On-set with Ron Burgundy, dolphins, and Adam McKay’s weird brain for ‘Anchorman 2’

One of the great partnerships of modern film comedy is between Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, and getting a chance to watch the two of them as they work is a treat, no matter how many other comedy sets I’ve been on over the years.

Ferrell and McKay shouldn’t even technically count as two people, since they appear to share one brain. One very strange and hilarious brain, I might add. There’s an amazing chemistry that happens between them, and while I’ve had a few opportunities to observe it in progress, it’s one of those things that you always say yes to if an invitation is extended.

In this case, I was asked to attend one of the final days of production on “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” in San Diego, where they were using Sea World for a scene that comes near the start of the film. In particular, they were using several of the dolphins, since Ron Burgundy’s rock bottom turns out to be a gig announcing for the dolphin show at the park.

A group of us took a bus to Sea World, leaving from Paramount at a preposterously early hour. By the time we got there, though, things were already underway. Evidently, season pass holders for Sea World were sent an invitation to come be extras for a morning and told they would get to see Will Ferrell if they showed up. The place was completely packed as a result, and we could hear the crowd just rolling with laughter as we walked through the park to where the dolphin stadium is located.

They had gone through and redressed the crowd in vintage Sea World t-shirts and hats, perks for being part of the shoot, and walking into the stadium felt like stepping back in time to my own childhood visits to the west coast version of the park. They had just wrapped up a run-through when we arrived, so people were standing and stretching and milling about, and they were doing a short Q&A with people while waiting to start.

Quickly, thought, the film’s A.D. was brought in to describe the scene to the crowd to get them ready. He explained that the scene comes very near the start of the film. Ron Burgundy is laid low very quickly in the film, losing his job and his wife, and we catch up with him working at Sea World, doing the only job he could find. He is bitter and drunk and, based on what we saw, 100% the same Ron Burgundy we met in the first film.

“Welcome to the Sea World 320 Show. You may remember me from the news before I got shitcanned.”

This is the morning Ron can’t take it anymore, and watching them sculpt his complete breakdown was a real treat. “Don’t worry,” he told the crowd at one point, “I’m fine as long as I stay hammered.” He ends up introducing the trainers, two cute and chipper young women, one of whom I immediately recognized as Eliza Coupe. They’re both in all-white outfits and short shorts, professional in every way Ron Burgundy is not. “Looks like they had their morning coffee,” he said as they made their first entrance. “I’m so drunk I’m going to crap my pants.”

At one point, after the first dolphin trick throws water into the front rows of the audience, Burgundy points at several women sitting there. “I told you you were going to get wet, you fat cows.” That’s just the beginning of him antagonizing everyone, though. Ron actually starts yelling at the dolphins at one point, prompting a little girl in the crowd to yell, “You’re a horrible man, Ron Burgundy! Children hate you!”

As we’re watching them run through the scene, Judd Apatow goes walking by at one point. One of the benefits of having Judd on-set is that he is such a smart comedy audience that I’m sure McKay loves having him as a sounding board. We chatted for a few moments as they reset for a second run at the scene, and he sounded enormously pleased to finally see the sequel happening.

The next time they ran the scene, we started to see them adjusting behavior and dialogue. The little girl in the crowd turned out to be Pearl, McKay’s daughter who was a viral video sensation with “The Landlord” several years ago. She’s been given license to taunt Will as much as she wants, and seems happy to comply.

A voice introduced Ron before his entrance with “Please welcome your host, former legendary San Diego anchorman Ron Burgundy!” Will seemed to be turning up the drunk in each take, getting more and more belligerent.

As he brought in the two trainers, he leered at them. “I’d like to train the two of you to take an nice little spanking,” he said at one point. He also referred to the dolphins as “swimming rats” during the take. He did such a good job riling up the crowd that McKay decided to try some chants as Burgundy is being dragged away by park security.

We started with “You’re not classy!”, then moved on to “You have taken an Icarus-like fall, Ron Burgundy!”, finally moving on to “You need to seek counseling for your serious drinking problem, Ron Burgundy.” Try picturing that one roared by a full stadium of people at the same time.

Here’s what I love most about watching the way these guys work. McKay loves to feed Will new lines while they’re working, and while I’ve seen that before, I’ve never seen this version of the process. Because video village was set up outside of the stadium, McKay couldn’t really run back and forth in any sort of efficient way. Instead, they patched McKay directly into the overhead PA system so we could all hear his directions to Will.

As a result, it felt like being in that weird shared brain of theirs, and we got to hear McKay think his way through 20 variations on some of the lines. I love the specific comic details he uses to flesh out his characters and his jokes, and just watching them run different versions of this all morning was very special.

The longer they ran the scene, the more drunk and crazy they would make Ron. I’ve never seen anyone aggressively shit-talk a dolphin right to its face before, and I was delighted to see how smart the dolphin was at learning to play off of Will in each new take of the scene.

I wrote down random things that Will said that made me laugh as they ran the scene, and I’m curious to see what ends up in what I’m guessing will be a fairly short scene in the finished film.

