Move over, Rick Santorum’s sweater vests! The funniest thing to emerge from the 2012 electoral season is the new Will Ferrell-Zach Galifianakis comedy, The Campaign, about two Southern politicians warring fiercely over a congressional seat. Ferrell, squarely in his sweet spot, portrays the blustery, buffoonish incumbent — the kind of guy who pays lip service to “guns and Jesus” during stump speeches before shagging a blond constituent in a porta-potty. It’s also Ferrell’s most gloriously filthy performance since his butt-naked suburban jog in Old School. Calling in from New York, he breaks down making politics funny, what it felt like to punch a baby onscreen, the upcoming Anchorman sequel and why he still savors any chance he gets to alienate audiences.
The villains in The Campaign are satirical versions of the Koch brothers, the Tea Party-backing billionaires. In your last movie, Casa de Mi Padre, the bad guy was a corrupt American DEA agent. It seems important to you to embed some real-world critiques within all the absurdity.
Comedy is an important tool for us to constantly look at ourselves, and to be aware that we’ve got a lot of things we need to fix. I’ve always found it fascinating, that attitude of “USA! Number One! We’re the best!” That always needs to be kept in check, and to be made fun of. It’s a funny, ridiculous attitude. Even for as big as China’s getting, as an economic power and this and that, I doubt they have the arrogance that we do.
Is that related to your love of playing arrogant, preening buffoons?
Absolutely. Even as a kid, when I was on the playground, the cocky kid always fascinated me. I always wanted to be a defender of the not-so-cocky kid.
Two of the funniest scenes in The Campaign involve profane family dinners, which echo the classic “grace” scene in Talladega Nights. Why are family dinners so funny?
Technically speaking, dinner scenes are advantageous to comedy because it’s a place where the movie can slow down and you can see and listen to all the characters. And then, I don’t know, there’s just something innately funny and awkward about saying horrible, inappropriate things while you eat dinner. It s just a perfect juxtaposition.
One of the biggest laughs in the movie comes when your character punches a baby after a debate. Were you worried people might not find that idea funny?
Anyone in comedy who says they know that something is gonna work is full of shit. That said, I would have bet everything that that joke would work. We had people going, “I don’t know about this, you can’t punch a baby.” But I knew it was the ultimate metaphor for how crazy politics is getting. In the end, it was all in how we showed it: the fact that we did it in slo-mo, almost like HD footage from an HBO fight, with the ripples on the baby’s face and the flying pacifier. That was how we’d win with a joke like that. Just make it insane.
You’ve been prepping an Anchorman sequel. What’s the latest?
We’re currently banging out the script. Paul Rudd and Steve Carell have commitments through, like, January, so we’ll start at some point after then. We watched Anchorman a couple months ago, prior to writing, and it was making us laugh, but we were like, “God, it’s raggedy!” I think that’s the charm of the movie — it was nonconformist and seemed to kind of go any direction it wanted. So I think this will be our main criteria: If we get to a point with the script and go, “This just doesn’t feel crazy enough,” we’ll go back and make sure it has that “What the hell are they doing?” factor. That’s where the joy comes from.
A lot of comedians follow a career path where they’ll start with idiosyncratic work, then, as they get more popular, transition toward tamer, “family-friendly” comedy. That doesn’t seem like it’s happening with you.
As long as I have some capital left in the business, I’d like to use it in interesting ways. Not to knock those other types of movies, but yeah, I still want to make things where I potentially turn off part of the audience. When I run out of capital, I’ll start driving a UPS truck.