Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
With his hairy and towering presence, bellowing voice, and high level of cheerful, supportive, ever-present energy, Will Ferrell played everything from the slow-burn straight-man game show host Alex Trebek to cowbell banger Gene Frenkle to the rapping Robert Goulet during his seven year stint on SNL from 1995-2002. Beyond his vast treasure chest of classic characters and impressions, Ferrell also took a heavy role in navigating the show out of its early 90s funk, and when he left SNL in 2002 to transition from an already-established film clown to full-on leading-man movie star, he left a high watermark behind him. Lorne Michaels put it best when he told People in 1998: “Will is the glue that holds the show together.”
Ferrell grew up in Irvine, California and attended the University High School, where he was a member of student council, a player on the school soccer team, the captain of the basketball team, and a varsity football kicker. During his senior year, Ferrell also wrote and performed comedy routines over the school intercom during morning announcements and was awarded the senior superlative “Best Personality.”
After high school, Ferrell studied sports broadcasting at the University of Southern California, during which time he interned at NBC Sports and once ad-libbed a line on camera that drew laughs from his colleagues, a moment that inspired him to pursue a career in comedy instead of sports journalism. In 1991 he moved to Los Angeles and joined The Groundlings, where he befriended future SNL cast mate Chris Kattan and perfected his impression of the spacey Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray. After landing several small roles in television shows Grace Under Fire, Living Single, and Strangers With Candy, Ferrell was asked to audition for SNL alongside fellow Groundlings Cheri Oteri and Chris Kattan. They were three of ten new cast members Michaels hired for the 21st season in 1995, replacing the departed Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, and others.
While Ferrell experienced an uncertain first year on the show (“I could tell people were like, ‘Nice guy, but why’d he get hired?’” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2003), he blossomed when sharing the stage with a partner, whether it was with Cheri Oteri as the Spartan Cheerleaders and the perky but secretly bitter talk show hosts in the “Morning Latte” sketches, with Ana Gasteyer as the singing Culps, with Molly Shannon and their dogs Mr. Bojangles and Rocky Balboa in “Dog Show,” with Kattan as the club-hopping Butabi Brothers (they’d later star together in the Michaels-produced A Night at the Roxbury), or with Rachel Dratch in “The Lovahs” sketches, where he effectively terrorizes his inhibited guests through tales of lovemaking and faraway spices with his fellow professor/wife Virginia.
When not coupled up with other cast members, Ferrell also brought over-the-top humor to solo characters like Weekend Update guest and voice immodulation victim Jacob Silj, the absurdly distracted Dr. Beaman (“Beautiful golden fur!”), and his unforgettable celebrity impersonations of James Lipton, Robert Goulet, Alex Trebek, Saddam Hussein, Neil Diamond, Janet Reno, and George W. Bush, who he reprised in his Broadway show You’re Welcome, America: A Final Night With George Bush in 2009. Not only did Ferrell nail his impersonations, but he also helped create worlds for them to live in, whether it was the hopeless stupidity of the “Celebrity Jeopardy” games or the warped version of Inside the Actor’s Studio where Lipton’s flamboyant urges often lead to grand overstatements and injuries or Robert Goulet’s sudden new interest in gangsta rap.
Sometimes, all it took for Ferrell to carry a sketch was one faux-drunken outburst or temper tantrum, like as the belligerent rosy-cheeked Hank in the “Bill Brasky” sketches, Mr. Tarkanian in the “Angry Boss” sketch (“Oooooh, Scott Jurgenson! I LOVE it! I am ACTUALLY gonna MURDER YOU!!”), or when he yells the line “I DRIVE A DODGE STRATUS!” at Gasteyer and host Sarah Michelle Gellar in the “Family Dinner Argument” sketch. “He can play utility, he can serve a sketch, and a lot of the characters he’ll have to do will not be terribly likable,” Lorne Michaels said of Ferrell’s versatility. “Like Dan Aykroyd and Phil Hartman before him, if the writing staff got to choose the most popular, it would be Will Ferrell.”
In perhaps the biggest testament to his behind-the-scenes likability, Ferrell is the only SNL cast member who was sent off at the end of his final episode with an end-of-the-night segment in which his cast mates all spoke of his talent and friendship. Tina Fey called him “the most fearless performer I’ve ever seen,” and Horatio Sanz said “There will never be another Will Ferrell. There will be a lot of imitations, but anyone who was around him and was lucky enough to work with him – we know. They broke the mold with that guy.” Chris Parnell’s tale is probably the most revealing: “True story: This show fired me. Then they rehired me – first time that’s ever happened. Will Ferrell made that happen. How can I ever repay that? He was more than a great performer – he was my friend.”
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By the time Ferrell left SNL at the end of the 27th season, he had already appeared in films like Austin Powers (I & II), A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, Dick, and Zoolander. His first big break came with leading roles as a aging wild frat dude Frank Ricard in 2003’s Old School and as Buddy the Elf the same year. Since then he’s starred in a countless list of films (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Stranger Than Fiction, Blades of Glory, Semi Pro, Step Brothers, and most recently Casa de Mi Padre), television shows (The Office, 30 Rock, Eastbound & Down, The Oblongs, Family Guy, King of the Hill), and videos (“The Landlord,” “Presidential Reunion,” “Good Cop, Baby Cop”). Ferrell has won or been nominated for the Emmys, Golden Globes, MTV Movie Awards, ESPYs, and even Tonys for his reprisal of George W. Bush on Broadway. He also won two special awards – the James Joyce Award from University College Dublin and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2011.
He’s still as busy as ever, with several upcoming projects in the works including Anchorman 2, Crazy U, and a starring role in The Campaign, which premieres this August. Alongside longtime collaborator and former SNL head writer Adam McKay, Ferrell continues to run Funny Or Die, one of the best and most star-studded comedy websites on the internet, and the two are in talks to produce a television version of their popular web series “Drunk History” for Comedy Central. Thankfully Ferrell’s motivated to keep creating — without him, who knows if SNL would have ever gotten its groove back, or if today’s bro comedy would have found its magic formula for success, or if future comedians would ever think to star in a Spanish-speaking feature film? Whatever trademark Ferrell performance or character you might love best, his memories and influence on the comedy world are probably best summed up by his famous line as Ron Burgundy in Anchorman: “I don’t know how to put this, but…I’m kind of a big deal.”
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.