Saul Austerlitz teaches a course at New York University on writing about American comedy. He’s certainly qualified, having written a very good book, “Another Fine Mess,” on the subject. But the movie he regularly chooses as an introduction to the course takes some students aback.
To many of them, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004) is, as Austerlitz put it in a Zoom interview with The Times, “this dumb movie” about a buffoonish San Diego news anchor (Will Ferrell) and his emotionally stunted cohorts, slathered in a thick sauce of mocking ’70s nostalgia. How could a Will Ferrell movie be a subject of serious study?
Then, Austerlitz starts unpacking it with his students. They talk about how the movie critiques the sexism of its Me Decade setting. They explore the anarchic discipline of improvisation that feeds nearly every scene. They consider how Ferrell’s Burgundy, a male chauvinist pig who falls in love with his station’s first female news anchor (Christina Applegate), has stepped off the screen, like Jeff Daniels in “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and into everything from a North Dakota newscast to an ESPN interview with NFL star Peyton Manning.
It turns out that there’s a lot going on in this deceptively smart dumb movie, enough to fill a book. Austerlitz’s “Kind of a Big Deal” is a wickedly sharp, discursive study of a movie that has cast a long shadow on 21st-century comedy, particularly a group of seemingly perpetual post-adolescents — including “Anchorman” co-writer Ferrell, co-writer-director Adam McKay and producer Judd Apatow — collectively known as the Frat Pack. The book is also an elegy of sorts for a time, not long ago, when blockbuster comedies could make a dent in an industry increasingly dominated (“Barbenheimer,” notwithstanding) by superhero and fantasy IP.
“I got to the point of a ‘Teacher, teach thyself’ moment,” says Austerlitz, who has also written books about “Friends” and (the wild card in the bunch) the disastrous 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway. “I’m trying to push the students to write about ‘Anchorman,’ to think about ‘Anchorman,’ and I realized there’s a lot to be said about ‘Anchorman.’ And that was the moment where I started thinking about writing this book and tackling this era of comedy.”
The main players here are Ferrell and McKay, who were among the many subjects Austerlitz interviewed for the book. They met on “Saturday Night Live” in the ’90s; Ferrell was a rising star and McKay was head writer. They shared a background in improv and a passion for jolting placid set-ups with manic absurdity. As Austerlitz details, they initially planned to make a movie called “August Blowout,” set in the world of car sales, or, as “Anchorman” would be, “a hothouse world of masculine competition and aggression.” They couldn’t sell it.
One night, they were both watching an A&E “Biography” episode about Jessica Savitch, a pioneering anchor in the hyper-macho TV news field. They were struck by an interview with a male anchor who recalled that world’s rampant sexism without a trace of repentance. The light bulb went off. They were off and running on a project that initially included the cannibalistic aftermath of a plane crash, which might have given new meaning to the bit where Ron picks a piece of lunchtime rib from his teeth. (Ferrell and McKay have had a falling out in recent years, partly over how McKay handled the decision to not cast his longtime creative partner in the HBO series “Winning Time”).
Austerlitz digs into first-time director McKay’s extensive use of “alts,” or alternative takes informed by rapid-fire, on-the-spot suggestions. As he writes, “The actors of ‘Anchorman’ had mostly been forged in the white heat of sketch and improv, where performers regularly topped, completed, or added to the work of others, and that spirit carried over to the set of this feature film.”
The improv veterans included McKay, Ferrell, Steve Carell (who plays dim weatherman Brick Tamland) and David Koechner (whose blustery sportscaster, Champ Kind, does his best to hide a powerful crush on Ron). Applegate, who logged 10 seasons on “Married… With Children,” and comedy veteran Paul Rudd, who plays mustachioed, cologne-splashing reporter Brian Fantana, were quick studies.
The book details how “Anchorman” and its Ferrell-starring predecessor “Old School” helped usher in a series of comedies loosely structured around blinkered male protagonists facing crises of adulthood and masculinity. These include not only a stack of Ferrell vehicles — “Step Brothers,” “Talladega Nights” and “Anchorman 2,” all directed by McKay and co-written by him and Ferrell — but also “The 40 Year-old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” (both directed by Apatow) as well as simpatico pictures like “Wedding Crashers, “Starsky & Hutch” and “I Love You, Man.” As Austerlitz writes, these movies “were about the reluctant fading of the eternal sunset of adolescence and the buried emotions of men who just missed their friends.”
“It’s an interesting era,” Austerlitz says, “in part because the movies all feel like they’re speaking to each other and telling variations of the same story. But clearly there are flaws in those films. I think ‘Anchorman’ is to some extent the exception in having an actually fully formed female character. Oftentimes, the female characters in these movies are very secondary and not fully fleshed out.”
If you watched these pictures when they came out, you probably didn’t think you were in the midst of a renaissance in movie comedy. But it increasingly looks that way in retrospect. Never terribly fond of risk, the industry in recent years has leaned even harder into cookie-cutter, action-heavy IP. That also means banking even more on international sales, which puts comedy — so often linguistically and culturally specific — at a disadvantage. Water cooler comedy is far more common on television these days than at the theater.
To Austerlitz, this is no laughing matter.
“Comedy has essentially died as a genre,” he says. “This feels a little bit like a lost era, where comedies could still be blockbusters, where comedy stars were megastars and where many of these films were legitimately excellent movies and really funny comedies. It already feels like a bygone era, even though it wasn’t all that long ago.”
As Ron might say, “Great Odin’s raven!” He helped start a movement. Of course, he was probably too clueless to realize it at the time.
Saul Austerlitz will discuss “Kind of a Big Deal” with author Thea Glassman on August 24 at 7 p.m. Aug. 24 at Book Soup.
Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.