In honor of this week's The Campaign, we're putting America's biggest funnymen against each other.
Some comedians have respectable careers for many years, put out good and reliably funny work, and that's that. But sometimes comedians have Moments, and suddenly they're everywhere and everyone knows their names and maybe they're the funniest person alive. Will Ferrell certainly had that moment, and Zach Galifianakis had (is having?) something similar. Now that they're starring opposite each other in this week's The Campaign, we though we should look at four areas each man has made a mark and see who comes out on top.
Try and cast your minds back to a dark time called "Saturday Night Live in the '90s." Before DVR's and the ability to share your favorite video clips online, being an SNL viewer was a much more grueling task: there was no cherry picking the good stuff — you were committed to watching an hour and a half of sketch comedy that missed as much as it hit. This was the era of "that show isn't even funny anymore," but there were always bright spots in the cast — and Will Ferrell was, for a while, the brightest spot. Ferrell's trio of classic impressions (Alex Trebek, George W. Bush, and James Lipton) were screamingly funny, and that's to say nothing of the original characters like the Spartan cheerleaders and music teacher Marty Culp, which still hold up today.
Of course, it can't all be wonderful, and characters like head-bobbing night club staple Steve, while funny for a while, eventually lost their appeal. Elsewhere, besides some voice work for shows like the decidedly weird The Oblongs and a few one episode guest appearances here and there, Ferrell didn't do much on TV around this time. More recently, he's had runs both successful (on Eastbound and Down) and less successful (on The Office). But he's a primarily a movie star now.
Zach Galifianakis' TV career has been decidedly spotty and obviously less robust than Ferrell's. Galifianakis had a recurring role on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! as somewhat insane (what else?) actor Tairy Greene. Now, the humor of that show is decidedly not for everyone — it's entirely possible that most of the audience who loved The Hangover would switch channels on it pretty quickly. But Galifianakis played right into the series' bizarro world, which sometimes borders on anti-comedy, and it's always a hoot to watch a man with a sweater tied around his neck berate children. Then there's Bored to Death, HBO's decidedly un-sober detective comedy. As the offbeat Ray, Galifianakis proved he could be funny without being quite so screamingly weird.
Galifianakis's rough patches on the small screen may have had more to do with show problems than actor problems, but they're still rough. Tru Calling, an aggressively mishandled piece of sci-fi schlock, cast him as mentor, friend, and morgue worker Davis — there was simply no way that Galifianakis and his charms could save the role. And then there was Dog Bites Man, a partially scripted show that had actors pretending to be journalists and tricking random folks into believing that fiction. The man himself has said he was pleased by the show's very short run, because being a part of it made him too uncomfortable.
Ferrell is probably the king of SNL alums who made the jump to the big screen, and he didn't wait long into his tenure on the show to start laying the groundwork. Sure, a lot of those roles were in mediocre-to-fine adaptations of recurring sketches, like A Night at the Roxbury, The Ladies Man, and Superstar. (We still think he made a better Christ than Jim "Jesus Chainsaw Massacre" Caviezel.) Those movies…happened. Ferrell shouldn't take all the blame; when he wasn't the headliner.
Thank God, then, that he found his way into the so-called "frat pack" of bro-y comedians that really made him a bankable box-office name. With a streak like Zoolander, Old School, Anchorman, Wedding Crashers, and Talledega Nights, Ferrell was killing it on-screen with a group of like-minded dudes that included Paul Rudd, the Wilson brothers, Vince Vaughn, Steve Carrell, and John C. Reilly. No longer relegated to one-joke missteps like Roxbury, Ferrell could now play his outsized characters within reliable, gag-a-minute fare — and his onscreen presence was pompous, juvenile, emotional, and ridiculous, often all in one character and sometimes in one scene. Perhaps the strongest evidence for how good he was in these films is his characters' extreme quotability — good luck finding anyone in their twenties without a working library of quotes from Ferrell's films.
If the devil asked you, “Would you star in a few episodes of forgettable TV in exchange for a lead in one of the most financially successful comedy films of all time?” I don't think many people would say no. The Hangover undoubtedly brought Galifianakis the most attention he'd had in his career up to that point — I doubt many remembered his turn as “Bus Stop Man” in Bubble Boy. (Though more than a few of my friends have quoted him in Out Cold: "No regrets. That's my motto. Well, that and 'Everybody wang chung tonight.") And much of Galifianakis' CV speaks to many, many years as a struggling (though obviously not failing) comic, with lots of little roles in movies peppered throughout two-episode guest starring stints on TV comedies. But then, The Hangover! For all the outrageous things the film threw at the audience, Galifianakis manages to be hilarious, while adding some actual nuance to his role as Alan, with a demeanor that instantly tells you of a life full of sheltered parenting and school lunches eaten alone.
