When my fiancee and I learned that director Adam McKay and producer Judd Apatow were putting on a Live Read of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy to benefit 826LA, we bought tickets almost immediately. This was truly a rare opportunity: normally the Live Read territory belongs to Juno and Young Adult director Jason Reitman, who has gathered actors to read some of his favorite screenplays for Film Independent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art several times over the past couple of years.
Reitman’s cast members almost always read different roles than those they played in the original film – Cary Elwes, who played the heroic Westley in The Princess Bride, memorably read the role of Prince Humperdinck during Reitman’s Live Read – so I speculated that McKay and Apatow might do something similar and switch things up by recasting Steve Carell as Ron Burgundy, for example. But at last night’s event, the original Anchorman cast all slipped back into their iconic roles and delivered a hilarious performance that was every fan’s dream come true.
Conan O’Brien was our host for the evening, and he was just as goofy and self-deprecating as you’d imagine. He said the event raised $350,000 for 826LA (a great cause you can find more about here), and joked that “After Will and Judd’s cut, we’re only in the hole for about $25,000.” Another of O’Brien’s zingers: “Anchorman is by far my favorite Will Ferrell movie…from late 2004. It was such a smash hit, the studio knew they had to ride that wave of momentum and release a sequel sometime within the next decade.”
The event promised “big deal” musical guests, and though the music for the evening was fairly small scale, it still rocked. O’Brien first introduced Jack Black to the stage, who sang a hysterical song about not being asked back to star in Anchorman 2 and how the audience would revolt and ask for their money back when they find out “the motorcycle man” isn’t involved. Black exited, and O’Brien returned to the stage with an acoustic guitar; he introduced the electric guitar-toting Fred Armisen, and the two launched into a version of Eddie Money’s “Baby Hold On” to celebrate some music from the era in which Anchorman takes place (complete with Black wandering back out on stage, hijacking a microphone, and singing a quick reprise of his song about not being in Anchorman 2).
But the best musical performance of the night was yet to come. O’Brien introduced Armisen’s former “SNL” co-star Maya Rudolph, and vacated the stage while the triumvirate of Armisen, Rudolph, and Black sang a rousing rendition of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.” The funny part? Black sang backup vocals, and he and Rudolph energetically imitated the song’s famous guitar riff with their mouths as Armisen played his real guitar behind them.
Following a quick on-stage interview with the winner of a contest whose prize was to sit on stage with the cast and read one line of dialogue (though, weirdly, I’m pretty confident the guy didn’t actually say anything all night), O’Brien introduced the stellar cast: Danny Trejo, Bill Kurtis, Chris Parnell, Fred Willard, Fred Armisen, Maya Rudolph, Jack Black, Christina Applegate, David Koechner, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, director Adam McKay, and, of course, Will Ferrell.
For the next hour and a half, the cast performed the screenplay almost exactly as every Anchorman fan knows it – not only the dialogue, but practically every character voice and inflection was recreated to glorious effect. Ferrell slid effortlessly into Burgundy’s deep tones, and the fact that he laughed until there were tears in his eyes at multiple points during the night showed he was clearly having a great time. Rudd and Carell were spot-on, and Koechner was especially vocal, putting everything he had into his signature “Whammy!” catchphrase. Not to be outdone by the guys, Applegate brought her own spark of life to her performance and really got into it. (She was only inches from Ferrell’s face when she defiantly stated, “Your. Hair. Looks. Stupid.”)
From where I sat, the only thing that could remotely be considered negative about the night was that Vince Vaughn couldn’t be there to read the role of Wes Mantooth. Conan read the part in his place, and though he tried admirably, Vaughn’s are large shoes to fill – apparently there’s only one man who can scream “Dorothy Mantooth is a saint!” and get the full desired response. Overall, though, everyone went above and beyond what was expected of them; the Channel 4 News Team even sang “Afternoon Delight” to the crowd:
It’s astonishing how quotable not just the lines in this screenplay are, but sometimes entire scenes. I’ve said it before, but there has not been a single week that has gone by since the movie premiered in 2004 in which I haven’t heard someone quote it. From “Milk was a bad choice,” to “I immediately regret this decision,” and essentially everything in between, the script is a work of absolute comedic genius. Even though I’ve been writing about movies for a long time, I still sometimes get so caught up in watching a film that I forget how the entire process started with a blank page. Hearing McKay read the stage directions aloud made me look at the story in a different way, imagining how at one point, he and Ferrell must have been sitting in a room together staring at a blank screen, spitballing ideas that eventually emerged into one of my favorite comedies of all time.
Though I’d seen live readings of screenplays before – I recapped Reitman’s “Breaking Bad” event for this site earlier this year, and I’ve seen a handful of his other readings over the years – this was the first one I’ve seen in which basically every cast member read the same parts they did in the film. (Rudolph read all the non-Veronica female roles – she didn’t appear in the original theatrical release, but had a part in the Wake Up, Ron Burgundy “lost” movie – and Apatow himself wandered on stage to recite his “Smells like a turd covered in burnt hair” line during the Sex Panther scene.)
It’s interesting to watch different actors put their own spin on characters you associate with another actor because you often wonder if they’ll be able to live up to what came before; this time, I was curious if the cast could live up to themselves. The whole experience was eerily similar to seeing a band live for the first time and wondering if they’ll sound as good as they do on the album you’ve played dozens of times at home. In the case of the Anchorman Live Read, it was music to my ears.
Read more about 826LA here.
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