As generous and ridiculous as its title, Will Ferrell and Chad Smith‘s Red Hot Benefit Comedy + Music Show & Quinceanera was ostensibly a night to raise money for worthy causes. But over two-and-a-half hours, and with considerable help from their famous friends, the movie star and the Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer followed up their bizarre 2014 Tonight Show drum-off with a delightful event that felt both loose and surprisingly well-paced. Taking place at the venerable Shrine Auditorium – just across the street from the University of Southern California, where Ferrell went to college – Friday’s benefit also felt like a hometown show for a beloved local comic and a band whose particular mixture of sun-baked funk and beach-bum alt-rock is quintessentially Los Angeles.
Not bad for a night that started with a group of female modern dancers on a bare stage elegantly moving in unison to Adele’s “Hello” – only to be joined by the clownish Ferrell in a ludicrously curve-hugging black unitard. It’s a classic Ferrell bit – his pudgy frame both absurd and strangely balletic – but the actor’s commitment to his straight-faced dance set the tone for an evening in which comics and musicians delivered condensed sets with a relaxed but professional focus.
Addressing the adoring crowd after his dance, Ferrell deadpanned, “When I put on my unitard today, I looked in the mirror, and I realized … I’m not quite in unitard shape yet.” Nobody in the audience minded, perfectly happy to watch Ferrell play MC as he brought out stand-ups like Roy Wood Jr. and Jim Gaffigan, musical acts such as Devo and even two of his grade-school sons to tell corny, sophomoric jokes they’d written. (All of them were about squirrels, and the punch lines always involved nuts.)
Repeatedly during the evening, a whimsical air dominated, as if Ferrell and Smith understood how unlikely it was that what began as a fictional feud between them because of how much they look alike – which had seemingly culminated with their Tonight Show battle – had morphed into a fundraiser stuffed with celebrities who just enjoyed hanging out with one another.
Ferrell’s charity was Cancer for College, which gives scholarships to cancer survivors, while Smith selected the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, a nonprofit founded by bandmate Flea that promotes music education. But although Ferrell made a modest plea for audience members to text in order to bid on auction items, the night’s philanthropic tone was mostly felt in the warm, all-ages performances. Perhaps because there were kids in attendance, not a swear word was heard. The closest the benefit got to being edgy was Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman talking about his vibrating butt plug and performing a love ballad to Siri on acoustic guitar that grew increasingly sad and desperate: “Siri, was the government behind 9/11?”
In the place of dark humor were giddy surprises and a generally amiable atmosphere. When Ferrell and Smith came onstage to revive their drumming feud, they brought out different surrogates to battle for them. (“We can’t battle each other anymore; that’s done,” Smith explained with mock-seriousness.) The ensuing match-ups were often surreal: Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins opened the competition by bashing away furiously for Team Smith, followed by an unknown contestant introduced by Ferrell as a “14-year-old kid from Brentwood, California.” Tommy Lee emerged next, doing nothing but smiling and stomping on his kick-drum pedal; a surprisingly hard-grooving Fred Armisen countered Lee’s uncharacteristically minimalist display.
The fairest fight came when Smith tapped the Police’s Stewart Copeland, who showed off his legendary dexterity in a brief solo, and Ferrell answered by introducing Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood, who vocalized as he pounded away merrily on his enormous kit. As Fleetwood launched into the opening to his group’s “Tusk,” out came the USC Trojan Marching Band, which played on the original version of the song, to accompany him. Emerging triumphant in this new drum-off, Ferrell returned to the stage in full USC regalia, looking like the happiest guy at his fraternity bash. (It was a far more flattering ensemble than earlier in the night when he marched out in a stupendously tacky quinceanera dress. “I look like a murderer,” he announced with a chuckle. “Blue is my color, though.”)
The stand-ups’ 10-minute sets were tight and funny, but the crowd really came to life for the bands. Devo crushed their three-song performance, Mark Mothersbaugh whipping replicas of the band’s patented red plastic hats into the audience during “Whip It” and leaning hard on the jagged, relentless paranoia of their “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” cover.
Still, even Devo’s taut, propulsive theatrics couldn’t compete with the hero’s welcome Red Hot Chili Peppers received as the evening’s closing act. Moving effortlessly between deathless hits and moody instrumental interludes, the veteran group needn’t have bothered singing their mystical, questing lyrics: Everybody in the crowd knew every word to “Can’t Stop” and “Otherside,” having to be restrained by security from standing on the top of their seats to get a better view. And by the time Anthony Kiedis shifted to “Californication,” the group’s despairing look at the underside of Hollywood glamour, the Shrine felt like one large group therapy session, concertgoers swaying and exorcising their own personal traumas through the song’s mournful buildup and release.
But there was still one more surprise left. After the Peppers briefly left the stage, Ferrell ad-libbed to buy time for the crew to set up myriad kits so that all 0f the night’s drumming luminaries could return for one last performance, smashing through Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Eventually, Ferrell joined in, banging away on his cowbell. It was a slightly sloppy but big-grinned way to end the show. But not before Flea told the crowd, “Be gentle, be kind, be sweet.” A simple sentiment – but in an evening full of good cheer, certainly not out of place.