What other comedy filmmakers could learn from Anchorman

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. 

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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.

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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.”

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