Making em laugh
Total Film has held court with Will Ferrell on a number of occasions over the years. Here, we’ve compiled the comedy king’s pearls of wisdom on making ‘em laugh. Enjoy…
In person, Ferrell is less pushy, not at all frantic; disappointingly sane. But he soon revs up to performance level, dropping in bizarre vocal tics, imaginary side-characters and, most satisfyingly, making extensive use of really stupid noises to illustrate his points…
You’ve done some supporting roles recently, but this [Talladega Nights] is where you live, right: writing for yourself?
"Definitely. It’s easily the most fun and the clearest way to get my voice out there."
How does it work, co-writing with Adam McKay?
"We start by structuring – crafting something to hold it all up. Then, we just start blurting out random thoughts and ideas – without any rules or fear of judgement.
"So, you might say, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if Bobby’s dad tried to help him conquer his fear of driving by putting a live cougar in the car?’
Yeah! And one of us will go, ‘Oh, that’s funny… get it down!’ And the script evolves from there. We’ll just list bullet points – everything from a joke idea to a character idea to a dramatic arc. We don’t bounce a script back and forth. We just sit there together with the typewriter and write it all out… Oh yeah, that’s our big secret! We use a typewriter, not a computer."
Really? You use a typewriter?
"Nah. I just said that ’cos I noticed I said ‘typewriter’ instead of ‘computer’. Of course we use a computer!"
Ah. You’re not going to talk about how typewriters help you to physically connect with the words, or something...
"Yeah! [ Spiritual voice… ] ‘The typewriter speaks to us! It is our conduit!’ Nah, man. We use a computer like everyone else. We’re not idiots!"
Wheres my script?
And you’re both from an improv background...
"Yeah. So we improvise what the exchanges might be. Then it’s like, ‘Quick! Write it down!’"
On a computer. You don’t use a quill or anything...
"Absolutely not. Always a computer."
When you’re improvising in an acting sense, are there any individual cues you always find yourself dipping into? Little tricks that always seem to work?
"Are you asking me to tell you how to be funny?"
Pretty much, yeah.
"That’s a trade secret! Well, the only rule that we have is, oddly enough, to not worry about being funny, to just sort of stay in the context of the scene. Improvisation is intimidating to actors who’re not used to it. So we’ll say, 'Okay, in the next take we’re all just gonna… see what happens!” And they’re like, “I’m sorry?'"
“Where’s my script!?”
"Yeah! Y’know – ‘Uh? My agent says I’m not allowed to speak without a script!’ But we just say, “It’s fine, don’t worry about being funny...”
“Don’t worry about being really unfunny. No pressure...”"
"Ha ha. Yeah. But with most actors, it does sort of take the pressure off. Generally, though, there isn’t really anything scientific or intellectual about improvising. The way my brain works, I’m always thinking a little bit ahead and specific lines will pop into my head and I’ll be getting ready to say ’em at the right moment.
"The two kids who played Bobby’s sons in the movie – Walker and Texas Ranger – Adam and I just kept feeding them lines we thought it would be funny – and a little bit wrong – to hear kids say. My favourite is, “I’m gonna come at you like a spider monkey!”"
Is it a big kick to completely ruin a take because someone laughs at an improv they didn’t expect?
"Oh, yeah! Hugely! Working with Sacha Baron Cohen was terrific, because he’s a really hardened improviser – so it was even more satisfying to nail him…
"The scene where I go to visit him at his chateau before our final confrontation and we’re talking in the garden… There’s a second half to that where some guy is training the dogs in the distance and I accidentally say the secret attack word – ‘fire-hydrant’ – and the dogs run towards us.
In one take, I just… started doing this noise . It was like… [ Does a REALLY loud impersonation of what a police siren might sound like if the mechanism was swapped for that of a foghorn ]. Sacha just completely cracked up and said, “Will, what the fuck are you doing?”"
Do you remember any improv that could have never made it into the movie, whatever the rating?
"There’s one bit in the section where Ricky is down on his luck... I’m lying on the couch, asleep, surrounded by beer cans and burritos, and my mom gives me the ‘What are you doing with your life?’ speech.
