Living through the 1970s wasn’t very funny, what with losing the war in Vietnam and Arab oil embargoes and suchlike. But going back to the 1970s in movies and on television is a total gas. The brilliantly stupid new Will Ferrell movie Anchorman is the latest example of how many laughs can be wrung out of men with blow-dried hair wearing wide-checked polyester suits and checked polyester shirts and checked polyester ties–with the checks and colors exploding outward in every possible direction.
America was in the dumps, and in many respects, its good sense went into the dumper too. I’m not just referring to Jimmy Carter. Who can believe that at one time women thought the Farrah haircut was attractive? That shoes with four-inch platforms were the height of fashion? Woody Allen was a sex symbol in the 1970s, for Pete’s sake. Woody Allen!
Anchorman is nominally about the crisis that erupts in the life and career of the most popular television newsman in San Diego when he is forced to co-anchor the news with his girlfriend. No woman has ever occupied such a role, and he is so threatened that he tries to take her down.
This plot description makes the movie sound far more conventional than it is–like a standard-issue women’s-lib picture from the 1970s, in fact. Those movies were terrifically earnest, very much in keeping with the dominant cultural tone of the time. Indeed, I think the moment that American culture took its decisive turn away from earnestness into the type of knowing irony that characterizes it now was when Saturday Night Live premiered in 1975 and gave the country and the world a new comic voice.
Anchorman is set in the time before SNL. Ferrell, who had one of the most stunning runs in SNL’s 29-year history as a cast member from 1995 to 2002, co-wrote Anchorman with director Adam McKay, who also worked on the show. (Full disclosure: My wife works as an associate producer of SNL, and if I’d hated the movie, she wouldn’t have cared if I’d said so.)
The true comic subject of Anchorman is that pre-SNL earnestness. It so amuses them that when their own movie begins to veer toward it Ferrell and McKay turn on it as well and just include Anchorman in the parody. For example, the ambitious female news reporter isn’t a heroine, but an inane and self-important jacka** in her own right. And the struggles for ratings in San Diego are converted into a rumble on some mean streets–where even the folks who run the PBS pledge drives carry knives and guns.
Ron Burgundy, Ferrell’s character, is loved and trusted by everybody in San Diego even though he is a complete and total boob because (as a narrator tells us at the film’s beginning) “it was a time when people believed everything they were told on television.” He has a rich, deep voice and the all-seeing, all-knowing manner of Jeopardy!’s Alex Trebek (whom Ferrell also used to spoof on SNL).
The joke about Trebek is, of course, that he only knows all the answers to the questions because he has them written down on cards in front of him. The joke about anchormen like Ron Burgundy was that they just read whatever was written on the teleprompter, and still people believed that they had intimate knowledge of what they were talking about.
Anchorman is hit-or-miss, and like many comedies that sacrifice any semblance of realism for any possible laugh, it goes on a bit long because you just don’t care about any of the characters or any of the pickles they get themselves in. But there are so many moments of flat-out hilarity that it seems ungenerous to cavil. And it does capture perfectly the kind of dumb, gross chauvinism that was sadly characteristic of the news business in the 1970s, with self-serious men declaring that women had no place in the senior ranks while they were drinking three scotches at lunch and making groping passes at any female who walked by.
Anchorman is worth the price of admission alone to watch Steve Carell, last seen as a present-day Ron Burgundy in Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty, playing a weatherman named Brick with an I.Q. of 48. Carell has maybe 20 lines in the course of the movie, and every single one of them is priceless. But the real star is a dog named Baxter, who is the only truly intelligent creature to be found in the movie.
Given the way that grown men and women dressed and conducted themselves in the 1970s, dogs really do deserve the credit Ferrell and McKay give them for keeping their heads while the rest of the country put on mood rings, grew sideburns, and went to EST seminars.