Lasting impression: Will Ferrell's Dubya is back for one last swansong

Will Ferrell made his name impersonating Bush – and now he's pulling on his cowboy boots to reprise the role in a one-man show
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The Independent Culture

George W Bush leans on a white fence at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, wearing jeans and a white cowboy hat. Two horses graze silently in the background. Suddenly, he clears his throat to make an important public announcement: global warming does not exist.

Instead, the President tells fellow Americans that climate change is a charade, invented by "liberals and Godless tax-raisers" who have been up to old tricks, "trying to make me look bad by using such things as... um... facts, and what they call... scientific data."

There is a pause, accompanied by the sound of giggling. "I think back to Biblical times, when Adam and Eve talked to that snake, 6,000 years ago, when the world was created," he adds. "Well, it was darned hot back then, too. Why do y'all think Adam and Eve were naked?"

At this point, further giggles. Then the penny drops: the grey-haired protagonist is, of course, an impostor. The giggles come from a studio audience. We are not watching George W Bush, but instead his greatest living imitator: the comedian, Hollywood actor, and budding media magnate Will Ferrell.

It's easy to forget, given Ferrell's long standing at the summit of his profession, quite how much of his fame, fortune, and blockbuster career, is owed to his remorseless impersonations of the 43rd President of the United States.

Back in the late 1990s, Ferrell was a jobbing improvisational actor on the long-running television show Saturday Night Live. Then Bush came along. Soon his weekly impersonation of the rising Republican star had become the programme's most-watched segment.

Critics fell in love with his wicked take on Bush's halting delivery, frat-boy background and seemingly endless ability to mangle the English language. Soon ratings were going through the roof – and Ferrell was one of the hottest new acts around.

Supporting roles in Zoolander and Old School gained him a cult following among the so-called "Frat Pack" of comic actors who included Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn. Soon, he was earning $20m a movie, and churning out bankable mainstream hits such as Elf, Anchorman, and Blades of Glory.

Today, a cynic might note that – with the exception of Halliburton and any billionaires lucky enough to avoid Bernie Madoff – Ferrell is perhaps the one of the luckiest beneficiaries of Bush's eight years in office.

But all good things must come to an end. Next week, President Bush, who made it all possible, is shuffling off into retirement. And Ferrell, who is determined not to let him go gently into the night, has decided to give his Dubya impersonation one last swansong.

Next Tuesday (the day of Obama's inauguration), Ferrell will step on to the stage of the Cort Theatre in Manhattan to perform "You're Welcome, America: A Final Night with George W Bush". The show will run to mid-March, offering a final flourish for the character which (among other things) helped him coin the term "strategery".

The contents of the show are at present a closely guarded secret, and critical opinion is divided as to whether Ferrell will be able to spin his skit into a memorable two-hour show. But HBO is backing him by broadcasting a recorded version, which will no doubt end up being turned into a DVD in time for Christmas 2009.

Ferrell, for his part, seems quietly confident about the show's prospects. Last week, HBO arranged for him to speak to a group of journalists in Los Angeles, via video link.

"There's so much material," he revealed, during a bizarre interview in which (for reasons that were never fully explained) he wore a red jumper bearing the Old Spice logo, a pair of New Year's Eve novelty sunglasses and a large Inuit hat.

"It goes in and out of obviously real events, real actions, real quotes of his, too. We kind of take little tangents that are fictional. But there's kind of a narrative that kind of connects the whole thing to make it one piece.

"There's been an incredible combination of some insane news events that he's 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."

At present, Ferrell's show seems like a hot ticket. Seats for "You're Welcome, America" are changing hands for upwards of $300 on eBay. Michael Riedel, theatre columnist for the New York Post, reports that it's "selling pretty well in a bad climate... If I were a producer, I'd put on one-man shows. They're a lot cheaper than musicals."

Broadway could certainly use a hit. New York's theatres are currently in the midst of their worst slump in living memory. Twelve shows, many of them long-running, closed after Christmas. Audiences prepared to foot the cost of tickets, which can run to $200 a head, are predictably thin on the ground.

Yet even if Ferrell sells out all of the Cort's 1,082 seats each night, throughout the eight-odd weeks of his run, doing theatre hardly seems to make commercial sense, given his enormous Hollywood earning potential.

Instead, it seems likely that Ferrell is doing live work to sharpen his game up after a slightly disappointing run of films that have left cynics wondering if he can play characters who are not his stock-in-trade: self-absorbed eccentrics with a heart of gold.

His most recent film, Step Brothers, suffered from lukewarm reviews. Its predecessor, Semi-Pro, bombed. An attempt at mainstream success alongside Nicole Kidman in the 2005 film Bewitched was one of the year's biggest turkeys.

Arguably, Ferrell has spent the past five years trying, and failing, to reach the giddy heights of the 2004 smash hit Anchorman, which seemed likely to confirm him as one of the major comic talents of the decade.

All of which may explain why he recently returned for a couple of guest spots on Saturday Night Live, a show that he'd been more or less absent from in recent years, but which helps place him firmly in the American comic tradition.

Steve Vine-berg, a professor at Holy Cross University in Massachusetts and author of the book High Comedy in American Movies, says the recent breakout success of Sarah Palin impersonator Tina Fey in the programme underlines its ability to keep stars on top of their game.

"Saturday Night Live has been at the forefront of political satire since its launch in the 1970s," he says. "That was the era Chevy Chase used the show to impersonate Gerald Ford, and really it was regarded as unmissable television, essential viewing for anybody who was anybody in comedy."

Performing before a live audience may also help Ferrell sharpen his game in a way that the bubble of film production may not allow.

"He doesn't really do stand-up comedy. He's an improvisation guy, and that means he has to keep on top of what works and what doesn't," says Paul Duddridge, an entertainment coach who has managed some of Britain's most prominent comedians.

"Even guys like Adam Sandler will go back to do live shows. Occasionally you need to recharge your batteries; you can't keep drinking from the well without filling up occasionally."

Whether Ferrell's battery-charging will strike a chord with New York's famously acerbic theatre critics remains to be seen. But it has already received at least one rotten tomato from the man at the centre of the show: George W Bush.

At last week's press conference, Ferrell recalled meeting the future President in the Saturday Night Live studio where Bush was appearing during the late 1990s. "I'd started playing him and supposedly his people had said they were huge fans of mine and that he would love to meet me," he recalled. "So I went up and said, 'Hello, Mr Governor, thank you for doing the show.' And I could just tell he had no idea who I was."

Given the sharpness of Ferrell's subsequent satire, it was surely a snub Bush lived to regret.

Will Ferrell's best Bushisms

"It's sad, but change is necessary. Without change, we'd all wear the same clothes every day... So I'm leaving the White House to go tear it down at some new party hole. But don't worry: the Tiger Woods guy's taking over. He seems to know a lot of stuff."

"It is with great honour and dignification...."

"There are some liberal agitators out there who would like you to think that my administration's not doing such a good job. These are people like Howard Stern, Richard Clark, and the news."

"I start my day thinking about the warming of the globe... and how we can get it warmer."

"There's people out there that would like you to think that the economy's not doing so well. Well for the two million jobs we've lost, that means there's two million people sitting at home watching repeats of quality television such as the 'Jeffersons....' And that just means more ad revenue for TV stations."

"The problem with the French... is that they don't have a word for 'entrepreneur'."

"I'm George W Bush and I approve this message. In fact I think it's awesome."

"[on his memoirs] This book will make a great movie. It's like a cross between Harry Potter, 'Die Hard' and 'Forrest Gump'. Only with emails being deleted and torture."