Like so much of Will Ferrell’s work, the comedy Casa de Mi Padre is a prank without guile: It has a core of humanism that radiates out, past the layers of silliness, the tacky sets and bare-butt gags and absurdly splattery shoot-outs. The chief joke in this telenovela send-up is the mere notion of casting the blondish, middle-aged Caucasian galoot Ferrell as a simpleminded Mexican cowboy hero and having him speak entirely in Spanish—a language he didn’t know a few scant months before shooting. Unable to improvise as freely as usual, Ferrell chomps down on words like muchacho and lets the unfamiliar language slant his features in ways you’ve never seen. But he largely plays it straight, throwing the ball to his Mexican co-stars and looking, atop his majestic horse, nakedly earnest.
It’s the same expression he wears when I meet him at a West Village photography studio, the sun setting over the Hudson as he sits upright, trim in his tracksuit, sipping espresso and doing his best to answer pointy-headed questions about his unusual (for a great clown) mixture of the antic and the gentle.
At 44, Ferrell is the most centered exhibitionist in modern comedy—maybe too centered to have the slightest need to put himself on the therapist’s couch and muse on the psychological foundations of his comedy. Then again, the deadpan hides much. Growing up in Southern California in the late seventies with a single mom (although in regular contact with a dad who was an accomplished musician), he played sports, made crank calls, and gravitated to comics like Steve Martin. “Putting an arrow through his head and playing the banjo and always going for the non sequitur, that’s what I loved,” Ferrell says. “He obviously became gigantic, but I’m sure there was a big portion of that audience that was, like, ‘What is he doing? I don’t get it—it’s not a setup, punch line, or storytelling.’ ”
Ferrell actually strives to produce that disorientation. “I’ve never been afraid of silence,” he says. “Silence and listening in comedy are big things that are overlooked.” If you don’t get the joke, he can wait. Like a musician (it’s no accident his films are filled with musical numbers), he thrives on changing the beat and riffing on a theme, letting the gag go on “and on and on and on and start to dip, but then because it’s going on so long it starts to get funny again.”
The approach goes back to his long stint on Saturday Night Live, where he’d double down on sketches that were dying in front of the audience—unlike some of his plainly miserable co-stars. “If something wasn’t working, the tendency would be to speed up and get through it,” he says. “But I would slow way down, and I would have this thing—I don’t know why, I love the audience, I want them to laugh, and yet something would kick in like, ‘Okay, you don’t like it, I’m going to make sure you really hate it,’ so I would just take my time. I don’t know, it was like a perverse joy in the agony of it being so painful. I can’t explain that.”
Explaining what he does is a task that often eludes Ferrell, which is why, in the summer of 2010, he sent me an e-mail in a response to my review of The Other Guys, in which he starred with Mark Wahlberg. “This is a first for me, as I have never personally reached out to a reviewer, but I wanted to thank you for your kind words about our movie and myself,” he wrote. “I feel like for the first time a reviewer perfectly articulated what it is I do. It was so fun to read because I have a terrible time articulating it myself.”
Then he said he hoped the e-mail wasn’t inappropriate and essentially apologized for bothering me.
Yes, it was a terrible bother. And hugely inappropriate. That’s why I promptly called everyone I knew and screamed, “Will Ferrell sent me a thank-you note!” It more than balances out the occasional e-mail from filmmakers calling me an idiot.
What I’d written was that what makes Ferrell an American treasure is his large-spiritedness: “His heroes are oblivious to the point of imbecility, but it’s not the imbecility that he’s satirizing. It’s the fear. It’s the lengths to which men will go to keep from looking vulnerable (i.e., feminine). His preening Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, his swaggering yet befuddled racer Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, his trash-talking figure skater Chazz Michael Michaels in Blades of Glory: They’re child-men who put on macho airs and look more and more like big babies. In his one-man show, You’re Welcome America, Ferrell portrays George W. Bush as an overentitled adolescent posing haplessly (but with deadly consequences) as a Texas cowboy. Best of all is his unemployed 39-going-on-12-year-old Brennan Huff in Step Brothers, which I think is the great American broad comedy of the last decade.”