I caught Will Ferrell's act on HBO the other night, his one-man Broadway show about George W. Bush. I thought his performance was as significant for what he chose not to do as for his actual choice of material. Ferrell avoided most of the easy jokes about Bush, the usual, worn-out ones about his malapropisms and garbled syntax. There were a few of those, but where he used them, as in a sequence on the meaning of "where wings take dream," Ferrell used them to great comic effect.
March 29, 2009
Ferrell's best comic persona involves the projection of anger, as in one hilarious skit from SNL where he plays the part of a victorious political candidate who, for some reason, keeps running attack ads against his defeated opponent. His mystified opponent takes to the airwaves to ask what's going on, and then Ferrell attacks him for "whining" and being such a "poor loser." There is real menace in these portrayals. So Will's choice of Bush as an alter ego is a natural, because Bush is the same kind of bully. Ferrell gets inside Bush's head, somehow, and plays him as a man absolutely devoid of self-awareness. Ferrell's Bush thinks that the completely trivial, mundane things he's saying, his patient explanations of the obvious, are important and, furthermore, necessary because it's unlikely anyone in the room can keep up with him.
The Bush Ferrell portrays isn't stupid. His monologue is intelligent, coherent, occasionally witty, but the brilliant trick is that thing about Bush that Ferrell has isolated: he is a person totally cut off from the effect he is having on the public. He just can't imagine that he could be wrong about anything, and it is this insulated, narcissistic quality that is the surest proof of Bush's mediocrity. Bush can't see that it is the combination of his unwarranted self-confidence coupled with his weird, skewed judgment that leads him over and over again into disaster. At one point Ferrell goes through Bush's list of "accomplishments," from freezing up on the day of 9-11, through his Katrina non-reaction, to launching a war against Iraq on completely mistaken premises, to "destroying the world's economy," and sort of sniggers at the whole idea it's his fault. He can't see a connection between this awesome list and the 71% disapproval rating he carried on leaving office.
Ferrell allows Bush, amid the frat-boy humor and nickname-giving shtick, a few moments of dignity, as when he talks about his feelings concerning American and Iraqi casualties in the Iraq War. I thought the funniest moment in the show happened early, when Bush is out at the ranch in Crawford (which he claims Rove made him buy so he'd seem folksy, but he actually hates it and prefers the "whites only" gated community in Dallas). His brothers are there, and Poppy Bush too, and W gets them trapped in an old abandoned mine on the property. At one point during their panic, Poppy gets frustrated with Bush and yells, "And why are you the only one in the family who talks with a Texas accent? It just doesn't make sense!"
That was the thing about Bush. Nothing about him made sense, including those 8 years he served as President, 40% of which he spent on vacation. I guess we can thank him for leaving and Bush, as oblivious as ever, will just say you're welcome, America.