Why Will Ferrell’s disappearing ‘Alzheimer’s comedy’ may signal the end of an era in comedy

UPDATE (4/29/16, 3:30 PM ET): 

In response to a request for comment on ReaganAlzheimer's Association President and CEO Harry Johns has released a statement regarding the project. Here it is in full:

“The Alzheimer”s Association is appalled that anyone would plan to develop a film that satirizes an individual living with Alzheimer's or another dementia. Would filmmakers consider using a fatal form of cancer or another deadly disease for comedy? It's time to stop this forever.

“The idea that a film depicting President Ronald Reagan”s Alzheimer”s, or anyone with
dementia, as a comedic device is offensive. More than 5 million Americans are living with the disease, and their 15 million family caregivers provide support every day. This disease is not a joke. In addition to its devastating impact, it is fatal. The Alzheimer”s Association will rally against anyone who marginalizes the devastating and deadly impact of Alzheimer”s disease.

“President Reagan and his family were champions in raising awareness about Alzheimer”s
disease and the need to fund research for its cure. The Alzheimer”s Association and our
advocates will continue to work to ensure all those living with this disease have the care and support they need while striving toward our vision of a world without Alzheimer”s.”


On Wednesday, Variety reported that Will Ferrell would produce and star in a big-screen comedy that was described thusly: “Set at the start of the ex-president”s second term when he was suffering from Alzheimer”s, 'Reagan' follows the commander-in-chief as he succumbs to dementia and is convinced by an ambitious intern that he”s actually an actor playing the president in a movie.”

On Thursday, two of the former President's children as well as former Reagan staffer James Rosebush slammed the project; for her part, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis went so far as to pen an open letter to Ferrell on The Daily Beast which read in part: “Alzheimer”s is the ultimate pirate, pillaging a person”s life and leaving an empty landscape behind. It sweeps up entire families, forcing everyone to claw their way through overwhelming grief, confusion, helplessness, and anger. Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have-I didn”t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you”re a decent human being, you wouldn”t either.”

On Friday, a rep for Ferrell announced to Page Six that the actor was no longer “pursuing” the project, alleging that the film was but “one of a number of scripts that had been submitted to Will Ferrell which he had considered.” Though the rep would not confirm whether Ferrell's decision to back out came as a result of the uproar, the timing was, to say the least, fortuitous. 

This latest outrage surrounding the A-list comedy star comes just over a year after his buddy comedy Get Hard co-starring Kevin Hart weathered allegations of homophobia — an episode which indicated Ferrell's brand of broad, male-skewing comedy had begun to tests the limits of decorum in the social media age, where hackles around sensitive political and social issues are regularly raised en masse via Twitter and other platforms.

Today's announcement was surprising for its swiftness, but it perhaps signifies the beginning of a permanent shift for an actor whose “frat bro”-targeted humor has reached the end of its Teflon Era — a decades-long Golden Age in which big-name male comedy stars escaped scot-free from often horrifically insensitive jokes made at the expense of vulnerable populations. While none of the offended parties in this instance have likely read Reagan's script to assess the nature of its so-called “political satire,” the “Alzheimer's comedy” label slapped on it by the media saddled the project with an all-but-insurmountable public-relations hurdle from the very start. In 2016, you don't emerge from an announcement like that unscathed.