Lots of Movies and TV Shows Have Goofed on ‘Afternoon Delight.’ But ‘Anchorman’ Did It Best

Lots of Movies and TV Shows Have Goofed on ‘Afternoon Delight.’ But ‘Anchorman’ Did It Best

You never forget your first time. Adam McKay was very young when it happened for him

“I remember hearing that song when I was eight years old in the back seat of the car, riding around with my parents,” the Oscar-winning filmmaker told The Washington Post. “It wasn’t until five years later when I was like: Heyyyy, wait a minute!” 

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The year was 1976. McKay wasn’t the only one who heard “Afternoon Delight” that summer. Everybody did. It was the No. 1 song in the country on the Fourth of July. The Omen was scaring people at the movie theater. Wings’ Wings at the Speed of Sound was flying off the shelves at record stores. And on the radio, people were enjoying a breezy song about a nooner.

Future generations of comedy fans only know “Afternoon Delight” from the films and TV shows that have mocked it. (The hit’s title was later used for Joey Soloway’s film starring Kathryn Hahn.) Recorded by Starland Vocal Band, “Afternoon Delight” is three minutes and 13 seconds of one particular strain of 1970s pop music, and it’s not the one critics look back on fondly. Amidst the rise of singer-songwriter fare and easy-listening acts, groups such as Starland Vocal Band focused on even more benign pleasantness. This was mellow music meant to soothe the ear and the soul. That “Afternoon Delight” actually contained vaguely naughty lyrics made its otherwise inoffensive packaging all the stranger. 

“I think it’s that perfect blending of sweet, poppy bubble-gum music with the fact that they’re singing about getting it on during the daytime,” McKay suggested. “It’s titillating, it’s sweet — and at the same time, it’s a little bit creepy.” So of course it was the perfect song for Anchorman.

Next year will be that film’s 20th anniversary. It wasn’t Will Ferrell’s first big film — Elf had come out the year before, and made twice as much at the box office — but Anchorman really feels like the kickoff to the Will Ferrell Movie Star era. It was here where the outsized, surreal goofiness of his Saturday Night Live persona emerged fully formed on the big screen, working with his frequent collaborator Adam McKay, who made his feature directorial debut while writing the script with his longtime friend. 

Anchorman has so many good lines, so many memorable bits. But there was always something about the Channel 4 News Team’s rendition of “Afternoon Delight” that felt like the apex of the type of bizarre comedy stylings that McKay and Ferrell brought to moviegoers. Funny thing, though: Anchorman was hardly the first film to incorporate “Afternoon Delight.” (It wasn’t even the first movie that year featuring Ferrell to use it.) And there have been great “Afternoon Delight” jokes since — like in an all-time-great Arrested Development episode that aired a few months later. (There was something in the air in 2004, clearly.) But it’s not just that the Anchorman bit is funny — it’s also incredibly warm, suggesting the endearing camaraderie between Ron Burgundy and his gang of idiots. Most filmmakers utilizing “Afternoon Delight” want you to laugh at it. Anchorman actually leaves you with some warm fuzzies as well.

The man who birthed “Afternoon Delight” swears the jabs don’t bother him. “If I wasn’t a songwriter, I would have been a comedy writer,” Bill Danoff said in that same Washington Post piece, an oral history of “Afternoon Delight.” Back in the late 1960s, he was working at a club, Washington D.C.’s Cellar Door, where he was a doorman and, later, handling lights and sound. It was there that he met John Denver, who was a replacement for another act who’d had to cancel that night. The two became friends, Denver impressed with a song of Danoff’s, “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado.” The country singer asked if he could record it for his forthcoming album, and did Danoff have any other songs? Danoff did, but it wasn’t finished yet.

“(I got) the idea riding down a country road in Maryland, but it was the idea of country roads anywhere that inspired the song,” Danoff said earlier this year of the track that would change his and Denver’s life. “Driving down that road felt familiar, and I thought that was a feeling everybody could relate to. I repeated ‘country roads’ over and over for a month or so while working on the tune and then the first lines came at once out of the blue — ‘Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River’ — all beautiful words.”

Danoff wasn’t familiar with West Virginia at all, but “Take Me Home, Country Roads” became an unofficial state anthem, not to mention a smash single for Denver in 1971. The song’s success helped boost the profiles of Danoff and his performing partner Taffy Nivert, who co-wrote “Take Me Home” and married Danoff in 1972. (“Bill would play guitar, and I would write the words,” Nivert recalled in 2013 about their division of creative labor. “We really worked great together as a collaborative team.”) They had been playing music together for a little while — for a time, they recorded under the name Fat City — and at one point, there seemed to be a possibility that they’d be part of the huge ensemble for Robert Altman’s 1975 masterpiece Nashville, whose cast combined actors and musicians. (Danoff and Nivert accompanied Nashville screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury to the titular city while she did research on the country-music scene while developing the film’s characters and milieu, but the couple ended up losing out on the roles of married folk singers Bill and Mary to Allan F. Nicholls and Cristina Raines.) Undeterred, Danoff started pondering his and his wife’s musical future, deciding it might be good to bolster the band’s lineup. 

