Actor Will Ferrell's one-man show, You're Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush, which broke box office records at the Cort Theatre during its brief run on Broadway, made its television debut on the American premium cable channel HBO on Saturday. The play was written by Ferrell and directed by his frequent collaborator Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights).
You're Welcome America takes the form of a monologue in which the former President Bush (Ferrell) attempts to rehabilitate his image by discussing his youth and political career in intimate detail with his audience. Relieved to be free from the responsibilities of the presidency, Bush soon forgets himself and reveals more than he perhaps intends about his time in office.
That George W. Bush is a figure ripe for satire would be an understatement to say the least. It is regrettable then, to witness the approach to the subject adopted by Ferrell and McKay. One finds in You're Welcome America the same arbitrariness that runs throughout the other recent works of the popular comedy duo. Ordinary or well-known people do and say the most outlandish and random things the writer and director can dream up. Some of it hits, some of it misses, but the jokes almost never flow organically from the material and circumstances at hand.
The comedy of Ferrell and McKay is often a comedy of creating extreme opposites. Bush was opposed to gay rights, so Ferrell has him confess to a homosexual relationship during the time, the fictional Bush declares, he went AWOL from the National Guard. During breaks between scenes, a secret service agent moves center stage and performs increasingly elaborate break dancing numbers. Secret service agents are uptight, of course, so seeing one of them dance wildly is bound to be funny, according to the show's creators.
In one of the show's more bizarre moments, an actress portraying former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice performs a lengthy, sexual dance for the President, at one point writhing around on his oval office desk. This scene, in part another attempt to humiliate the right-wing defenders of religious morality by placing them in sexual scenarios, is simply crude and un-amusing.
Ferrell, in his Broadway show and in several of his movies, frequently has his characters state in very clear and precise terms the absurdity of their own behavior. Here Bush, in a phone conversation with disgraced FEMA head Michael Brown, wonders aloud why he would ever have appointed the former commissioner of the Arabian Horse Association to lead the country's emergency management agency. "That doesn't even make sense," he says.
During this same scene, Bush comments on how easy it was getting away with his various scandals and mistakes because the American people forget things so easily. He tells the audience they won't even remember the horrible things he's said during his conversation with Brown. One senses these words come not only from the Bush character, but Ferrell himself. The actor is certainly not the only liberal artist to blame ordinary people for "letting" the Bush administration get away with its crimes. The consequences of such an attitude are evident in the work.
During his time on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell contributed several memorable sketches. One recalls the anger of his many middle class, professional characters: the tense family clicking their knives and forks loudly against their plates at dinner, or the father who unleashes a series of threats against the children playing on a shed in his yard before returning to polite conversation with a guest at his party. These were, at the very least, recognizable characters. Ferrell was aware, to one degree or another, of a certain level of insecurity within the middle class.
If some of his sketch work was promising, his film work has been less than remarkable. Thus far he has portrayed a series of inept characters specializing in a lack of self-awareness: a TV news reporter from the 1970s in Anchorman, a NASCAR driver in Talladega Nights, a ridiculous semi-professional basketball player in Semi-Pro. The films by and large have not been memorable. Sentimentality for 1970s pop culture comes into play as well. There is a self-indulgent element running through much of it.
Ferrell's You're Welcome America and his latest characterization of George W. Bush fit in perfectly with the film work.
His version of Bush as a bumbling idiot, not so different from his characters in Anchorman or Talladega Nights, who, in one scene, manages to get all the men in his family trapped in an abandoned mine only to be rescued by his mother Barbara. To the extent that this is meant to convey a personal recklessness about the former President, Ferrell may have a point.
It also suggests Bush's "mishandling" of everything from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the rescue of Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans. But ultimately this portrait of Bush as a "frat boy" who doesn't plan ahead and can't get himself out of trouble obscures the real issues. The war in Iraq was not merely a "mistake," a poorly thought out excursion or deviation from the "right" war in Afghanistan as the Democratic Party argues. It was an illegal war of aggression waged by the Bush Administration which was consciously pursuing the interests of the American ruling elite. Bush is not just some foolish clown who accidentally "broke" Iraq when he stumbled into it; the man is a war criminal whose actions have led to the deaths of more than a million Iraqi citizens.
During the 2000 Presidential campaign, Ferrell made a name for himself imitating Bush on Saturday Night Live. His performances in sketches satirizing Bush memorably captured the presidential hopeful's incompetence and lack of intellectual curiosity. There was also Bush's infamous way with—or without—words. But it isn't clear that Ferrell's understanding of the former president ever went much further than that. Deeper, more nuanced satire never followed. More important questions were never asked.
You're Welcome America often feels like a greatest hits collection of Bush scandals. Remember this, Ferrell prompts the audience—remember how badly that went? Little substance or insight is to be found in the material. The show gives the audience what it expects and no more.
One tries to avoid the old adage that "comedy is serious business," but there's more than a little truth to that. In comedy, no less than in drama, artists will have to begin addressing complex social and historical questions and engage with reality, drawing the necessary conclusions from it. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay may think they understand Bush and his time in office, but they haven't even begun to do the work required to investigate such matters. The entire show leaves one cold.