It’s a wonder that Anchorman (Will Farrell) is doing well at the box office. “Ron Burgundy” is, after all, now a fixed stereotype in the Hollywood repertoire. As a genre, it’s a little long in the tooth.
We know that genres have a “sweet spot.” We like to catch them “in the middle” when they are sufficiently well formed to be readable but not yet so over formed as to be stale. Ron Burgundy comes late in the cycle but Farrell somehow found a way to make him “fresh.”
Stereotypes of this kind are the life blood of contemporary culture, and an anthropological question of some interest. The Anchorman (and his cousins, the talk show host, the lounge singer, and the game show host) has always inclined to self importance without substance, self congratulation without cause, and self celebration without cease. And I think it’s fair to say that for a long time we endured him without protest or even explicit acknowledgement. Everyone (or everyone with a brain) noticed his pomposity but we all noticed separately.
The anchorman was present but not fully accounted for.
Then something happened. Someone (probably a comedian) somewhere (probably Saturday Night Live) used parody to aggregrate our little acts of quiet observation into a larger moment of collective recognition. A stereotype was born. (A nice example of how cultural meanings are, in our culture, emergent.)
For the moment, it is an insider’s joke, know to relatively few. Then it goes mass. Sigournney Weaver in Ghostbusters says to Bill Murray, “You’re not really like a scientist at all. You’re more like a game show host.” If we weren’t already in on the joke, we were now.
Many comedians worked the vein: Bill Murray, Greg Kinnear, and Chevy Chase and then moved on. Well, not Chevy Chase. Murray even succeeded in giving us a glimpse of the Anchorman in his later years, abandoned by his florid self regard and and now a little “lost in translation.”
If the Anchorman has survived the genre life cycle it’s because we llike him well enough to extend his visa in pop culture. (Fictional characters, like the celebrities who play them, are foreign nationals in our midst. They serve at our pleasure…we send them packing when we, and they, are done. Chevy Chase, again.)
So why does Ron Burgundy get to stick around? Partly, there is something charmiing about sommeone who reaches extravagantly for social effect…and fails. We are all social actors tempted by gestures of self aggrandizement and we see some of ourselves in him. There is also a diminishment effect. We are charmed when potentially grand characters are self puncturing. There is also an act of gender apology at work here, filed by a celebrity male on behalf of all men. And finally there is an element of revenge. We are pleased to see the great brought low. If there is a little Ron Burgunndy in each of us, there is even more of him in the people for whom we work.
Most all all, the Ron Burgundy stereotype is an index of how thoroughly we “get” popular culture. All of us can see the “man behind the current.” We are all hip to the game. We know what pop culture is up to and now view it with our “irony” glasses firmly in place.
The culture critics believed that this moment would some day come. And they believed that when it did, we would throw off the chains of our oppression and take the high road to Culture or the low one to revolution.
Wrong, as usual. We like the “debasements” and predictabilities of popular culture. A ticket to Anchorman is actually two tickets in one. We see it for what it is as entertainment and because it gives us yet another factory tour of Hollywood. Long live Ron Burgundy, long may he reign under us.
Thanks to Jeff Brown of Bowling Green University for telling me about genre theory.