Where There's a Will Ferrell, There's a "W"

Special Features   Where There's a Will Ferrell, There's a "W" Will Ferrell bids adieu to the Bush years with his one-man show, You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W Bush.
Will Ferrell as George W
Will Ferrell as George W Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews

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On Jan. 20 — Inauguration Day — having endured the bitter pill of unemployment for a whole half-day, our 43rd president starts breaking in his new act at the Cort Theatre.

That's when previews begin (poor punctuation and all) for You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W Bush, which officially opens at the Cort on Feb. 5 and runs through March 15. The timing couldn't be more uncanny — and yes, "it's by design," admits the show's author–performer, Will Ferrell, of small screen and large, now in his Broadway debut. Not only does he spare himself a vindictive audit by the IRS, he can squeeze every last drop of comic juice out of the Bush administration — and be the first to do so.

His "training film" for the evening, which he guesses will be 75 intermissionless minutes of "all brand-new stuff," was "W.," last year's big-screen, remarkably levelheaded fun-poke at the president. "I loved Josh Brolin and thought he was great, and I found it entertaining to watch just as an exercise in 'Oh, what's Oliver Stone going to do?' — but I wasn't blown away by it. It fell somewhere between being a message movie and a comedy, and I thought it had a hard time trying to figure out how to end it."

At least Ferrell won't have that problem — getting to market, right out of the cannon, with the first full overview of that two-term Texan. Nor will there be the slightest ambiguity: He takes the tack that comedy is the kindest way to review Bush's work. With an assist from Adam McKay, his director and writing partner, Ferrell has fashioned a Bush full of funny riffs, some actually triggered by the president's own words or half-words (vide David Letterman's "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches"). "What I've done throughout the piece is weave in his quotes along with the ones I've just made up," Ferrell explains. "Adam and I want to put a pamphlet in the Playbill asking people which quotes are real and which ones aren't. Some sound made up and they aren't. I like starting with facts and then spinning off into make-believe.

"One of the sections in the show is 'the coalition of the willing.' When we got to Iraq, there was the coalition of countries that was behind the U.S. They kept talking about this coalition, but when you look into it, it was countries like Poland and Denmark and Australia, and, in fact, there were some countries that didn't even have armies.

"I go into a whole thing about when Morocco pledged to send 2,000 monkeys to help find mines. That's the real part — then I spin off into how Bush thinks that's a fun idea and works intensively with the U.S. Army to train a whole unit of 2,000 monkeys."

"Bush on Broadway" was not what Ferrell was originally planning for his Broadway bow, he admits. "I was listening to the political rhetoric from both sides, and I got this idea of doing a one-man show during the election season about a fictional presidential candidate who basically never said anything one way or the other."

His frantic film schedule scuttled the idea, and he was commiserating about that one day with his manager, Jimmy Miller, who threw out, "Well, why not do Bush for the last time as a kind of farewell evening?" Bingo! He was off to the races.

George W. Bush was Ferrell's prize target during his seven-year hitch as a "Saturday Night Live"-wire and it helped earn him a couple of 2001 Emmy nominations for performing and writing. When Ferrell left "SNL" for the big screen, he was its highest paid cast member, and his salary has grown proportionally in pictures. He is currently steady and holding as one of Hollywood's handful of "$20 Million Men" — and his movie grosses tend to justify the wage: "Elf" ($173 million), "Talladega Nights" ($150 million), "Blades of Glory" ($118 million) and "Step Brothers" ($100 million).

It begs the question, "How can he afford to do Broadway?" Ferrell keeps it primer-simple: "I've always thought if I could think of the right vehicle it would be wonderful to be on Broadway — to come to the theatre every night and be in that routine. Also, in the past couple of years, I'd done a few things in front of a live audience that were so much fun it really made me think. We did a 'Funny or Die' comedy tour last year — that's our comedy website [www.funnyordie.com]. It was in promotion of my movie "Semi-Pro," but over the course of three weeks we did eight colleges and Radio City Music Hall. Just being in front of those crowds was terrific. I know that this will be a real thrill."