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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

On October 23rd, our next guest, Will Ferrell, will receive the annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The ceremony will be held at the Kennedy Center, and Conan O'Brien and Larry King will be among those paying tribute. The ceremony will be televised October 31st on PBS. Here's a clip from the 2004 movie "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," in which Will Ferrell plays the pompous title character who also sees himself as a sort of rock star flute player.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY")

WILL FERRELL: (as Ron Burgundy) Guys, "East Harlem Shakedown," E flat? Keep the cymbals splashy and, Jay, let's take the bass line for a walk.

Hold up. I'm not hearing it right. Hold up.

We got it now. It's all right.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Fire up, Ronnie.

FERRELL: Little ham and eggs comin' at you. Hold on people. Hope you got your griddles.

Uh. Uh. That's baby-makin' music, that's what that is. Uh.

BIANCULLI: Will Ferrell in a scene from the 2004 comedy "Anchorman." Terry Gross spoke with him in 2006.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

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?

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, 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, 'til 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)

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)

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)

FERRELL: And then I - that was - lo and behold, that was the meeting where he told me I had 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? In hindsight, he thought it was really funny that I tried twice to do this gag and it never - never kind of came to fruition.

GROSS: One of the things you became famous for in "Saturday Night Live" was your impersonation of George W. Bush and, of course, in 2000, the debates that you did...

FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...with Darrell Hammond as Al Gore - I mean, became like, quite famous.

FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you think that they influenced how people who watched the show actually thought of the candidates?

FERRELL: Yeah. I've been told as much, that we actually, I mean, well it was - you know, we had found out later that the Gore people showed the sketch, the first one we did, to the candidate and to the vice president...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FERRELL: ...to say, look, this is how you're perceived. And so, yeah, I guess we did. It was kind of a crazy time to have all eyes on us, you know, for that, in that moment.

GROSS: Let's hear a short clip of you doing George W. Bush. And this is from "Saturday Night Live." My guest is Will Ferrell.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

DON PARDOE: The following is an address by the president of the United States.

FERRELL: (as George W. Bush) Good evening, America. I'm very happy to be back in this country after my very successful trip in the Pacific Rim. I'm heartened to hear that for the most part, the people of this country show strong support for my agenda. However, lately there are some who are beginning to criticize this administration. Maybe these people don't understand. America is presently at war - not just the war on terrorism, but we are engaged in a deadly standoff with an Axis of Evil. You know who I'm talking about: Iran, Iraq, and one of the Koreas.

But my Axis of Evil doesn't seem to interest some people out there. Some people just want to talk about the economy and budgets and Enron. I bet most of you out there don't even understand Enron. I sure as heck don't.

GROSS: That's Will Ferrell as George W. Bush. Did you ever get any feedback from President Bush about his thoughts on your impression of him?

FERRELL: No. I never got any direct feedback, as far as I knew. I'm trying - I think he, you know, we might have talked about this before. But I did, I met him once when he came to the show, and he didn't realize that I was the guy who played him, even though it was...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FERRELL: ...even though it was put to me that he was a huge fan. And so it was this very awkward situation where - and this was during the campaign of 2000. And so it was this whole thing of hurry, rush down the studio, the governor really wants to meet you. And I'm like OK, OK. And then they forced me into this - you know, all these photographers and they're like, go, go, go; say hi. And then I could tell that he had no idea that I was the guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FERRELL: And so we just kind of stood there and you know, had this awkward, like - he's like, pleased to meet you. And then just kind of looked at me, and then it kind of dawned on him that oh, I think - oh, I know who you are and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FERRELL: ...and then I had to go somewhere or something. But - so it was kind of apropos, I think, in a way.

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.

FERRELL: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And that was always so much fun.

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)

FERRELL: ...he asked me questions, which was very surreal as he stood over my shoulder, watching me get into makeup, saying: Yes, the transformation has begun. I'm watching you becoming me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FERRELL: And narrate - it was very... and he watched the whole 30 minutes it takes me to get in that makeup. And I was like, it's OK, 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)

FERRELL: But 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?

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

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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 NBC'S TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

FERRELL: (as James Lipton) On the 13th of January, nineteen hundred and thirty one, right here in New York City, magic happened. An artist was born that would rival Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. 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, Charles Nelson Reilly.

GROSS: That's Will Ferrell...

FERRELL: That's so funny.

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

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?

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, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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

FERRELL: The worst thing? I, you know what, I was doing an Update feature where - on Weekend Update - on the fake new 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 really fun...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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

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

FERRELL: Yeah, I did. I was, I did this character who suffered from 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)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FERRELL: So it would be - 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. It was very - it's bizarre.

BIANCULLI: Will Ferrell, speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. This month, he receives the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new movie starring Antonio Banderas, "The Skin I Live In." this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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