In navigating these decisions, the filmmakers rely heavily on audience feedback. Ferrell later tells me he attended each test screening, arriving after the lights went down, sitting in the back. "We test all along the 101," McKay says. "Thousand Oaks, Woodland Hills, a mall called the Block in Anaheim. That place is a good stand-in for Middle America. L.A. is more progressive. The Block is where you know you're on to something."
White fires up an audio track, taped at the most recent test screening, that plays in sync with the film's current cut – he and McKay can hear the exact places, as they edit, where people laughed, and those where they didn't. "If a bit gets a loud laugh, we add more to it, like a stand-up comic," says McKay. If a line fizzles, "We'll flip in 'corn chowder,' see how that goes. We've got a deep bench; if a joke doesn't work, three players are ready to go instead."
White has been busy cutting a cliffhanger version of the movie, which will be audience-tested in a few days. "We're gonna see how mad that audience is: Is it a fun mad or a mad mad?" McKay says. Another audience, though, will see a complete version, the current cut of which runs two hours and 12 minutes. "We screened a two-and-a-half-hour version for 80 people, friends and family, and I was like, 'This is like watching Little Big Man!'" says McKay. "You're going world to world, there's, like, six story lines. I kind of dug that." Most feature comedies in the joke-driven vein of Anchorman, however (as opposed to more character-driven comedies, like, say, Terms of Endearment), last about 90 minutes. "It's a medical experiment, basically," says McKay. "Can the human body laugh for two hours?"
McKay e-mails me in August, a few days after the cliffhanger and single-cut versions are audience-tested. "We screened Thursday night, and it's clearly one single cut," he writes. "Single cut got an 86 with lots of 'excellent' ratings, and the half cut got an 83 with lots of 'very goods.'" The first Anchorman, he says, "never scored higher than a 75 or 72."
Since the Anchorman sequel was announced, Paramount has been doing its own research, and these results have been promising too. Which is funny, because, at first, Paramount, which has ownership of the franchise, didn't show overwhelming faith in the prospects of a second Anchorman. The idea to do a sequel came to McKay and Ferrell "almost six years ago," McKay says. "There was a call for it – Ferrell's hearing it at every junket he's doing, we're getting it from friends, on Twitter, on Facebook, in articles." The challenge would be steep, though. For one thing, they'd be revisiting hallowed ground; for another, the vast majority of comedy sequels suck. "I was trying to think of great ones," McKay says. "The second Austin Powers is pretty damn good, and Wayne's World 2 is a lot of fun. Men in Black is one of my all-time favorites, but MIB II was pretty tough." Making a comedy sequel, you want to tap into fond memories, but you don't merely want to put out a glorified greatest-hits reel. "I didn't see The Hangover: Part II, but I heard it mirrors the first one pretty close," says McKay. "We tried to find that right recipe of what do we call back, what do we create new?" says Ferrell. "How much are we beholden to a traditional story versus being tangential?" In the end, they decided to embrace their loopiest impulses. "Anchorman's lovable charm was that it seemed to just go in any direction it wanted," Ferrell says. McKay agrees: "We tried to make this one even crazier."
Convinced they could pull it off, the pair pitched Paramount on bringing back Burgundy. "They loved it," says McKay. But the budget was an issue. "The first movie, no one's getting paid anything," McKay says. "For the second one, you want to do new shit, you need a little boost in production and everyone now gets paid 40 times what they used to get paid." McKay wanted $80 million. "Paramount looked at me like I was a crazy man." So he circled back, cutting production expenses and figuring in salary cuts: How about $60 million? No dice, Paramount said. "What we heard was, they were looking at just the raw box-office numbers that the first one did, and they were straight-up projecting that that's what the second one would do," says McKay. "We're like, 'The first Austin Powers made 55 and the second one made 200!'"
The project seemed dead. McKay and Ferrell turned their attention to making a Step Brothers sequel. Sony was intrigued. John C. Reilly was in. But any time McKay or Ferrell mentioned it, McKay says, "every single person says the same thing: Why aren't you doing Anchorman?" Finally, McKay's agent, the bullish Ari Emanuel, made one last attempt. "Ari goes, 'I'll call. I don't fucking care. They should make this movie.' They go, 'We just had a movie fall apart. Let's talk.'" Paramount offered a $50 million budget, which meant that McKay and Ferrell had to persuade actors like Rudd and Carell to slash their salaries. "Judd was really helpful on that, calling the agents directly," McKay says. "And then Paramount helped us out by giving us some points on the back end." In March 2012, Ron Burgundy appeared on Conan, playing jazz flute and announcing the sequel was a go.
In devising the new story line, Ferrell and McKay decided to focus on the rise of 24-hour cable news. "These guys don't do well with change," McKay says of Ron and his team. "So you want to force some change on them." They zeroed in on 1980 as a seminal moment in American news: the year CNN debuted. "We started researching CNN, and it turned out they'd gone and hired local news guys like Ron – Lou Dobbs was an anchor out of Seattle when they scooped him up." The milieu was ripe for critique, McKay adds: "It's with cable that you saw the advent of trash news – salacious, pro-America, all that stuff." In the sequel, desperate for viewers at a brand-new cable network called GNN, Ron pioneers sensationalistic coverage of car chases and inclement weather. Ferrell says, "We thought, 'How funny would it be if Ron Burgundy is the forefather of what we now know as everyday fare?'"
McKay, meanwhile, says that "doing it for $50 million was exhausting but fun. I hate to give Paramount credit, but they probably gave us the perfect budget. Money can kill comedy. It made us get scrappy, it made us get clever. It made us build, like, 10 feet of a lighthouse and then add a chunk in post because we couldn't afford the whole thing. For the gang fight, it made us just go to this freaking park in Atlanta. Some of the shit we had to do, with Will jumping into the ocean with a mechanical shark – if we had had $10 million more, we would have been in a tank with a green screen. All the making-do is what the good shit comes out of."
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