What other comedy filmmakers could learn from Anchorman

Feature Ryan Lambie 4 Apr 2013 - 06:34

In spite of a minimal plot, Anchorman remains one of the finest comedies ever thanks to perfect casting and characterisation, Ryan writes...

By rights, Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy should have been an unqualified failure. Originally conceived as a much more complex movie with a plot that involved a group of organized criminals called The Alarm Clock, Anchorman was radically edited before release, with entire chunks of its story ditched (these excised scenes eventually found their way on the DVD-only Wake Up, Ron Burgundy) in favour of an unconventional tale about male chauvinism in TV journalism, love, redemption and the birth of a panda in a San Diego zoo.

Couple the finished film’s decidedly loose storyline, and a group of characters which, in theory at least, are by turns sexist, small-minded and arrogant, and you have the makings of what could have been a comedy misfire. Yet in spite of all its potential pitfalls, Anchorman not only managed to be hugely entertaining, but inspiring enough to attract a devoted fan-following eager to quote its off-the-wall script, and nine years after the release of the original, the sequel Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is scheduled for release this winter.

A confluence of great writing and inspired casting contributed to Anchorman’s success. Egocentric buffoon Ron Burgundy is undoubtedly Will Ferrell’s finest comic creation, but his performance is matched by those of his Channel Four news team: David Koechner’s hard-drinking, sexually confused sportscaster Champ Kind, Paul Rudd’s predatory yet hapless reporter Brian Fantana, and Steve Carrell’s dangerously slow-witted weatherman, Brick Tamland.

Although their traits are cartoonish, they’re deceptively well balanced. Each character has their more unpleasant flaws, from their archaic attitude to women in the workplace (Anchorman’s nominally set in 1975, though it has a casual attitude to period detail), to Ron’s preening vanity. But these flaws are matched by an almost childlike sweetness; beneath his swagger, Ron’s essentially a lonely old dolt who loves his dog and secretly wants to fall in love and settle down. Champ’s boorish machismo is but a veil for his unrequited love of Ron ("I miss your scent...")  and his inability to come to terms with his closeted sexuality. Brian thinks of himself as a ladies’ man, but his attempt to attract new journalist Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) ends in disaster, and he admits at one point that the closest he’s come to a proper relationship was a wordless encounter with a woman in a supermarket restroom. 

Notice, too, how Brick’s desperately limited intellect is never used as a butt for the other characters’ jokes. Instead, they either quietly ignore his weird non sequiturs, or gently correct him. Like Brick, Ron, Champ and Brian are more to be pitied than blamed for their ignorant, often ridiculous actions and opinions: on one level, it’s quite sad (though we’re never given much time to think about it) that this group of men are so deluded, arrogant or plain daft that they fail to connect in any meaningful way with the world around them.

This is probably why director Adam McKay actually gets away with quite a lot of political incorrectness and outlandish violence. The suspicion and harassment levelled at the recently-appointed Ms Corningstone can at least be partly forgiven because of the quartet’s comical level of ignorance: Brick’s theory that women’s “periods attract bears” is taken at face value by everyone else, including their boss Ed Harken (a brilliant Fred Willard), who sits patiently while Brian accuses him of putting the “entire station in jeopardy.”

Besides, for every disgraceful action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Veronica’s response to Ron’s aggression is to fight back with a can of mace and a television aerial, and then pulling off a prank which inadvertently leads to Ron’s summary dismissal. It’s worth pointing out here that Veronica Corningstone’s character is just as well-constructed as her male counterparts, if not more so. As the film’s underdog, she manages to forge a career in a male-dominated industry, and manages to become US television’s first female anchor - much to Ron’s chagrin. But crucially, her guts, ambition and intelligence (she’s the only character in the entire movie not saddled with a juvenile mentality) are matched by a sense of vanity that’s almost the equal of Ron’s.

The likeability of the characters is such that McKay can get away with such bizarre tangents as an entirely gratuitous West Side Story-style street brawl, an impromptu cover of Starland Vocal Band's Afternoon Delight, and numerous ad-libbed insults and tales of drunken excess (“I woke up on the floor of some Japanese family’s rec room. And they would not stop screaming...”). 

