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Bird Watching: Debating the glory of the Frat Pack

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Examining the highs and lows of The Frat Pack's catalog and determining who was the definitive member of the past decade

The great thing about comedy is that there's multiple forms of it and we all love one variation or another. From low-brow humor like bleeped out swear words to more sophisticated humor like Seinfeld's it's a show about nothing premise, comedy is something everyone loves. Comedy, like music, is universal. I mean think about it, who doesn't like to laugh? Sports doesn't quite have that hold on everybody.

But I do think there is something that makes comedy and sports analogous: every generation has their own group of era-defining stars they grow up with. Whether it's comics or quarterbacks, the people my dad grew up with are different than the ones I've had.

The '70s had maybe the strongest group of comics of all: Chevy Chase, Richard Pryor, John Belushi and Bill Murray among others. The '80s weren't as deep as the previous decade, but Eddie Murphy's brilliance in his stand up and on screen like Coming to America and Beverly Hills Cops was Michael Jordan-esque. Then in the '90s you had an abundance of SNL cast members crossing over to the big screen like Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade, Mike Meyers and the late, great Chris Farley.

For my generation, the late teens/early 20-somethings of the world, the best comedies of the new millennium were largely associated with The Frat Pack. There's debate as to who is and who isn't a core member (think Jack Black, Luke Wilson and Steve Carrell), but the universal agreement is that The Frat Pack is in essence four men: Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller.

The Frat Pack's total run has reached 16 years or so, but their apex ran from 2001 to about 2006. Some of the best, most quotable comedies of the 2000s like Anchorman, Zoolander and Dodgeball all came out in that short span of time. We've had a few pretty good movies from The Frat Pack since then (Ferrell's The Other Guys, which I believe is maybe his third best movie ever, came out in 2010) but like with athletes you're not as good as you were during your peak. These days the Seth Rogen-James Franco duo has staked their claim as the comedy alpha males, but for me, The Frat Pack will always be my guys.

So here's my question: who is the guy from this group? Over this decade and a half long run who is the quintessential Frat Pack member? And was he always the guy or did the title exchange hands as the years went? Take Will Ferrell for example: many would agree he's the definitive belt holder but he's only a supporting role in Zoolander and Wedding Crashers, which are two of the most iconic films of their catalog. If you're "the guy" shouldn't you be the headliner in all those movies?

So let's go all the way back to the start of the 2000s and work our way through the past decade and see what the best movie was for each year and who got the bragging rights as The Frat Pack's, umm...frattiest(?) member. Here's a few rules that I made up at 12:47 A.M. on April 27th:

1. Starring matters. Will Ferrell was a scene stealer in Wedding Crashers but it's not *his* movie. To me if you're the guy for a period of time, you ought to be front and center, not making brief cameos in the end.

2. Quantity helps. This is Owen Wilson's problem. He's just not in as many movies as the others are.

3. If you're the belt holder one year and you don't make a movie the following, you can't lose it until another member stars in something that tops your last movie. For instance, nothing of note from any member came out in 2007. That means the belt holder for 2006, Ferrell, retained the title for the year by default. It wasn't until Ben Stiller took it from him in 2008 with Tropic Thunder that you could justify a transferring of the belt.

4. You're on a five-year probation if you were in season two of True Detective. So things aren't looking good for Vince Vaughn.

5. Bonus points go to members who guest starred in a King of the Hill episode. Why? Because it's my favorite show and it's my list that's why. And, once again, Vince Vaughn has an uphill climb ahead of him as Stiller (That's What She Said), Ferrell (Three Coaches and a Bobby) and Wilson (Luanne Virgin 2.0) all lent their voices to the greatest show of all time.

2000-2001: Ben Stiller, Meet the Parents; Zoolander

A couple of thoughts here. First Meet the Parents probably doesn't come to mind as the typical Frat Pack movie but in a way it did more or less kick off the group's run. While Stiller and Owen Wilson are the participating members, the highlight of the movie is the Stiller-Robert DeNiro relationship. And really DeNiro's probably the best character in the movie. To me, the three best Robert DeNiro Meet the Parents scenes are:

3) "IT'S ONLY A GAME, FOCKER!!!"

2) "Are you a pothead, Focker?"

"What? No! No, no I...pass on grass."

1) And of course

Second of all, Zoolander wasn't my favorite movie. I've only seen it once and I barely paid attention throughout. But Zoolander was the first real Frat Pack movie. It had the core and we got to see just how well these guys all worked together. I think I'll have to give Zoolander a second viewing because the scenes I do remember, the gasoline fight,"I FEEL LIKE I'M TAKING CRAZY PILLS" and my favorite "What is this a center for ants???" are all stuff of legend.

2002-2004: Will Ferrell, Old School; Elf; Anchorman

This is peak Ferrell. If you want to include his role in Zoolander, then you have a three year stretch where he's playing Buddy the Elf, Ron Burgundy and he's a cast member for his last season of SNL. And what you have is a stretch where his career is being redefined in three sequential years. First he's remembered as the best SNL cast member of his era. A year later he'll always be Buddy the Elf. Then it finally crescendos in 2004 with Ron Burgundy. Ferrell's stature has certainly dwindled in recent years, but this three-year run was something special.

