On a sunny May morning in northwest Atlanta, Will Ferrell ambles into the warehouse at 2282 Defoor Hills Road – a windowless, 31,000-square-foot behemoth that has been transformed, thanks to low rents and generous Georgia tax incentives, into a makeshift movie soundstage. The warehouse is typically home to moving companies, but today the tenant has a much higher profile: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, a.k.a. the most hotly anticipated comedy of the year, and the most buzzed-about sequel in comedy history. Ferrell is starting his workday as the film's hero, Ron Burgundy, a blowhard San Diego newsman with a weakness for scotch, blondes and mahogany furnishings; a habit of issuing bogus facts in authoritative tones (for instance, "San Diego" is German for "a whale's vagina"); and what you might charitably call unenlightened attitudes regarding race, gender and sexuality. "He's kind of horrible," says Ferrell, smiling. And yet we love him all the same.
Ron typically wears snazzy white loafers and wide-lapel suits that, to quote the original Anchorman, make "Sinatra look like a hobo." But in the scene shooting today, he's on the mend after suffering an injury, so Ferrell's dressed in a shabby turtleneck, house slippers and a blanket. If Ron's golden-brown croissant of a mustache has a little less luster than usual, however, Ferrell himself looks good. For one thing, he's got a personal trainer on set with him, who works him out and fixes him breakfast smoothies. For another, Ron Burgundy is his all-time favorite role, and he's pumped about revisiting it. "It really feels like the last one, where we couldn't believe they'd given us money to do these ridiculous things," he says. "This one, it's all about making everything even more ridiculous."
By 10:22 a.m., the three other leads have gathered, ready to portray the members of Ron's news crew: Paul Rudd as Brian Fantana, porny-looking lady-killer and investigative reporter; Steve Carell as Brick Tamland, brain-dead weatherman; David Koechner as Champ Kind, fervent right-winger, repressed homosexual and sports recapper. "I like your bolo tie," Rudd tells Koechner. Rudd's done up in a denim suit augmented by a gold BRIAN belt buckle and an unbuttoned shirt; Carell's in a three-piece suit. The actors exchange small talk as they walk to the set, a lighthouse interior constructed on the warehouse floor. From this side, it resembles a massive plywood cocoon but within lies a kitchen, a living-room area and various nautical-themed accents, including a bottle of Captain Morgan. Ron comes to this lighthouse as part of his recovery, and in today's scene – number 106 – the team pays him a visit. "This is Ron's special place," Ferrell says.
The first Anchorman, which came out in 2004, had a rich premise: The all-male news team at a local television station in the mid-Seventies must deal with the arrival of a highly talented female reporter within their midst. The movie is as vivid in its depiction of a boys' club perched atop shifting cultural fault lines as Mad Men, only with Ron as the dashing, flailingly out-of-step paterfamilias instead of Don Draper – and with more jokes about smelly pirate hookers and cologne made from bits of panther. In Ferrell's hands, Ron is as indelible a portrait of puffed-up American masculinity as our culture has mustered: "At first glance, you think he's really self-confident, but he's such an insecure guy," says Ferrell. "His confidence supplants knowledge." Anchorman's director, Adam McKay, who wrote both movies (and runs a production company, Gary Sanchez) with Ferrell, says, "That's stuff we both love: guys who project great authority and competence, but behind it there's just fucking chaos, incompetence, derangement or pure self-interest."
It's day 50 of a 58-day shoot. "This is the hardest we've ever worked," says McKay, getting into place in the director's chair. "Comedy is built on surprise, so comedy sequels are hard. We didn't want to repeat ourselves." The original Anchorman took in good money, earning around $85 million at the box office on a $26 million budget. But its off-kilter atmosphere, endless barrage of left-field jokes and winningly cavalier attitude toward plot gave it a cult feel. "It was a handmade movie," McKay says. "It was raggedy," says Ferrell.