In fact, the characterisation and the cast’s effortless ability to improvise pretty much allows the filmmakers to get away without much of a plot; Ron’s fall from grace and ultimate redemption is swiftly dealt with, and the birth of a panda, an unexpected promotion and the return of the apparently dead mutt Baxter provide a nominal resolution.

There’s much in Anchorman that other comedy writers and filmmakers could learn from. And the most obvious lesson to take from the movie is, if you can make your characters basically sweet and good-natured enough, they can get away with just about anything - whether it’s causing a road accident by throwing litter from a moving car, or throwing a woman across a desk.

Compare the characters in Anchorman to other, more recent comedies such as Due Date or Identity Thief. In both instances, not only are the characters’ actions unpleasant, but they’re actively impossible to like; by the time their respective writers throw light onto their more endearing character tics, it’s already too late.

Creating unpleasant yet magnetic characters is a deceptively difficult feat. As Simon pointed out at the top of his Identity Thief review, the classic Planes, Trains And Automobiles' Del Griffiths should be an absolutely infuriating individual, but thanks to the twin talents of writer and director John Hughes, and John Candy's wonderful performance, we sympathise with his character, even though we feel every twitch and jerk of irritation from the luckless Neal Page (Steve Martin).

Characters aside, it also helps that Anchorman is absolutely full of great, isolated moments, which don’t necessarily require a narrative arc to make them shine. Brian Fantana’s astounding array of fragrances, for example. Or maybe the more incidental yet no less wonderful moments, such as the scene where Brian turns to Ron and says something to the effect of, “Look what you're doing to the group. Champ's a mess. Brick can't sleep at night.” We then cut to Brick smiling and shrugging at a half-eaten banana. It’s an almost indescribable piece of comedy gold that would be nigh-on impossible to capture in a script, yet through a combination of actorly inspiration, masterful editing and sheer serendipity, it’s one of Anchorman’s many sublime moments of humour. 

(On a somewhat related topic, the editing in Anchorman is almost frame-perfect throughout; not only does Brent White deserve more credit for his part in the film’s success as a pitch-perfect comedy, but with the movie lasting an almost perfect 94 minutes, its brevity is something numerous other filmmakers could learn from.)

Only time will tell whether Adam McKay and the returning cast (who’ll be joined by Harrison Ford, one of comedy’s unsung greats, incidentally), can recapture the magic of Anchorman, particularly after almost a decade. But if they can’t, they can at least take solace in one fact: with its mix of great character writing, and improvised as well as scripted flashes of inspired humour, Anchorman’s among the finest (if not the most sophisticated) American comedies ever made - and worth watching time and again.

To quote Burgundy himself, “Drink it in. It always goes down smooth.”

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Disqus - noscript

You could say the same for Caddyshack, script jettisoned for the gold that was happening on set. there was very little plot and so much of the comedy was because you loved the characters created by great comedy actors. I love Anchorman but slightly prefer Caddyshack purely because It was first I think. Hopefully Anchorman 2 is a lot better than Caddyshack 2 (shiver)

Mmm I burnt my tongue.

Your not sure wether caddyshack or anchorman came first?

Aw! Give JP a break. He was obviously in a relationship with both those movies, probably at the same time - a menage a trois or something - and he got used. Obviously JP was out of his league and maybe he took more than he received but he's obviously still very emotionally raw about the whole thing because he meant everything he said and felt and he thought they did as well and that it was all going to last forever. So cut him some slack and just get him some tissues to cry in when he finally realises that they've gone on to better things together and he's been left behind. It's sad.

As for Anchorman 2 - BIGGEST MISTAKE EVER. You cannot bottle lightning twice. That is all.

well Anchorman was set in the 70s and Caddyshack in the 80s....Duh!!

you feeling alright Rock? I'll tell you this though a Menage a Trois with will Ferrell and Chevy Chase sounds like a little bit of heaven. Just putting it out there

i think he means that he perfers it because it came first

I did, I was simply unsure if my preference for caddyshack is solely based on the fact it was first.

