Other Guys,” which both parodied and paid homage to the buddy-cop movie, while teaching us something about the financial collapse. While the two cops work to capture David Ershon (Steve Coogan), multi-billionaire who had lost $32 billion for an investment firm and is now embezzling money from the NYPD pension fund to cover his losses,  the plot evokes themes of Occupy Wall Street and corporate corruption (after Ershon is arrested, the federal government bails out the firm). On the surface, however, “The Other Guys” is just another Will Ferrell movie, and many in the audience won’t even know what message they are getting. McKay shows his cards in the end, however, as he overlays the end credits with a series of visual displays of facts and figures regarding the financial crisis, the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Earlier this year, Ferrell discretely took on the issue of immigration. I say discretely because I have yet to meet a single person who saw “Casa de mi Padre.” The film is a spoof of Mexican soap operas (known as telenovelas), and Ferrell speaks only Spanish as the evil ranchero. It is not exactly a recipe for box office success, which is probably why Ferrell and his production team made it so cheaply. But consider that a key element of immigration is the absorption of one culture into another. It is clear that the U.S. has taken on much of Mexican culture – Taco Bell alone is proof of that. But when one of America’s most iconic movie stars makes a film that pays homage to Mexico’s most popular art form – and immerses himself in it so deeply that he refuses to speak English in the film – it is a note of support for a culture that is widely vilified by the American right. Now that it is on DVD, I hope some people see it.

Finally, there is “The Campaign,” new in theaters. The story of House race filled with dirty tricks, gaffes, and negative campaign ads, “The Campaign” proclaims itself to be decidedly non-partisan. Ferrell’s character, Cam Brady, sounds like a Republican but is never described as such – his focus on “America, Jesus, and Freedom” speaks more to the small-town, religious political mentality than any one political party. But the real subject of the film is campaign finance reform. Neither Cam nor his opponent, Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) is the real villain in “The Campaign.” No, that dishonor falls to the Motch brothers, wealthy industrialists who have bankrolled Cam but then switch their financial allegiance to Marty, after Cam suffers a dip in popularity. The theme – spelled out in dialogue by several characters – is that corporate money has corrupted our political system and Americans do not have a choice. Going by the film’s ending, the people are powerless – only the politicians themselves, by standing up to corporate interests, can save our system.

Ferrell and his director Jay Roach may claim that this is a non-partisan issue, but it is not quite that clear. The Motch brothers are clearly meant to evoke Charles and David Koch, the funders of the Tea Party who have donated millions to Republican candidates. Further, the Citizens United decision, which opened up political campaigns to even more corporate money, was made by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, and legislative efforts to overturn it have been stymied by Senate Republicans. While both parties have elements of populism these days (Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street), the Democrats have typically been considered the party of populism. On the other hand, Democrats take plenty of campaign contributions from corporate interests, as well, so perhaps there is at least an element of non-partisanship to the film’s argument.

 

Still, when taken in the larger context of Ferrell’s career, “The Campaign” is a sharp turn towards overtly political content – even more than playing a sitting president in a one-man show. In that role, he used a widely-assumed perception of George W. Bush to get laughs. In “The Campaign,” he uses his ability to get laughs to make a nuanced point about systemic corruption in our political system.  It is comparable, in fact, to “The Great Dictator,” in which Chaplin used his established comedic persona to make a larger political.

Ferrell’s political comedy is actually more complex – although perhaps no more effective – than that of Charlie Chaplin, who practically invented film comedy. Whereas Chaplin played the role of the oppressed working class in order to gain public sympathy for them, Ferrell often plays the role of the oppressor to an absurd degree to magnify their flaws. He makes his characters as ridiculous as possible but always finds for them a moment of redemption so that those who sympathize with the character might actually learn something. By working this nuanced political dynamic into some of this century’s most commercially successful comedy films, Ferrell may have done more to nudge our country’s citizenry towards progressivism than any Democratic politician.

Yeah. This guy:

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