Over the years, the Anchorman cult has swelled. Its jokes have permeated the lexicon, from novelty T-shirts to Kanye lyrics. During the original film's making, Rudd, Carell and Ferrell were unproven leading men, and Judd Apatow, its producer, boasted just one movie-producing credit to his name, for The Cable Guy. Today, those actors are A-listers and Apatow oversees an empire. All of which means that, with Anchorman 2, the stakes are much higher. Kristen Wiig has signed on in a supporting role; Harrison Ford makes one of many big-name cameos. Paramount's early audience-tracking numbers are through the roof, and the blogs and the trades are rapt. "The difference with this one is I'm aware that people are watching us," Rudd says. "The first one, no one cared."
If that's translating to pressure for anyone here on set, though, it doesn't show. "I've been thinking, 'Why can't this never end?'" says Koechner. "'What's better than working with these guys?'" Four lighting doubles clear the lighthouse set, and the leads get into position. Outside the cocoon, McKay sits opposite twin monitors displaying the feeds from two cameramen. Six feet five and bespectacled, McKay has a low, actorly voice; he holds a wireless microphone hooked up to a PA, so that he can direct the actors on the other side of the plywood. McKay has a deep improv background – he's a storied Second City alumnus and a founding member of Upright Citizens Brigade. The filmmaking approach that he favors, especially for a scene like today's, which features nothing but dudes sitting around a coffee table, is to run everything as scripted for one or two takes, then open up the floodgates to improvisation. As each actor thinks of every single funny thing his character can say at a given moment, McKay continually raises his mic, calling out additional impromptu lines. In other improv-heavy projects, like Christopher Guest movies or Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes, there aren't scripts so much as outlines that the actors riff around. But Ferrell and McKay write dialogue as tight and detailed as possible. Ferrell says, "People would be shocked to see that the movie has a 122-page script. But for us, the writing spurs on the improv."
Performed as written, scene 106 lasts about three and a half minutes. It contains some plot-advancing moments, but mostly it exists for laughs, centering on a jarring conceit related to Ron's injury, which I won't spoil. Carell and Ferrell get the scene's ripest jokes. The best concern Ron's difficulties with masturbating while he convalesces: He says that he's forgotten what the female form looks like, and that he's been forced to please himself by imagining "one of those triangular signs outside women's bathrooms in airports."
Once this option is committed to tape, McKay hurls out others for Ron's fantasizing: "the Indian lady from Land O'Lakes," "Lady Elaine from Mister Rogers..."
Ferrell, warming up, pipes in: "Ann B. Davis from The Brady Bunch?"
McKay: "That's good."
Ferrell: "Mrs. Butterworth?"
McKay: "That's really good."
Ferrell, giving it a whirl: "The other day, I pleasured myself to Mrs. Butterworth."
McKay, building on this: "And she got me there."
Ferrell: "She got me there fast!"
McKay turns to me. "The form of the joke kind of clicks, then we just heighten it," he says. The actors try different iterations and wordings, stopping and restarting the scene, the cameras running almost continuously. "We're all sitting there going, 'How can we compete with Adam?'" says Ferrell. "He's so fast. We've learned how to pass the ball to each other, to be listening and thinking at the same time. Technically speaking, everyone has looked at the scene the night before and had thoughts of 'Oh, there's an opening here,' or 'Here's three jokes I could riff on.' But you have to be willing to throw that all away – you may not even get to it."
At one point, Ferrell goes on a tangent, based on nothing in the script, about how lonely his Thanksgiving was at the lighthouse. "My guests weren't pleased," he says. "And by 'guests' I mean two squirrels and an owl who came in through a broken window." McKay loves it, instantly fleshing out the pathetic tableau: "Two squirrels, a filthy store mannequin, a statue of Thomas Jefferson, and a bucket full of kelp."
