Bush is a Burden for Ferrell

by Jim Rutenberg,
New York Times

The television set anchored to the wall in Will Ferrell's "Saturday Night Live" dressing room at NBC was tuned to the Fox News Channel; George W. Bush was on the screen, taking the presidential oath.

Mr. Ferrell, who has been impersonating the new president for national audiences since early last year, watched his subject with a slight grin on his apple-pie face. As Mr. Bush held up his right hand, Mr. Ferrell did the same. In a mild, dress rehearsal- level mimicry of the new president, Mr. Ferrell said in mock fear: "This is it. There's no turning back. It's happening."

He dropped his hand, sat down in front of his mirror, popped a grape into his mouth and shook his head in a mix of disapproval and bewilderment. But there was also excitement.

For Mr. Ferrell, 33, the inauguration of Mr. Bush was a moment of ambivalence. He was fairly open about it: he voted for Vice President Al Gore and he has big questions about Mr. Bush's preparedness for his new job.

But then Mr. Bush's election campaign, with all of its twists and turns, has given an enormous boost to Mr. Ferrell's already healthy career as a comedian. He now stands as the leading impersonator of the commander in chief, as a definer of President Bush for the popular culture at large. He takes the reins from his "Saturday Night Live" co-star Darrell Hammond, impersonator of President Bill Clinton.

It is an oddly burdensome role that Mr. Ferrell said he was not necessarily comfortable with: the kind of burden, he said, that can kill a good comedy routine.

"In this job, you can't really worry about that kind of stuff that much," he said. "I just view it as doing another character on the show."

Yet Mr. Ferrell is aware that despite decades of political theater - with Rich Little impersonating President Richard M. Nixon and Vaughn Meader as President John F. Kennedy - perhaps no other comedic bits have had more national news exposure than those performed on "Saturday Night Live" by Mr. Ferrell as Mr. Bush and by Mr. Hammond as Al Gore during the election.

Chevy Chase is remembered by those who saw him during the early glory days of "Saturday Night Live" as a hilarious impersonator of President Gerald R. Ford as an uncoordinated bumbler, a routine that was funny partly because it made no attempt to portray the man in any other sense. His colleague Dan Ackroyd played a mean and scheming Nixon and a pious Jimmy Carter. Years later Dana Carvey offered a signature impersonation of the first President Bush, who ultimately invited him to the White House. That was about as far as political humor traveled into the news realm.

But Mr. Ferrell and Mr. Hammond's recurring act as Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore was born in an age of three 24-hour cable news channels, one of which, , MSNBC, is owned by their network. And it was extended by the dispute over voting results, news about which the nation simply could not get enough. (Propelled by the election skits, "Saturday Night Live" had its biggest ratings in six years.)

Their routines were played and replayed on the broadcast and cable news programs, with their impact snowballing to the point that both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore showed up to make fun of themselves on a "Saturday Night Live" prime-time election special in November. It was the first appearance on the show by presidential candidates in "Saturday Night Live's" history. Mr. Gore's aides even showed him a tape of the sketch that ran after the first election debate to help him prepare for his second encounter with Mr. Bush.

"I think if you look at it historically, cartoons and popular caricatures have always had a big impact on presidents," said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian. "Now you have to multiply that by about 50 because of the force of television, where it is replayed and replayed."

Mr. Beschloss said that comedians in general - like Jon Stewart, Jay Leno and David Letterman - may have also assumed a greater role in this election year because times were relatively good for the nation.
"In an era where we're not dealing with the cold war and not, thank God, dealing with the Depression, other voices come into the dialogue and loom larger than they might have during a grave time," he said.
These comedic voices are rarely, if ever, flattering.

Mr. Hammond's Al Gore had somewhat slurred speech and the condescending air of the nerdy smart kid who is universally disliked by classmates. Mr. Ferrell's George Bush was an inarticulate, squinty- eyed frat boy doing his best to fake his way through final exams. Mr. Ferrell's Mr. Bush promised to emerge from the election process "victoriant"; his one-word election mantra was "strategery." In a recent skit in which Mr. Gore and the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, are shown debating the country's future, Mr. Ferrell's George Bush is in the corner of the room playing with a ball of string like a cat.

Though his portrayal may well have capitalized on a negative image of Mr. Bush that had already taken shape on its own in some circles, it helped fix it in the public mind.

