The Ron Burgundy wave

How Will Ferrell’s fake newsman became a real cultural force

Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

Even though he has a voice that makes wolverines purr, and suits so fine they make Sinatra look like a hobo (his words), Ron Burgundy is an odd cultural hero. Yet Will Ferrell’s mustachioed and sexist newsman has become something of a cultural force over the nine years since he graced the screen in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, a relatively small-scale effort that has, defying Hollywood logic, become one of the most influential comedies of our time.

That’s not just Burgundy-esque hyperbole. Anchorman is responsible for not only Ferrell’s outsized film career, but also the success of the some of the funnier men in entertainment today, from co-stars Steve Carell and Seth Rogen to director Adam McKay. The film pioneered what would become the go-to method of comedy filmmaking for the next decade, with its improv-heavy style, which found McKay and producer Judd Apatow urging cast members to do dozens of takes using alternative dialogue. The technique, which Apatow brought over from his television days on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, quickly became the standard in big-screen comedies, popping up in everything from Apatow’s own The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up to Bridesmaids and This Is the End.

And now, with a highly anticipated sequel on the horizon, Ron Burgundy has become an industry unto himself. The fictional newsman is hawking everything from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (the manufacturer has released a new flavour called Scotchy Scotch Scotch) to a line of low-rise Jockey briefs (ad slogan: “Don’t act like you’re not impressed”).

Ron Burgundy may even save Detroit, thanks to an unprecedented tie-in campaign with Chrysler that has an in-character Ferrell making wise-ass sales pitches for the company’s Durango SUV (“Its glovebox comfortably fits two turkey sandwiches, six ball-peen hammers, 70 packs of gum and 20 rulers!”). While Ferrell was only supposed to deliver half a dozen commercials, his creative team produced more than 70 spots—“enough content to span over three months and beyond,” says Olivier François, Chrysler Group’s chief marketing officer. “We’ve seen an almost 80 per cent increase in web traffic alone since the campaign launched in October, and sales increased by 59 per cent that month over October 2012.”

The Burgundy wave has rolled into real-world news, too. Last month, the Newseum in Washington, hoping to capitalize on the trend, or perhaps just a really big fan, opened Anchorman: The Exhibit, featuring props and costumes. “The exhibit has a two-layered approach: to examine the movie and the art of parody, but also to take a look at the serious side of news, and the reality of sexism in 1970s newsrooms,” says Cathy Trost, vice-president of exhibits and programs, who boasts that she now speaks “fluent Ron Burgundy.”

She’s not alone. During a bizarre promotional stop in Winnipeg—where Ferrell-as-Burgundy hosted the Olympic curling trials—the actor got a taste of just how high fans’ expectations are. “It was amazing. People actually came out dressed up as Ron Burgundy, and they seemed awestruck when I walked out,” says Ferrell in an interview, his voice perhaps betraying more doubt about his creation than Burgundy himself would ever allow.

But what fans, as well as non-believers who are tiring of seeing Ferrell’s mustachioed mug everywhere, may forget is that Ron Burgundy was a joke that was never meant to get this far. Earning $90 million at the global box office on a $25-million budget—decent, but nothing compared to the top comedies of the day—Anchorman was initially dismissed as just another mediocre project for an actor still struggling to establish a post-Saturday Night Live identity. Chronicling the bizarre trials and tribulations of a local TV newsman (Ferrell, playing it broad and boozy), the film had its critical defenders—Variety praised its “inspired lunacy”—but was largely passed over by general audiences. And though it contained a wealth of sex jokes—one buffoonish line from Burgundy about the false gynecological origins of the name “San Diego” is particularly memorable—the film lacked any actual sex or nudity, a seeming prerequisite for any successful big-screen comedy at the time (American Pie, Van Wilder).

Yet, after the theatrical dust settled, Anchorman’s off-the-wall antics—talking dogs, news-team rumbles, impromptu musical numbers—helped garner the film a second life on DVD, where it sold more than six million copies, becoming a cable staple for years to come. Slowly, the film became this generation’s Caddyshack—an endlessly quotable piece of pop culture that fostered a sense of belonging among fans, forging friendships for those who can carry on whole conversations in Burgundy-ese.

That the sequel was shelved for years while Ferrell and McKay watched for a glimmer of interest is part of the Anchorman charm. After the pair moved on to Talladega Nights and Step Brothers (the next instalments of what they call their “mediocre American man trilogy”), they tossed around the idea of a follow-up, eventually announcing plans in 2008—four years after the original, an eternity in comedy sequels (the Austin Powers films had two years between them).

“At first, Adam and I were just wondering why anyone would ever want to make a sequel. Just do a different story! We had so many other films that we wanted to make,” Ferrell says. “But then the film just started to grow in popularity in a very strange way. We basically got, in the best possible way, worn down by journalists and fans. I’d be on a press junket for some other movie, and a third of the interview would be, ‘When are you guys doing an Anchorman sequel?’ ”

But even with increasing word-of-mouth and brisk DVD sales, Paramount couldn’t be convinced that the Anchorman effect was real, and shelved the sequel. Undaunted, McKay and Ferrell kept trying. Ferrell and co-stars Carell, Paul Rudd and David Koechner—who had turned into bigger and more expensive names—offered to take severe pay cuts. McKay even proposed an Anchorman musical on Broadway, which could be adapted to the big screen or cable, à la Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush. Finally, in March 2012, eight long years after the first film was released, Paramount succumbed to the growing powers of Anchorman. Ferrell, as Burgundy, appeared on Conan O’Brien’s talk show to confirm the good news: “There will be a sequel to Anchorman!” He then played the jazz flute—Burgundy’s speciality—to the roar of the crowd, who acted as if they had just won the late-night lottery. (O’Brien’s show has served as a platform for Anchorman promotion ever since, with Ferrell periodically popping up in character to either jam with the band or profess support for his “dear, dear friend,” Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.)

This time, Ferrell and McKay’s film was no under-the-radar affair. Gossip websites and overzealous fans tripped over themselves to report on the latest plot development or high-profile cameo. (The first film featured surprise appearances from Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, but the sequel has more celebrities than a Golden Globes luncheon.) Suddenly, Ferrell and crew were in the land of watermarked scripts and clandestine shoots. “It was the first time we had ever been in a process where we had to watch who was coming in and out of the set,” Ferrell says. “Even at the table reads, we had to make sure everyone turned their scripts back in. Paramount was incredibly protective.”

Ferrell, meanwhile—whose latest in-character appearance involved co-hosting a local six-o’clock newscast in Bismarck, N.D.—cautions that he’s only pulling out all the promotional stops because it’s his passion project: “The only thing that does scare me is that all the other studios are now thinking, ‘Oh look, he’ll do anything! Absolutely anything!’ ”

He may be able to keep studio demands at bay. But as much as Ferrell jokes, fans are expecting the world from Anchorman 2. Nine years’ worth of constant teasing can build up expectations.

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