In the “Canceled” episode from the sublime seventh season of South Park, Eric Cartman requires an anal probe to remove a device implanted by aliens and insists that his fourth-grade rival, Kyle, perform the job. Each time Kyle gets near ground zero, Cartman farts in his general direction. Twice. Four times, as Cartman and his friends Stan and Kenny giggle at each blast, and Kyle steams in fury. After the sixth fart, Chef, the adult monitoring the operation, says, “It stopped being funny about 40 seconds ago.” A tense pause, and — a seventh fart. “O.K.,” says Chef, “now it’s funny again.”
The scene could be taught in a comedy master class as an expert example of building laughs through repetition and timing. Try a gag several times, and it wears out its welcome. Wait for just the right time, then do it again: genius.
Will Ferrell as star and co-writer, and Adam McKay as co-writer and director, have waited nine years since the opening of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. In the interim, the 2004 movie has achieved its own renown, approaching legend, as a prime lesson in anarchic comedy. The tale of a fatuous news reader and his all-male posse who are threatened and aroused by the arrival of a sexy female journalist in 1970s San Diego, Anchorman launched a string of hits for producer Judd Apatow and for Ferrell. The group sing of “Afternoon Delight,” the punting of a dog off a bridge, Steve Carell’s declared love of carpet, lamp and grizzly bear — scenes like these built the legend and have sustained it for nearly a decade.
Having spent the same amount of downtime as between each episode of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight movies, Ferrell and McKay finally birthed Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Is the timing right? Is this movie a comedy loser like Airplane II: The Sequel or a winner like Hot Shots: Part Deux? Is it the all-too-familiar sixth Cartman fart, or the magical seventh?
(READ: Joel Stein on the young Will Ferrell)
Actually, it’s the same, but more so. It reconvenes the old gang: stud reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), cowboy sports dude Champ Kind (David Koechner), beyond-dim weatherman Brick Tamland (Carell) and rising anchorwoman Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) — transporting all of them seven years later from “San Di-AH-go” to New York City and from local news to the ’80s dawning of international cable news.
Fired from his weekend network job co-anchoring with Veronica as she is promoted to the vaunted weekday slot, Ron gets the chance to host on the 24-hour Global News Network and rounds up his old team. Brian is now the pre-eminent glamour photographer of cats; Champ runs a fast-food franchise that can’t afford chicken and so serves fried bat; Brick is reported dead but shows up as an eulogist at his own funeral. With a new set of polyester suits and a near-fatal RV accident, they’re off to GNN.
Ron is still the same exasperating, borderline-lovable dude — not mean-spirited, just a hopelessly anachronistic, madly competitive box of testosterone. His rival anchor this time is the meta-handsome Jack Lime (James Marsden), who having lost a bet with Ron must identify himself on air as “Jack Lame,” a jape at the sixth-Cartman-fart level. And Ron is still shocked when anyone other than a white male rises to prominence. Recall that when Veronica first invaded the Channel 4 newsroom, Ron greeted her by turning his trousers into an involuntary-erection tepee. His reaction to meeting his GNN boss, the African-American Linda (Meagan Good), is a Tourette’s-like squawking of “Black! Black!” The erection comes later.
The movie even ventures a little media satire. The owner of GNN is Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson), a colorful Aussie billionaire who blends Ted Turner‘s strident enthusiasm with Rupert Murdoch’s journalistic cunning. Stuck in the 2 a.m. graveyard slot, Ron gets an inspiration. “Why do we need to tell the people what they need to hear?” he wonders aloud. “Why can’t we tell them what they want to hear?” In a trice, he transforms GNN from Turner’s original CNN to Murdoch’s Fox News Network (and the later CNN), where the uninflected reporting of important international stories is replaced by slow-speed car chases and patriotism laid on with a trowel.
That part is for the few adult minds in the audience. The rest is a reprise or refashioning of the first picture’s tropes. Ron still apostrophizes bizarrely; “By the beard of Zeus!” is now “By the bedpan of Gene Rayburn!” and “By the hymen of Olivia Newton-John!” Brian’s cache of colognes is now condoms; Ron again uses the jazz flute as an aphrodisiac; and there’s another free-for-all battle of news teams. We’re sworn not to reveal which celebrities show up in the climactic face-off, but some of them can be anagrammed into Jerry Mica, Lilt Whims, Norio Matricidal, Home Replay and Aba Scanner Hooch.*
At times the movie plays like Saturday Night Live in its current fallow period: reruns of previous sketches, given the illusion of novelty by the appearance of surprise guest stars. (Here, at least, the actors don’t squint to read their lines off a teleprompter. They seem actually to have memorized them.) Anchorman 2 is more like SNL in the sharper years (1995–2002), when McKay was a writer and Ferrell one of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Expect no more and you should be satisfied. Wine connoisseurs would call this a new Burgundy with an old bouquet.
* Don’t read these de-anagrammed star names: Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Marion Cotillard, Amy Poehler, Sacha Baron Cohen.