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What is Will Ferrell’s secret?


Critic Elvis Mitchell told NPR that “unlike a lot of other Saturday Night Live people who basically come in and try to dominate a piece of material, he’s a real listener.  He’s paying attention to the other actors in the scene, so it becomes partially his reaction to the other characters, and he’s basically staying in character, not turning to the camera, winking, not making us aware that he’s just joking around. He takes the material and the roles incredibly seriously, so we find that even in something bizarre and outre, he creates a sense of reality to go along with it, which is actually a rarity in comic actors these days.”


True, but as every Saturday Night Live fan knows, Ferrell also has “more cowbell.”


“The cowbell sketch, I’d written early in the first half of the year,” Ferrell recalls. “It just didn’t get picked for whatever reason.” The sketch, performed on April 8, 2000, is a takeoff on VH1's Behind the Music, purportedly taking us into the recording studio where Blue Oyster Cult laid down the tracks for “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Christopher Walken plays Bruce Dickinson, a fictional music producer, who demands “more cowbell” from Ferrell’s equally fictional Gene Frenkle, much to the annoyance of his bandmates.


“Guess what?” Dickinson exclaims. “I got a fever, and the only prescription is . . . more cowbell!”


Frenkle says, “I’d be doing myself a disservice, and everybody in this band, if I don’t play the hell out of this.” And play the hell out of it he did, in one of the long running show’s funniest moments. In the special, Saturday Night Live: 101 Most Unforgettable Moments, Ferrell’s cowbell sketch was ranked number five.


Despite an Oscar for his role in The Deer Hunter and appearances in more than 100 movies, including classics like Pulp Fiction, Walken’s tombstone may have to make room for “more cowbell.”


“I hear about it everywhere I go,” he says. “It’s been years and all anybody brings up is cowbell. I guess you never know what’s gonna click.”


Arguably, Ferrell has clicked more successfully than any previous member of the Saturday Night Live cast, no mean feat considering the number of talented players who have passed through the NBC studios since the program debuted in 1975. Upon joining the cast in 1995, when Saturday Night Live began its 21st season, Ferrell rather quickly established himself as the show’s utility man, a versatile performer in the mold of Dan Ackroyd and, later, Phil Hartman. Though Ackroyd and Hartman both went on to varying degrees of success in movies and television, Ackroyd always seemed overshadowed by John Belushi, and later ceded center stage to Bill Murray, while Hartman career never reached the same dizzying heights as Mike Meyers. 


Ferrell has had no such problem. Even as he became such real life figures as Alex Trebek, George W. Bush, Inside the Actor’s Studio host James Lipton, and singers Neil Diamond and Robert Goulet, Ferrell’s persona always peeked through, as it also did when creating characters from scratch, like Spartan cheerleader Craig Buchanan or Morning Latte host Tom Wilkins.


“It was a gradual rise that started on SNL,” he remembers. “I went from being the guy who did the cheerleading thing, to the guy who plays the president to, ‘Hey, that’s Will Ferrell!’”


The stereotyped image of the comic is often of a man who’s laughing on the outside, but otherwise crying on his psychiatrist’s couch. But, Ferrell says, “I’m no tortured, anger-stoked, deeply neurotic comic. Just a pretty low-key normal guy.”


He was born John William Farrell on July 16, 1967 in Irvine, California. He gives credit for his humor to the environment in which he was raised. “I attribute it to growing up in safe, boring suburbia in California. . . My main form of entertainment was cracking my friends up and exploring new ways of being funny. . . Maybe that’s where the comedy comes from, as some sort of reaction to the safe, boring suburbs. Although, I gotta say, I never had any resentment of the place. I loved the suburbs.”


Although his mother was a teacher, his father was a musician who supplied accompaniment for those kings of blue-eyed soul, the Righteous Brothers, so Farrell’s family life may not have been quite as boring as he made it out to be. After attending Turtle Rock Elementary School and Rancho San Joaquin Middle School, Ferrell moved on to University High School. He was a kicker for the school’s varsity football team and still holds the record for the most field goals. More significant to his future as a performer, he made the daily morning announcements over the school’s PA system, usually disguising his voice for comic effect.


Moving on to the University of Southern California, he studied Sports Broadcasting and graduated with a degree in Sports Information, and if that isn’t funny enough, he also “would push an overhead projector across campus with my pants just low enough to show my butt.” As he says, “I always forced myself to do crazy things in public.”


That degree in Sports Information led to a brief internship with NBC Sports, but after he ad-libbed a joke on air, Ferrell decided that a career as a sports anchor wasn't the path for him. Soon after, he joined the Groundlings, the Los Angeles improvisational comedy troupe that also provided a training ground for such future SNL cast members as Maya Rudolph, Phil Hartman, Laraine Newman, Ana Gasteyer, and Jon Lovitz. In 1995, Ferrell joined Saturday Night Live. It took him awhile to establish himself. Once he did, however, he became one of the show’s chief attractions. Whether he was impersonating former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno or Jeopardy host Alex Trebek who had the misfortune of having some of the stupidest, and rudest celebrity panelists in television history, Ferrell disproved his own self-deprecating claim that “I have only been funny about seventy-four percent of the time. Yes, I think that is right. Seventy-four percent of the time.”