"Adam will come up with these weirdly constructed, specifically strange descriptions of things," says Rudd. "He's the best comedy writer I've ever seen." Like Rudd, Christina Applegate – who plays Ron's soulmate and professional rival, Veronica, in both films – has no improv training, which originally made her feel out of place in the Anchorman universe. "Adam would say, 'Christina, do what you want,' and I'd say, 'I don't know what that means!'" she recalls. "But he sets a tone of 'Let's just play. You're never judged.' If you come up with something shitty, they're not like, 'Boooo.'" Carell says that the bedrock to good improv is listening. "You can have all of these rules and little tricks that they teach you to try and help you with improv," he says, "but ultimately you can't have any of that stuff in your mind when you're doing it."
As takes accumulate, crew members double over, or press their palms to their mouths. "Adam is the funniest on-set director who has ever lived," Apatow tells me later. "When I direct a movie, I'm lifting jokes that people said in rehearsal, I've got lines in mind I want to try – Adam can just watch the scene and pitch 25 perfect jokes off the top of his head." After a bit, the masturbation gag turns a corner, toward the voluminous orgasm that Mrs. Butterworth inspires in Ron. It's here that Koechner, his back to the camera, starts trembling uncontrollably with laughter. McKay presses the button on his mic, says it's OK, we won't see Koechner's face in this shot. The take continues.
"Talk about a river of ejaculate," Ferrell says.
McKay: "It was as if someone shot a bucketful of paste with a shotgun."
Ferrell: "It was like somebody dumped a bucket of corn chowder into an industrial fan!"
Rudd's eyes start tearing up. McKay, not missing a beat: "It was like someone gutted a shark over a marble floor."
Ferrell, bellowing: "It was like goddamn Krakatoa in my pants!"
Carell is convulsing. The take is a goner. But Ferrell is having too much fun to stop. "Now I know what those sad villagers in Pompeii felt like!" he says. "Except, instead of hot lava raining down, I rained down frothy ejaculate!"
An assistant runs out a Kleenex for Rudd. "Is this for my eyes or for my nose?" he asks, wiping at his face. After a few more takes, it's lunchtime. "That was a lot of laughing," McKay says. Rudd and Koechner approach him. "Carell lost it – that's a rarity," Rudd says happily. "It's hard today," says Koechner. "Even if you know a joke's coming, the way Will does it gets you – he's throwing knuckleballs every time."
McKay nods. "I tell people that directing Will in a movie is like renting a Maserati," he says.
A short while later, Ferrell comes over, curious if he was consistent in his phrasing between two takes, which would make editing easier. "When I said 'man butter,' was that the right term?" he asks. McKay consults with Cate Hardman, the script supervisor. "I worked on The Help," Hardman tells me, grinning. "They don't go off-script in The Help."
"It was supposed to be 'man milk,'" McKay tells Ferrell.
Ferrell grimaces. "It's OK," McKay says. "If we want 'man milk,' we can loop it later."
Improvising is an extraordinarily fun way to work, but it can seem like an extraordinarily inefficient way to make a movie. Over the six-odd hours that it takes to finish scene 106, tons of ingenious laughs are generated, and most of them will not make the finished cut, either because they are judged not-funny-enough, or because they don't fit – tonally, logically, rhythmically – when placed within the broader context of the film. Fans of Talladega Nights cherish its famous saying-grace scene, packed with delirious, off-the-cuff runs. But McKay and his longtime editor, Brent White, have to be judicious in choosing when a feature can be unspooled that way. "That dinner scene worked because it helped to introduce all the characters, and because it came early – you haven't overstayed your welcome yet," says White. "If it came later on, it would slow things down. People wouldn't buy into it."
"I've gone into cuts and gone, 'How the fuck is this not getting a laugh?'" McKay says. "Finally, you learn the lesson: Oh, it's the story. But is it wasteful? God, no, because you still create this Darwinistic environment where the jokes all have to fight each other to get in."
