Written by Sarah
The first time I saw Will Ferrell was at a comedy showcase in Los Angeles. Ten stand-ups, me included, were invited to perform for an industry crowd. TV execs, studio reps, and agents were the only invitees--the absolute worst crowd a comic could ever go in front of. We started getting wired when the bartender pointed out Lorne Michaels, until we saw the tall guy in the ball cap standing with Michaels.
Will Ferrell was in the house. Forget the TV bosses and studio guys. Forget Lorne Michaels. None of us cared about any of them. With a shot at landing TV pilots, writing deals, or even a movie role, all we cared about was impressing him. Set lists were thrown away and new ones written up with one goal in mind: make Will Ferrell laugh. All our best jokes went up whether they segued or not.
I don’t think Ferrell smiled even once that night. He stood in the back of the little bar and nursed a beer, silent, nodding to a few studio execs that waved and he never laughed. I saw a thirty-seven year old man in tears after he exited the stage, convinced Ferrell hated him and had hissed at the end of his set. After we were done I was sitting behind the stage area with my buddy, jotting notes from the night in my notebook. Ferrell came over and pointed at us and in that way he has of being completely serious but maybe totally joking and said, “You two, you guys were funny.” And then he walked away.
We left and saw him down the street, surrounded by people—grown men shaking his hand like he was the president, kids clutching his sleeve for an autograph, people taking pictures and on their cell phones, “You won’t believe who we’re looking at!” Ferrell was smiling and talking, signing anything within reach, shaking those hands, talking on cell phones. He was still there when we drove by a few minutes later and everyone around him was laughing. I ended up dropping out of comedy but my buddy went on to work for Ferrell and is now at Funny or Die.
Lainey asked me to think about who is the stronger comedian right now, Steve Carell or Will Ferrell. It’s Ferrell, hands down. Carell has greater range as an actor but Ferrell is a talent connoisseur, a strategist in a way that Carell isn’t. Put simply, Carell is part of Ferrell’s comedy troupe, not the other way around.
Ferrell is the better comedian, which is saying something because Carell is a brilliant sketch artist. Consider “More Cowbell”, SNL’s greatest skit of the last fifteen years and arguably one of their best ever. People forget but back in 2000 when that skit first aired, it was tacked on at the end of the show, where Michaels sends the weakest sketches to die. It lingered in the SNL writers’ room for months before Ferrell (who wrote it) could get it on air, and it tanked during dress rehearsal. But Ferrell knows funny and his last-second wardrobe change to that tiny shirt, and his total commitment to looking ridiculous, saved that sketch. As great an ensemble performer as Carell is, I have never seen him single-handedly create comic gold like that.
It’s true that Ferrell has been missing where Carell has been succeeding over the last year. But Will Ferrell is the tastemaker, not Steve Carell. Grown men don’t pee themselves when confronted with performing in front of Carell, and Carell doesn’t gather talent around him like a menagerie. Even Carell’s new hit Dinner for Schmucks is a product of Ferrell’s influence--Carell and Paul Rudd are both members of the Ferrell troupe, as is scene-stealer Zach Galifianakis.
Comparing these two, though, goes directly against what Will Ferrell is all about. Comedy is a carnivorous sport where only the hardest predators survive and Ferrell has created a support network where the focus isn’t on competition, but on the collaborative nature of comedy. Funny or Die is a breeding ground of talent and many comics today prefer to find success there than in a comedy club. His movies are stocked with his pals, some he’s known forever others he’s plucked from obscurity and promoted, like Danny McBride (Pineapple Express, Eastbound and Down).
Ferrell isn’t just making us laugh; he’s ensuring the future of comedy. And that’s why he is the king.
The Other Guys opens this weekend.
PS. Harry Caray is back.
PPS. He also takes out Catherine Zeta-Jones.