Ron Burgundy is dumber than a dolphin. We're at Sea World in San Diego on the very last day of filming for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and a coliseum of extras is watching Will Ferrell lose a fight with a sleek, gray bottlenose who - without training - dismisses his insults by blowing air out of her hole and swimming away.
It's been ten years since San Diego became the home of "stay classy." In the decade since, the city has become so grateful for the free publicity that they've been happy to shut down one of the city's main attractions for a day so that director Adam McKay could film Burgundy's drunken downfall getting booed off the stage of an aquatic show, all for Anchorman 2.
McKay and Ferrell aren't talking about what happened in the gap between films, which includes why Burgundy divorced Veronica Cornerstone (Christina Applegate). But they will say this dolphin scene takes place at the start of the film before Burgundy leaves San Diego for New York City to start his new chapter as the 2am host of the first 24-hour news network. There wasn't supposed to be an Anchorman sequel. Paramount, which bought the rights to the property in 2006, said it didn't make financial sense. And Ferrell and McKay weren't clamoring to shoot it, either.
"We've never made a sequel to any of the films we've done because we've been anti-sequel," explains Ferrell. "Why not explore a new idea instead of revising something that you've already made?" But as the years ticked by and Ron Burgundy's catchphrases kept current in pop culture, the two comedians slowly began to reconsider. Says Ferrell, "I think we just started saying casually, 'Well, if there's one we're going to make a sequel to, it's Anchorman—but we're still never going to make a sequel."
What changed their minds? It could be that after 2006's Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, their biggest hit to date, McKay and Ferrell's other partnerships - 2008's Step Brothers and 2010's The Other Guys - have been critical, but not commercial successes. And without McKay, Ferrell hasn't done much better. Besides, shrugs Ferrell, "Those guys get to make six Ocean's Elevens and no one seems to beat them up for it, so c'mon, why not?"
After Paramount finally gave them the greenlight, the hard part was deciding what happened to Ron Burgundy next.
"If you're going to make a sequel, it should be equally as crazy as the first one," insists Ferrell. "We talked about the idea of a musical, we talked about just going to a different genre altogether." But when they hit upon the dawn of round-the-clock cable news, which kicked off when Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980. "It's so commonplace to us now, but at this time it was this revolutionary thing that news was going to be 24 hours," says Ferrell. "Now we have food networks, we have everything, but CNN was the beginning of that."
"That was when Reagan came to office," adds McKay. "It was kind of the changing point in so many ways." When he looked into it further, he discovered that to fill the 24-hour void, CNN really did track down old local anchors and shoved them into undesirable slots.
"They literally just needed warm bodies," notes Ferrell. "That's why he and his news team are on at 2 in the morning. Of course they're horribly upset by that—his ego is bruised."
Still, it can't be much worse than Ron Burgundy's current Sea World disaster. McKay leads the extras—all dressed in early '80s pastels without a hint of neon—in a series of escalating practice boos. When that's ready, he guides them through a complicated chant: "You have taken an Icarus-like fall, Ron Burgundy." ("Can you believe they actually did that?" he laughs backstage afterward.)
In the breaks, Sea World's actual dolphin trainer begins taking biology questions from children—some of the day's best unscripted comedy. Where do dolphins come from? ("That's a question for your parents.") Are they sad when people die? ("They do form strong pair bonds...") Then McKay jumps back in to beg the crowd not to laugh no matter what he and Ferrell improvise, which turns out to be 20 minutes of escalating animal insults that start with Burgundy calling the dolphin an idiot fish and get even weirder and worse.
Watching McKay and Ferrell at work, it's clear they show up on set with only a vague idea of the dialogue. Instead, the scene comes together as they test funny lines. At the start, Ron Burgundy is simply drunk. An hour later, he's insanely jealous of the dolphin's audience appeal—now, it's personal. Comedians like Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell are used to the way McKay works. As for a newcomer like Harrison Ford, who has a lengthy cameo that they're keeping under wraps, it took him a while to adjust.
"He was like, 'What?'" jokes McKay. "In the beginning, it was like 'What the hell are you guys doing?' And then by the end he kind of loved it. Sam Jackson was the same way on The Other Guys, but Harrison Ford was the diciest for about 10 minutes. It was like the inner 12-year-old in all of us came out. I'm throwing lines out to Han Solo—and I think he knows you're thinking that."
"In the edit room, it's going to be crazy the options we're going to have," McKay beams. "The dolphin was pretty good, too." He predicts they'll have at least two hours of extra material for the DVD, but doesn't think it'll string together to form much of a story unless they can get real-life veteran anchor Bill Kurtis to narrate.
The big question is will Anchorman 2 be a hit? Comedy sequels are a risk and today's teenagers were in kindergarten when the first film came out. Plus, Ferrell and McKay aren't trying to make comedies for everyone. Says Ferrell semi-seriously, "I think we still want 20% of the audience to think it's not funny." But the first film was a slow-burning home video hit. With higher expectations and a Christmas release, the pressure is on - to Paramount, who was already reluctant to shoot the sequel and now needs to make their estimated $50 million budget, making sure audiences still love Ron Burgundy is no laughing matter.
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is out in theaters on December 20th, 2013.