As I usually do on lovely Saturday afternoons, I was going for a stroll down Beacon Street when I had a sudden thought. Ordinarily, I don’t walk to think; in fact, at this moment I’m proud to say I was giddily pacing my steps to the catchy iPod output of Carly Rae Jepsen and “Call Me Maybe.” So, you know, a usual Saturday afternoon.
Strutting my stuff through Brookline, I see a dog walker being led by a well-groomed and assertive border terrier. That’d be a funny comic premise: a small dog that could communicate with his (equal or less than intelligent) owner. Immediately I realized, oh it’s been done. Anchorman, obviously. Baxter.
Then I paused. Wait a second… Shithead.
It’s occurred to me before that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay lifted the idea of a goofy protagonist having a surreal, oddly balanced friendship with a dog that only he can understand from Steve Martin and Carl Reiner in The Jerk. Though I wonder about the intention and impact of lifting a gag from a previous comedy. Is this homage, a nod to the silly tongue-in-cheek brilliance of onscreen funnymen from generations past? Or is it something more creatively bankrupt?
At first glance, Martin’s Navin R. Johnson and Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy rely on the talking dog in similar ways. It’s a tender sentiment that appeals to almost all dog lovers: that your canine understands you. And, within the context of both films, both relationships are played for their moments of sweetness. However, the moments are potentially too similar in tone, though arguably Navin reveals himself to be a “jerk” at times, whereas for Burgundy it’s a defense mechanism masking his basic decency. Nevertheless, today’s comedians owe much to Martin. So what does it say when comedians are borrowing actual scenes – not ideas— from their inspiration?
Mining Steve Martin’s old material (“Gern Blandsten”) is assumed to be a kind of salute to one of the masters, while also being an assertion of one’s own comedic credibility. Or laughs by association. Most 16-year-olds have no idea about Navin R. Johnson, the adopted white son of black sharecroppers. But those “in the know” will recognize in gag referential filmmakers, kindred spirits like Ferrell and McKay. This is a comedy coda, with a similar exclusivity to a gentlemen’s club (actually in keeping with the same “frat mentality” often linked to modern comedy).
So, let’s say the Baxter/Shithead connection is at least partly for the minority who “get” comedy. What about the other 85% of Anchorman’s viewership? If they’re unaware of the joke’s origin and thus ignorant of the Reiner/Martin collaborations, does that make the “talking dog” a form of (well-intentioned) plagiarism?
As if reusing a bit could encourage a small percentage of an audience to suddenly become comedy historians. As if that could justify the usage, anyhow. I find this rationale a little idealistic, ironic given how naturally cynical comics generally are.
After all, a tree falls in the woods, who hears it, you know?
Still, comedy – or art, for that matter – is not nearly as “original” as the average audience member may think. In a sense, everyone steals. Dylan “steals.” As he says: “It's only natural to pattern yourself after someone… But you can't just copy somebody… . “ He goes on to describe the way he explicitly lifted the melodies for many of his classic songs from sources as wide-ranging as the Carter Family, Chuck Berry, Irving Berlin, and old Scottish folk hymns. The difference is in how artfully one does it.
For comedy, jokes and bits are shared, different comedians put their own spins on classic material all the time. Just because a jazz musician does “Round Midnight” by Miles Davis, it takes nothing away from that artist’s own ability to create a personal uniqueness with the material. For all I know, there could be a million Shitheads out there, some dating long before Martin/Reiner’s Shithead. The Jerk may just be the definitive “talking dog,” the one that carried the bit into the mainstream. Should Martin/Reiner’s stamp on the material be a factor in dissuading other artists from placing their own mark on the material?
There is a saturation point to consider. After all, for all the “Round Midnight” covers and Talking Dog motifs in comedy, we will always need the well to be refilled. Not everything can be a variation of a theme, or a cover, or a riff on something previously released and beloved.
Not that any of this was anywhere near Ferrell or McKay’s minds when they wrote Anchorman. Most likely, they felt Anchorman shared the same kind of kitchen-sink/fuck-it-all mentality of The Jerk, and included Baxter and Ron’s relationship because it hit the same anarchic tones and was, well, funny. These two characters are really that oblivious and absurd. Still,– intentionally or not – the bit works as a sort of statement. By linking Ron Burgundy to Navin Johnson, and their respective pooches, it feels like McKay and Ferrell’s subliminal way of saying, “Yeah, we’re the modern Reiner/Martin. We’re at that level.”
And it works.
Can you imagine if, say, Chris Kattan had tried something similar in Corky Romano? He’d look like a hack, an insufferably fool, a wannabe. Somehow, Anchorman dodges the label of poseur, which is a testament to how it’s carved out a comedic legacy of its own (and who’s ready for the sequel?).
Ultimately, performance and presentation may trump actual written material in the performing arts. “Call Me Maybe” may be an ironic ball of sugar now, but who’s to say a grizzled, Johnny Cash-esque treatment of the lyrics wouldn’t complete invert the song’s impact and give it new meaning (and surprising depth)? There are layers to be mined in everything. Comedy is no exception.
References in film/comedy are a new form of oral tradition, boilerplate that audiences can culturally identify without a giant arrow pointing out their meaning. In the case of Anchorman, they feel earned and funny. Comedy, or other art forms, informs itself through the lessons of what has been passed down. The question is, when does an idea feel so precise that duplicating it risks accusations of “ripping off” the source material? In the case of Anchorman, the concept has been updated just enough, and wonderfully re-interpolated to McKay/Ferrell’s sensibility so as to feel completely organic and fitting within the context of the film. That is the challenge.