"I say, “Look, I’ve been working on something and it’s kind of a secret and if I show you, you can’t judge it because it’s a work-in-progress.” And she’s like, “Of course!” And, basically… I’m able to fart and form words with it. You know, like… ‘PhhrrrwwwILOVEYOUpffffft!’"
Why on Earth did you not leave that in?
"It was just getting too long in that section. It was a tough one to lose, believe me. A bitter debate."
The cult of celebrity
Talladega Nights is about the cult of celebrity, though, isn’t it? Y’know – sports icons as rock stars...
"Yeah. I’m endlessly fascinated with it. That whole thing about pursuing autographs – as trophies. It seems really creepy. I’ve never done anything like that in my life."
Have you had any run-ins with gossip mags? Do they camp by your house looking for that killer pic of you in your robe?
"No, they don’t care about me. Not in America, at least. But a weird thing happened in London, last year. I was strolling around with my wife and child. We were curious to see if anyone would notice or even care that I was there.
"Suddenly, this photographer just kind of… materialised and went... [ Does a camera-clicky ]. Then he ran away!"
And you shouted, “Come back!”
"Yeah! “Hey! It’s okay! Make me more famous!” It was just one guy. I was appalled and insulted. I wanted to know where the others were hiding."
We've mentioned the scene where Ricky’s dad tries to get him to overcome his fear by driving with a live cougar in the car. Did you work with an animal trainer to become at one with the cougar?
"No. We used CGI. Ha ha. Do you really believe I’m stupid enough to get into a car with a live cougar? I suppose you think that I really fought those bears in Anchorman , too…"
We’ve all seen Grizzly Man...
"Actually, we were there. Those bears were real – not CGI. We were definitely right there, a few feet away from real, live bears."
"Exactly. There was a moment where one of them charged Christina Applegate and I remember saying to Adam, “If we ever work with animals again, let’s not risk our lives.” I’d love to lie to you, but the cougar thing was a camera trick."
The spell’s broken now. We imaged you as a kind of fearless, Siegfried and Roy-type figure...
"Ha ha. ‘The Big-Game Cat Whisperer’…"
Popping the tension
The scene where Amy Adams basically seduces you with her increasingly hysterical enthusiasm... The blokes in the Total Film office found that scene quite... erotic.
"Ha ha ha! So does everyone! What’s so great about that scene is that there wasn’t really that much on the page to start with. Amy shocked everyone by really going for it.
"She made it into this intense confrontation/seduction, so I could react off it. It was Adam’s idea to play a Journey song, to emphasise the emotion a little more. And my pay-off line – which was improvised – really pops the tension."
We’re doing a feature on the funniest film stars of all-time. Who would top your list?
"[ Incredibly long pause ]. Bill Murray... Peter Sellers... Steve Martin."
That wasn’t a test but, yeah, they’re all in the list. What is it about those guys?
"I just think they have a wonderful combination of both absolute commitment and a unique sense of the absurd. Doesn’t matter how funny you are – commitment is important."
Being funny is a serious business...
"Yeah! You’ve been dying to get that line in, the whole interview."
Taking it seriously
When we caught up with Ferrell more recently, the talk initially turned to drama…
Everything Must Go is low-budget indie by a first time director and a very different character for you. What inspired you to get on board?
"The script came my way and I just loved the writing. I wasn’t really familiar with Raymond Carver’s writings but when I read his short stories I liked the script even more.
"I thought Dan Rush [ writer/director ] had really captured the kind of stark, austere quality and the melancholy feeling. It’s such a departure from all the stuff I’ve done I just thought this would be a great chance to do something different and mix it up a little bit."
It felt like perfect casting because the audience expects you to be funny but the film is really sad.
"Right out of the gate. The few times I’ve watched it with an audience is interesting. They’re giggling at first but within the first four or five minutes they’re like, ‘Ohhh, OK. This is different’.
"There are moments of levity in it. I love the fact that it’s very grey, it’s not neat and tidy. In this age of cookie-cutter endings where audiences are force-fed what they’re supposed to think, this leaves a lot open to the imagination."
You’ve said you’re quite an optimistic person. How did you find it playing such a troubled character?