“I crapped my heart out of my butt,” he confesses at one point. In another take, he started to ramble. “It’s time for you kids to learn that life isn’t all fairy tales and strawberries. Sometimes you wake up in a phone booth making out with a Filipino guy. That’s not some dolphin with a g.d. basketball on his nose. That’s LIFE.”

McKay would sometimes break up while pitching a new line, and it was charming to see how much of this boils down to Ferrell and McKay making each other laugh. Ultimately, that’s what this all comes down to. These two guys love to push one another, and all of their comedy comes out of that tension, that space between them.

Will dismissed the dolphin, aggressively hanging over the side of the tank and chattering at him at this point, with “That’s not a happy smile. That’s an ‘I’m a prick’ smile.” During one of Pearl’s taunts, he interrupted with “Kids like you give child labor a good name.” When the dolphin kept breaking into whatever he was saying, he full-on melted down, yelling at one point, “I AM A MAN. I INVENTED THE FLIP-FLOP AND THE DURAFLAME. WHAT DID YOU INVENT?” Just the idea that McKay would come up with the flip-flop and the Duraflame as mankind’s finest accomplishments entertains me. Ferrell ran with that “man is better than dolphins” thread for a while, calmly asking the dolphin, “What do you think would happen if you applied for a bank loan?” at one point.

When we sat down to talk to Ferrell and McKay, it was apparent that they didn’t want to share many plot details at that point. They were willing to share that the film dealt primarily with the rise of the cable news networks. At this point, the new trailers have given away far more of the plot and the cast than they were willing to discuss at that point. We talked about the various other versions of an “Anchorman” sequel that they discussed, and Ferrell said that none of them, not even the musical, ever got as far into development as the version they finally used. He said that the 24-hour-news world was just too appealing and too natural a fit.

“I think the beauty of Ron Burgundy is that he’s not very good at change. Once again, it’s very difficult for him, and yet, it’s justified. They literally just needed warm bodies. They had to hire such a massive group of people to be on the air around the clock, and that’s why he and his team are on at 2:00 in the morning, and his ego is bruised.”

I asked him about expectation and how different it is making this film than the first one, where they were under the radar completely. “I think it’s been a little harder, and there have been various photos of people who have cameos in the film, all of which I’ll deny, but we’ve been able to keep 80% of the film and what happens under wraps. That may be a benefit of shooting in Atlanta. We wanted to shoot in New York, but the four days we did there were crazy, and it turned out to be a blessing that we shot in Atlanta.” He admitted there is some pressure this time, but added, “Adam and I both believe that if you’re going to do a sequel, it has to be just as crazy.” He also said that up until now, they’ve been anti-sequel in general. “I don’t know what chipped away at it, but I think we just started casually saying, ‘Well, if we were going to make a sequel to anything, it would be ‘Anchorman,” but we still didn’t think we’d make a sequel.”

We talked about how McKay’s ability to write new lines on the fly is so unusual, and how much Will looks forward to that experience. “It kind of creates this healthy competition, because you know Adam’s going to come up with some lines, and you want to try to come up with your own line. It makes for some great comedy.”

Ferrell couldn’t get over how well the dolphins played along during the improv, and he seemed tickled by their willingness to play. Asked if he was happy to have the moustache back, he said it was nice not to have to put on a fake one every day, but “No, it’s been a burden on my family. It’s the texture of horsehair. My children are really ready for it to be gone.”

McKay talked about how much bigger the production of the sequel was, and how many things they tried to do this time around. He was still a little amazed by how well the crowd played along with the insane overly-wordy chants that he threw out for them. “I could have done that for hours. They were so enthusiastic to actually do it.”

We talked about how different a place the cast is in now. Remember, Steve Carrell had barely done anything on film when he made the first “Anchorman.” McKay said the main difference is that everyone’s so strong at this stuff now that the entire process was just more economical. Everything was about making each of the scenes stronger instead of just about making each other laugh.

He explained how the scene we saw them shoot came near the start of the film and was meant to represent Ron’s low point. “If we couldn’t get the dolphins, the other idea was that he was hosting a ‘Joker’s Wild’ style game show. We had written the whole thing as a show called ‘Duck Duck Goose,’ and it was him being hammered with D-list celebrities.”

He admitted to being surprised by the paparazzi attention and how much media buzz in general there was. “It doesn’t really increase the pressure. It’s kind of fun to see how much people care.”

By far, the funniest idea that McKay discussed during our time talking was how you can take advantage of home video to do all sorts of strange side digressions. “We talked about doing an entire movie that would take place during this movie about Ron getting stuck in an elevator. You would see him at one point come in and someone would ask ‘How was your weekend?’ and he’d say ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ And then we were going to do a half-sequel about what happened during that weekend. We were going to write the whole thing, and then started to realize how much time that would take.”

It is safe to say that whatever final shape “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” takes, it’s going to be just as passionate and as sincerely felt as that first film, and I can’t wait to check it out.

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” is in theaters on Christmas Day.