Why is Will Ferrell Funny?

Slate takes on one of the most pressing, urgent questions that our society must address: Why is Will Ferrell funny?

Follow this link to the video slide show and what the many exhibitions of this confounding mystery.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • nancehixon

    I hadn’t noticed this about the list, since I wasn’t really familiar with all the films, much less the directors, but I’ve already decided to disregard this list on other grounds: The Empire Strikes Back.

    The AFI site does offer a look at all 400 movies that were nominated for the top 100, so that may be something to look at regarding the female directors…

  • The AFI certainly deserves some critiquing now and then, and I like what it’s trying to draw attention to, but it feels a bit cheap and shallow. To a very large extent, the AFI list defines “greatness” as “culturally-defining,” and their lists are a reasonably good measure in those terms.

    As for narrow definitions of “American,” I think that’s entirely appropriate for a list that presumes to apply the label “great American film” to something. I’d be pretty resentful if I were, say, Swedish and Wild Strawberries got labelled as one of the “great American films” . . . It’s not. It’s a great Swedish film.

    And “It’s not very important to us that we have criteria for greatness?” Why call this a top 100 list at all? With entries like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Ishtar (!), Wayne’s World, and Clueless this begins to look like “the only 100 films that we could think of that were directed by women.”

  • i4detail

    ISHTAR (Elaine May, 1987)

    Not trying to say anything here, but do you not find it funny that what is considered a movie that won for the year’s worst movie in the Golden Raspberries is now held up as one of the hundred best movies directed by a women?


    Well, maybe I am trying to say something here. Something about lack of opportunities, coupled with the fact that a lot of these movies feel like movies Made By A Woman Director.
    Kinda like if you put together a list of the top 100 movies made by a Christian Director, you’d have a lot of movies that were Christian Movies. The message overwhelms the art, and the art suffers.

  • scandalon

    Do you think they purposely overlooked female directed films? Perhaps it just worked out that the top 100 were all from male directors.

  • Sheila West


    I finally SAW this movie. And there is NO WAY it’s a red States film!

    Sure is funny though!

  • jasdye


    sounds good to me.


  • Sheila West

    All right, jasdye! Let’s split some hairs! [sticks out tongue]

    The only other box office enthusiast I’ve come across so far in the CT/A&F axis of anti-evil is Peter T. Chattaway. I won’t say he’ll back me up on this, but I do think he’d agree: the Weekend Top Ten Chart is a nail-biting bellweather that all of Hollywood looks to in hope and terror every Monday morning. To have your film claim ANY spot on the Top Ten is excellent resume fodder. And to claim the #1 spot is a serious cred-booster. Will Ferrell’s film hit #1 this past weekend. That’s to his long-term career benefit.

  • jasdye

    Any time you can claim you made a film that debuted at #1, you’re someone to be reckoned with.

    again, i would have to disagree (as you can tell, i’m just itchin’ for a debate/fight/argument/hair-pulling right about now). i keep thinking of The Mummy II, which debuted at $70 million domestic (can you imagine Dr. Evil just tripping over that?). and then it disappeared, right off the map. yeah, the franchise is still going, apparently. but it doesn’t have the power of, say, a Spider-Man or even a House Party franchise.

    all that to say, i think you may be on to something – Lord knows, i’m hardly a B.O. enthusiast – i just don’t think it’s quite as big as it may sound.

  • SolShine7

    He’s not.

  • Brett

    Doug —

    Stranger Than Fiction, which you’ve recommended, and Anchorman, which I as a former print reporter love because of its dead-on satire of the TelePrompTer-reading industry.

    And because I’ve had a crush on Christina Applegate since she was in Heart of the City.

  • Doug and Joanna


    Did you happen to see Stranger Than Fiction? You might be pleasantly surprised – I found Ferrell not normally “Ferrell-ish” but very effective.


    May I ask which two Ferrell films you were surprised by, compared to the majority of his films?


  • Sheila West

    Hey, jasdye, thanks. :)

    But please allow me to clarify. I am so totally NOT calling anyone here a slack-jawed yokel. (Pretty funny, btw!)

    My observations of box office success in this post-Titanic era are that a truly successful film needs to:

    1) appeal to MULTIPLE film-going demographics

    2) draw in rare box office dollars from those demographics that ALMOST never go to the movies expect maybe once or twice a year

    My argument is that Farrell is (of course) appealing to the more obvious demographics: comedy fans, SNL fans, etc. But the dollars represented by those movie-goers aren’t enough in today’s film marketplace. So he’s also reached a strategic point in his career where he’s drawing in kiddies and family values types (thus satisfying requirement #1 up above). And (this is the best part) he’s achieved the envious position of attracting the kind of people who rarely or never go to films–the “untapped” movie dollars that most Hollywood execs only dream about (satisfying requirement #2).

    The history-making sleeper hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding succeeded on both counts (multi-demographics and rarely-tapped dollars). As did the recent Ghost Rider. I would even argue that Borat and Fahrenheit 9/11 did the same, except they went to the opposite end of the spectrum and drew in the Blue States people who are rarely or never seen in the theatre.

    So I’m not lumping you (or anyone) in with inbred mouth-breathers. Plenty of intelligent, educated sophisticates saw Titanic and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and I’m sure they sat only a few rows away from red necked drops outs.

    And as for a mere $33 million in March, the real point of this past weekend’s box office is the film debuted at #1. It beat out all the other films, and the #2 film was just $25 million–trailing by a full $8 million difference. Any time you can claim you made a film that debuted at #1, you’re someone to be reckoned with.

  • jasdye


    sorry for overeacting.

    in fact, when i read that quote, i was thinking of his hilarious reading of ‘green eggs and ham’ in honor of dr. seuss on SNL.