“I was sitting around one night, writing and thinking what our next album should sound like,” he said. “I was thinking of going in and cutting some singles in the hope that we could break through in that way.” To that end, he invited keyboardist/singer Jon Carroll and vocalist Margot Chapman — both of whom had appeared on the duo’s previous records — to join this new outfit. “I wasn’t really looking to put a group together, but I just thought that if we were going to have a group, it would be a good idea to have the four of us. … I was thinking about the vocal idea, how we all got along and how it would work.”

Danoff had attended Georgetown, and one local restaurant he really liked was Clyde’s. His wife was in the hospital after undergoing cancer surgery, and he and Chapman had gone out for a bite while they waited. That’s when inspiration hit. “They were at Clyde’s, and on the table was a little table tent promoting the happy hour menu that Clyde’s called ‘Afternoon Delights,’” Carroll said. “I think it included shrimp and brie. Bill looked at Margot and said, ‘Hmm, afternoon delights, I guess that could be anything.’”

“The original idea for the song was kind of like a Cajun fiddle tune,” Danoff said. As for the lyrics, he went in a suggestive vein, while being careful not to be so provocative that the song couldn’t be played on the radio.

Gonna find my baby, gonna hold her tight
Gonna grab some afternoon delight
My motto’s always been “When it’s right, it’s right”
Why wait until the middle of a cold dark night?

When everything’s a little clearer in the light of day
And we know the night is always gonna be there anyway

Thinkin’ of you’s workin’ up my appetite
Looking forward to a little afternoon delight
Rubbin’ sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite
And the thought of lovin’ you is getting so exciting

Sky rockets in flight
Afternoon delight
Afternoon delight
Afternoon delight

“I didn’t want to write an all-out sex song,” he later insisted. “I just wanted to write something that was fun and hinted at sex. It was one of those songs that you could really have a good time writing.” 

With its melodic vocals, women and men singing together in perfect harmony, “Afternoon Delight” sounded sweet and wholesome — seemingly no different than other soft-rock pillars of the time such as Seals and Crofts or Captain & Tennille. But whereas another contemporary outfit, the Carpenters, have been reassessed over the ensuing decades, their shimmering pop songs now celebrated for their impeccable craftsmanship, these comparable acts never enjoyed reappraisal, still very much seen as cheesy, cringey pop detritus of the 1970s. The swelling strings, the perky chorus, the toothless country-ish arrangement: “Afternoon Delight” was pure corn in an age when silly love songs were all the rage. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and “Silly Love Songs” were also big hits of the period, although disco’s mainstream surge was about to occur thanks to Saturday Night Fever

“The song was the right thing at the right time,” Nivert said. “It was the summer of 1976, the country’s bicentennial celebration, and it was just so different from everything else that was out there.” That might be a slight exaggeration, but its soothing smarminess — the way it treated daytime screwing as an innocuous, golly-gee pleasure — made sex itself seem alien and strange. There wasn’t anything remotely horny about “Afternoon Delight,” and even its innuendo felt squeaky-clean, harmless, dull beyond belief. Who’d want to boink any of these people?  

Nonetheless, the song (released through Denver’s label Windsong) went to No. 1, while Starland Vocal Band landed in the Top 20. The band won two Grammys, including Best New Artist, and they even got a summer variety show, which is now perhaps most notable because it features a very young David Letterman.

Starland Vocal Band never had another No. 1 hit. In fact, they never had another single place in the Top 40 afterward. All told, it sounds like “Afternoon Delight” was both a blessing and a curse for the group. “Starland was quite a frustrating four years,” Carroll admitted in 2018. “We did four records but it was like we were running with ankle weights on the whole time because we weren’t taken seriously. … ‘Afternoon Delight’ is not the kind of record for someone who wants to be perceived as a bad-ass rock ‘n’ roller. It’s not cool to like that record, right?”

The band’s follow-up album, 1977’s Rear View Mirror, got some attention, but by the early 1980s, Starland Vocal Band was all but forgotten. The group broke up, and Danoff and Nivert got divorced. (Incidentally, Carroll and Chapman also got married but later split up, too.) “There are just too many factors, too many reasons why we didn’t sustain,” Nivert said in 2008 about the group’s inability to come up with another chart success after “Afternoon Delight.” “I don’t have a story to go along with why we were a one-hit wonder. Shit happens, and along with that goes, sometimes shit doesn’t happen.”