Great film. Steve Carrell was perfect and is the only character in recent times I can think of that nails it in every scene he is in, sometimes without even saying anything, other than maybe Ben Stiller in Dodgeball (another hilarious film). These 2 movies along with 40 Year Old Virgin are my go-to films to make me laugh every time!

Interesting point about making your comedy characters likeable. It seems to be something that Hollywood doesn't bother with any more. The worst offender is Seth Macfarlane, who can write funny jokes, but is utterly hopeless at creating characters that are anything other than hateful.

This film is incredibly overrated. Is it just me?

No, but everyone who agrees with you is wrong. :p Just kidding, a lot of people seem not to enjoy Anchorman as much as others, like me, do. Having said that, even I think that this article goes slightly over the top in its praise of the movie.

I never understood the love for this.
I think it's an american thing.
Partridge did it better.

This article smells of rich mahogany.

Well HELL! When you put it like that... Naw. Reckon they'd only have eyes for each other. Leave you sitting in the hotel lounge waiting for a martini that was never ordered.

That's what happened to you Rock, isn't it. Chase and Ferrell used you and now you are permanently angry at the world. go drink some scotch. it'll help. honestly

Yes, probably :P

It was Lance Henriksen and Jackie Chan actually. ****ing weird year man. Memories and scars dude, that's al I got to show for it. Memories and scars. And crabs from that **** Chan.

Not overrated, but massively overquoted!

Ferrell - sorry totally overrated in my opinion!

Sorry to call mild troll BS about being an American thing as Ron Burgundy is just as popular in the UK....and not comparable to Partridge on any level as I cannot think of one direct comparison between the two as far as comedy style goes (for one Partridge was not a period piece)...if you didn't like it fair enough but don't make unfair comparisons or speak for the other parts of the world as a whole as that argument falters due to its popularity abroad...

Last year seemed to be full of these 'comedies' Horrible Bosses' and 'The Change-Up' being prime examples of not doing enough to invest in the outrageous behaviour. Without any sense of humanity in these characters you don't really root for their 'happy-ending' and instead hope they get what's coming to them.

He certainly has more duds than successes, IMO, but when he's on form (Elf, Zoolander) he's great.

The finest performance of every single person involved. Ferrell and Carrell are spot on.

Anchorman genuinely left me completely cold. I wouldn't want a rain on the love for it, but maybe I have no comedy soul. Usually when people tell me I don't get something, I'm happy to tell them that I do, but it just isn't my thing. In this case I'm sure I don't get it. It didn't raise a single laugh, in fact I was actually bored. Usually I can understand when something receives so much adulation but I really have no idea why people love this or why they quote it.

I'll be fascinated to see how the sequel does at the box office; whether it is really loved en masse or just by a small number who adore it.

I totally feel the same way. Everyone I know loves this movie and I didn't find it funny one bit. In fact I was offended by the stupidity of the humor and what it was asking me to accept as funny. I fear I'm just getting old. I'm sure people once said the same things about movies I love like Monty Python and the Holy Grail so I don't judge.

smells like bigfoots dick !!!!! totally juvenile but absolutely awesome at the same time

Your not alone, I'm afraid I find Steve Carrell & Will Ferrell desperately unfunny, but then I don't like Mrs Brown's Boys, Miranda or the Vicar of Dibley funny. So maybe there is something wrong with ME?

Nope. I don't get the love for this either. It's amusing, but not something I'd watch more than once. I have no intention of wasting time on the sequel either.

You stay classy, Den Of Geek

Never “got it“. But Will Ferrell doesn't work for me in anything I've seen. He always seems to be in on the joke and it shows. Liked “The Other Guys“ very much, but not because of him. When it comes to Comedy I highly recommend “Observe & Protect“. Truly unlikable character going batshit crazy but is presented with such warmth that they get you completely shocked in the end. Everybody I watched it with had this creepy feeling getting worse each minute throughout just to be thankful in the end! And with the second time you can laugh more on it than on every other Comedy of recent time. Because you already know the drill. And that's the end of the rainbow.

I think that equals what the author did with “Anchorman“...

It shouldn't work for me. But when they say "Tits Magee", I still chuckle, nine years later...

Sponsored Links