At the warehouse, prop master James Mazzola is using tweezers to adjust a model of the USS Constitution tucked into a glass bottle – background décor typical of the patriotic pageantry Ron adores. Mazzola has worked with auteurs no less estimable than Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, but a job like Anchorman 2 has unique rewards. "This is the least crazy thing I've done on this movie," Mazzola says. "I've fabricated futuristic weapons, I've designed condom packaging..."
The weapons come into play during the sequel's climactic brawl sequence, which, as in the first movie, features a parade of celebrities playing rival newscasters. One such cameo belongs to Kanye West, a huge Anchorman fan who came to the set in May with Kim Kardashian. "Kanye was great," says McKay. "He's superinterested in process; he took private improv lessons with a friend of mine in Chicago a few years ago. He had a few movie ideas, he told me one, and I gave him some notes. He was really humble, like, 'Can we meet in L.A.?' I was like, 'Yeah!'"
Ferrell says that West gave the cast and crew a preview of Yeezus. "He was playing it on the set," Ferrell says. "Which was great. But then he didn't understand when it had to be turned off, when it was time to film. He was like, 'Hey, what's going on!' We didn't want Kanye to get upset, but at the same time, we kind of had to film."
The idea for the original Anchorman first came to Ferrell when he saw a Lifetime documentary about pioneering Philadelphia anchorwoman Jessica Savitch, who faced significant sexism in her career. "At one point, they were talking to this anchor Mort Crim, who was basically saying, 'I was an asshole to her.' What made me laugh was watching him. He still spoke like this" – Ferrell's voice grows gaseous and stentorian; he says he bases Ron's inflections on his memory of Crim's. "He still used his on-camera voice."
McKay and Ferrell first met when they were hired at SNL, on the same day in 1995. Ferrell, who grew up in the middleclass suburb of Irvine, California, and who was a luminary of L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings, became the cast MVP; McKay became head writer after only a year. When they worked on sketches together, "we realized we loved the straight-laced situation that goes awry," Ferrell says. In the early Aughts, they decided to write a screenplay inspired by the Savitch story, but from the perspective of the buffoonish sexists. Paul Thomas Anderson was thinking of producing at that time, Ferrell recalls, "and he was like, 'If you guys were allowed to write whatever you wanted to write, what would you write?'" They sent him the original draft of the Anchorman script, in which "the news team was on a cross-country flight with all the top local-news teams, and the plane crashes into another plane," Ferrell says. "And in the cargo hold were cages with baboons and a shipment of throwing stars. And the baboons escape and take the throwing stars. So the entire movie is a survival movie, and the baboons are hunting us." The plane's lone female newswoman is also the lone voice of reason. "It's guys with mustaches and sideburns, in the wild, eating each other," says McKay.
"Paul was a little thrown," says Ferrell, laughing. "He said, 'You know, guys, I'm so busy now...' We scared him out of producing! So then we were like, 'Let's go back to the drawing board and have it be about the workplace. We can still have bizarre stuff.' And even then, nobody wanted to do it."
The script seemed destined to molder. "I remember sitting in my apartment in New York with Will and we're rewriting Elf, going, 'How the fuck did this happen?'" says McKay. "Like, 'We had Anchorman going. Now we're rewriting you as a grown man as an elf?'" The blockbuster success of Todd Phillips' Old School, however – a movie that Ferrell stole as the rambunctious Frank the Tank – changed things. DreamWorks gave Anchorman a $26 million budget and hurried it into production. "Constant props to Todd Phillips," McKay says. From there, Anchorman's success helped McKay land a $70 million budget for Talladega Nights, and it helped Carell and Apatow make The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which led to virtually every other giant comedy released in the past decade without the word "hangover" in its title.
"It changed everything for me," says Apatow. "When we did Anchorman, I was coming off Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks being canceled. I had a lot of trouble getting things going because nothing I'd ever done had made any money. Anchorman was the first project I was involved with that was successful. Suddenly, I wasn't just the guy who made highly acclaimed television failures anymore. It gave all of us credibility."
