Unlikely heroes of the box office: The Frat Pack

Hollywood's posse of comedians hang out together and star in each other's hit films.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

There's a scene in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" in which Will Ferrell leads his 1970s-era TV news team in a street brawl against competing anchormen played by Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Vince Vaughn.

Ferrell, who cowrote and stars in the comedy, describes it as " 'West Side Story' with moustaches."

In reality, Ferrell couldn't be more in sync with the actors who play his on-screen rivals (Jack Black also shows up briefly as a wronged motorcyclist). Their absurdist style of humor, captured in films such as "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," "Starsky and Hutch," and last year's "Old School," is increasingly popular with movie audiences and has turned them into unlikely box-office favorites who show up regularly in one another's films.

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"They're almost like a comedy troupe with a new episode every few months," says Brandon Gray, a box-office analyst in Los Angeles. "All of their movies seem to have the same goofy tone to them - they're very light, with a bit of parody, and often devoid of any connective tissue between the scenes."

Recently dubbed the Frat Pack by USA Today, the group - which includes Ferrell, Stiller, Vaughn, Black, and the Wilson brothers, Luke and Owen - shares a deadpan style of comedy favored by comedians like Albert Brooks and David Letterman and television shows like "The Simpsons."

All of them are fearless about improvising and looking nerdy on camera, explains "Anchorman" director Adam McKay.

"It's based on the premise of someone who thinks they're a little bit better than they are, a neurotic guy who is playing a little bit above his game, the slightly dumb guy who thinks he's better than he is," says Mr. McKay, who was the head writer for "Saturday Night Live" from 1996 to 2001, when Ferrell was a regular performer. "This always seems to hit home with American audiences."

There has always been room in the movie marketplace for silly comedies, dating back to the Marx Brothers films of the 1930s and continuing through the '80s and '90s with films such as "Animal House," "Caddyshack," and Jim Carrey's "Dumb and Dumber." But pop-culture observers also point to a growing demand for escapism, spurred in part by 9/11 and the aftermath of the war in Iraq, as a reason for the recent surge in popularity of the antic humor of Ferrell and his cronies.

"These are very divisive times, they are very wrenching in many ways, so these comedies in a way talk to it by not raising any issues. They're outside of the world of tension," says Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University and the author of several books on the history of comedy in America.

While many of these films don't hesitate to use gross-out humor to get laughs, they also appeal to broader audiences by sharing a recurring theme in which the well-intentioned nerd or loser prevails.

"It's in the Jack Benny tradition," says Mr. Boskin. "This is good-natured comedy, which has a vast appeal."

Whether this brand of comedy can ever match the box-office of movies starring the likes of George Clooney remains to be seen. While films by "the Frat Pack" do consistently strong business in US theaters, they haven't fared as well with international movie audiences. "Old School," for instance, a college-set comedy starring Farrell, Wilson, and Vaughn, grossed $75 million at the US box office, but took in just $13.4 million overseas.

"A Will Ferrell or an Adam Sandler never draws the kinds of returns that Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt do overseas," says Mr. Gray. "This brand of humor just doesn't translate well."

Whatever lies in store for the comedians at the box office, it's unlikely that Ferrell and his pals will stop infiltrating one another's films. Ferrell and Owen Wilson have cameos in the coming "The Wendell Baker Story," which stars Luke Wilson as a good-natured ex-convict working in a retirement home. And an as-yet-to-be-revealed Frat Pack member shows up in next year's "The Wedding Crashers," featuring Vaughn and Owen Wilson as serial Lotharios who sneak into weddings as a ploy to meet women.

Director McKay, for his part, describes the cameos in "Anchorman" as a nod to "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," the 1963 Stanley Kramer comedy that was studded with memorable appearances by Jerry Lewis, Don Knotts, the Three Stooges, and other comedians.

"We were influenced by those no-holds-barred sorts of comedies," McKay says. "Even if it's strange and over the top and clownish, you've still got to play it sincerely, and you've got to play it like it's real in order for it to be funny."

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