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Will Ferrell and Adam McKay Were Stronger Together

The longtime comedy pals made very silly movies that satirized American exceptionalism. If their friendship is now truly over, let’s raise a glass to their Bush-skewering brilliance

Adam McKay and Will Ferrell met in 1995 when they were both up for Saturday Night Live. “Will and I were hired on the same day,” McKay once recalled, later adding, “We became friends, and then we started writing together, and it was just so easy. Both of us had very similar senses of humor. Neither one of us are very argumentative guys. If one person felt strong about something, I would be like, ‘All right, I trust you, let’s do it,’ and vice versa.”

It was a great run, but all great runs have to end. Their partnership drew to a close officially two years ago when they sent out a joint statement announcing the winding down of their company, Gary Sanchez Productions, saying, “The two of us will always work together creatively and always be friends. And we recognize we are lucky as hell to end this venture as such.” For comedy fans, it was sad news, but the upbeat tone at least let observers feel relief that the break-up wasn’t acrimonious — more R.E.M. calling it quits than, say, Oasis. Well, things seem to have soured since then, with McKay in a new interview with Vanity Fair suggesting that they aren’t speaking anymore, the silence the result of McKay’s decision to cast John C. Reilly in his L.A. Lakers project as owner Jerry Buss instead of Ferrell.

“Ferrell just doesn’t look like Jerry Buss, and he’s not that vibe of a Jerry Buss,” McKay says in the piece. “And there were some people involved who were like, ‘We love Ferrell, he’s a genius, but we can’t see him doing it.’ It was a bit of a hard discussion.” According to McKay, the last time the two talked was when they were dissolving Gary Sanchez: “I said, ‘Well, I mean, we’re splitting up the company.’ And he basically was like, ‘Yeah, we are,’ and basically was like, ‘Have a good life.’ And I’m like, ‘Fuck, Ferrell’s never going to talk to me again.’ So it ended not well.” Ferrell found out through Reilly that he wasn’t going to be Buss — McKay says he regrets not telling Ferrell himself — and now the actor apparently won’t respond to McKay’s emails. 

“In my head,” McKay told Vanity Fair, “I was like, ‘We’ll let all this blow over. Six months to a year, we’ll sit down, we’ll laugh about it and go, It’s all business junk, who gives a shit? We worked together for 25 years. Are we really going to let this go away?’”

Beyond the fact that it’s somewhat comforting to know that major Hollywood players are like the rest of us in terms of getting their feelings hurt, McKay’s version of events definitely seems to indicate that his friendship with Ferrell is over, perhaps for good. If that’s the case, they leave behind a pretty formidable legacy together. Their comedies are an excellent time capsule of this still-young century’s idea of what was funny — and, sneakily, they were also among the era’s most trenchant mainstream political satires, even when they were about horndog newscasters or egomaniacal race-car drivers. In a time of bromances and the frat pack, McKay and Ferrell were a cut above.

On SNL, Ferrell was a performer, while McKay, who’d helped found Upright Citizens Brigade, was a writer and an occasional director of shorts. Their shared comedic viewpoint, coupled with Ferrell’s growing film stardom — this was right before Elf was huge — prompted the two to expand their collaboration. “I said to McKay, because we were getting to know each other, writing sketches, ‘Would you ever want to write a feature together?’” Ferrell once recalled. “He was like, ‘Yeah, you mean like a character from [Saturday Night Live]?’ I’m like, ‘No, something completely different.’”

Their first completed project was Anchorman, setting the template for their division of labor: They’d collaborate on the script, Ferrell would star and McKay would direct. And as Ron Burgundy, Ferrell hit upon a character type that crystallized the kind of boisterous, arrogant fools he’d played on SNL. Ron was lovable, but also a sexist, and the fun came in seeing just how much detail and specificity McKay and Ferrell brought out of what could have been a one-joke figure. Sure, Ron was a pig, but he was also bizarre and soulful and insecure — there was a cosmic strangeness to the guy that made him fascinating, as opposed to repellant. That Anchorman just so happened to be a critique of the fear manly men experienced in the face of women’s liberation was almost beside the point — except that McKay and Ferrell clearly seemed interested in this other level because, as we’d soon realize, their films would always have that extra gear to them.

Elf notwithstanding, Ferrell’s initial rise to prominence was mostly linked to dude-friendly comedies like Old School and Wedding Crashers (where he had a memorable cameo). But those movies he made outside of McKay tended to be broader and not particularly biting. By comparison, Anchorman and Talladega Nights touched on the wider world, especially as America was in the midst of the George W. Bush years. If that era could be boiled down to one kind of dude, it might very well have been Talladega Nights Ricky Bobby, the Baby Jesus-loving racer who’s pro-U.S.A. and believes in his unstoppable excellence no matter what. That kind of supersized self-absorption was endemic in a country led by a man who wanted the entire planet to think he was a cowboy. This was an age of overly demonstrative, performative masculinity, and McKay and Ferrell gleefully mocked it.