2005: Owen Wilson; Wedding Crashers

I don't like Wedding Crashers nearly as much as everyone else does (though who doesn't love the OTPHJ scene?) but this movie was pretty big for both Wilson and Vaughn. It probably did more for Wilson's status than Vaughn because Dodgeball had only come out the year before, and he still had some credibility after playing Wes Mantooth in Anchorman. At first I had this as a tie but then I remembered Rule 4 and 5: Owen Wilson wasn't in True Detective season two and guest starred in King of the Hill; Vaughn did play a part in True Detective season two and did not ever think it would behoove him to lend his voice in a King of the Hill episode. My hands are tied. 

2006-2007 Will Ferrell, Talladega Nights

After a year removed from the title, Ferrell came back with a vengeance in 2006 with Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Depending on how you feel about Buddy the Elf, Ricky Bobby is at least Ferrell's second best character and at worst third. This was also the first movie where Ferrell started to distance himself from The Frat Pack and emerged as the comedy alpha male of his generation. Unfortunately for Ferrell, this also started his run of mediocre to terrible sports-based movies. He followed up Talladega Nights with the immensely forgettable Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro. Nonetheless, Ricky Bobby's a wonderful character and he's strong enough to offset those other duds.

2008-2009: Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder

I feel like I'm being a bit too generous to Ben Stiller here. Sure, on the one hand, Tropic Thunder was a huge hit. On the other hand I think people remember Robert Downey Jr. "I'm the dude playing the dude disguiiiiised as another dude" more so than Stiller's character. Tom Cruise got to show off his comedic chops playing the forever angry Les Grossman and while he wasn't in the movie long, he was a scene-stealer in limited screen time. Tropic Thunder is more of an ensemble film but Stiller does have his moments of glory, including this delightful, if not tremendously tragic, scene:

2010: Will Ferrell, The Other Guys

Ferrell closed out the decade with his best movie since Talladega Nights. This was his first major role where he's playing something close to a regular person since Old School. Allen Gamble isn't nearly as much of a character as Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby but it's hardly a detriment. This near-every man drives a Prius, listens to Little River Band and has the occasional desk pop. Hopefully one of these days we can get a Gator prequel-sequel.

I feel like 2010 is a good place to close the timeline. Since the current decade there really haven't been any movies of note from any of the members. I mean sure Ferrell had the Anchorman sequel and was Lord Business in The LEGO Movie, and Ben Stiller had Tower Heist, a movie that I assume nobody saw despite fairly positive reviews.

So let's recap the decade: Stiller started off as the belt holder but Ferrell held it longer, six years, than anyone. Stiller is ever so slightly second to Ferrell, but the gap between first and second is so much smaller than the one between second and third. Let's look at the four's resumes it in a different way:

Actor Rotten Tomatoes Average Score IMDb Average Score Metacritic Average Score
Ferrell 59.4 6.6 59.0
Stiller 54.7 6.4 59.1
Wilson 46.6 6.2 50.7
Vaughn 46.6 6.2 48.8

The scores are the average scores of all four men's movies from 2000 to 2014. I used Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb and Metacritic because I felt using all three of them would produce a more consistent judgement of work. Two things stand out for our third and fourth place finishers:

First: Owen Wilson's really best suited for being the second or third banana. He's like Draymond Green or Serge Ibaka: good but Golden State wouldn't prioritize him over Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Same logic applies with Oklahoma City valuing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook over Ibaka. Also what's the best Owen Wilson movie? Not Owen Wilson and (insert name here) like Wedding Crashers, I mean what's the best "This is Owen Wilson's movie"? Is it Cars? I think it's Cars. And that's not a slight, again some guys are just meant to be role players. At least he has both his arms. That's more than his brother Luke can say.

Second: Man on man what happened to Vince Vaughn? From 2001 to 2004 he had a four year stretch as good as any with Zoolander, Old School, Dodgeball, Anchorman and Wedding Crashers. Then he went the rom-com route and did not one but TWO Christmas movies and went eight years without appearing in a movie that scored better than 38 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I mean good Lord look at this *list:

  • The Breakup: 21/5.8/45
  • Fred Claus: 25/5.6/42
  • Four Christmases: 21/5.6/42
  • Couples Retreat: 11/5.5/23
  • The Dilemma: 24/5.3/46
  • The Watch: 17/5.7/36
  • Delivery Man: 38/6.4/44
*The scores read like the chart: Rotten Tomatoes score, IMDb's and Metacritic's

That's painful. Vaughn's like Derrick Rose. Their first few years were splendid. Vaughn was in five of the most memorable comedies of the 2000s and Rose won Rookie of the Year and MVP by age 23. But Vaughn's 2006 to 2013 filmography is like the Derrick Rose post-ACL injury and both of their careers have taken complete nosedives. And both of these guys have Chicago ties. Staywoke, fam.

These days we love debating things. We love going back in time and comparing different eras to prove that X was better than Y. Sometimes it can make for good conversation and hypotheticals. But other times it feels like we're just pointlessly screaming at each other. I feel like in a few years we're heading for the Key and Peele vs. Amy Schumer debate. I'm sure someone will attempt to write the book on who the best from that time is. But until that time comes we have this current generation to debate, and for now I think without a doubt there's no denying that Will Ferrell was the king of The Frat Pack.