Idiots hold a place of central importance in all of comedy. And they're criminally hard to write. The best idiots have to straddle so many different criteria, especially if they're to be leading men or women. For a character to be a perfect comedic idiot, they must:
- Be ambitious beyond their own means. They want the girl, the job, the fame, the food, whatever it is - the size of their vision needs to be all-consuming. And of course, it needs to be a vision the audience can get behind. And somehow, the idiot has to somehow miraculously achieve this stupendous vision by the end of your story. (But, by the next episode, or the next sequel, they have to be the underdog once again. An idiot on top is difficult to get behind.)
- They must have high self-esteem, or even arrogance. The comedy of all idiots almost always lies in the gap between what they think they can achieve and the realism of what lies ahead. This perhaps the most difficult point to master, as arrogance can so easily become unlikeable, even malicious. We forgive the idiot because of his/her stupidity. If the idiot becomes too clever, too reflective, than we don't like them, and we're not on their side.
- They have to have high loyalty, respecting their friends, colleagues and family. The lone idiot, or the depressive idiot, is no fun. Often, the idiot's vision comes at the cost of his relationships around him, but an idiot must begin and end their story with their community intact. Importantly, the community around him must be as equally loving and devoted to their stupid friend.
- The idiot must have a strong, relatable, moral code. They believe in something. In this way, they are eternally optimistic. In the idiot's mind, the world is void of cynicism. The world is a place where dreams can come true, where people are good and bad.
- The idiot, from his position as optimist and innocent, must occasionally, but only ever accidentally, stumble into profound truths that he or she is never aware of.
The best idiot of our time, I would posit, would be Homer Simpson. Loveable, accessible, devoted, and consistent, Homer is an idiot for all idiots to aspire to. Homer is intensely optimistic, beautifully moral, and the eternal underdog. Homer wins it for me every time.
Recently, film comedies have put the idiot character to one side of the more romantic lead: the wacky neighbour, the weird off sider. Possibly the only idiot that's really stuck around and achieved the cult film status in recent years is Ron Burgundy of Anchorman fame. Ron seemed to take the baton from Austin Powers (just two years separates the final Austin Powers film Goldmember, from the first Anchorman film).
Ron's return to the screen in the recent Anchorman 2 was never going to be as satisfying as the first. It's still funnier than most contemporary comedies, but the Anchorman universe unfortunately misses a key element: the realist and cynic. Anchorman 2 has too many idiots. Christina Applegate's important role as a counter-balance to all of the shenanigans is lost in the sequel. Her potential replacement, Ron's new boss Linda Jackson, quickly becomes just as wacko as everyone else, so the film becomes a hit-and-miss explosion of recurring silliness.
Steve Carrell's fantastically popular character Brick is given too much lime light. Brick takes the idiot archetype to an alien child-like extreme that belongs as a supporting character. Here, his constant random inanity becomes exhausting. Ron's character arc is identical to the first film (which it was always going to be, repetition is central to the idiot type), but the all-important 'rock bottom' stage, so beautifully rendered in the first film, is treated with implausible silliness, making the rise from his fall not as satisfying.
The film is enjoyable, but it tries too hard. Much like Goldmember or even some of the later work of Monty Python or The Simpsons, the entire process is bound in the tension of being worthy of the first film. As such, Ron's idiocy badly needs a straight man.
Nevertheless, it's a substantial comedic achievement. Ron, like all idiots, has a special place in our hearts. God bless Ron Burgundy.