People didn’t necessarily consider these comedies political, but the director and his star sure did. “We always talk about that with our movies,” McKay said around the release of The Other Guys, an action-comedy that doubles as a takedown of financial corruption. “There’s always a little of that going on. I think it’s connected to the world. I don’t think politics is separate. We talk about where the country is — believe it or not, even with Step Brothers we talked about it. We were like, ‘God, our whole country is a bunch of grown-up kids.’” 

Tellingly, their weakest project from this period was their most blatant in its target, the Ferrell-written, McKay-directed stage show You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush. Ferrell could do a decent Bush impression — he nailed that mixture of dimwit and utter certainty — but the Dubya surrogates that he and McKay crafted cut deeper because they weren’t shackled to an actual person. Guys like Ron and Ricky were the mini-Bushes all around us.

But while that political edge has often been celebrated, less discussed is how good their films looked. That might seem an odd compliment — who cares if a comedy is shot well? — but especially on Talladega Nights and The Other Guys, McKay was developing an eye that most of his contemporaries couldn’t match. He gave the 1970s-newsroom world of Anchorman lots of rich period detail, while the car races in Talladega Nights were plenty thrilling. As for The Other Guys, it’s actually a pretty slick sendup of buddy-cop films, mimicking their adrenalized feel — particularly in the brilliant sequences with Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson as the stereotypical badass detectives — and big-city sophistication. 

Those things might not be as important as the jokes, but a McKay/Ferrell film rarely felt slapped together. Whether it was a bit about nerdy Allen Gamble’s dark past as a pimp named Gator or that great goofy throwaway rap in Step Brothers, they mastered the art of making seriously thought-out comedy look like they were just fucking around. 

That said, their legacy stretches beyond their movies, which also includes the uneven but underrated Anchorman 2. As two of the founders of Funny or Die, they helped give the world Billy on the Street and Between Two Ferns, becoming among the first to tap into the possibilities of low-budget viral comedy. And with their company Gary Sanchez Productions — and its offshoot Gloria Sanchez Productions — they shepherded projects for other filmmakers, particularly female directors, such as Booksmart, Hustlers and Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Outside of Judd Apatow, it’s hard to think of a cinematic comedic influence that’s been as important this century as McKay and Ferrell. 

Of course, part of their appeal was also that they were a team, a comic force stronger together than as individual parts. For all of Ferrell’s stardom, when he wasn’t working with McKay, the results were almost always less interesting. From Land of the Lost to Get Hard, those other movies lacked a similar inspiration — having McKay help hatch the story or serve as a producer simply wasn’t the same as him and Ferrell working in lockstep. 

And as Anchorman 2 made clear, McKay seemed increasingly interested in not just inserting commentary into the laughs but making his political points as loudly as possible. His first film away from Ferrell, 2015’s The Big Short, which won him a screenplay Oscar, basically adapted The Other Guys’ discontent with the banks that triggered the Great Recession into a more serious smackdown. Likewise, the wretched Vice said plainly what Talladega Nights had expressed in more coded language about the hell of the Bush years. In recent years, it’s almost as if they’ve each taken one aspect of what made them so effective together: McKay got the liberal outrage in the divorce, while Ferrell (as demonstrated in everything from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga to The Shrink Next Door) walked away with the left-of-center strangeness. 

With McKay’s latest, the doomsday comedy Don’t Look Up, about to arrive, he’s out there promoting the film and talking about his past. Last month, Ferrell gave his version of how the breakup occurred, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “Adam was like, ‘I want to do this, and this, and this’; he wanted growth and a sphere of influence, and I was just like, ‘I don’t know, that sounds like a lot that I have to keep track of.’ … At the end of the day, we just have different amounts of bandwidth.” And now McKay is telling us his side of the story. 

Whenever friends break up, it’s important not to take sides or make judgments. McKay seems like he’s pivoted to Oscar-seeking message movies — we’ll wait to see how Don’t Look Up is — while Ferrell is content to do oddball comedies. But even if that’s a gross simplification, it’s hard not to miss what they managed to achieve as a duo. 

Where other comedies in the early 2000s were cool indulging in guys-will-be-guys antics that were a holdover from the National Lampoon’s era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a movie like Anchorman figured out how to smuggle in a lot of smarts underneath the seemingly stupid surface. Their films were hilarious because they were wonderfully dumb, but also very accurate about a certain type of rah-rah masculinity, which doubled as a sharp critique of the wounded American pride that was happening post-9/11. 

Adam McKay and Will Ferrell made it all look so easy. The friendship didn’t survive, but their very silly films have had remarkable staying power.