  • Brett

    Sorry — I was making a joke about a sketch Rev. Jackson had been in when he was on SNL once. It was a trivia game show in which contestants could never score points, because host Jackson would cut them off with “The question is moot…” and then make a statement about some unrelated issue.

    That being said, I think Will Ferrell is extremely mediocre as a comedian and I’ve been surprised both of the times I liked him in a movie.

  • jasdye

    and here’s where i disagree with sheila.

    $30 million is okay money in march. and it’s okay money for a comedy. but we’re not talking 300 money here.

    although farrell may have built-up following (even strong following) in the red states, among blue-collars and racing fans, i think many of us would care to not be lumped in together into one big, ol’ cletus the slack-jawed yokel pile.


    maybe if jesse jackson didn’t take himself so seriously, he’d discover an answer to that. chris rock and bill cosby are seen – esp. in white communities – as exceptional black comedians. they do great on stage, very strong on the tube, but suck disproportionately on screen. yet rock is still allowed to make flops.

    and speaking of mediocre comedians, eddie griffin is still at large (crashing jokes notwithstanding), as well as martin – who’s always huge. i only count them as mediocre, b/c of the previous comment about the subjectivity of humor.

    of course, there are bigger issues at hand – i.e., white majority sensibilities (and their monies), movies marketed to blacks rather than whites, institutional racism, etc., but that quote alone doesn’t say anything.

  • Gene Branaman

    I agree with Sheila, too – it’s a matter of personal taste. And, as the old Latin saying goes: “Matters of personal taste are not to be disputed.”

    But I’ve never found Ferrell funny. Ever. Too much mugging & affected speech for any one moment to be *real* enough for me to buy into the humor of the situation. Steve Martin had this problem for me early on, too, until Roxanne (which I loved). Outrageous & silly behavior is fine when done well; I love clowns from the Marx Bros, to the Stooges, to Abbot & Costello, etc. But Ferrell’s generation of SNL comedians just don’t do it for me.

    My 23 year old nephew was Blades of Glory over the weekend & said he hasn’t laughed that much at the movies his whole life. To each his own!

  • jasdye

    i would definitely agree with sheila on this one. humor is about as subjective as they come. which makes analysis like that in Slate all the more fascinating for the writer, and all the more frustrating for the reader.

    and besides, my apartment smells of mohagany.

    (haven’t seen blades of glory yet, but the two funniest movie comedies i’ve seen in recent years are Napoleon Dynamite – which my wife loathes but many of my friends and students love – and Talledega Nights – which my wife loathes but some of my other good friends almost died laughing from. not that that guarantees that i’ll like BoG. i’m just saying…)

  • Brett

    To quote the Rev. Jackson, “The question is moot. The real question is why mediocre white comedians get at least one wide-release movie each year while mediocre black comedians are relegated to direct-to-video horror films.”

  • Sheila West

    Looking at this past weekend’s box office, “Blades of Glory” made it to #1 with a debut of $33 million.

    I have recently speculated (since the success of “Stranger Than Fiction”) that Ferrell’s career is loosely following the same path as Steve Martin’s: start off kinda raunchy, and then make a sudden appeal to the Red States folks who will fall in love with you and remain loyal to you for the duration of your career.

    I’m convinced that this past weekend’s success of that film is largely attributable to Red States ticket buyers.

    Steve Martin’s Red State gold mine was “Father of the Bride” a film that reinvented his whole career. That one movie endeared him forever to the family-values crowd, and he’s been making family movies ever since. All his prior offenses to Red States sensibilities (e.g. “Leap of Faith”) were forgiven.

    Ferrell’s Red State endearment began with “Elf”, a decidedly clean (i.e. no potty humor or sexual innuendo) Christmas movie that was also just plain funny. After that came “Bewitched” which didn’t fare too well at the boxoffice (it was meta-cinema, a very hard genre to digest), but was clean all the same and did okay on DVD. And then his blue collar appeal became official with “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Jackie Bobby” where he presented a wonderfuly funny and NOT disrespectful but just plain good-humored look at one of the sacred bastions of blue collar Americana: the world of stock car racing. A huge swath of blue collar America went to see that film and fell in love with Will Ferrell as a result. And if blue collar people are anything, they’re loyal. From that day on, ANY Will Ferrell film was destined to play big and broad in a Red State.

    Ferrel’s recent off-beat, quasi-art house film “Stranger Than Fiction” proved a surprise hit at the box office. And I believe that was due largely to Red States people who at that point had already officially adopted Ferrell into their hearts as their favorite family-oriented film comedian.

    As for “Blades of Glory,” that’s a movie that should NOT have done so well this past weekend. It’s a bizarre-looking film and there aren’t THAT many ice-skating enthusiasts out there. But it hit the #1 slot. And I think this phenomenon is why.

    If I’m correct, then the downside of it all means Will Ferrell will be limited from here onward on what roles he can pick. He can’t really allow himself to do any vulgar films in the future (no more Ron Burgundy). He needs to stay on the safe and clean side of the fence now. Perhaps he won’t mind that. The upside is he will always have this very loyal, built-in audience capable of boosting the debut slot of any future film he does to the top three, if not to #1.

    I think his career is pretty well set now. I hope he sees this as a blessing and not a curse.

  • sg

    Is it ok to admit that I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in years during Blades of Glory?

    How can it be wrong if it felt so right?

  • Sheila West

    ‘Cuz he is.

    But seriously, some film critic (I think is was Gene Siskel) said that there are two areas of criticism that can’t be argued: eroticism and humor. Either something turns you on or it doesn’t. Either something makes you laugh or it doesn’t. Trying to tell someone they’re stupid or shallow or any fill-in-the-blank measure of inferiority when you disagree with them on humor is pointless.