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Will Ferrell pushes jokes ‘to the point of making people feel uncomfortable’

Tim Horton's should have seen it coming. Will Ferrell likes to make mischief, and the exhaustive promotion juggernaut he's been leading for his latest film, Anchorman 2, is giving him plenty of opportunity.

In character as Ron Burgundy, the dim-witted, self-satisfied and extravagantly mustachioed TV newsman who first appeared in 2004's Anchorman, Ferrell has starred in an inescapable series of commercials for the Dodge Durango; done a book tour for Burgundy's "autobiography," Let Me Off at the Top!: My Classy Life and Other Musings; made numerous late-night chat show appearances, where he played jazz flute and claimed a close personal friendship with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford; and touched down in Winnipeg to co-anchor TSN's Tim Horton's Roar of the Rings curling trials.

As ever, though, Ferrell's been doing it his way. On Conan, he called the Durango a terrible car. During the curling, he kept asking TSN's co-anchor Vic Rauter: "Why is this Tim Horton's name plastered everywhere? Because it's a little off-putting." And in a TV spot, he sipped from a prominently labelled Tim's mug, then grimaced and recoiled at the taste.

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The Dodge people were none too pleased, Ferrell admits, and Rauter seemed baffled by his remarks. But letting air out of the puffed-up and self-important is Ferrell's stock in trade, from his days on Saturday Night Live in the mid-1990s to his films, including Old School, Talladega Nights and now Anchorman 2, which opened Dec. 18. (It's set in early 1980s Manhattan, as Burgundy becomes an anchor at the first 24-hour cable news channel.) His typical characters are overconfident but underqualified. They project authority but are needy or deranged underneath. The more they wish to be taken seriously, the more absurd they are.

"The continual American attitude of, 'We're the best! We have to be the best!' and that chant of 'We're Number One!' just makes me laugh," Ferrell says in a Toronto hotel room the day after the curling match. "Those guys you overhear at a restaurant in Hollywood, who are going: 'What do you mean you don't have my reservation? Do you know who I am? I'm the third producer on a Nickelodeon kids' show!' I like making fun of those types."

In person, Ferrell is serene, smiley and bombast-free. His curly hair is cut age-appropriately short (he's 46), his eyebrows are bushy and grey, and his voice is so soft I have to practically sit in his lap to hear it. His manner is 100 per cent that of a nice dad you'd enjoy chatting with at your kid's hockey game, and zero per cent that of a zillionaire king of comedy with slavish fans who, when they spy him in the street, holler his lines back at him – many so obscure even he doesn't recognize them.

"I was riding my bike and a girl popped out of her car sunroof and yelled: 'Why are you so sweaty?'" Ferrell recalls. "I started to say; 'Well, it's hot,' and she said, 'No! The line from Step Brothers!'" He chuckles. "Sometimes it's flattering, sometimes I'm just trying to get the kids in the car." (He and his wife of 13 years, actress Viveca Paulin, have three sons, aged 9, 7 and 3.) "Half the time, I don't even get it."

The secret to Burgundy's popularity is that "it's funny to see these guys do things you wouldn't ever think about doing," Ferrell says. "You can't believe people can be this way. And, yet, you know someone just like that."

"That's why the Rob Ford situation is so funny," he continues. "You can't imagine that the mayor of a major world city would allow himself to be in a situation where he would get filmed smoking crack. Or any of the things he's doing." He shakes his head in fond amazement. "But he just keeps doing them!"

For a guy who loves nothing more than pushing a joke "to the point of making people feel uncomfortable" in order to expose the façades we're all desperately trying to construct, Ferrell has enjoyed an almost startlingly comfortable path through life. Although his parents divorced (his mother was a teacher, his father a musician with the Righteous Brothers), he was untraumatized. In high school, he played football, baseball and basketball; he was a team captain, a student council member, a natural leader in shenanigans. After a few false career starts, he joined the Groundlings comedy troupe in L.A., then graduated to SNL, where he met his frequent director, Adam McKay. (They co-write their film scripts in Ferrell's guesthouse; McKay lolls on a daybed while Ferrell types. On set, they do a few takes as written, and then riff like hell.)

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Ferrell has retained that team captain spirit, employing an unofficial repertoire company in his films, and starting up the website to showcase his pals' stuff. "I grew up on movies like Stripes and Caddyshack and Animal House, where you had multiple funny characters," he says, "as opposed to what became the model in the nineties, the single funny character and everyone else scratched their head, like, 'Get a load of him.' I think it's more fun for the audience and more fun for us to write funny things for everyone."

The secret to his success, Ferrell maintains, is that no character has ever been too small to make into something bigger. "When I got on SNL, I was more excited about being part of a cast, as opposed to, 'This is going to be my vehicle to stardom,'" he says. "Some people would get handed a two-line part in a sketch where they were just delivering a pizza, and they'd say: 'Come on, that's it? I'm not doing this.' But I made a point to tell all the writers: 'Don't ever shy away from having me do one-line parts.' I love those little moments. I view them as an opportunity – to come into a sketch and maybe linger a little too long, or make an odd choice and then leave, and have people going: 'Huh?' Make a laugh out of nothing. That's the way I feel about comedy in general."

The world in all its weirdness continues to help. Ron Burgundy's Durango ads, for example, are ridiculous send-ups of car commercial tropes: Burgundy shoos away ballet dancers who are there to make the car seem elegant; he touts the glove compartment instead of the engine. But since the ads began appearing, sales of the SUV have spiked.

"I'm astounded by that," Ferrell says. "That was never my goal. I just wanted to promote the movie. And my cynical side is like: 'Says who? Is Dodge just putting that out there? Do we really have hard data?' Because you gotta admit, that is" – he widens his eyes with innocent glee, and drops his voice to a whisper – "kind of crazy."

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