Will Ferrell: The Comedian Reflects Will Ferrell is starring in a four-episode arc on NBC's sitcom, The Office. To celebrate, Fresh Air is replaying highlights from a 2006 interview with Ferrell about his time on Saturday Night Live.
NPR logo

Will Ferrell: The Comedian Reflects

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/135414397/135413744" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Will Ferrell: The Comedian Reflects

Will Ferrell: The Comedian Reflects

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/135414397/135413744" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Will Ferrell guest-starred on the NBC series "The Office" last night in his first of four episodes this season playing the temporary replacement for Steve Carell's character Michael Scott, the manager of the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin paper company. Steve Carell only has two more episodes left before he leaves the show, and fans of the show are wondering who his final replacement will be.

We're going to listen back to an interview with Will Ferrell. Let's start with a scene from last night's episode of "The Office." Ferrell is trying to assert his own management style, starting by giving some tips to the receptionist. Then Steve Carell walks in, trying to maintain control.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Office")

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. ELLIE KEMPER (Actor): (as Erin) Dunder Mifflin. This is Erin. Okay, let me transfer you.

Mr. WILL FERRELL (Actor): (as Deangelo Vickers) Why do you use your name when you answer the phone?

Ms. KEMPER: Oh, that's how Pam does it. I just copy her. She's sort of a living legend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: Try it without using your name.

Ms. KEMPER: Dunder Mifflin. This is. Oh, yeah, I like it.

Mr. FERRELL: Dunder Mifflin, how may I assist you?

Ms. KEMPER: Oh, assist.

Mr. STEVE CARELL (Actor): (as Michael Scott) I sort of like the old way.



Mr. FERRELL: Just - I just prefer it without the name, and I thought, okay.

Mr. CARELL: No, no, no.

Mr. FERRELL: I got to start doing some managing at some point, right?

Mr. CARELL: I know. I know. I'm sorry. But if it's not a big deal, we should just do the old way.

Mr. FERRELL: And it really isn't.

Mr. CARELL: Okay. We're good?

Ms. KEMPER: Yeah, okay.

Mr. CARELL: Fine.

Mr. FERRELL: Well, I'd like to change it, actually.

Mr. CARELL: Well, you know, whatever.

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

Mr. CARELL: Whatever you think would work.

Ms. KEMPER: What do you...

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah. I think a change would be nice.

Mr. CARELL: You could do the old way or the - you know, whichever one you want to do.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. FERRELL: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. FERRELL: Change it.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. KEMPER: I'm so sorry. Sorry.

(Soundbite of phone hanging up)

GROSS: When I spoke with Will Ferrell in 2006, he told me about an office job he had early on.

Mr. FERRELL: You know, I had a period of time kind of post-college, when I moved back home for three years, a long three years, and I worked as a bank teller.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No, really?

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah. And, you know, I was just starting to explore, you know, taking theater classes and stand-up and those sorts of things. But for the most part, I was kind of back at home, driving from point A to point B, and counting money. And I didn't have much of a social life and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: ...because a lot of my friends had gone on to real jobs and things like that.

GROSS: Did you do shtick when you were a bank teller? Did you, like, impersonate your version of what a bank teller would be?

Mr. FERRELL: No. In fact, I was so - I found the job so nerve-racking that I got so quiet, because I had to focus with every aspect. I would make one transaction, and then shut my window down for 15 minutes to make sure everything was still there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And one day, it slipped out that I did stand-up comedy, and one of the managers came up to me and just stared at me. He was like, you're funny? I don't believe it. And I said, well, yeah, I can be. And - but I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: I go, you'll have to come see a show. And so it was kind of my alter-ego that, outside of work, I had this place to kind of, you know, go crazy up on stage.

GROSS: So when you went to, like, audition for "Saturday Night Live," the story goes that you took a trunk of - like, a suitcase of Monopoly money with you, so that you could do what?

Mr. FERRELL: Well, I had read somewhere that Adam Sandler had gone and had a meeting with Lorne Michaels, and had gone into this meeting kind of sight unseen and had done this really funny bit and - where he, I don't know, mimicked having sex with a chair or something, and was hired on the spot.

And I thought, well, I'm going to follow that, like be funny in the room and kind of take advantage, you know, of the moment, the kind of seize-the-day type of attitude. So I thought what would be really funny is that I walk in with a briefcase full of toy money and just start piling it on his desk and say Lorne, look. We can talk, you know, till the cows come home, but we really know what talks, and that's money.

And I'm going to walk out of this room, and you can either take this money or leave it on your desk. I'll never know the difference. And then and hopefully, he'd think it's funny that I stacked all this fake, counterfeit money. And, but when I got in, the atmosphere was so intense that I never got to my big joke, and I just sat there with my briefcase in my lap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: Which when I left, it felt insane, because I remember I was thinking, well, he must be thinking what comedian walks in with a briefcase and just sits there nervously?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And so I never - and then we had another meeting where I tried to do it again, and the assistant said, oh, leave your briefcase. You don't need that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And then I - and then that was - lo and behold, that was the meeting where he told me I got the job. And then as I left, I gave a handful of the fake money to the assistant. I was like, can you please give this to him? It's kind of symbolic, and I tried to do this twice, but I could never do it. So can you give him this fake money? And in hindsight, he thought it was really funny that I tried twice to do this gag, and it never kind of came to fruition.