The big hit from a one-hit wonder often has a strange afterlife, coming back into the culture years later as a joke, a pathetic phantom from a bygone era: “Oh my god, remember when this was popular?” You don’t just laugh at the song — you’re making fun of the world from which it came. Sometimes, time and distance allow for a fresh, affectionate perspective — or, it can provide the opportunity for a new generation to pull the knives out. Starting in the 1990s, “Afternoon Delight” became a familiar target for satire. You rarely heard the song in a flattering light — it was meant to underscore (or be ironically juxtaposed against) the funny thing happening on screen. 

Early in the decade, the song popped up in an episode of Get a Life. It made a brief appearance in the big-screen version of Car 54, Where Are You? But arguably the hit’s first famous comedic use was in PCU, the 1994 campus comedy, which features a scene in which Jeremy Piven’s smart-ass character traps the college president (played by none other than Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter) in her office, putting “Afternoon Delight” on repeat to drive her up the wall. Speaking with The Washington Post, PCU co-writer Zak Penn acknowledged, “We were definitely looking for the most annoying song to listen to over and over. There was some discussion about whether it should be ‘We Built This City on Rock and Roll.’ But if you’re looking for the best song to torture people with, ‘Afternoon Delight’ was the one.”

A few years later, the song found its way into two award-season darlings, showing up first in Boogie Nights in the background of one scene and, then, during a moment early on in Good Will Hunting, when Stellan Skarsgård’s pompous mathematics professor takes Will (Matt Damon) to see a psychiatrist, only to have the snot-nosed kid mock the touchy-feely treatment by breaking into the Starland Vocal Band song.  

Clearly, there were two emerging patterns in how best to diss “Afternoon Delight”: Either make fun of its easy-listening insipidness or make fun of its faux-naughty sexual content. In 2002, the dark comedy The Rules of Attraction did both, casting Dawson’s Creek heartthrob James Van Der Beek in a change-of-pace role as an amoral dickhead, showing him in one scene joyfully, almost manically, masturbating while the peppy strains of “Afternoon Delight” play on the soundtrack. The point was obvious: This hip, youthful indie movie was edgy and risk-taking, while that 1976 song was lame and old

Before audiences got to see Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and David Koechner harmonize a cappella on “Afternoon Delight” in the summer of 2004, Starsky & Hutch (a film adaptation of the 1970s cop show) hit theaters that March. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson played the titular detectives, who during one scene go to question notorious criminal Big Earl, who’s in the slammer. Big Earl, played by Ferrell, makes the two lawmen do some kinky stuff before he agrees to give them information. We then watch Starsky and Hutch drive off, still clearly horrified by what they agreed to, as “Afternoon Delight” plays on the car stereo. The characters’ silent shame and discomfort is amplified by that pleasant melody wafting in the air around them. 

Like many things in Anchorman, the infamous “Afternoon Delight” scene was something improvised on set. “Paul Rudd and Will started talking about rehearsing ‘Afternoon Delight’ with Carell and David Koechner,” McKay told the Post. “They thought it would be a great thing to sing on talk shows and in other promotional appearances. I said: ‘Forget that, I’m going to have you do it in the movie. I know the perfect scene, where Ron is revealing to the guys that he’s in love with Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate).’ We brought in a music coach to work with them on the harmonies, and I just assumed they’d been working on it. It turns out they’d only done it once. Will flat-out told me: ‘We can’t do this, we’re not ready.’ But the first take they did, they were amazing. The crew applauded when they were done.”

The clip’s worth watching again to appreciate the different layers to the bit. Ron’s whole reason for singing the song is to explain to his curious colleagues what love feels like, since none of them have ever experienced it. Ferrell breaking out “Afternoon Delight” was a comedic trick he’d incorporate a lot over his career — it was obvious what was being satirized, but he didn’t lean into the gag. Instead, he let the ridiculed piece of pop culture stand on its own, while he played it straight. In that scene Ron, convinced that he and Veronica are meant to be together forever, is beside himself with happiness, and so his “Afternoon Delight” rendition is actually sincere: He believes in the song’s dopey sentiment. Even more amazingly, the rest of Ron’s crew suddenly jump in, as if the hit’s power is so intoxicating — its message so true — that they all can instantly perform a flawless sing-along. 

None of them are mocking Starland Vocal Band — they’re all sharing this surprisingly sweet moment, honoring the tune’s vanilla celebration of love. That “Afternoon Delight” is actually about a nooner — and that none of the Channel 4 News Team understands that — only makes their sincerity all the more touching and amusing. These guys, god bless ‘em, are such dummies they can’t even interpret “Afternoon Delight” correctly. 

