'Anchorman' Is Still the Greatest Comedy of the 21st Century

'Anchorman' Is Still the Greatest Comedy of the 21st Century

Dec 16, 2013

There was a time when much of the world didn't realize that Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was a certified masterpiece and the funniest movie of the 21st century. When it was first released, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell's tale of a pompous but lovable news anchor and his truly odd news team did decent box office and earned decent reviews, but it took time, home video and frequent critical reexaminations of the McKay/Ferrell legacy to truly reveal the truth that was hidden in plain site: there exist few films as funny as the first Anchorman and it's highly doubtful that even the sequel (although we certainly hope to enjoy it) will top it.

Yes, there's a certain sense of hyperbole to calling Anchorman the best comedy of our young century and, yes, we agree that there are certainly better made and more emotionally satisfying comedies out there. But we're not talking about good filmmaking here. We're not even talking about well-structured writing or characters who resonate on a deep and emotional level. We're talking about laughs and laughs alone, and no film can top Anchorman, which has jokes as broad as a sledgehammer that still somehow manage to cut like a knife.

What some may note as the film's chief problem is actually its biggest strength. Anchorman doesn't give a s**t about story or character development and it never once tries to make you care about its generally loathsome cast of clowns. Its story is shaggy and rambling, an excuse for funny people to be funny. This could have been a problem in less skilled hands (and we've seen plenty of post-SNL stars make films like this), but there's a breezy confidence to Ferrell and his costars' performances. They get away with starring in a formless and rambling film because each individual scene and wild tangent is funny and crazy enough to hold our attention and warrant inclusion. Too many comedies feel the need to insert unnecessary dramatic stakes and the result is usually a funny movie that loses its way in the final stretch as the laughs stop and the film desperately attempts to tie up emotional loose ends. Anchorman doesn't just ignore dramatic consequences: it steamrolls through them with glee. Its idea of a grand climax isn't the sexist Ron Burgundy turning over a new leaf, it's him jumping into a bear exhibit at the zoo and only escaping with his life because his long-lost dog Baxter shows up and talks the vicious bears down.

At every moment, Anchorman runs the risk of flying off the rails, but the performances are so committed and the direction so assured that it remains charming even when the jokes may not land quite as hard as they should. The total rejection of story in favor of very funny people doing very funny business is less like the '00s and more like the '30s. The News Team is less like a bunch of funny modern comedians and more like the vaudeville-trained acts of classic Hollywood. The Marx Brothers would shrug if you showed them something like The Hangover (or even something good like Shaun of the Dead), but they'd find plenty to appreciate in the sheer anarchy of Anchorman. After all, the Marx Brothers stopped making classics when the studio demanded that they start adding a coherent plot and a love story to their films. Adam McKay, who has yet to see a typical comedic trope that he hasn't gladly eviscerated, knows not to weigh his films down standard garbage and cliches. He's made terrific films since Anchorman, but his first film still feels like a kid let loose in a candy store. No one was watching him, so he went ahead and did whatever he wanted.

But one of the most remarkable things about Anchorman is how it feels like every piece came together by chance. In 2004, Will Ferrell was that funny guy from Saturday Night Live, but he wasn't a leading man. Steve Carell and Paul Rudd were even small names. And David Koechner was still David Koechner, but that's never been a bad thing. The fact that three of the biggest names in modern comedy (and the great, wonderful and totally undervalued David Koechner) fell together into a lineup like this is astonishing. Today, it's a BIG HUGE MASSIVE deal that these guys are starring in a comedy together. Without that star power hanging over its head, these guys just seem free to riff and experiment without any preconceived notions. Anchorman isn't just funny, it's the birth of a new generation of comedy superstars.

You may not like Anchorman and that's fine because Anchorman is not the kind of movie that cares if you like it. It's not trying to appeal to everyone and it doesn't care if you find its non sequiturs and absurd, improvised nonsense unfunny or distasteful. It feels like a movie made by people who set out to make themselves laugh, and that's what has allowed it to endure. If you try to appeal to everyone, everyone may chuckle. But if you try to strike a chord with a specific kind of person, you unlock real comedy. Thankfully, the chord was struck with an entire generation.

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