GROSS: One of the impressions that you did on "Saturday Night Live," one of the characters you did was James Lipton from the "Actors Studio" broadcast.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And that was always so much fun.

Mr. FERRELL: It was kind of amazing how much James Lipton loved the impression, so much so that he had me come on his 100th episode as him, and we did an interview back-and-forth where we...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: ...he asked me questions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: Which was very surreal, as he stood over my shoulder, watching me get into makeup, saying: Yes, the transformation has begun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: I'm watching you becoming me. And narrated - it was very -and he watched the whole 30 minutes it takes me to get in that makeup. And I was like it's - you can go get a sandwich, if you want, at some point, you know. And he was like, no. This is fascinating. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: One of the many interesting things that has happened to me thus far.

GROSS: Did you notice things, sitting across the table from him, that you hadn't noticed watching on TV?

Mr. FERRELL: Not really. I don't know. I think, if anything I noticed was, I felt like God, I think I slightly underplay him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: I could go even bigger.

GROSS: Let's actually hear you doing James Lipton on "Saturday Night Live." So this is Will Ferrell.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (as James Lipton) On the 13th of January...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (as James Lipton) ...1931, right here in New York City, magic happened. An artist was born that would rival Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (as James Lipton) But his tools would not be pen, nor brush, nor chisel, nor palette. His tools would be his comically oversized glasses and his soul. So please, welcome, the greatest performer ever to have graced this Earth...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (as James Lipton) ...Charles Nelson Reilly.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

GROSS: That's Will Ferrell...

Mr. FERRELL: That's so funny.

GROSS: ...doing James Lipton. And later in the sketch, Charles Nelson Reilly is played by Alec Baldwin.

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: So how do you study somebody like Lipton when you're doing an impersonation of him? Like, what is your process of watching somebody, whether it's Lipton or President Bush?

Mr. FERRELL: I usually have to just pick one key thing and then emphasize that again and again and again, and then hope that the rest kind of fills in. But with, you know, you know, with Bush, as I tried to work on him vocally, I really just worked on it more from the way he kind of scrunched up his face and kind of squinted his eyes, and almost started from that approach. And with Lipton, I just tried to over-enunciate and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: So I usually try to key on one thing where - you know, when you speak to someone like Darrell Hammond, who's still on "Saturday Night Live," he is such a - kind of a scientist about it. He can tell you that a person has had, you know, dental work because of the way they pop their T's, and this and that. He can listen to every single thing. And I'm not able to do that. So I would just kind of find one key thing to hone in on.

GROSS: Do you ever have anxiety dreams about your work?

Mr. FERRELL: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I think anyone who has, you know, is in any sort of artistic pursuit, kind of goes up and down with the way they feel about their work. And I, for the most part, am pretty happy person. But, yeah. I go through definite periods of time where I'm not funny. I'm not good. I'm - I don't feel original. I'm always joking with my wife that, you know, when I get kicked out of show business, I'm trying to think of - I'm always trying to think of alternate careers. And so far I've come up with cab...

GROSS: Bank teller.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: ...cab driver. I can go back to bank teller - maybe UPS, too. UPS in high on the list. But, yeah. You definitely have anxiety. And yet I...

GROSS: So can you share an anxiety dream? Like the kind of dream that you have about comedy and something going terribly wrong?

Mr. FERRELL: Well, I'll still have, like, "Saturday Night Live" stress dreams, where the show has started and I'm making a quick change backstage and no one - the microphone in my dressing room wasn't on, so I didn't hear that the show started - or the speaker, I mean. And I have to run out in the middle of a sketch and figure out where I am and things like that.

GROSS: What's the worst thing that actually did happen to you live on the air on "Saturday Night Live?"

Mr. FERRELL: You know what? I was doing an "Update" feature where - on "Weekend Update," on the fake news section, you know, characters will sometimes come out. And I was - my glasses started fogging up, to where I couldn't read the cue cards. And then I started laughing, and it was this kind of this wonderful, kind of crazy situation of I was having this laughing attack, and I can't see anything. And I literally kind of had to just stop and wipe off my glasses and then get back to reading the cue cards. So it was actually kind of a really fun...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: ...freefall of, like, oh, wow. There's no way to rescue this. But the audience kind of loves it, in a way, when they're watching that happen.

GROSS: So did you stay in character while you were wiping off your glasses?

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, I did. It was - I was - I did this character who suffered from a voice immodulation, which was someone who - I only could speak like this. I had no control of the volume of my voice. So, whether I was speaking intimately...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: ...or shouting, it was the same voice level. So I would have asides to myself, like boy, I don't think - you know, she doesn't smell very good, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: So the - so I could never have a private moment, and that I was afflicted with this disease. And people didn't think it was a real disease, and I was the champion of this thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: It was very - it's bizarre.

GROSS: Well, Will Ferrell, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. FERRELL: You, too, Terry. Thanks. It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Will Ferrell, recorded in 1990 - in 2006 - I should say. He guest stars on the next three episodes of "The Office." His new movie, "Everything Must Go," will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival next week. It opens in theaters in May.

This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.