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Carry On, Wayward Son: Will Ferrell’s Comedy And Infantilism

DreamWorks Pictures

“This guy could not hold my jock sweat.”

“I could hold it all day long, try me!”

This is not two schoolkids squabbling. These are two Olympic figure skaters, and the exchange, from one of my favourite comedy films, Blades Of Glory, is the epitome of Will Ferrell’s comedy.

Childishness in the face of high stakes: here it’s the Olympics. In Anchorman, it’s live TV. In Step Brothers, life itself and what you want it to be for you. I love the sight of men children with big, important jobs sniping at each other as in in the classroom. It’s rightly made Ferrell a very important player in the Big Comedy Film world. After all, his films have grossed over $2.5 billion. Even Elf, in which his childlike wonder is trapped in a man’s body to the (admittedly misfiring) Holmes & Watson, has endured. It’s like Big, if Josh wasn’t having a constant tantrum.

Will is always getting his body out. It’s there from the first scene of Anchorman, with a towel on his head in Blades Of Glory and it’s on one of the teaser posters for Step Brothers.

His body isn’t toned. Or tanned. It’s natural and he does it with no shame or concern; there it is, get used to it, it doesn’t conform to your moral niceties. That’s a confrontation: yeah, you got a problem with this? It’s childish and I love the audacity of it. By the way, when I use the word “childish.” I’m not doing it to chide. Nor would I use the word “childlike,” because that has connotations of sweetness.

Will Ferrell’s comedy isn’t that, although it has lovely moments of naivety. This is a physically big man acting out. EurekaAlert! quotes Sabelnikova and Khmeleva’s work defining infantilism as “immature feelings (‘childish’ reactions, lack of willpower, lack of confidence), external locus of control (other people are blamed), inflated self-concept, low demands on self (accompanied by high demands on society), and egocentrism.” All these are in Will Ferrell’s characters and all of them make me laugh out loud.

Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy and Christina Applegate as Veronica Corningstone in Anchorman

Yes, I love it, from Ron Burgundy’s crying gibberish on the phone to the studio, to his cry of “my nutsack!” after his partner Jimmy MacElroy’s skate grazes his thigh in Blades Of Glory and his personal shaming of his political opponent in The Campaign. There are loads of others. It’s based in an absolute immersion of self, the feeling that the world revolves around you. And it does. It’s just that if there’s no emotional intelligence, no empathy, it can get out of hand.

So why is Will Ferrell’s comedy so popular? It reflects the infantilising of our society. And male society in particular. This is just a theory, I’m willing to be swayed in or out of the argument. But it’s interesting to discuss. Upfront, here’s an apology. I’m gonna have to get political. And I’m concentrating mainly on the US and UK, as that’s where Will Ferrell’s comedy will have an unfettered appeal, undiluted by language. It’s based on a collective mistrust of authority, outrage on social media, the narcissism of emotion, and a redefinition of traditional masculinity.

Lack Of Trust In Officials

We all look up to others. To those see on TV. To those we hear on the radio. And still, even now, to those who we elect or participate in rituals of faith with. I’m not going to do off on a riff about Trump. He has his own stuff later. And even that isn’t an attack on him.

This is about the erosion of trust in the officials we put our trust in.

If we vote, we bet on someone to make it better, we scour the odds, see who will do better for us, either through party, policies or the cut of their job. When they are in, they represent us. And we expect them to uphold standards. They are thought to be our better selves. But what if we have sex scandals, inappropriate monetary relationships, or we Congress or the Houses Of Parliament squabbling with each other? When they look craven and self involved, this disconnects them from us. Likewise the President.

It isn’t just about the left or right, it’s about the way he (and it usually is a he) acts, behaves. There are many who were delighted that someone steeped in the business of politics took over from Pres. Trump, but there is a feel that he’s not leading, he’s governing and there’s a a difference, it seems to some as though he doesn’t lead from the front.

Of course in Trump and Boris Johnson in the UK, we have leaders who aren’t really politicians. Trump had business and entertainment credentials and was seen as an incursion into a political world that needed shaking up. The UK had its own back turning on the political ‘elite’. It was called Brexit. Johnson isn’t a politician either, he’s held office but he isn’t political, coming up through TV and newspapers. And he rather smirks through the most terrible of news, as if he’s playing at being Prime Minister.

Neither Trump nor Johnson used or uses language we would expect our political leader to use. Instead, their language is coarse, matey, sometimes rambling, heavily personalised and performed. Then add the same to scandals in the church, the televangelist after money, the lack of separation in church and state. Faith wilts.

This diminishing of our leaders, our teacher and parent figures, leaves us alone. We have no one to rely on. So we may as well enjoy that reversion.

Social Media And The Cult Of Us

Social media was supposed to connect us, open up the world. Then capital became involved and it got smaller. Now it makes us smaller too.

I’ll concentrate on Twitter because it limits characters and emboldens. It confirms. The algorithms push information to you that accords with your view, Twitter encourages you to be your own newsperson, to editorialise, to throw our views out to many and to have those views endorsed. That emboldens people.

