Hell to the chief

Will Ferrell takes George W. Bush to Broadway: Will his satire have teeth?

RODEO CLOWN The Cowboy President rides off into the sunset.

RODEO CLOWN The Cowboy President rides off into the sunset. Photograph: Mary Ellen Matthews

On Tuesday 20, Will Ferrell makes his Broadway debut in a one-man show about our departing commander in chief. You’re Welcome America. A Final Night with George W. Bush is billed as the 43rd President’s farewell address, a chance for the beleaguered (aw, heck: despised) politician to spin his legacy. “He’s called everybody together in the theater to make his case that he’s not the worst President in the history of the United States,” explains cowriter and director Adam McKay (who also helmed Ferrell’s Talladega Nights and Step Brothers).

This Bush wants to be remembered not as the dangerous buffoon who squandered billions of surplus dollars and left us with a $1.2 trillion deficit, mired the nation in two bloody, mismanaged wars and greased the wheels for our current train-crash economy. No, this President is a stand-up guy, a patriot, a regular George you’d want to have a beer with. Funny thing is, the show is also a chance for Ferrell and McKay to maybe atone for some of their own lapses in skewering this disastrous leader more decisively.

There’s no way of proving that back in 2000, Ferrell’s lovable-doofus portrayal of Bush (often scripted by McKay) on Saturday Night Live won him the Oval Office. But in those blissful pre--September 11 days, the show’s lampoons of the Bush-Gore debates made the language-mangling Texan seem like an innocuous everydude, compared with Darrell Hammond’s prissy Al Gore. McKay deflects any suggestion that his partner’s impersonation was an electoral tipping point. “The whole country was on that same page,” he counters. “I don’t think Will dictated that belief. At that time, people viewed [Bush] as an amiable frat guy who wore cowboy hats. Will hasn’t changed what he’s doing. He’s doing the same impression, it’s just that now, it’s not so likable.”

Ferrell left SNL in 2002, so who knows how much sharper the digs might have gotten (we’ll pass over in silence Will Forte’s toothless take on Dubya). In the Cort Theatre, will there be meat on those satirical bones?

Producers haven’t provided advance scripts, and at a recent press junket, Ferrell didn’t favor reporters with excerpts, but there are hints that the solo will reveal Bush reflecting not just for laughs but for darker, poignant moments. “For me, I’m comfortable after doing him on and off for eight years,” Ferrell, 41, remarks. “Now in the show, we go in and out of Bush being brash and arrogant to wistful—and even sad. It’s fun to take what probably was a one-dimensional depiction on Saturday Night Live and add all these colors, in a weird way.”

That’s a definite plus, since SNL’s style of satire hardly ever gets too deep or angry, and its writers have almost made a vice of never pandering to a particular base. SNL considers itself an equal-opportunity offender, as seen in its snarky coverage of both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. (Who didn’t feel a twinge of fear that universally beloved Tina Fey’s chirpy impersonation of Palin might sway public opinion rightward?) Other outlets, such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, have been much harsher and unequivocal in their swipes at Bush, Cheney and others. McKay seems to relish the opportunity to get more partisan in his comedy. “This whole thing happened because I told Will, 'This is your last chance to do Bush. You’ve got to do one last statement for these insane eight years. This guy trashed the country. Let’s shoot a video for [their comedy website] Funny or Die.’ And he said, 'No, let’s do a show on Broadway.’?”Ferrell admits that he’s got his work cut out for him, holding the stage for 75 minutes. He may have the Decider down pat, but he bows before colleagues in the mimicry department. “I never considered myself a master impersonator,” he says. “I’d watch the way Darrell Hammond would study someone so intently, he’d figure out if they’d had dental surgery at some point in their lives. He’s that much of a scientist with it. I’m too lazy to do that.” Still, he seems willing to take a risk in a new medium. “Even though it’s still what we consider a very funny comedy,” Ferrell notes, “there are lots of moments I get to play that I never got a chance to [on SNL].”

So, Ferrell fans, you might get a little genuine acting with your guffaws. It’s unlikely the vehicle will reach such satirical and artistic heights of presidential-themed work such as Frost/Nixon or Assassins, but by the standards of late-night TV skit comedy, it’s bound to be an improvement, like the newest resident of the White House.

Video: More from Will >>
What would Will say if Georege W. Bush came to the show? Theater editor David Cote asks him.

You’re Welcome America. A Final Night with George W. Bush is at the Cort Theatre.