“They were like old radio skits,” recalls Ferrell, brightening at the memory. “We’d do voices, like the old Irish Spring commercials.” Here Ferrell adopts an Irish brogue: ‘You smell like a bucket of vomit. Why don’t you wear this — your senior-class T-shirt!’”
Ferrell loved it. More important, the other kids loved it. Even the teachers at University High in Irvine, Calif., in the heart of Orange County, started egging him on. Ferrell started staying up late to write more bits, skipping his homework. He and his friend started performing sketches from “SCTV” at school assemblies. More hilarity, more praise ensued.
You already know where this leads. A few years later, post-college, Ferrell has become a member of the
Groundlings improv group
in L.A. He gets a tryout with Lorne Michaels and “Saturday Night Live” — and kills. About 6,000 distinctive Ferrell characters and bits follow: Harry Caray, Craig the Cheerleader, James Lipton, Alex Trebek, George W. Bush, More Cowbell. With his “SNL” co-writer (and now collaborator/business partner) Adam McKay, Ferrell goes on to make movies, including their absurdist masterpiece, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” They also write a Tony-nominated Broadway show with Ferrell as Bush, “You’re Welcome, America,” and start a comedy Web site, Funny or Die. Which kills, too, thanks notably to “The Landlord,” a short video starring Ferrell and McKay’s 2-year-old daughter, Pearl.
Not incidentally, it all leads to Ferrell’s selection as the recipient of the 2011 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The Kennedy Center will hand the award to Ferrell on Sunday night in one of those made-for-TV gala-specials (it will air on PBS stations on Oct. 31), putting Ferrell’s name alongside such former winners and comedy legends as Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner. Pretty sweet. Or as Ferrell-as-Lipton might say, “Scrumtrulescent!”
Stay classy, Will Ferrell
At 44, Ferrell’s still on the young side to be joining comedy’s Hall of Elders (on the other hand, Tina Fey, Ferrell’s former “SNL” running mate, was just 40 when she received the same honor last year). But it’s hard to dispute Ferrell’s gifts as a comic actor and writer.
As McKay points out, Ferrell has played the full range, from subtle to slapstick to utterly bombastic. He’s been the damaged man-child (“Elf,” “Step Brothers”), the aggressive dope (“Old School,” “Wedding Crashers”), the pompous and oblivious alpha male (“Anchorman,” Bush). McKay and Ferrell have started working on “Dog Fight,” a satire in which Ferrell plays a Southern politician running against a candidate played by Zach Galifianakis. “Will doesn’t want a formula,” McKay says. “He’s actively looking to screw with his own formula for success.”