That’s a lot of words to spend on what, really, is a pretty simple joke, but I think it’s the sneaky complexity of the gag that’s made it endure for so long. Of all the times that “Afternoon Delight” has been spoofed in popular culture, Anchorman might be the one time where the track was taken at face value, understanding why so many people couldn’t get enough of it back in 1976. Sure, the song is easy to deride, but if you happen to be smitten at that exact moment — if you’re sucker enough to believe in the beauty of love — then “Afternoon Delight” might hit you right between the eyes. Even if you’re a misogynistic egotist like Ron Burgundy.  

Ferrell and the filmmakers ended up making an official studio version of “Afternoon Delight,” complete with a music video of the actors in character. The song soon became synonymous with the film — so much so that, when the cast got back together for the 2013 sequel, they serenaded the Sydney premiere audience with a live rendition. The line between legitimately loving “Afternoon Delight” and ironically loving “Afternoon Delight” (or is it loving to loathe “Afternoon Delight”?) had never been thinner.

Amazingly, in the fall of 2004, yet another wonderful “Afternoon Delight” homage/spoof occurred thanks to an episode of Arrested Development, in which Michael (Jason Bateman) and Maeby (Alia Shawkat) do a duet at the office Christmas party. Crooning the Starland Vocal Band smash, Michael only slowly realizes how deeply inappropriate it is for him to be singing such a sexual song with his niece, who isn’t picking up on the lyrics’ carnal connotations. That moment ranks right up there with the 30 Rock bit in which Jenna (Jane Krakowski) and her mom (Jan Hooks) harmonize on Captain & Tennille’s “Do That to Me One More Time” in the annals of “That’s just wrong” hilariously creepy sitcom duets.

There have been plenty of other pop-culture references to “Afternoon Delight.” The Simpsons had a nice joke about Homer remembering to his shock that he once got a Starland Vocal Band tattoo. (“They suck!”) Glee did a version of the song. When Paul Rudd hosted SNL around the release of Anchorman 2, he brought out musical act One Direction — and his co-stars — to perform “Afternoon Delight,” complete with the trademark “Whooooo!!!” that Koechner did in the original film. Even Carrot Top recently riffed on the song’s none-too-subtle lyrics. But nothing compares to the Channel 4 News Team singing together back in 2004, basking in the tune’s uncomplicated gooeyness. 

Will Ferrell has sung a lot in his career. He rapped about boats and hoes in Step Brothers. He let fly with a rendition of “Dust in the Wind” in Old School. He did full-on musical numbers in the underrated Christmas flick Spirited. He dueted with Zooey Deschanel in his other Christmas flick Elf. Because he’s Will Ferrell, you always expect it to be a joke, but it’s not funny in the way you’re expecting — it’s funny because he commits 100 percent. Years ago, I saw him at a live charity event, where he came on stage to Adele’s epically teary ballad “Hello,” joined by professional ballerinas while he, dressed in an ill-fitting black leotard, dutifully tried to execute similarly graceful moves. He wasn’t singing in that instance, but it was the same approach — he recognized that the song’s stately emotional grandeur would be funny set against his straight-faced tomfoolery. Ferrell understands that we never seem more ridiculous than when we take a song seriously. We can’t help it, though: What’s the point of songs if they can’t touch us to our core, speaking to something deep inside that we’re too afraid to show the world?

Taffy Nivert can’t explain why her old band’s hit still resonates. “It’s become an animal with a life of its own,” she said a decade ago. “I have no explanation for it.” But Adam McKay does. “The song represents the ’70s perfectly, because it’s delightful, innocent and sexually free,” he said in the Post oral history. “It definitely plays as an anachronism. It’s almost downright strange in today’s post-AIDS, post-sexual politics world. It represents the free love of the ’60s going mainstream in the ’70s.”

That tension is rarely acknowledged in the jokes made about “Afternoon Delight,” but it sits there quietly underneath the laugh. Modern spoofs are making fun of a time period, now forever lost, in which sex seemed easygoing and consequence-free. In the early 1990s, when AIDS became more of a national news story, no longer marginalized by the media and the U.S government as “just” a problem for the gay community, taking shots as “Afternoon Delight” was partly about lashing out at a uncomplicated societal promiscuousness that had suddenly been stripped away. It wasn’t simply that “Afternoon Delight” was “lame” — it was that Starland Vocal Band didn’t know how good they’d had it. Future generations snickered at the naivety, but there was envy in the mockery, too. Nooners weren’t just fun rolls in the hay anymore — they were scarier now. Who the hell would refer to sex as “Sky rockets in flight”? Somebody lucky enough not to live in a world yet when, one day, such giddy innocence would feel like a sick joke. 

It’s another reason Anchorman’s rendition works so well. Ron lives in that same blissful 1970s bubble as the band, unaware how different hookup culture is going to look fairly soon. We’re not just laughing at the song — we’re lamenting a world we never knew. The Channel 4 News Team are morons, but at least they got to get laid. 

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