Adam McKay and Will Ferrell thought they'd gotten over the hard part.
By 2008, the writer-director and star had overcome their initial reluctance to film a sequel to "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," the fan-cherished comedy that established both men on Hollywood's star map. And they'd come up with a script that McKay describes as appropriately "bells and whistles-y" to follow up one of the most widely quoted movies of the last quarter-century, a Rosetta Stone of improv humor filled with such loopy non sequiturs as "You are a smelly pirate hooker" and "Sixty-percent of the time, it works every time."
Moreover, the two had reassembled the original 2004 film's supporting cast of comedy A-listers — including Vince Vaughn, Steve Carrell, Christina Applegate and Paul Rudd — and even sold Paramount Pictures (which controls the "Anchorman" property) on test-running the new movie as a Broadway play for six months to fine-tune its unique brand of situational, '70s-set humor.
Then in 2009, talks broke down over the price tag.
"I told them the budget is $80 million," recalled McKay, seated in an editing bay on Paramount's Hollywood lot. "And they're like, 'We're thinking $35 million.' 'We're like, 'You're crazy.' The first movie did great on cable and DVD, and that's where it really took off — much like 'Austin Powers.' That's where we stalled. Basically, it was over."
But thanks to a well-timed 2011 phone call by the director's powerhouse agent Ari Emmanuel and a fortuitous gap in Paramount's release schedule as well as budgetary brinkmanship (Ferrell and all the returning stars took a substantial pay cut), "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues," will finally reach theaters on Dec. 20.
Not that anyone involved let performance anxiety get in the way of the now $50-million so-stupid-it's-genius brand of humor.
"You can't go into it worrying about expectations," McKay said. "Because the whole spirit of 'Anchorman' is 'Who gives a …?' The way we did the first movie was by not obeying the rules. It's like being in the Sex Pistols and wondering if you're in tune."
Ferrell reprises his role as Scotch-loving, jazz flute-playing Ron Burgundy, who has fallen on hard times; the news-reading narcissist has been downgraded from anchoring San Diego's top newscast to announcing the dolphin show at Sea World. Set in cable television's Year Zero — 1980 — Burgundy is recruited by nascent 24-hour news network GNN (a fictional hybrid of CNN and Fox News Network) and brought out to New York with his San Diego team (Rudd, Carrell and David Koechner) for a shot at capturing a national audience.
There, the "Anchorman" crew must confront uncertainty in the face of change.
"They meet their first openly gay person," said McKay. "And obviously, the news operation has totally changed. They're always dealing with change of some kind. And they never do well with change."
McKay cued up a scene from the hotly awaited sequel on a gigantic monitor. Onscreen, the Channel 4 team meets their strictly-business African American station manager Linda Jackson (Meagan Goode). And Burgundy can't disguise his shock at his new boss' skin color.
"Oh … black … I'm terribly sorry. I don't know why I can't stop saying … the word black," Ferrell moronically utters. "If I keep my mouth open, I won't say it."
"A black man follows me everywhere when it's sunny," offers Carrell's brain-deficient weatherman, Brick Tamland, prompting Ferrell to point out: "I think that's your shadow, Brick."
"We're all the same on the inside," concludes Rudd's Brian Fantana. "Stinky and pink!"
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