2015 is turning out to be the year of the extreme niche cable comedy. A possible side effect of #PeakTV, with its ever-expanding number of outlets and said outlets’ need to attract talent with creative freedom, we live in a time when Fred Armisen and Bill Hader are guaranteed a minimum of three seasons to parody documentaries with varying levels of cultural renown. And while IFC may house the most extreme examples of the trend, this Saturday’s Ferrell Takes the Field proves that HBO isn’t immune to it, either.
After all, who could have guessed that Pleasantly Short Sports Mockumentaries Made By SNL Alums would ever become a sub-sub-sub-genre of the comedy special? First there was 7 Days in Hell, the Murray Miller-written, Andy Samberg-starring tennis epic stuffed with cameos and opportunities for Kit Harington to prove that, yes, he can be funny. And now there’s Ferrell Takes the Field, in which the comic uses his powers of strategic obnoxiousness for good (and more than a little bit of self-indulgence — but hey, he’s earned it).
Like 7 Days in Hell, one of Ferrell Takes the Field‘s greatest virtues is how compact it is. Clocking in at just 49 minutes, it’s closer to an episode of a network drama than the hour-plus of material one associates with the term “comedy special.” Whether the decision was HBO’s, Ferrell’s, or his collaborators’ — co-producers include Mike Farah and Joe Farrell of Funny or Die — it’s a smart one, keeping a premise that could easily be stretched thin more amusing than tiresome.
Consequently, said premise is laid out in about 90 seconds: Ferrell’s USC frat brother, Craig Pollard, is a two-time cancer survivor, lifelong baseball fan, and founder of the scholarship organization Cancer for College. Ferrell is a major donor to Cancer for College, to the point where he has his own section of its “Our Story” page. Ferrell Takes the Field is the comedian’s attempt to raise $1 million for the charity in a single day by, in his own words, breaking “a 50-year-old marketing record that’s already been broken three times.”
The record in question, established by Cuban-American shortstop Bert Campaneris in 1965, is playing all ten of baseball’s field positions for ten different teams. Ferrell stages his stunt at Major League Baseball’s spring training in Arizona, transitioning into comedy just as the intro sequence threatens to become self-congratulatory: “There’s another kind of cancer out there,” he intones solemnly, in the first of many documentary-style interview segments. “The cancer of doubt.”
Whether you find Ferrell Takes the Field worth watching depends entirely on two separate, subjective factors: baseball fandom and how one feels about Ferrell’s lovable-blowhard persona, one that’s as established as a persona can get after more than a decade of Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, and George W. Bush impersonations. Personally, the cameos from Billy Beane, Mike Trout, and various players/managers/coaches were lost on me, the kind of anti-sports fan who once feigned illness to leave a baseball game halfway through. But because Anchorman and the first ten minutes of Almost Famous are all my hometown has to go on in terms of cinematic representation, I’ve always had a soft spot for Ferrell and his ability to endear me to the worst of American masculinity.
That’s basically all one needs to know about Ferrell Takes the Field, which unfolds predictably and innocuously from there. As ever, Ferrell’s humor lies in maintaining his bravado under increasingly inappropriate circumstances, whether he’s asking a professional baseball player whether he’s nervous Ferrell will take his spot on the roster or feigning outrage at being repeatedly traded to other teams, despite switching teams being the entire point of the stunt. Performative bro-ishness, apparently, has no need for internal consistency.
A better question than whether Ferrell Takes the Field is any good — the answer, as most could have guessed, is that it’s fine — is how it came to be. It’s for a good cause, of course, and Ferrell is a big-name draw, the kind of guy who can easily meet his fundraising goal (spoiler!) by simply showing up and mugging for the fans. But the most interesting thing about it is that it exists at all: the quick-and-easy result of a specific performer’s specific interests, it’s hard to imagine it happening anytime but right now.
Ferrell Takes the Field airs September 12 on HBO at 10 pm.