MOTW: Will Ferrell - A Glass Case of Comedic Genius

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
December 19th, 2013

MOTW: Will Ferrell - A Glass Case of Comedic Genius

It may surprise fans of Will Ferrell to learn that comedy was nearly his last choice when it came to a career. His early exposure to the entertainment industry through his father, musician Roy Lee Ferrell, Jr., left him with the opinion that the tenuous nature of show-business employment was not for him. Ultimately, however, his natural gift for comedy drove him in that direction, and it proved to ultimately be the right choice for the budding comic genius and a great boon to television and film audiences worldwide.

Will Ferrell began developing his comedy as a child, using it to escape what he saw as a boring suburban existence. In his high school and college years, he developed a love of pranks as well as the ability to write skits and improvise. After earning a degree in sports broadcasting, he tried and failed at a number of traditional jobs before auditioning for the Groundlings troupe in 1991.

Ferrell's improvisational abilities were a good fit for the comedy group, and he spent several years with the Groundlings before Lorne Michaels drafted him into the Not Ready for Prime Time Players for the 1995 season of "Saturday Night Live." Ferrell spent seven years on the show before leaving in 2002 and proved to be a key part of the 1990s renaissance of the show. Among his most notable impressions were those of President George W. Bush and Alex Trebek; as the latter, he would emcee episodes of "Celebrity Jeopardy" during which the contestants would heap abuse upon the beleaguered host. Another iconic performance cast him as a fictional member of the band Blue Oyster Cult responding to a music producer's repeated demands for more and more cowbell on the track "Don't Fear the Reaper."

Ferrell had dabbled in film work during his time at "Saturday Night Live" with middling success, but in 2003, he starred in a pair of films that proved his star power. He was part of the ensemble cast for the film "Old School" and starred as Buddy in the Christmas movie "Elf." The latter film received moderate critical acclaim and grossed more than $170 million at the domestic box office, making it his most financially successful starring role to date.

Also in the early 2000s, Ferrell reconnected with a fellow "Saturday Night Live" alumnus, writer Adam McKay. The two had joined the show in the same year and worked together on a number of sketches, and now they began developing a series of films based around wild characters for Ferrell to play. The first of these was 2004's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," which proved a modest success at the box office. 2006's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" was more successful, earning more than $140 million domestically. In 2007, they founded "Funny or Die," a website that showcases comedy shorts and sketches.

Ferrell had his first experience on Broadway in 2009, when he created a one-man show based on his impression of former President George W. Bush. Titled "You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush," the show was directed by Adam McKay and was broadcast live on HBO before it closed out its run. Later, Ferrell and McKay considered reviving the "Anchorman" series on the stage, but the project fell through once they realized the difficulty of getting such a large production off the ground.

In 2013, Ferrell and McKay teamed up once more for "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues," reuniting the cast from the first film. Ferrell made extensive use of the Ron Burgundy character to generate publicity for the film, announcing it in-character on "Conan" and also serving as the spokesman for Chrysler's Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle. In the weeks before the film's release, Ferrell appeared as Burgundy on a number of real news broadcasts, co-anchoring the evening news in Bismarck, North Dakota, and providing commentary for sporting events.

Will Ferrell has also lent his considerable star power to charitable causes. In 1993, two-time cancer survivor Craig Pollard founded Cancer for College, devoted to assisting other cancer patients and amputees with tuition expenses. Pollard and Farrell had attended USC together as part of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, and Ferrell quickly became the charity's primary celebrity spokesperson. Over the years, he has organized charity sporting events, auctioned off roles in his films, and even staged elaborate public pranks in order to raise awareness of his friend's charity and increase donations. Since the charity's founding, it has provided more than $2 million in scholarships.