"I think it's going to be very hard for Bush to get away from the image that this guy has created for him in people's minds," said Eric Foner, professor of American history at Columbia University.

Both he and Mr. Beschloss suggested that Mr. Bush would be able to counter it by making joking references to Mr. Ferrell's act or by embracing Mr. Ferrell at a public event. While Mr. Bush did join in when he visited "Saturday Night Live" (he said he was "ambilavent" about the appearance because some of the show's material has been "offensible") Mr. Ferrell said that a public embrace seemed unlikely.

"Let's just say I don't think I'll be going up to Kennebunkport," said Mr. Ferrell in a reference to the Bush family's Maine vacation home. The White House did not return phone calls seeking comment on President Bush's view of Mr. Ferrell's caricature.

Mr. Ferrell said that his decision to be open about his low regard for Mr. Bush did not come lightly. He said he recognized there was "a fine line" he had to walk, although he does not consider himself a highly political person. But he added: "You shouldn't have a problem being political, expressing yourself. It's funny in the stories and stuff; I don't know whether to be unabashed about that or not, but, yeah, I didn't vote for him."

His general description of Mr. Bush? "Let's just put it this way: I wouldn't be surprised if this is, like, just a stepping stone on his way to being commissioner of baseball. It's just like, `O.K., I'll do this for a while.' " Addressing television critics this month in Pasadena, Calif., Mr. Ferrell said, "I think he's probably drawing up plans to set up a mechanical bull in the Oval Office."

This perspective informs the Mr. Bush that Mr. Ferrell plays on the program, although the skits are written by others before being customized by the comedian. For instance, in the "Saturday Night Live" sketch based upon the first debate between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush, Mr. Ferrell's Mr. Bush was slow to answer questions, and steadfastly avoided saying too much lest he misstate a fact.

"If you noticed in the debates, he took these long pauses, which some people, I'm sure, read as wisdom," Mr. Ferrell said. "But I just read it as, like, `I'm . . . trying . . . to . . . think . . . what . . . I'm . . . supposed . . . to . . . say.' "

Mr. Ferrell said he did not consider his portrayal of Mr. Bush a dead- on imitation and that he did not bring the sort of precise observation to his act practiced by Mr. Hammond, who studies hours of tapes for facial tics and idiosyncrasies of speech.

He said he tried instead to capture the essence of Mr. Bush's mannerisms. "I try to get as good as I can, and then I kind of almost throw it out, and then I go on just mannerism and what comes to me comedically in terms of attitude and play it that way," he said. "I don't sound that dead-on like him. It's a blending of trying to get his facial stuff down and just kind of like the beady eyes and his mouth kind of droops a little bit."

Now that Mr. Bush has emerged the winner, Mr. Ferrell is often asked to appear on political talk shows to offer his insights into the man.

He has been refusing many such requests, he said. Mr. Ferrell, who six years ago was a relatively obscure comic with the Groundlings improvisational group in Los Angeles, is clearly uncomfortable with this new role.

Mr. Ferrell has been used in a variety of roles on "Saturday Night," none of which has greatly upstaged any other. He is as well known for his impersonation of Attorney General Janet Reno as he is for his role as Craig, the annoying cheerleader, which he said is the way he wants it. He fears that the Bush act could impinge on his comedy, he said, and dictate the future of his career. Recently he has begun crossing over into movies: he was a co-star on "A Night at the Roxbury" and will appear in the forthcoming Kevin Smith film, "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," and in Ben Stiller's film "Zoolander." He also supplies the voice for one character in a new WB network animated series, "The Oblongs".

"I think that the tendency is to be like: `Whoa! You're so lucky! You get to do the president,' " he said. "But I've seen how, like, you can just get kind of railroaded into doing the one thing."

Still, he said, "It has definitely, on some level, been the most exciting role in terms of the attention."

As for what he expects of his Bush act in the future, Mr. Ferrell said he sometimes wondered if the act could replicate the highs it reached during the election campaign and its aftermath. "Sometimes, it is, like, `Wow, I wonder if we kind of got as close to the sun as we're ever going to get,' " he said.

Ultimately, Mr. Ferrell said, it is up to President Bush. "He's really going to determine it, in a way," he said. "If he's going to keep making news, we'll keep doing stuff."

Source: The New York Times

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