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."