One of Farrell’s most celebrated impersonations was of President George W. Bush whom he portrayed as a none-too-bright frat boy, constantly stumbling over the English language (“victoriant” for victorious, and “strategery” for strategy), who was in way over his head as commander-in-chief, and even as Governor of Texas.


Ferrell made no secret of his dislike for the 43rd president of the United States and of his preference for Al Gore in the 2000 election. Although he denied being a political person, Ferrell said, “You shouldn’t have a problem being political, expressing yourself. It’s funny in the stories and stuff. I don’t know whether to be unabashed about that or not, but, yeah, I didn’t vote for him.”


He added that he “wouldn’t be surprised if (the presidency) is, like, just a stepping stone on his way to becoming commissioner of baseball.” When asked about the real life president’s likely reaction to his impersonation, Ferrell said, “Let’s just say I don’t think I’ll be going up to Kennebunkport.”


NBC knew what they had, and in 2001, desperate to keep Ferrell on board, paid him a salary of $350,000 a year, making him the highest paid cast member in Saturday Night Live’s history.


During his time on Saturday Night Live, he started making appearances on the big screen, turning up in such films as Boat Trip, A Night at the Roxbury, the first two Austin Powers movies, Dick, Zoolander, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.


The first genuine “Will Ferrell movie” came in 2003 with Old School, a sort of unofficial nod to Animal House. It was followed that Christmas by Elf, which proved his box-office appeal with a mammoth $173 million gross. “I thought it would be stupid, clunky, and obvious,” Roger Ebert wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times, but instead discovered it to be “one of those rare Christmas comedies that has a heart, a brain, and a wicked sense of humor, and it charms the socks right off the mantelpiece.”


He took a break from the mainstream to add a little art house prestige to his resume by appearing in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda. “I loved the structure of the whole movie,” he said, “these two parallel stories which were illustrating the point of the fine line between comedy and tragedy. It was so imaginative and unique, but at the same time very signature Woody Allen.”


His college training as a sports anchor may have come in handy for Anchorman in which he embodied the kind of self-important, blow-dried news anchor so prominent on local television during the ‘70s. “Potent as a character actor,” The Village Voice intoned, “impressive if fatiguing as the lead, Will Ferrell possesses a comic gift that’s as linguistic as much as physical.”


Talladegga Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, in which he played a NASCAR driver,  was another big hit. “I don’t know if there’s one individual driver,” Ferrell said when asked about the inspiration for his character. “Ricky is kinda all the drivers and none of them all at the same time. He kinda just came out of my brain which is a pretty messed up place.”


Reviewing the film for The Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan thought the results were a bit of a mess, too, “but it is a genial mess, and one that will make you laugh. Which is the whole idea.”


Proof of his star power was the fact that Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson agreed to accept supporting roles in Stranger Than Fiction, a 2006 comedy that cast Ferrell as Harold Crick, an IRS agent who realizes his life is being written by an author whose narration he hears in his head. “(Ferrell) puts that slightly cross-eyed, perpetually flummoxed look to good use here,” Stephanie Zacharek wrote at, “making us feel some sympathy for Harold even when he’s being a complete tool.”


More movies followed - Blades of Glory, Semi-Pro, and Step Brothers, among others, all of them made to order for Ferrell’s goofy charm, but the inflated comic fantasy, Land of the Lost, had a title that aptly described everyone associated with it. Roger Ebert liked it (“a seriously deranged movie”), but not many others did, and the film laid a colossal egg at the box-office.


Much more memorable was Ferrell’s appearance on the final episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O’ Brien, where he led everyone, the carrot-topped host included, in a sentimental, laugh-free version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.”


After the failure of Land of the Lost, some critics were prepared to write Ferrell off as a star with limited staying power. But with The Other Guys, Ferrell’s career seems to have gotten back on track. As a forensic accountant content to be stuck behind a desk, Ferrell co-stars with Mark Wahlberg, a detective used to action with whom he teams up. Ferrell admits to identifying with his character.


“I probably would have been the guy who was, like, ‘Hey, this office work needs to be done,’” he said. “That’s where the glory is. Why would you want to risk being shot at out in the field when you can actually get this legitimate, crucial work done?”     


The film proved to have the second biggest opening of any Ferrell film to date, and also enjoyed acclaim from the critics.


In his review for NPR, New York critic David Edelstein offered a concise explanation for Ferrell’s appeal. “What makes Will Ferrell such a treasure,” he said, “is that for all the lowbrow gags, he doesn’t satirize stupidity. He satirizes fear: the lengths to which men will go to keep from looking vulnerable.”


As for Ferrell himself, he says, “I would love to become like Bill Murray, who was so funny on Saturday Night Live and has gone on to do some of the landmark comedies people like, and then to add this whole other phase to his career with Lost in Translation and Rushmore. I always felt to be able to have something similar to that would be great.”


At least in one respect, Ferrell has Murray beat. You know he could still play the hell out of that cowbell.

by Brian W. Fairbanks

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