‘Anchorman 2’ is bigger, bolder, brasher and more bizarre than its antecedent, but it also gives a pertinent critique of the medium it has chosen to satirise.
There’s a reason why few comedies have sequels. Good sequels, anyway. There’s always the odd exception to the rule.
One could cite the second Austin Powers film as a better execution of the self-aware ‘60s Bond spoof that the original promised, and the second Star Wars prequel was hilarious (full disclosure: my coping mechanism is to treat all George Lucas films post-1990 as farce). Too often, though, you get examples like The Hangover 2 or Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde, which just retell their jokes, but broader, and to diminishing effect.
By the time you are up in the Police Academy 6 and Blues Brothers 2000 territory, whatever comic potential was in the original text has not only run dry, but the well has been poisoned, the earth has been salted, and the dead have been strung up as a warning to passers-by (a practice still less vile and disturbing than Son of the Mask).
Most times it’s because the sequel breaks one of the first and most fundamental rules of comedy: never overstay your welcome. To be overly simplistic about it, a joke told well has a natural lifespan: a set-up, an execution, and a natural resolve. Humour requires room to riff, of course – to iterate and expand upon its premise – but brevity is the soul of wit. If the joke already landed, then you don’t need to tell it again; and if you’ve left so much room in a gag that it requires an entire other film in order to fill it in properly, then chances are you didn’t tell it right in the first place.
It’s for this reason that when the sequel to Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) was initially announced, many fans of the first film braced themselves for disappointment. Good comedy sequels are so infrequent, and the first film was such a peculiar case of lightning in a bottle, that you didn’t have to be Hipster McCynicton to have a voice whispering in your head that this could well be another watered down rehash set to tarnish the unique charm of its predecessor.
For those who weren’t fans of the original film, who looked upon it as a complete mystery, this fear might seem completely ridiculous. Isn’t it near impossible to screw up an Anchorman sequel, they might ask. After all, wasn’t the first one just a series of obtuse abstractions and nonsense awkwardly strung together in a hackneyed fall-from-grace redemption story? To which fans of the film (such as myself) would respond: Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what it was. And precisely why it was so ingenious.
Happily its sequel – fully aware both of its comedy legacy and the difficulty of returning to a joke already told – folds this meta-knowledge baggage into itself, expanding upon the social commentary begun in its first installment. It turns itself into a myth, bigger, bolder, brasher and more bizarre than its antecedent, but with a far more pertinent critique of the medium it has chosen to satirise.
One of Will Ferrell’s strengths as a comedian is the seemingly effortless way that he can marry the grandiose with the inane. He will have his characters, in moments of shock or pain cry, ‘By the beard of Zeus!’ or ‘Great Odin’s Raven!’ or ‘Knights of Columbus that hurt!’ He describes a dog dispensing emotional advice (who had just gotten finished pooping in his fridge) as a hairy little Buddha. Step Brothers contains the pronouncement, ‘I would follow you into the mists of Avalon’, and Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby begins with the epigraph: ‘America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed,’ a quote it attributes to Eleanor Roosevelt, 1936.
Although an exceptional actor with a deceptively broad range, Ferrell has become most famous for characters that similarly embody extreme dualities: emotionally arrested man-children playacting adulthood, hyperactively enthused dullards, posturing fools. Ron Burgundy, the titular ‘anchorman’ of the series, is a distilment of all of these contradictions.
The quintessential blustering, ignorant narcissist, Burgundy, despite being tasked with the solemn duty to report the news, was little more than a glorified loudhailer. He symbolised the move away from figures like Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite – actual reporters who delivered stories they were instrumental in producing – toward polished ‘broadcasters’, figures valued more for their ability to enunciate properly and project gravitas, rather than possessing any actual journalistic skill. A news reader rather than news man.
In the first film, Ron’s lack of depth and self-awareness is an excuse to dig beneath Burgundy’s vacuous entitlement, to use him as the emblem of an antiquated, sexist world view that needed to be shaken up. In the sequel, it’s symbolic of something far more frightening.
Not all that surprisingly then, looked at in isolation, the first Anchorman is probably funnier than its sequel. As a straight up comedy, the original has the perfect blend of novelty, surprise, and genuine exploration that makes a comedy sing. There’s a sense of unbridled glee and potentiality in every non sequitur and aside. Characters break into song or slide into a sexual cartoon interlude. Newsmen can be summoned by blowing on a conch shell, and brown bears have a secret society that befriends heroic, wandering terriers.
Meanwhile, Ron’s capacity to undercut a moment of surreal delusion with reality (‘Brian, I’m going to be honest with you: that smells like straight up gasoline’) is still testing the borders of this plastic universe; the narrative could swing wildly and inexplicably, from giddy excess to quiet normality and back again, each time taking the audience by surprise. Consequentially, one of the most iconic moments of the first film was the dramatic smash cut from a bloody street brawl to those same characters, having somehow escaped the carnage, sipping beers and reminiscing about how weird that whole mess was: ‘Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.’
Anchorman is filled with these kinds of illuminating misdirects – gags that its surreal, free associative excess employed to grand effect for laughs, or even to pack an unexpected narrative punch. Perhaps the most impactful, if subtle, example of the elegance beneath the stupidity was the way in which the film stripped out all of its bad language.
