How a media firestorm killed Will Ferrell’s ‘Reagan’ comedy in less than 48 hours

In a new interview with The Daily Beast, writer-director-producer Adam McKay blames the quick death of Reagan — a comedy that would have centered on (fictional) Alzheimer's-related fiascos suffered by the former President in his second term  — primarily on the media, charging a number of outlets with stoking the fires of controversy shortly after the project was announced without actually reading a single page of the script. “I kept saying when that story snowballed, ‘Is there anyone who really thinks Will Ferrell would make a comedy about a horrible disease like Alzheimer”s?”” griped McKay, who would have produced the film through his Gary Sanchez banner. “In a million years no one would do that!”

First, McKay is wrong about that. For eons, people who suffer from “horrible diseases,” physical and mental disabilities and members of vulnerable minority groups have been targets of vicious, largely male-driven humor, and the quick backlash against Reagan is in many ways a response to that historical pattern. As I noted in my previous piece on the subject, the “Teflon era” of radically un-P.C. comedy is long over, but that doesn't change the fact that it was in play for a very, very long time, and minority groups and their allies haven't forgotten about that (nor should they). While “the press” certainly should have done its due diligence in researching Reagan's tone (The Hollywood Reporter later described the project as “good-natured” in a breakdown of the script), the outcry that ensued is easy to understand in light of Hollywood's famously insensitive past. 

But McKay is right when he points out that too many assumptions were made by those reporting the story, and that the desire for short-term benefits, i.e. “clicks,” is what caused those leaps to be made. He's also right to be angry that the outcry effectively killed a project he had commissioned before it even had a chance; indeed, in less than 48 hours, Ferrell (who McKay claims “was just looking at” the project and was not formally attached) had pulled himself out of consideration altogether.

The reason for Reagan's demise is simple: Google “Alzheimer's comedy” and the search brings back 131,000 results, most of which are in some way linked to the project. It is that basic, patently offensive description, regurgitated by multiple media outlets (including, admittedly, my own article on HitFix), that sank the film, which prior to Variety's report had become one of the hottest scripts in Hollywood, finishing ninth on the industry-circulated “Black List” and even becoming the subject of a live read featuring actors John Cho, James Brolin, Dennis Haysbert and Nathan Fillion in March of this year. (In an odd side-note, the word “Alzheimer's” was swapped out for “dementia” in Variety's original report at some point after it was originally published.) 

Needless to say, you simply can't throw around a label like “Alzheimer's comedy” in 2016 without suffering some serious repercussions, and word of the project quickly spread to Reagan's family and close associates, several of whom came out with statements condemning the project (Reagan's son Michael tweeted that Ferrell and his associates “should be ashamed”). Top Alzheimer's organizations followed suit, with Alzheimer's Association President and CEO Harry Johns slamming the film as “offensive” and the Alzheimer's Foundation of America releasing a statement thanking Ferrell for pulling out of the project.

So if Reagan isn't as offensive as the “Alzheimer's comedy” label makes it sound, could it possibly enjoy a second shot at big-screen glory? Though it's not entirely out of the question, it seems like a long shot. As McKay notes, the “deification” of Ronald Reagan remains a powerful force in American society (witness the pressure exerted on CBS in 2003 over the controversial Reagans miniseries, which was ultimately ditched by the network before being aired on Showtime), but more than that, it's doubtful that he or anyone else involved is willing to deal with the mud-slinging and outright character assassination that's likely to come their way if they decide to proceed regardless. As the old saying goes, first impressions are everything — and it's unlikely that any amount of clarification on the script's true intent can erase the seismically negative impression the project made right out of the gate, fair or not.