Come July, Adam McKay is in a third-floor editing room on the Paramount lot, in Hollywood, sitting behind Brent White, a bearded fiftyish editor with a calm, soft-spoken air. White is toggling between windows in Avid software; near his right elbow is a stuffed dog wearing a crocheted scarf. In one window, partially obscured, is the movie's script, where a line of dialogue is visible: "Tell me that doesn't feel like a cock." Anchorman 2 is due in theaters just before Christmas, and postproduction will last till the end of November. "Confidently, I can say this movie doesn't suck," McKay says. White nods: "It's gonna be great ... in December."
Editing is crucial to any film, but especially this one. "We improvised more than we ever had," says McKay. "It was a crazy amount of stuff when we came back, and it was all pretty quality." White's job began when shooting did. At the end of each day on set, McKay sent him fresh digital footage. "I'd cut three or four or even five versions of the scene," says White, "plugging different jokes into each one, and send those options back to Adam for notes." In this way, the film began taking shape before shooting even wrapped.
McKay laughs. "The first cut was five hours long!" he says. He and White "took a screwdriver to it" and got the thing down to "3:45." That's when a radical idea occurred to McKay: "I'm like, 'Holy shit, man – we might have two movies here.'" Thinking of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, he wondered, could the Anchorman sequel become its own sequel? McKay says that splitting the movie up like this would be a studio's dream. "In this corporate environment?" he says. "'We told you we were gonna make 100,000 sneakers – well, we're gonna make 200,000!'"
He's weighing that option. Another idea in the works is to release the full version twice, featuring the exact same story line, but told with "241 entirely different jokes," says McKay. The B version could go on a DVD, or "it could be a kind of midnight-movie release," dropping five months or so after the A version.
In navigating these decisions, the filmmakers rely heavily on audience feedback. Ferrell later tells me he attended each test screening, arriving after the lights went down, sitting in the back. "We test all along the 101," McKay says. "Thousand Oaks, Woodland Hills, a mall called the Block in Anaheim. That place is a good stand-in for Middle America. L.A. is more progressive. The Block is where you know you're on to something."
White fires up an audio track, taped at the most recent test screening, that plays in sync with the film's current cut – he and McKay can hear the exact places, as they edit, where people laughed, and those where they didn't. "If a bit gets a loud laugh, we add more to it, like a stand-up comic," says McKay. If a line fizzles, "We'll flip in 'corn chowder,' see how that goes. We've got a deep bench; if a joke doesn't work, three players are ready to go instead."
White has been busy cutting a cliffhanger version of the movie, which will be audience-tested in a few days. "We're gonna see how mad that audience is: Is it a fun mad or a mad mad?" McKay says. Another audience, though, will see a complete version, the current cut of which runs two hours and 12 minutes. "We screened a two-and-a-half-hour version for 80 people, friends and family, and I was like, 'This is like watching Little Big Man!'" says McKay. "You're going world to world, there's, like, six story lines. I kind of dug that." Most feature comedies in the joke-driven vein of Anchorman, however (as opposed to more character-driven comedies, like, say, Terms of Endearment), last about 90 minutes. "It's a medical experiment, basically," says McKay. "Can the human body laugh for two hours?"
McKay e-mails me in August, a few days after the cliffhanger and single-cut versions are audience-tested. "We screened Thursday night, and it's clearly one single cut," he writes. "Single cut got an 86 with lots of 'excellent' ratings, and the half cut got an 83 with lots of 'very goods.'" The first Anchorman, he says, "never scored higher than a 75 or 72."