And so argument dies. In the past, you may have made your argument with your mates and someone may have argued back, making you back up your beliefs and even change them if persuaded. Now we have a culture of outrage at dissention.

The Conversation quoted sociologist Jacqueline Barus-Michel around social media interactions: “…we now communicate in ‘flashes,’ rather than via thoughtful discourse—‘poorer, binary, similar to computer language, and aiming to shock.'” Twitter doesn’t allow enough space to put your point and so zingers are replaced by insults. And we regress to schooldays.

Ron Burgundy? Set the film in the ’80s and we don’t have the social media issue, do we? Except that Anchorman is the beginning of the personality newsreader, a different editorialising and a diminishing of the news. It’s part of the cult of us and it’s absolutely now.

How Do You Feel, Not What Do You Think

Look at a news report. Something which asks for a reaction about an event. I challenge you to find one reporter who asks “what do you think?” rather than “How do you feel?”

Emotion has trumped reason. We have a concentration on self and a confusion. We are unsure where we fit. So few of us make anything anymore, so many of us are in jobs we can’t rely on, which don’t set our place in life. In the US and the UK, our jobs used to define our class. Now It’s not so easy.

So many of us work on short term contracts or contracts reliant on funding. We work in a open spaces, looked over by managers. As Simon Gottschalk in The Conversation points out, “In many workplaces, managers can now electronically monitor their employees, many of whom work in open spaces with little personal privacy.” This seems like school, feels like school. So many then go back to rented accommodation, not being able to get on the property ladder or remain with their parents; children for longer

Pulling against this is a sense of entitlement, in the UK there was such a push to university that so many, who paid for the privilege, expect a better time than they’re having. For people who are renting, not able to buy, cultural considerations become more important, local activism, what coffee is drunk, which holidays are taken. Discussions are more about culture than economics; if you can’t buy a property, why not just enjoy the accoutrements of what you have?

This infantilises, but it’s comforting. Reverting to the past often is. Just like Brendan and Dale in Step Brothers, staying with their parents, but enjoying the things, the comfort that brings. It infantilises, but it calms and comforts too.

Who Are The Men?

And there is also a concern that men’s roles are changing as manufacturing jobs are lost and traditional roles of caring for children change with them. Where do men fit? What is their role? Breadwinner? Long gone. Women entered the workplace many years ago and quite rightly so, but as paternity leave becomes more prevalent and caring responsibilities become a cross gender issue, where are men now?

It is a struggle which is still being worked out and it is no surprise that in Ferrell’s film men are usually weaker than their female counterparts. In Blades Of Glory 2 men enter the mixed couples skating, Ferrell’s eyes darting left and right as John Heder’s crotch ends up close to his face. The news team in Anchorman are called “children” by a female workmate and replying “son of a bee-sting!” They can’t even curse.

I Want It Now

So many people talk of social media preventing long term thinking, we flit from one ping on our phone to another, achieving self gratification which doesn’t really fulfil us but makes us move on to the next like or retweet.

And in a capitalist society, where so many of us no longer have to save up for commodities any more, we can have what we want now and put it on our credit cards. But that cheapens the value, we haven’t emotionally invested in it and just provides a sort of contact high. So we need something else. US and UK economies rely in it: keep spending and spending.

So much of Will Ferrell’s work reflects this, the childish feel of wanting something, wanting it now and possibly having a tantrum if that doesn’t happen. Just look at the reaction of Ron Burgundy and his news team when Veronica Corningstone is added to the team. There is a feeling that acting up and acting out will get Ferrell’s characters what they need and want. We usually join them in a movie when we they are just about to find it won’t work any more.

So Why Do We Laugh So Much?

Recognition? Relief? A bit of both. Will Ferrell plays men who have difficult and important jobs: race car driver, ice skating star, master detective. But all those people crave the simplicity of regression. The comfort of the childlike time. When things get too tough, this is what we do.

In the UK now, things are not looking so hot. What’s trending? The ’80s, a time when many were young and carefree. 10 years ago? The ’70s was dominant. Ron Burgundy dresses his dog Baxter up in pyjamas and the physical extremity he is put through by Jack Black’s Hell’s Angel is because of Burgundy’s irresponsibility in discarding a burrito with no care where it is going.

Perhaps that’s it, the delight in irresponsibility. That links to our childhood when things didn’t seem to matter. We enjoy seeing others have tantrums, shout and scream, live with no consequences.

To quote Sabelnikova and Khmeleva one more: the “infantile person seeks to escape the need to adequately assess objective social reality.” All of Ferrell’s main characters have to pay the piper at some time. There’s always self realisation and they ultimately end up less self-centred and more empathetic. But when they let themselves express what they feel with no filter, isn’t that enervating?

And there are no consequences, nobody dies or goes to prison (OK, there is Stay Hard, but that’s a little different). It feels good to be just thinking of you without the bills, the worries, the relationship sharing, doesn’t it?

A guilty pleasure, sure, but to revisit a time when things didn’t really matter and you were protected? That is so appealing.

Carry On, Wayward Son…

Written by Steve Swift

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