"I’m an optimistic person by nature but I’ve definitely had some sadness in my life; you know, everyone has, so there was stuff to draw upon there. But it was challenging to summon up something that’s very different from who I am."
Did you consciously want to be seen as more of a heavyweight, dramatic actor?
"I think for anyone who does anything creative, it’s human nature to want to do something a bit different. If I don’t get offered any more dramatic roles I’ll be fine, but I think enough people have seen this movie and there have been two or three other projects that have come to me recently."
Anything you can tell us about?
"There’s a project called African Safari Papers and we’re in talks to hopefully do that. It would be myself and Helena Bonham Carter and maybe Daniel Radcliffe and it’s about an eccentric family from Wisconsin who take a trip to Africa on a safari. It’s another great little character thing."
Stand-up and be counted
Does it frustrate you that comedy roles aren’t given as much critical attention as serious roles?
"It doesn’t bug me in the sense that I make it a point to talk about, it’s just it’s never considered for awards.
"Last year Comedy Central had the first ever Comedy Awards, and they’re trying to make a legit comedy awards but I just don’t have high hopes for it. To get a group of comedians to accept awards voted on by other comedians... it’s just such a sarcastic bunch that it was kind of an awkward evening.
"Having said that, The Other Guys won for Best Movie."
There’s a real craft to making people laugh. Stand-up is said to be the purest form of theatre.
"I tried it for a little while when I was starting out, but I’m not suited for it. I did OK, I got some laughs, but I wasn’t a joke teller necessarily. I was more ‘tell a story and do a character.’
"Everyone who’s interested in performing should have to try it because it is so exhilarating and so humbling. Some of those humbling moments I learnt more from than from any of the laughs."
Your characters are extremely quotable…
"It’s weird, we don’t set out ever to be quotable. The strangest thing anyone’s ever shouted at me was something from Anchorman . Someone yelled, “Hey Will! I wanna be on you!” In no way did I ever think someone would quote that back to me!"
There’s often a certain softness to the characters you play...
"No matter how ‘mean’ some of the characters could be construed on the surface, there’s always a sweetness to them."
Elf is a prime example.
"That was really the manifestation of being in the mindset of a child. There’s a prime example of how I wasn’t trying to be funny, I was really just imagining I was someone who was raised in the North Pole, which is a place of hope and happiness, walking through a place like New York.
"You would only discover the joy in it. He wouldn’t be scared or afraid or cynical. That’s how we came up with a lot of the jokes. He would find the revolving door of an office building such a fun thing. Or when he ate the gum off the ground it’s like, “Oh wow candy, it’s free!”"
Buddy the elf doesn’t get embarrassed...
"And that was a real test to maintain not being embarrassed. I’m not really embarrassed very easily but all the New York stuff was shot in two weeks and I remember thinking ‘Oh my gosh, I’m running around New York in an elf suit, it could be over. This is either gonna really work or people will be like ‘“Why did he do that movie?”"
Has there been anything you’ve ever had to do that you’ve found was too embarrassing?
"It wasn’t so much embarrassing, there’s just some things – like I recently saw Bewitched and there’s some moments where I’m kissing Nicole Kidman and I’m just like, “Oh, I don’t buy it for a second”.
"Which is all on me, I just don’t know if it’s believable. But no, in terms of embarrassing things or committing fully, once I’ve thought it out I’m usually good to go."
Obviously you had that scene in Old School with the streaking. Was that OK? Not as bad as kissing Nicole Kidman?
"Well, kissing Nicole Kidman obviously wasn’t a bad thing… I’m fine with doing the streaking because it totally makes sense in the story.
"It’s a natural progression of a buttoned down guy at a fraternity party: “I probably shouldn’t drink, oh OK, maybe a couple,” and then he unleashes this Frank-the-Tank guy and next thing you know he’s streaking down the centre of town.
"It’s always funny that when you read something on the page, you forget you have to actually do it later. After three takes you can do anything."
Who were your comedy heroes?
"I’m not the guy who had the so and so album that I listened to over and over again. My heroes were kind of everyone. Growing up in the ’70s and early ’80s, before cable, there were very few outlets for comedy.
