If you ever have the good fortune to meet Will Ferrell on the street, choose your shouted salutation wisely.
"Let's go streaking!" is an obvious choice, but one that lumps you in with several million like-minded collegians.
Scream "Stay classy, San Diego!" and he will nod and say, "Yes. San Diego should do that."
And no matter how much craftsmanship you put into your hand-sewn Buddy the Elf costume, know that he's seen several in recent weeks. It has gotten to the point where Will Ferrell has to leave the country to hear a fresh Will Ferrell line.
"I was in Ireland for two weeks in January," he says. "Just taking a trip with my dad and my brother and 'Anchorman' has achieved cult status in Ireland. Specifically in Ireland. So there were many comments to the effect of 'I wanna be on you,' or 'Milk is a bad choice.' Obscure ones that I didn't even remember from the film."
Ferrell, 40, sits in a locker room normally reserved for the University of Rhode Island women's basketball team ("Nice," he says. "Musty.") In a few hours, 6,000 people will ignore a winter storm warning to watch him fight ninjas, sing serenades and take questions from the audience while circling the stage on a Jazzy; the sort of battery-powered scooter favored by retirees.
It is the final stretch of the "Funny Or Die" comedy tour, launched in conjunction with the release of "Semi-Pro," another film chock full of his favorite things: funny hair, tight shorts, sports and the 1970s.
"I mean there's something intrinsically hilarious about the '70s," Ferrell said. "It's hard to believe that, that was an era that people existed in. People got dressed in bell-bottoms and zipper boots and were like 'Honey I'm heading off to work and I look good.' 'Honey I'm thinking about growing out my sideburns and connecting them to my moustache.' 'Do it.' Just a weird, hilarious time."
In the movie he plays Jackie Moon, a playing owner-coach for the Flint Tropics, a failing ABA team struggling to win enough games to earn a merger spot in the high-class NBA. It was a real league, remembered more for desperate, outlandish promotions, like "Gerbil Night" than for the quality of the basketball.
"At one of the all-star games, and I forget who was the MVP that year, he was given a thoroughbred," Ferrell recalls. "A quarter horse was his prize for being MVP of the ABA All-Star game. And the horse died like a month later."
Like Ricky Bobby in "Talladega Nights," and Ron Burgandy in "Anchorman," Jackie Moon is another character with an enormous ego and a tiny intellect. But by all accounts, Ferrell is exactly the opposite: a decent guy with a wife and two young kids who came into the world inherently funny, and somehow managed to remain demon-free.
He grew up as a studious jock in Orange County, California. His father played keyboard and sax with the Righteous Brothers but Ferrell swore off showbiz — until he was asked to give morning announcements in high school.
"You knew you were hitting a chord when teachers were coming up to you at a rapid pace, normally you would think you were in trouble and they'd be like 'Hey, you keep doing that, that's hilarious,'" he says. "I took a whole evening — six hours — I wrote out my bit and it felt like a half-hour. I thought, 'Oh, I should remember this doesn't feel like work, this is just fun.'"
He studied broadcasting at University of Southern California, but soon realized he would rather mock journalists than be one. Standup comedy seemed "too lonely," so he began taking classes with The Groundlings in Los Angeles. Six months later he was asked to perform with the improv troupe, and two years later he found himself standing outside Studio 8H at 30 Rock, about to audition for Saturday Night Live.
"Completely terrifying," Ferrell said. "You had to wait in the hallway while you listen to the person in front of you do their audition. And you stared at all the pictures of hosts from the past and cast members. And so all of those things going through your mind as you're about to walk through those doors and potentially be on the show you always dreamed about — very fun, very relaxing," he says. "You had to walk into … the studio there and perform on the monologue spot to an empty studio with one light and a camera and some shadowy figures sitting in the back."
He recalls walking onto that empty stage and doing a bad Ted Kennedy impression, a mediocre Harry Caray and a hilarious original: a guy flipping burgers on the grill while yelling at his kid to "Get off the shed!" That one was enough to get him the job, and he soon became the writer's favorite utility player. In his seven years at SNL, he became the highest-paid cast member, and the show's sole Emmy nominee. His arsenal of beloved characters included one that may have helped shape American politics: George W. Bush.
"I've heard that [in] my years on Saturday Night Live, that impression helped in Mr. Bush's likeability factor even though it was not putting him in the best light," Ferrell says. President Bush was also a fan of the impersonation, but Ferrell declined an invitation to perform it at a birthday party for the president's mother.
"Truth be told I didn't think that first election was really kind of handled in a fair manner. I don't think that that was the will of the people in the moment and so I did have some reservations about having that encounter. That having been said I also just wanted to maintain my stance of just being known as a comedian on this show that went in and out of making fun of both sides of politics." When pressed he says he is political, but quietly so.
"I'm kind of big on environmental causes, which I think people view as a political cause. I don't really think it is because if we don't have a planet we can't have politics anyway. At the same time I kinda wanna just be someone who makes people laugh without any of that other stuff going on."
He met writing partner Adam McKay at SNL and the two have turned their brand of low-budget comedy into a box office gold mine. But the men earned nothing for one of their most popular recent creations. After reluctantly agreeing to partner with a user-generated comedy Web site called FunnyOrDie.com, they cast McKay's 2-year-old daughter, Pearl, as a foul-mouthed, drunken landlord.
Fifty million hits later, it is the third most-watched Internet video ever. And if the site can ever figure out how to make money, it could threaten the very system that made Ferrell rich. "It was a strange thing to help give birth to this site that could ultimately lead to the demise of the way we know how to get our entertainment," Ferrell says. "But I also hold out hope that all of this will just integrate and it'll just be another medium."
In the meantime, he will stick with old-fashioned Hollywood comedy. Next up is "Step Brothers," another collaboration with McKay and "Talledega Nights" co-star John C. Reilly, and "Land of the Lost," a comedic remake of the surreal '70s kid's show. But he yearns for another crack at drama. "Stranger Than Fiction" earned him a Golden Globe nomination, and he lights up talking about the experience.
"I think any creative person is gonna want to mix it up ... I think that's a natural instinct, if you believe comedy is acting. Which, I think it is, you know. And I view myself as a comedic actor and not necessarily just a comedian. And that's why I got to do 'Stranger Than Fiction,' which was a little more in that direction. Which was one of the best experiences I've ever had and would love to do more of that. Having said that, I'm not banging the drum for 'please take me seriously.'"
Good thing, because in a few minutes he will don Capezio movement pants and Ugg boots and perform "No One" by Alicia Keys. And in the middle of the tender refrain, someone in the crowd will yell, "Let's go streaking!"