Television: HBO show bids Ferrell's Bush farewell

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2009 - 9:54 PM
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Will Ferrell as George W. Bush

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Will Ferrell, best known for playing overgrown frat boys, bubbleheaded anchormen and spoiled athletes, seems an unlikely Broadway angel. But the comedian has performed a minor miracle with "You're Welcome, America. A Final Night With George W. Bush," a sold-out hit on the Manhattan theater scene based almost entirely on a decade-old impersonation that should be about as relevant now as an Abbott and Costello routine.

But the 90-minute production, which HBO will present live on Saturday, one night before the show closes, has struck a chord with audiences who can't resist sharing one last laugh at the 43rd president's expense.

Adam McKay ("Anchorman"), who is directing the show, said he understands that some fans will feel it's time to move on, but that just as many aren't quite ready to put the past eight years behind them.

"It seems like in our country, we tend to want to blow past stuff, like Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra controversy," he said. "I think it's kind of exciting that we're not letting this go. Even though it's a silly show, I think it's healthy in a sense."

The most important person who needed convincing was Ferrell, who stumbled into the impression on "Saturday Night Live" when Bush was a long-shot candidate. Speculation at the time was that Al Gore would win the election, putting the show's master impressionist, Darrell Hammond, in the spotlight. Ferrell would occasionally do a walk-on, portraying Bush as a high-fiving, backslapping good ol' boy.

"I thought, 'Well, this will be fun, but he probably won't win, so I'll play him for a couple months and that will be that,'  " Ferrell said. "Then he eventually won and he just kept kind of gaining momentum in terms of his comedic persona. There was this incredible combination of insane news events that he had to deal with and obviously some poor decisions on his part, along with his type of personality and the fact that he kind of can't speak properly. That, you know, makes for a wonderful kind of comedic stew. I like to use the word 'stew' whenever I can."

Ferrell said he had a previous idea for a one-man show on Broadway that fell apart, so he was open to the suggestion from McKay and his manager that he spend more than a month at the Cort Theatre -- a stretch of time in which he probably could have churned out "Stepbrothers II."

"I never would have thought of it actually on my own, oddly enough, but it just seemed, you know, apropos to the times that we are in right now and also just a great challenge comedically to kind of send this character off," Ferrell said.

One person who is unlikely to attend the show in its final week is the real ex-prez, although at one point Ferrell was under the impression that Bush was a fan.

"It was back when he was governor, I had just started playing him and he was going to be on the show," Ferrell said. "I was told that he and his people were huge fans of mine and would love to meet me. So I hurried down to the 'SNL' studio and all these photographers were taking pictures and they pushed me into this circle of people and they said, 'Go say hi.' So I went up and said, 'Hello, Mr. Governor. Thanks for doing the show.' I could tell he had no idea who I was."

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431

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