With the economy choking, the cost of living spiking, 401(k)s evaporating and unemployment spiraling ever upward, it takes a comic commander-in-chief with real authority to keep an audience laughing through a blow-by-blow recap of eight years with the man who helped make it all happen. But if bleak reality has distracted much of the nation from the massive sigh of relief it might otherwise have heaved when president No. 43 exited the White House, Will Ferrell provides a cathartic, almost cleansing farewell in “You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W Bush.”
Teaming with “Saturday Night Live” crony Adam McKay (a former head writer on the show, and director of “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights”), Ferrell delivers what’s basically an extended “SNL” political sketch grafted out of the easiest target in comedy. But, aside from the brilliant Tina Fey-as-Sarah Palin exceptions, it’s the kind of incisive “SNL” sketch we haven’t seen much of lately — a fast-paced, well-sustained near-90 minutes that’s consistently funny and invigoratingly rude.
It was a smart move for HBO to sign on as a producing partner and secure rights to air a live telecast of the show, which should play as well on the smallscreen as it does onstage. That said, it would be hard to fully capture the punchy interactive dynamic between Ferrell and his audience, which at a glance appears to skew younger and with a larger straight-male bias than the average Broadway show. (There were even uniformed sailors at the first press perf, which possibly hasn’t happened since “On the Town.”)
In his chronicle of a political career carved out of nepotism, cynicism, chutzpah and careful management, and marked by a series of colossal blunders and false achievements, Ferrell makes no apologies for Bush. Yet, in his blissful ineptitude and irresponsibility, he’s somehow endearing.
Dropped from the flies by a Marine One chopper into “the faggy theater district,” Ferrell as Bush sizes up the crowd with that now-famous self-satisfied squint, thickly laying on the cocky swagger and folksy drawl as he announces, “We’re here to remember, cherish and celebrate.” He seemingly carries no bitterness toward his successor (“Listen, I’m a fan of the Tiger Woods guy”), and even appears liberated by his release from duty. “I feel as free as balls in boxers,” he offers, sparking up a joint rolled from primo “Panamanian Devil’s Crotch.”
Returning to the time “when wings take dream,” Ferrell recaps Bush’s pre-political years — his studies at Yale; his membership in the secretive Skull and Bones society; a memorable four-way sexual encounter; and his stint with the Air National Guard, providing an outrageous explanation for his AWOL period in 1972-73.
Ferrell then skips through Bush’s years as governor of Texas to focus for most of the show on his two White House terms. There’s plenty of humor mined from actual occurrences, verbatim soundbites (identified in rear-screen projections with a ping as the words “True” or “Actual Quote” flash) and Dubya’s assessments of his political colleagues, notably a steamy confession of his “raw, animal” connection with Condoleezza Rice (Pia Glenn, poured into skin-tight red faux-Chanel and crawling across the Oval Office desk like a hot bitch in a Whitesnake video).
But it’s in the more fanciful satirical detours that Ferrell soars highest. The most priceless of these is an extended mini-narrative about a family excursion into an abandoned mineshaft, prompting a superhuman rescue by Barbara “Scary Lady” Bush. There’s also a “Xanax hallucination” in the Texas woods involving Big Foot that serves to elucidate Bush’s position on global warming; a bizarre account of a unit of specially trained, speargun-carrying monkeys; and a gut-busting recollection of walking in on Dick Cheney in the White House basement in an intimate act with a goat-devil.
Then there are returning fixations on New York Times columnists, Diego Luna and “Western-grip handjobs,” complete with helpful technique tips. The admission of Bush’s real feelings about his ranch at Crawford and, in particular, about brush-clearing score huge laughs.
Pretty much everyone significantly connected with the administration is on the firing line, with the exception of Laura Bush, from whom Ferrell keeps a respectful distance. But the show never descends into mean-spirited diatribe. As appalled as Ferrell and most of his audience clearly are about the tarnished track record of our last president, the mockery is underscored at all times by a comedian’s warped affection for a gift that keeps on giving.
Some of the funniest stuff here is built around Bush’s own blithe acknowledgement of his unsuitability for the job. The pained confusion on his face at the whirl of instructions and information on day one of his presidency says it all. And when Ferrell does Bush doing his father or Cheney/Rumsfeld, angrily reprimanding him for his stupidity or inability to listen, the character takes on an impish childlike quality that’s almost sympathetic. Even later, in a candid red-telephone conversation with former FEMA bungler “Brownie,” Bush’s perverse pleasure in his screw-ups is that of a naughty, self-satisfied kid.
In the wake of so many angry rants about the Bush government’s litany of disgraces, the key to Ferrell’s success in making the impersonation work for an entire show is his refusal to demonize the man. Instead, he finds the sweetness in a character who’s just a big, brash dolt and simply in way over his head.
McKay’s unfussy production makes good use of Eugene Lee’s patriotic set and Lisa Cuscuna and Chris Cronin’s amusing video elements. There’s also a fun sampling of appropriate music, from triumphalist ’80s rock to Billy Joel, the Doobie Brothers and George Jones crooning “My Elusive Dream.”
Despite minimal input from four other players — including Secret Service agent dance breaks that serve little purpose beyond giving Ferrell time for costume changes — this is basically a solo show, more standup than play. And from his airborne entrance to his faux-reflective exit (“Am I the worst president of all time?”), Ferrell is deep in character — absolutely in charge and at ease, notably in a freestyle segment in which he comes up with instant nicknames for audience members.
Diehard or even casual Ferrell fans will not feel cheated.