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The McKay Way

A major facet of Adam McKay's comedy—from Anchorman to The Other Guys—seems to work like this: the expectation of a joke is set up due to a circumstance or more likely a series of anticipatory dialogs, only for the punchline to flounder, offering only a tepid payoff in exchange for the anticipation.  Yet the audience laughs anyway, as much due to the mathematics of the routine—we anticipate a joke going here, so whatever goes here gets a modicum of automatic laughter, until we realize how actually funny or not the actual joke is—as it is due to the post-Seinfeld, now-Curb Your Enthusiasm era of American comedy we are living in, The Age of Awkwardness.

For McKay's films specifically, he isn't just prompting us to laugh at a space potentially devoid of humor, but also to laugh at a space where Will Ferrell (or a cohort) should be making a real, funny joke.  Instead of making that "real" joke, the actor sort of ad-libs and we watch him fail or semi-fail to make a joke.  That failure becomes the punchline.  We watch the process of a comedian trying to be funny and failing, which is a sort-of-funny thing to watch.

This is meta-awkwardness; where in something like the UK The Office, or, in a more complicated scenario, the above mentioned Curb, the awkwardness comes from within the drama—the comedy comes from the awkwardness of the characters—in a film like The Other Guys, what's awkward is the awareness that we are watching an actor trying and failing to perform.  Except that, to a degree, this effect is calculated—looking at McKay's other collaborations with Will Farrell, one can easily see that this is a style of comedy that the director-writer-actor combo like, whether or not one actually finds the technique amusing or consistent.  (Does that make the "failure" actually a success?) This is certainly not new; one of the many things that make Jerry Lewis a master artist was his ability to tie into a real gag the transparency of his attempt at the gag, or his apparent awareness of a gag he is performing.  Yet for Lewis, this was usually (at least towards the beginning of his career) an extra joke within an already funny joke, which deepened and expanded the range of the humor.  What we have now (and perhaps in later Lewis as well) is the removal of a real joke in the first place, leaving just the comedian "floundering" as the joke.  Does this mean that being a comedian no longer involves being funny but rather requires expertise at failing at being funny?  Comedy as the comedy of the failure of comedy?

Fascinating. I don’t quite see it that way, since I find Anchorman at least genuinely funny. I do think there’s an attempt to build up expected rhythms and short-circuit them with non-sequiturs, but I find those lines funny and “successful”, partly because there’s an added surprise when the joke doesn’t go the way you thought it might — sometimes the punchline is too long and convoluted, sometimes sharp and brutal. But I do think they’ve come up with a slightly different way of getting laughs within fairly traditional material.
I agree, David. Part of what’s interesting but also frustrating for me about McKay’s films is that often they are very very funny. But the consistency of even his best film, Anchorman, is very manic, and him and Ferrell are as likely to leave in a clunky adlib as they are some brilliant inspiration. Would the films have the same character if they followed a similar format but landed the jokes every time?
What’s funny, I guess, is that they always make WF’s character a dunce, which gives him all the leeway he needs to make malapropisms and fail all over the place. But I think what keeps it from the heights of Curb, say, is that these movies are built more like cartoons (or written like them) than they are actually about anything real. And I’m fine with that, to be honest, because there’s always a few truly wacky things in each, like the animated sexual adventure (or anything, really) in Anchorman or the wood nymph in Step Brothers. The real sticking point is that consistency level but that seems to come more from the fact that a lot of the films are just improved and not actually written beyond scenarios. But I just saw Step Brothers for the first time a couple days ago and it strikes me as the most coherent of their movies. Though I think the zaniness of Anchorman is actually funnier, I was surprised at just how consistent this one was/is, despite the usual third act wrench/zigzag, because that lurch (they get jobs and “grow up” for a minute) suits the plot pretty well.
It’s very interesting to watch the other Anchorman movie, The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which was made up entirely of deleted scenes and a whole deleted plotline from Anchorman. It seems from that (a not very successful but fitfully hilarious revision of the film as released) that McKay and Ferrell do an awful lot of work on their material during the shoot and the edit, and throw away tons of stuff as a result. So, if the writer’s thesis is correct, and Ferrell’s performance is based on awkwardness, failure and the spectre of unfunniness, then it seems to be something they’ve arrived at through quite a bit of trial and error. And deciding which awkward, unfunny bits work better than others. I have to say I’m a fan, and find even Talladega Nights (which should, by all rights, have been terrible) very entertaining. Step Brothers, though, I find almost too uncomfortable to rewatch, veering as it does into horror movie territory in the middle section. It’s pretty damn funny, all the same.
Correction: Just remembered the out-takes Anchorman movie is called Wake Up, Ron Burgundy! not “The Legend of…”
I think I know what you mean, but I can’t be sure without more specific information. Can you give some examples?

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