Outside of the Hangover franchise, though, his record is not so much awful (give or take a G-Force) as it is thin. There's just nothing to match the insane streak Ferrell had going for a few years. Fun fact: Galifianakis did have a supporting role in another City of Sin adventure, What Happens In Vegas. Un-fun fact: that movie exists.
Ferrell is no exception to the comedians-trying-their-hand-at-drama career move, though his few more dramatic films are really best classified as dramedies, which is probably for the best. Ferrell's ability to combine wacky outbursts with every-guy normalcy is best used for yuks; he would never fit in something as grim as We Need to Talk About Kevin. In fact, two of the films from this side of his resume explicitly deal with the question of life as comedy or tragedy. Needless to say, in both Melinda and Melinda and Stranger Than Fiction, Ferrell brings much of the former. His work as a down-on-his-luck sad sack in in Everything Must Go, however, is a different matter. This film remains the closest Farrell has come to portraying a truly believable human character on screen — the kind of guy who can be funny, sure, but is still an all-too-fallible mess.
Like Ferrell, Galifianakis seems pretty comfortable sticking to comedy, or at least the comedy-adjacent. His best known dramatic role is that of psych-ward resident Bobby in the teenage love story/suicide tale It's Kind of a Funny Story. And much like his competitor in Everything Must Go, Galifianakis turns the volume way down to play a man who is deeply sad inside, even if he's still engaging and amusing at times. The movie wasn't exactly a hit, but in general critics were fond of what Galifianakis could do when he wasn't being deliberately weird. (Please note, this is one of his few characters who actually has a certifiable mental condition. Let that sink in for a moment.)
Some of his other dramatic moments feel a bit like cheats: sure, it's sad to see office drone Steve get fired in Up in the Air — and it's impressive that Galifianakis seems on the verge of tears for just a slight, well-played moment — but that scene is also intercut with a quickly-cut montage of Steve doing ca-razy things after getting fired. We will give proper due to his turn as a rough-hewn grain elevator operator in Into the Wild, though, if only because he was momentarily unrecognizable, despite the fact that the man is never truly clean-shaven.
Ferrell's no stranger to the internet, but this guy is decidedly the more old-school of the two men we're examining today. It's a side-effect of timing: as we noted above, Ferrell was first became a big thing around the time of dial-up modems. The man has his mode, and that mode is movie star. (Not too shabby, really.) That's not to say his contributions to your online procrastination haven't been good — he appeared in an installment of the reliably slurry “Drunk History” series as Abraham Lincoln, for instance, and turned this match-up inside itself on Galifianakis's “Between Two Ferns.” Most of his output for the web, though, has been clips made in service of upcoming movies, which we would argue doesn't quite capture the spirit of internet comedy. His one big exception, though? “The Landlord,” in which a flustered and frightened Farrell is given a vulgar verbal smackdown by a princess-dress wearing toddler.
Galifianakis has produced and guested in a slew of hilarious viral videos; the man is perhaps the most game celebrity when it comes to web shorts. If Ferrell used a lot of guest appearances in other films to bolster his headliners, then the Galifianakis method relies on massive YouTube view counts.
But really, his biggest success on the web is “Between Two Ferns,” perhaps the most screamingly hilarious and awkward interview series known to man. Can we just put a bunch of videos from “Between Two Ferns” here and call it a day? [No — Ed.] Galifianakis peppers the beautiful people (like Bruce Willis, Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron, and Sean Penn) with inappropriate questions, uncomfortable silences, and a look that suggests both innocence and a psychotic disorder. Galifianakis' "Between Two Ferns" persona is the perfect foil for his guests, whether they're fellow comedians or just very willing traditional actors — somehow, all different sorts of reactions work when placed next to him. And if we've learned anything from SNL, it's that such a thing is never a given.
The Verdict: Will Ferrell
There will be some people who will make this decision completely due to their subjective tastes in comedy, and that's fine. While Ferrell and Galifianakis are probably closer in style than, say, either of them and that awful man with the offensive ventriloquist dummies, some people who are really into comedy will still see a gulf between the two. But we cannot let the whims of one side or the other sway our choice, and the fact is that Ferrell simply came out on top here too many times to lose. Sorry, Zack — keep searching for your Anchorman. (Or not. You seem pretty happy on the internet.)