Not far from Ferrell's home in Hollywood is a tennis club where his wife likes to play, and where Ferrell likes to get lunch every now and then. At 1 p.m. on a drizzly October Wednesday, he parks his electric car out front and enters the clubhouse. He's wearing running shorts and an unzipped black hoodie over a Pabst Blue Ribbon tee, a Rolex diving watch on his right wrist. The manager, a graying guy in a blue polo shirt, shakes Ferrell's hand and escorts him to a reserved corner table in the upstairs dining room, with broad views of the Valley. The reservation is unnecessary because the dining room is empty, save for a few retiree types enjoying salads and bowls of soup.
Ferrell likes this place, he says, because it isn't remotely chic. He's subdued in person, speaking so softly that at points I have to lean forward to make out his words. McKay says that, when Ferrell joined SNL, "we all thought he was the straight guy. We didn't really think anything of him."
"There's a shyness there," Ferrell says, "mixed with never a need to have to impress someone with being funny. I meet people in public, and I'm sure they're completely underwhelmed."
Growing up, Ferrell played sports. At the University of Southern California, he joined a frat. He is by all accounts immensely well-adjusted for a comedian – or, as Apatow puts it, "He's oddly centered and healthy." Ferrell's comedic gift is to take aim at fat, evergreen targets – arrogant paternalism, suburban squareness, alpha-male fraudulence – with a satiric spirit that is sharp and finely observed but winningly amused rather than ragefully aggrieved. Carell says that Ferrell is well-suited to play Burgundy because "as belligerent, obnoxious or self-centered as his character might be, there's always something likable about him – and that stems from Will."
Shooting on Anchorman 2 wrapped back in May, but Ferrell's work on the movie isn't finished. The filmmakers are in a tussle with the MPAA at the moment over a threatened R rating – box-office poison for a movie that so many adolescents are clamoring to see. This means that several jokes on the racier end of the spectrum will need to be cut or rephrased. One line, about fellating "a rodeo clown," is almost certainly doomed; a moment when Ron slaps his own ass during some covered-up lovemaking was flagged too. So Ferrell has to head into a vocal booth to record various PG-13-friendly rewrites, maybe do "some quick reshoots," he says, munching a Cobb salad.
Then there's the work of marketing the movie. Dr Pepper, Carl's Jr. and Miller Lite all came calling about partnerships, in which Ron Burgundy would stump for their products. "The studio loves it, because it'd be the equivalent of, like, $50 million in free advertising," says Ferrell. But the idea of stretching Ron that thin doesn't appeal to him. "I was like, 'It would be so funny to see Ron Burgundy endorsing Meineke muffler shops, or Ron Burgundy for Poulan chain saws,'" he says. "Like, 'Is that Will Ferrell doing Ron Burgundy for a local seafood restaurant?'" Such tiny campaigns have little value to Paramount, he concedes. "I go, 'The only thing I can think of that would have the resources and feel right would be an American car company.'" Then Dodge came calling, and now Ferrell, as Burgundy, will endorse an SUV in a string of bizarre ads. (There's a Jockey underwear tie-in, too.)
After lunch, we drive to Ferrell's home, where he lives with his wife and their three sons. A gate slides open onto a spacious car park surrounded by several modern-looking buildings, an electric charger for his car, and lush plantings. "If you're hankering for a persimmon... Ferrell says, gesturing toward a tree. To one side is Ferrell's guesthouse, where he and McKay write. A screened-in porch opens up to a vast den, where a flatscreen faces a pool table. "This is the war room," he says. There are several DVDs lying around – of Mr. Holland's Opus, which the pair watched while devising a scene involving a piano recital, and of The Towering Inferno, which came in handy when they were envisioning a spectacular finale (since junked) staged within an underwater city. Ferrell holds up a copy of Kramer vs. Kramer: "We were going to watch this, because we have a son element – but we never did."
There's a bed in one corner, next to a computer. When they work, McKay splays out and Ferrell types. "We'll literally act out the scene," Ferrell says. "We should tape-record it. But we never do. Then we're like, 'Wait, what did we just say?'"
"We talk for a while about the story," McKay says later. "We write, like, an 18-page outline so we roughly know where we're going. We bang it around. Sometimes we'll check in with Judd. Then we write what we call the 'vomit draft,' and that's just a big fucking let-it-ride kind of thing. With Anchorman 2, it might have been over 200 pages. A big, giant, messy draft, which we then carved and carved."
After a while, they showed a draft to Apatow and to other readers they trust. "We'd do table reads," Apatow recalls, "and the problem is, our friends laugh so hard in the first 35 minutes that we can't figure out what's funny in the second half of the movie, because everyone's run out of gas from laughing so much at the beginning."
Despite this and all the other signs that Anchorman 2 will be a smash, Ferrell has learned to keep his hopes in check. "Anyone in comedy who says they knew something was gonna work is full of shit," he says. "'Oh, yeah, I knew it on the first day, we were making a hit movie.' It's bullshit. You don't know." So he and McKay focused on following their own oddball muses. "I don't want everyone to love it, and neither does Will," McKay says. "There are certain people who should hate what we do."
On the computer, Ferrell opens an early version of the sequel's script, scrolling to a page at random. I notice a character named Deep-Voiced African-American and ask Ferrell about it. "We played with the idea of doing three minutes with the screen just black, and having it be like a radio play," he says. That particular idea fell by the wayside, alas, but remembering it makes him chuckle. "I like to challenge the expectation level of the things I do," Ferrell says. "I want to keep making things where, potentially, I do turn off part of the audience. That's fine. Because the percentage that's going, 'I can't believe this is happening, and I love it' – that's what I gravitate toward."
This story is from the December 19th, 2013 - January 2nd, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
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