"There was Saturday Night Live , so I loved that original cast, people like Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, John Belushi and Chevy Chase. And I loved whenever Steve Martin would host. I loved that his stuff was so random, he purposely didn’t have a point.
"Then I would watch The Tonight Show because that’s where they would have stand-ups. I remember seeing everyone from Garry Shandling to Jerry Seinfeld to Bill Maher.
"The other comedian I always loved was Peter Sellers. I loved how he was able to do everything from The Pink Panther to Being There ; he really was what embodies a comedic actor as opposed to just a comedian."
Saturday Night Live Fever
How was it becoming such a big part of Saturday Night Live yourself?
"It was very surreal. The whole time I was there I couldn’t believe it was happening. It’s something I dreamt about and it actually happened."
Any favourite memories?
"I’ll never forget the first show that I was on. We had 11 new cast members, a brand new writing staff and I was the first actor to say something on the first show for our new group."
What did you say?
"I was playing a news person and it was back when the O.J. Simpson trial was going on and we had some show called ‘O.J. Today’ that just covered the trial incessantly.
"I said “Coming up next: the rebuttal to the rebuttal on O.J. Today.” And getting to play the President – that whole experience was great. Commenting on the whole Gore/Bush recount. People were really tuning in every week to see what sketch we were going to do, to comment on what had just happened."
The Frat Pack
You were part of what was dubbed the ‘frat pack’, along with Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn and Steve Carell. Do you all hang out?
"Everyone knows each other and there was a period of time where everyone was jumping in and out of everyone’s movies but it was definitely kind of a media fabrication. We don’t all take a summer trip together. Although we all want that!"
What about the newcomers on the comedy scene? Who’s the next big thing?
"There’s a ton of them. I am a big fan of Danny McBride. Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen are hilarious and really creative and have such a strong voice. Kristen Wiig too. Bridesmaids I thought was such a great triumph for women in comedy."
The Megamind costume you wore to Comic-Con was hilarious. Was that your idea?
"I have to give credit to the DreamWorks publicity people. Well, half credit. They proposed that I come out in costume because Comic-Con is so famous for all the people walking around dressed up, so they made this really slick looking costume.
"And I was like, “No, the point should be that I make my own costume because people make their own.” And they were like, “OK… so you want to look bad?” and I was like, “Yeah, it should look homemade and my make-up should be bad.”
"I had to force them to make it bad."
Do you have a favourite among the characters that you’ve created?
"Well, I’ll always be partial to Ron Burgundy. Only because it was written on such a lark, we weren’t paid to write that script, we just wrote it on spec.
"It was such a struggle to get it made, it took two, almost three years to get anyone to make it, so to see where it’s gone and the fact that it has this cult status just makes us laugh."
Will we see him again?
Not unless Paramount Pictures say so.
It’s a finance thing?
"Yeah, you know it’s tougher now. All the studios are scrutinizing every decision that they make much more heavily unless it’s one of these tentpole type movies. We keep trying to tell them that we’re asked by literally every journalist and so many fans “please do a sequel.” We want to!
"And we’re not really interested in doing sequels but it’s strange that we were asked and asked and asked for years and finally we were like, “OK! We’ll do a sequel!” And then they were like ’”Mmmm.” So who knows, maybe they’ll change their tune."
Dying of laughter
You also launched sketch website Funny Or Die . How’s that going?
"Yeah, I think we’re in our third or fourth year of the site and it’s the most watched comedy website on the web, so it’s doing really well."
Is there anything we can look forward to on the site, sketch-wise?
"Probably, but I wouldn’t know! It kind of runs itself now. We have a whole team of people. Adam [ McKay ] and I check in on it occasionally but we’re not really doing the day to day on it.
"The website is one thing but now Funny Or Die is starting to produce its own television shows and we helped produce the Tim and Eric movie. That’ll be the first release for Funny Or Die . It’s this crazy off-the-wall comedy.
"It’s this growing empire we hope. It’s great to have a platform for the next generation of writers and directors and actors who are doing comedy."
These interviews originally appeared in Total Film magazine. To subscribe, click here .