Every Christmas Eve, until last year, my family of hesitant Roman Catholics used to head down to a Protestant church (the nearest by foot) to try and inhale some religious improvement. We organised ourselves neatly in the pews. We turned off our phones, bowed our heads. We took a good swing at the hymns. But every year, after an hour, we would hustle out of the church spitting and cussing and blinding. This was no reflection on the absence of a bread-to-flesh Eucharist, as the Reformists among you may assume, so much as upon the vicar himself, who – if I may momentarily blaspheme – was an outrageous and terrible bore.
The man could not deliver a sermon straight. His homilies tended to come battered in a sugary paste of rehearsed joviality, of molly-coddling jokes and chubby winks. Jesus was “once a teenager too”, he would sigh, cadging a titter from the parents. There followed innumerable references to Amazon shopping and chocolate boxes. Having come – sheepishly – to have some sense and humility knocked into us, we left twice as braggadocios as we started, and talk over dinner would examine exactly where this vicar was going wrong. The conclusion was usually this: don’t mix high seriousness with low comedy, unless you can truly deliver a line.
I was reminded of this vicar by a trip last week to see Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. The original Anchorman – as everyone knows – was an epoch-defining piece of silliness. It didn’t pretend to have anything important to say about the world. The sequel flips that formula on its head. Besides being really very boring, it’s also an irritating moral lecture on the way people consume news media. Today, the film implies, instead of sitting down to watch a globally significant interview with a Palestinian leader, we’re all too busy gawping at car chases and videos of animals smelling their own butt. Anchorman Ron Burgundy takes the blame - for being the first to feed us what we want to hear, not what we need to.
Well, hold on a minute. If I’d wanted a browbeating, I would have stayed home and signed up for an online course. And surely the only people who have the right to point out flaws in the way we live now are newspaper columnists, not slapstick comedians? (I kid, I kid).
But what compounds the absence of festive cheer in Anchorman 2 are its cloth-eared and crunchingly poor race jokes. Tina Fey, who makes a brief cameo, produced some of the funniest and most un-PC lines I’ve ever heard in 30 Rock, her brilliant sitcom that often played on race. I wonder what she thought of the scene here in which Ron Burgundy can’t stop saying “black” in front of his new black boss (who is scary and sexually aggressive), or the one where he starts jive-talking in front of her shocked middle-class family. I found them both unfunny and uncomfortable. Nobody laughed in the cinema. But it’s ironic, so that makes it all OK, right?
Again, I feel a version of the vicar’s lesson applies: don’t mix high seriousness with low comedy, unless you’re pretty clear on the fact that you’re not just using prejudice to get a laugh. What was that Burgundy catchphrase? Oh yes, something about 'staying classy'.