Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush is my favorite Broadway production that I never actually experienced in person.
Thanks to the subsequent HBO recording, I watched it approximately 2,857,398,543,798 times in high school. It’s a testament to the comedic brilliance of Ferrell that I enjoyed it so much despite the fact that I’m a fan of neither impersonations nor sketch comedy. Besides his expectedly hilarious antics — especially his improv’d interactions with the audience — what made the show so special was his deft handling of the man behind the President.
Ferrell of course lampooned Bush, but he also somehow tapped into the soul underneath the presidential facade, which made the humor all the more funny in juxtaposition. The comedian definitely mocked many aspects of Jr., but he did so from a good-natured place, allowing both sides of the political aisle not only to laugh together, but also maybe to come away with a better understanding of 43’s character. Though some billed it as a stand-up act, You’re Welcome America truly earned its self-declared distinction as an actual play.
A key component of the run was that it started days after Bush left office. Though many were obviously exhausted with his presidency, they by no means spent their days leading up to the performance seeing Bush left, right, and center. This sort of fatigue could’ve turned away audiences who’d rather escape politics. Plus, the fact that Bush was now in the past afforded Ferrell a better perspective to evaluate the totality of his run in the White House.
I fear that NONE of this will be true of Alec Baldwin’s plans to bring his Trump impersonation to the Great White Way. I can already hear his joke about how Trump would only perform on a GREAT Way made for Whites. Perhaps the title will even be “Make the Great White Way Great (and White) Again.” And you know he’s going to comment on the diversity of Hamilton, the cast’s encounter with Mike Pence, and the Twitter feud (the fact that phrase even exists in the popular lexicon makes me want to vomit) between Donald and Michael Moore’s The Terms of My Surrender, a one-man show all about Trump that played Broadway earlier this year.
This is the problem with these types of shows: the jokes seem to just write themselves, and predictable yuks will probably not make most yuk at all. Judging something before I actually see it feels wrong, but at least in terms of their respective work on SNL, there’s a drastic difference between Ferrell’s Bush and Baldwin’s Trump.
Besides the fact that Baldwin’s comedic chops pale in comparison to Ferrell’s, the latter satirized Bush in unexpected ways; much of the surprise stemmed from his empathetic approach. Baldwin has so far only offered a course, blunt, and excessively on-the-nose caricature of the man, a far cry from the character created by Ferrell. If his past work is a sign of what’s to come, then an evening with Baldwin will not be able to stand on hysterics alone.
I’m also just highly dubious that Baldwin even wants to present a portrait of Trump as an actual human being. He would probably fear that doing so may elicit sympathy in his audiences, which would counteract his own personal agenda. Yet as The Terms of My Surrender and so many other sociopolitical dramas over the years have shown, art with a polemical motivation almost always delves into off-putting self-aggrandizing.
Plus, are audiences really going to pay money to spend MORE time with Trump after not being able to avoid him all day every day? Do we even comprehend enough about Trump’s Presidency right now to be able to artistically comment on it in a significantly meaningful way? I always hesitate to criticize any art before actually experiencing it myself, so take these words more as artistic recommendations for the creators behind this gestating project.
Baldwin’s announcement made me consider what comedian I’d most like to see tackle a one-person show on Broadway, and the answer came pretty quickly: Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman (and of course Tony Clifton). Most are probably only familiar with their relationship from the 1999 movie Man on the Moon. Carrey turns in a brilliantly carbon-copy performance, but I was always irked by how the content of the film in no way dictates its content. For an adaptation of Kaufman’s life to truly honor his legacy, it should ask the same thematic questions as his work. Man on the Moon would’ve benefitted from reveling in Kaufman’s predominant focus: blurring the audience’s conception between reality and performance, ultimately suggesting that all reality is performative in some way.
Thankfully, now the world has the recently-released Netflix “documentary” Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. I feel the need to include those quotes because I’m not sure it’s a strict document of real life…at least not how most define the subject of documentaries.
It purports to chronicle the behind-the-scenes antics of Carrey going full-method during the filming of Man on the Moon, treating everyone on and off set as if he was literally Andy Kaufman (and Tony Clifton). And if you know anything about those two, then you can imagine the headaches he/they caused.
Carrey claims he hired a camera crew to follow him around because he wanted to use the footage for promotional purposes. But given the involvement of Kaufman’s longtime collaborators, I’m dubious of how much of the documentary actually documents untarnished reality. If people know they’re being filmed, then the camera inherently cannot capture everyday truth.
This idea is EXACTLY what any piece of art about Kaufman should explore. As Carrey says at one point during his present-day interview that serves as the backbone of the doc, he believes that Man on the Moon should’ve merged the original version with this backstage footage. Jim & Andy comes way closer to hitting the ideal mark, but it’s still too subtly subversive to make most realize that the documentary may be duping them into conflating fiction with fact, Kaufman’s specialty.
I’m not sure if Carrey would even be willing to step into the role again, because it seems to have taken a lot out of him (then again, even that confession may be intentionally doctored to trick the audience). But if he’s amenable, Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman (and Tony Clifton) on Broadway would be gangbusters in every way. Kaufman’s legendary Carnegie Hall performance even provides a precedent for what the night could be.
What would be a better response to a reality TV star becoming President: Alec Baldwin comically eviscerating him in a performance that will most probably lack nuance, or an evening that questions the relationship between art and reality?