In an election year, Ferrell and Galifianakis run comedic ‘Campaign’

Working together just the ticket for comics playing rival politicos

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“The Campaign” is a broad comedy made from broad intentions: Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis simply wanted to make a movie together.

In the film, which opens Friday, they play two North Carolina politicians competing in an increasingly nasty congressional race. Mr. Galifianakis‘ character shoots Mr. Ferrell’s point blank, and his poll numbers go up.

It’s a ready-made concept that pits two of the best comedians in movies against each other for the first time in a major project. In comedy, a Ferrell-Galifianakis ticket is a winner in a landslide.

The two first crossed paths at “Saturday Night Live,” where Mr. Ferrell was a veteran standout and Mr. Galifianakis‘ short-lived stint didn’t last three weeks.

“Hey, Zach, have they told you what you’re doing?” Mr. Ferrell recalls saying to a confused Mr. Galifianakis at the time.

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“The Campaign” pits Will Ferrell (left) against Zach Galifianakis as contenders in ... more >

They hadn’t told him — not an uncommon consequence of “SNL” boss Lorne Michaels’ sometimes inscrutable ways. To make matters worse, Mr. Galifianakis had come to the show under the mistaken impression he was to be a cast member — the big break of his career — when he actually had been hired as a writer.

His term at “SNL” was remarkable only for an attempt to convince guest host Britney Spears to do a sketch in which, during an “Entertainment Tonight”-style interview, she inexplicably begins bleeding from the mouth.

Mr. Ferrell eventually would exit “SNL” and launch a very successful movie career, while Mr. Galifianakis continued with stand-up and various projects before “The Hangover” made him, also, one of the most sought-after comics in Hollywood.

Mr. Ferrell, 45, approached Mr. Galifianakis, 42, about teaming up, and the two quickly took to brainstorming. Their initial idea was to do a male-centered version of “Toddlers & Tiaras,” the TLC show about child pageants.

“We were going to play two dads, which would have really been hard to pull off because of the creep factor,” Mr. Galifianakis said in a recent joint interview with Mr. Ferrell. Both recoiled at the thought of shooting such a comedy while the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State was playing out.

“If we were in the middle of shooting the boy pageant movie?” said a wide-eyed Mr. Ferrell. “Aye Toledo!”

It fell to director Adam McKay, a frequent collaborator of Mr. Ferrell’s and a producer on “The Campaign,” to nix the boy pageant idea. Instead, he suggested a political comedy. For a short time, they planned to make a movie based on the campaign documentary “The War Room,” with Mr. Ferrell as a candidate and Mr. Galifianakis as a Karl Rove-like adviser.

Then it was suggested, “Why not be two competing guys, do a broader, more commercial comedy where we can still have a point of view,” Mr. Ferrell recalled.

They turned to filmmaker Jay Roach, whose schizophrenic career as a director of farcical comedies (“Austin Powers,” “Meet the Parents”) and acclaimed HBO based-on-real-life political dramas (“Recount,” “Game Change”) made him a natural choice.

With little more than the outline of a promising concept that would match the two comedians mano-a-mano, the movie was green-lighted with a production schedule and a release date that would lend the obvious tie-in to the 2012 presidential election. The script by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell came later.

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