At the end of Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W. Bush, the house lights go up, and Ferrell-as-W. invites audience members to offer up their names and professions so they can receive Bushian nicknames. It’s a great way for the star to show his improv chops, and critics all seem to single the segment out for praise. At last night’s performance, though, Ferrell got an unexpected lesson in the pitfalls of audience participation.
The first audience member to be called upon — a middle-age woman sitting in the front row all the way at stage left — offered not a name but a plea. “I need your help … people are dying. Do you have children?” she said plaintively. Ferrell didn’t break character, instead trying to dispatch her with a joke: “Is that your name — ‘I need your help’?” The woman, long on zealotry and short on boundaries, kept calling out over his patter, eventually offering him what looked like a couple of small bills. After a few more back-and-forth moments with her, the star accepted her offer with a Bushian smirk (“Easiest hundred bucks I ever made”).
It was an extremely uncomfortable, stalkerish moment, and Ferrell’s well-honed comedy chops were clearly being tested. Still in character, he faced the audience. “Anyone else? Or is everyone just too freaked out right now?” he called out, to a burst of nervous laughter. Finally, another ticket holder offered his name and profession; Ferrell instantly came back with “I’m gonna call you Sane Person.” And that was that: In a bit of comedy jujitsu, he’d turned an awkward scene into a running joke. “I’m gonna do the final portion of the show not looking at one particular person over here,” he continued, resettling over at the right side of the stage and looking up toward the boxes. Whereupon he finished to huge applause — and, as he exited the stage after the ovation, a big, earnest thumbs-up from Ms. I Need Your Help.