Ron curses throughout the first half of the film in a Mad Lib blender of Norse mythology and body parts; Veronica, despite being surrounded by incompetence and sexism can only manage to bluster that the outrage she is suffering is ‘Baloney!’; but this curiously watered down swearing is all so that when a real profanity is uttered – ‘Go fuck yourself, San Diego’ – it has exactly the right punch. It blindsides the audience. The artful facade that the film had crafted – the comfortable, predictable space that it had subconsciously established – is ruptured by the buffoon at its centre. It’s played for a laugh, but the audience shares the blasphemous jolt that reverberated through the fiction.
Most importantly however, this misdirection was a pivotal component of the ultimate message (such as it was) of the film. Because at its heart, Anchorman was ultimately a story concerned with gender inequality. Despite the advertising material and title of the film claiming to be the story of Ron Burgundy – the best damned newsreader who ever shook his magnificently coifed mane at a camera lens – in truth, the narration, the broad characters, the whole swaggering tone of the film was just one elaborate misdirect.
It was really about Veronica Corningstone – a woman struggling to break through the glass ceiling of the KVWN Channel 4 newsroom. It was a broad comic spectacle, but what it was skewering was the arbitrary patriarchy that had propagated, without justification, for generations:
Veronica: Mr. Burgundy, you are acting like a baby.
Ron: I’m not a baby, I am a man. I am an anchorman.
Veronica: You are not a man. You are a big fat joke.
Ron: I’m a man who discovered the wheel and built the Eiffel Tower out of metal and brawn. That’s what kind of man I am. You’re just a woman with a small brain. With a brain a third the size of us. It’s science.
Ron’s a relic of the past, a representative of the history that claimed to have made the wheel and built towers, but that was now standing in the way of any further innovation and growth. As the bartender played by Danny Trejo states, when Ron is at his emotional nadir:
You know times are changing. Ladies can do stuff now. nd you’re going to have to learn how to deal with that.
And so Ron and his companions—a preened, facile, self-involved, boozing boy’s club; the embodiments of image without substance – were going to finally have their cosseted haven shaken by the introduction of a woman, a talented professional who had to overcome the prejudice and marginalisation she faced in order to do her work – even if her menstruation, they feared, could very well attract bears.
Coming up After the Break…
Going into a sequel, it’s not as easy to surprise an audience, and by the point of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, as is true of most every comedy franchise, the barometer for the universe’s nonsense had already been calibrated. Consequentially, Anchorman 2 immediately shows an awareness of this truth. The restrictions on swearing are immediately abandoned.
Familiar jokes are expanded or iterated upon: Brian has a condom collection now as a substitute for his man-musk museum; Ron confronts a shark rather than a bear in the conclusion; Vince Vaughn’s character just shows up with little to no explanation; the newscaster brawl of the first film is ...escalated. The film knows that it can’t surprise in the way that it did the first time, but it can build upon its own history and put it to good use, comically, narratively, and thematically.
Perhaps the moment most symbolic of this escalation ironically comes from the character with the least capacity to grow. If you’ve been alive in the past ten years, you know that one of the most over-quoted lines from the first movie (aside from ‘I ate a big red candle’, or ‘I love lamp’, or, who am I kidding, everything other single thing that he says), is Brick Tamland’s enthused recollection: ‘I killed a guy with a trident.’
In the midst of an utterly tangential fight scene between rival newscasters, Brick (played by Steve Carell) had pulled out a trident and flung it into the torso of another human being – who was riding a horse – making it the zenith of the scene’s escalating lunacy. In the sequel however, when round two of this battle plays out, not only does the trident return, but Brick and his companions find themselves fighting an actual minotaur on a battlefield ripped with explosions and carnage.
They are even trumpeted into action by some kind of nonspecific mythic deity – El Trousia, Maiden of the Clouds. This trident moves from a random, ornamental piece of glorified cutlery in a back alley scuffle, to confirmation that the creatures of Greek mythology and legend are real.
Having taken the first film’s romanticised tone, in which Burgundy’s story was recounted as though it were a defining American folk tale in the tradition of Paul Bunyun and Johnny Appleseed (‘The Legend of Ron Burgundy’ was literally the film’s subtitle), the sequel goes even further, repeatedly attempting to write Burgundy and company into the pantheon of mythology.
At the moment that Ron is shown to be indulging his ego too much, losing sight of his journalistic principles and turning his back on his friends, he is described by the narrator as being like Icarus. As the film declares, in the myth, Icarus, dizzy with the sin of pride, flew too close to the sun on manufactured wings; and Ron too, carried aloft by hubris, is described as having ascended only to fall. ...That, or he skated over a stray microphone cord while dressed like Siegfried, Roy, or one of the tigers.
Similarly, after his accident, when he finds that he is blind, he is likewise presented in relation to a figure from myth. As he screams for answers, wondering what will now become of his life now that he is a disabled social pariah, his doctor informs him that he might find profitable employment as an oracle or a mystic. He becomes, effectively, Tiresias from Oedipus Rex. And given that he does eventually operate as a soothsayer of the horrors that cable news will one day inflict upon the fourth estate, this joke is chillingly prescient.
Ultimately, however, although this name is never cited in the film, Burgundy’s story aligns with that of another mythic hero: Prometheus. His is the Promethean story of stealing fire to deliver to the mortals – only tragically inverted. Rather than bringing light and enlightenment to the masses, he perfects a means of allowing them to wallow in complacent ignorance. He gives them the news you feel. News that, in this model, is no longer about informing people, but indulging them.