Let’s just say it: the first 10 minutes of Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome, America: A Final Night with George W. Bush are terrible.
It’s during these opening moments that the show launches into too-easy swipes at Dick Cheney, a series of wildly unnecessary jokes about New York’s “faggy” theatre district, borrows liberally from some of the Seth Meyer-penned election skits that SNL ran prior to the 2008 Presidential election (specifically in referring to Barack Obama as “the Tiger Woods guy”), and even references back to some of Ferrell’s own films (specifically to the “Jesus prayer” that defined the family dinner scene in Talladega Nights).
It feels clichéd, hackneyed, and — worst of all — lazy. Anyone could do these tired jokes; we just expect more from Will Ferrell.
However, once Ferrell launches into Bush’s biography, we get what we’d expect from a 90-minute, Ferrell-lead Bush-bashing Broadway show — and for the most part, it’s good.
Conceived with Ferrell’s frequent directing partner Adam McKay, You’re Welcome America (penned entirely by Ferrell) was designed to run following the 2009 Presidential Inauguration, a chance for “Bush” to set the record straight about his controversial time in office. Ultimately, the show excels when it’s either sticking strictly with the historical facts or going off on the most absurd tangents humanly possible — the latter of which Ferrell does particularly well.
Take, for example, how Ferrell goes through Bush’s pre-Presidential days with relative quickness and grace, noting how Bush’s first business venture (running an energy company) went bankrupt, how his various early pursuits of office failed spectacularly, and how he eventually became the only two-term governor of Texas, once even declaring a state-wide “Jesus Day” — all of which is true. It is here that the jokes are simple yet effective, Ferrell being able to hang #43 by his own words and delivering some fantastic punch lines out of it (“I’m a Texan through and through — a Texan who was born in Connecticut!”). The various projections behind Ferrell confirm certain out-there anecdotes as being factual (like his quote of making “the right decision ever”), and — just for the hell of it — occasionally show pictures of his penis (you have been warned).
On the absurd front, Ferrell can occasionally go for the easy gross-out joke (his whole “muff” experience) or the outrageous visual gag (like a erotically charged dance-off with Condoleezza Rice [Pia Glenn]), but Ferrell’s best moments remain when he just sits down and writes a good story. The best example of this is how as part of the Coalition of the Willing, Morocco pledged some 2,000+ soldier monkeys for combat for the wars in the Middle East (which is true), and Ferrell absolutely runs with that tangent, hoping that the Army would be able to train the monkeys to be killing machines while also entertaining the children, the whole plan falling apart because — as one military expert tells him — they’re hard to train because they are wild monkeys.
Ferrell then warns the audience of stopping by restrooms on long road trips for fear of a speargun-wielding monkey jumping out of a toilet and killing you (then noting that since he accepted Morocco’s pledge, speargun attacks in America have “gone up one-thousand percent”). It is during moments like these that Ferrell has obviously hit his stride.
The show does, however, run into a few questionable patches, particularly in regards to its serious moments. Although Bush is still an unbelievably easy target for just about any comedian ever, Ferrell at least deserves commendation for at least trying to grant the guy some gravitas. Although the post-My Pet Goat moment is given some breathing time, Ferrell at one point makes things deadly serious, discussing the decision to send US troops into harm’s way for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The entire Cort Theater goes silent as he mentions how these kind of decisions caused him to cry in private several times, then asking for the audience to observe a moment of silence for those that have fallen.
For a show that has been so delightfully absurd and carefree, this detour into serious subject matter comes as a bit of a surprise, and, sadly, it feels awkward in consideration with the rest of the show, especially given that the way that Ferrell goes out of it back into the comedy isn’t as smooth a transition as he thinks it is. It’s a damn shame too, as Ferrell — quite possibly more than anyone else — could have really delivered a powerful, passionate message in his show about the Bush legacy, showing that even as he’s vilified by the left, he’s still a human being with a conscious and a soul. When the dust has settled, Ferrell’s attempt to show Bush’s conscious ultimately feels like a wasted opportunity.
Yet as the show rolls on, things pick up steam again, and in one of the highlights of this HBO special, Ferrell at one point turns up the house lights and — continuing in grand Bush tradition — gives out a series of quirky nicknames to audience members who want them. It’s here that Ferrell’s strength as a performer definitely comes through (he is good at this sort of rapid-fire improv), his strength as a writer coming through in sometimes sneakier, smaller ways (during a voice over of his Presidential briefings, one adviser notes how Freddy Kruger is, in fact, not real, and likely poses no threat to national security). Throw in Ferrell’s real-life brother as breakdancing Secret Service agent and, when all is said and done, you have a pretty entertaining show.
Yet “pretty entertaining” is far from “gut-busting”, and although the special features on this DVD are adequate (the go-nowhere trivia game and “Road to Broadway” featurette are pretty forgettable, but the “Bush on Bush” interview is a hoot), there is still the inescapable feeling that Ferrell could’ve likely achieved more with You’re Welcome America. In the end, it’s still a fun, breezy, and occasionally (very) crass evening of entertainment, but after years of dominating SNL with the best pre-Palin political impersonation since Dana Carvey’s Bush Sr., you can’t help but think that Ferrell would’ve wanted to go out on a high note instead of what is essentially an easy go-round of his greatest hits.