Since the Anchorman sequel was announced, Paramount has been doing its own research, and these results have been promising too. Which is funny, because, at first, Paramount, which has ownership of the franchise, didn't show overwhelming faith in the prospects of a second Anchorman. The idea to do a sequel came to McKay and Ferrell "almost six years ago," McKay says. "There was a call for it – Ferrell's hearing it at every junket he's doing, we're getting it from friends, on Twitter, on Facebook, in articles." The challenge would be steep, though. For one thing, they'd be revisiting hallowed ground; for another, the vast majority of comedy sequels suck. "I was trying to think of great ones," McKay says. "The second Austin Powers is pretty damn good, and Wayne's World 2 is a lot of fun. Men in Black is one of my all-time favorites, but MIB II was pretty tough." Making a comedy sequel, you want to tap into fond memories, but you don't merely want to put out a glorified greatest-hits reel. "I didn't see The Hangover: Part II, but I heard it mirrors the first one pretty close," says McKay. "We tried to find that right recipe of what do we call back, what do we create new?" says Ferrell. "How much are we beholden to a traditional story versus being tangential?" In the end, they decided to embrace their loopiest impulses. "Anchorman's lovable charm was that it seemed to just go in any direction it wanted," Ferrell says. McKay agrees: "We tried to make this one even crazier."
Convinced they could pull it off, the pair pitched Paramount on bringing back Burgundy. "They loved it," says McKay. But the budget was an issue. "The first movie, no one's getting paid anything," McKay says. "For the second one, you want to do new shit, you need a little boost in production and everyone now gets paid 40 times what they used to get paid." McKay wanted $80 million. "Paramount looked at me like I was a crazy man." So he circled back, cutting production expenses and figuring in salary cuts: How about $60 million? No dice, Paramount said. "What we heard was, they were looking at just the raw box-office numbers that the first one did, and they were straight-up projecting that that's what the second one would do," says McKay. "We're like, 'The first Austin Powers made 55 and the second one made 200!'"
The project seemed dead. McKay and Ferrell turned their attention to making a Step Brothers sequel. Sony was intrigued. John C. Reilly was in. But any time McKay or Ferrell mentioned it, McKay says, "every single person says the same thing: Why aren't you doing Anchorman?" Finally, McKay's agent, the bullish Ari Emanuel, made one last attempt. "Ari goes, 'I'll call. I don't fucking care. They should make this movie.' They go, 'We just had a movie fall apart. Let's talk.'" Paramount offered a $50 million budget, which meant that McKay and Ferrell had to persuade actors like Rudd and Carell to slash their salaries. "Judd was really helpful on that, calling the agents directly," McKay says. "And then Paramount helped us out by giving us some points on the back end." In March 2012, Ron Burgundy appeared on Conan, playing jazz flute and announcing the sequel was a go.
In devising the new story line, Ferrell and McKay decided to focus on the rise of 24-hour cable news. "These guys don't do well with change," McKay says of Ron and his team. "So you want to force some change on them." They zeroed in on 1980 as a seminal moment in American news: the year CNN debuted. "We started researching CNN, and it turned out they'd gone and hired local news guys like Ron – Lou Dobbs was an anchor out of Seattle when they scooped him up." The milieu was ripe for critique, McKay adds: "It's with cable that you saw the advent of trash news – salacious, pro-America, all that stuff." In the sequel, desperate for viewers at a brand-new cable network called GNN, Ron pioneers sensationalistic coverage of car chases and inclement weather. Ferrell says, "We thought, 'How funny would it be if Ron Burgundy is the forefather of what we now know as everyday fare?'"
McKay, meanwhile, says that "doing it for $50 million was exhausting but fun. I hate to give Paramount credit, but they probably gave us the perfect budget. Money can kill comedy. It made us get scrappy, it made us get clever. It made us build, like, 10 feet of a lighthouse and then add a chunk in post because we couldn't afford the whole thing. For the gang fight, it made us just go to this freaking park in Atlanta. Some of the shit we had to do, with Will jumping into the ocean with a mechanical shark – if we had had $10 million more, we would have been in a tank with a green screen. All the making-do is what the good shit comes out of."
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.