This week, Emerson College renamed its real communications school “The Ron Burgundy School of Communication,” after the fake newscaster Ron Burgundy of Anchorman. “Watch the Ron Burgundy press conference live!” Emerson’s website trumpeted, alongside such nonfictional newsflashes as “Emerson Professor’s Book Named in NY Times Most Notable Books of 2013.” And on Thursday – though it was just announced that the appearance would be put off in favor of coverage of the sexual assault investigation of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston – Will Ferrell as Burgundy was set to host SportsCenter: for days, the network has been teased the appearance with a clip that showed him interviewing Peyton Manning while decked out in his trademark leisure suit and ’stache.
Anchorman 2, which premieres 18 December, has unleashed a seemingly endless stream of media-sponsored promotional stunts over the past month. A few days ago, Burgundy served as co-announcer for a curling match on Canada’s version of ESPN. The Newseum currently has a full-fledged Anchorman exhibit, featuring such artifacts as a stuffed version of Burgundy’s dog “Baxter”. This past weekend, he co-hosted an evening of North Dakota local news. It was clearly a genius PR move for the film: the clip went viral, and Burgundy’s goofy self-seriousness fit perfectly into the surreal, small-ball landscape of local news. (One segment on a winter coat-luggage combination called a “Jaktogo” played like a spoof of itself. “That’s a bargain for a Jaktogo, if you ask me,” Ferrell riffed.) But the TV station’s decision to participate in an hourlong marketing ploy, essentially yielding their newscast to Ferrell’s hijinks, was somewhat head-scratchy. As is this whole bizarre, interminable stretch of media-sponsored Anchormanmania.
When journalists interview movie characters, it generally tends to be an awkward dance between the film’s promotionals aims and the professional responsibilities of actual people doing their job. In a smart NPR piece from last year about Sacha Baron Cohen’s indulgent in-character interviews with the likes of Matt Lauer and Larry King, Marc Hirsh wrote that “It imposes a subtle tyranny on anyone who tries to engage with him.” And Ferrell-as-Burgundy on North Dakota’s KVMB had a similar effect: there was not much the real anchors could do besides soldier sheepishly through their own dispatches on Jaktogos and Black Friday as Ferrell made a mockery of their daily professional existence. It would have been funny as a quick promotional spot – as an entire hour-long broadcast, it was somewhat boggling. And setting aside the question of whether there is some nominal obligation for journalists to act as journalists instead of shilling for Paramount Pictures, by the time Burgundy took the podium at Emerson’s communications school, the novelty of watching his antics collide with the efforts of real journalists had fully worn off. Ferrell is quirky and performance-arty enough in interviews when he is not playing a character – take the recent Jimmy Fallon appearance where he wore a white turtleneck with what appeared to be a large mustard stain. But his string of Burgundy appearances, each featuring the same catchphrases and eyebrow-cocked ’70s misogyny, maxxed out fast.
So why invite a make-believe anchor from a comedy sequel onto your real news show if it doesn’t even make for particularly good TV? Such is the sagging spirit of the media industry: allowing Burgundy to coopt a broadcast is as much a publicity stunt for the film as a way for a news organization to pitch itself as loose and zany and fun. Now that Anchorman’s satire of puffed-up personality-driven journalism looks considerably less like satire, bringing Burgundy on board feels a bit like a way for news organizations to make themselves seem in on the joke. According to a recent Washington Post story, the Newseum is even banking on Anchorman’s potential to help revive its struggling brand. For Paramount, it’s kind of a big deal. But for the media, it’s pretty lame.