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Ailing ‘Saturday Night’ Gets O.C. Injection

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” launches its 21st season tonight, Orange County will be there--not as an object of ridicule but as a fondly remembered place deep in the folds of Will Ferrell’s brain.

The 28-year-old comic actor, who was born and raised in Irvine, makes his debut as an SNL repertory player in the tradition of another former countian, Steve Martin, who was a regular guest star from the show’s first season in 1975 through the mid-'80s.

“Most people think I’m from Los Angeles,” Ferrell says. “When I tell them I’m from Orange County, there’s no reaction. When I tell them I’m from Irvine, they say, ‘Gee. Never heard of it.’ I don’t know what’s wrong with these people.”

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If you ask him what he anticipates this season, besides making a lot of money, he says he hopes to help rejuvenate the show. This is fondly to be wished not only by him but by NBC, producer Lorne Michaels and anyone who has watched SNL in recent seasons.

“There are a lot of entertainment options on a Saturday night,” Ferrell says. “I don’t think SNL was much of an option in the last two years. At least the people I hung out with didn’t watch it. Everyone said, ‘ “Saturday Night Live?” It’s bad.’ But it’s the type of show that always has the potential to regenerate itself and turn everything around.”

The overhaul for this season, the latest of many, naturally depends on fresh faces and significantly better material. Besides Ferrell, there will be five other new rep players, outnumbering the four returnees.

Though Ferrell has had plenty of training--largely 18 months on the B-team with the Groundlings, a top comedy-improv troupe in Los Angeles--his professional experience has been fairly limited to what he calls “a lot of dinky restaurants” in and around Orange County.

It was just 10 months ago that he became a full-fledged member of the Groundling’s A-team. And he’d only been in two big A-team skits when SNL scouts spotted him and flew him to New York for auditions.

“I never got a sense of why they picked me,” he says. “I’m either very talented or they’re in trouble.”

Speaking by phone earlier this week from midtown Manhattan, where he now gets a six-figure annual salary (on a 13-week contract) and an office high above Radio City Music Hall, Ferrell said, “I heard that some of the NBC people were impressed because [I] wasn’t nervous” during callbacks for his second audition.

The callbacks “can be a little nerve-racking,” he added. “The possibles have been paired down to about 15 people, so you know you’re closer. Somebody told me I reminded the people at NBC of Chevy Chase.”

Ferrell has heard that before. But he doesn’t see the resemblance, except perhaps that both of them are tall and that he’s “kind of subtle at times and a little dumb,” not unlike the image Chase projected when he was an SNL regular.

During Ferrell’s years at University High School in Irvine--he graduated in 1986--he had a reputation for smart comedy. In fact, he was famous for doing satirical morning announcements over the school’s public-address system. He and a friend also did skits at school assemblies, making fun of the assistant principal. They did a version of the Schmenge Brothers--a John Candy-Eugene Levy comedy routine--and lampooned bad kung-fu movies.

Physics teacher Dan Wroblicky remembers Ferrell warmly: “Will was a good student and a good athlete. He played varsity football, basketball and baseball--and he was funny. He would always come up with sly puns. He was a wit. He had a great presence.”

Ferrell, for his part, is quick to point out that he didn’t get laughs by being “like obnoxious. I wasn’t the one in class who would seize every opportunity or wouldn’t shut up. I picked my spots.”

His mother, Kay, a faculty administrator at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana, where Will went through the school’s telecommunications program, recalls that he put on shows with his younger brother, Pat, “as long as I can remember. He’s just a neat, marvelous person.”

After Ferrell’s graduation from USC in 1990--he majored in sports broadcasting--she suggested he take a six-week stand-up comedy course at Irvine Valley College and later urged him to enroll in a 10-week summer course for theatrical training at South Coast Repertory’s professional conservatory.

Ferrell’s IVC instructor, Steve Klasky, says: “I’ve seen a lot of talented people come through my course. But I never assume they’re going to reach success. Will had it right from the start. You could tell from his first routine. He was dynamic on stage. He had it comedically and, more than that, he was focused. He was my prize student.”

Klasky adds, “One of the proudest moment’s of my life is when I heard that Will was going to SNL. I hope he learned something about comedy from me. But I think he would have learned it anywhere he went. He knew what he wanted and was determined to do it.”

Ferrell’s take on his stand-up training differs slightly. He remembers being “so nervous” in his first class that he waited for time to run out and fled without doing anything. He then skipped the second class. He went back for the third, however, and took his shot.

“I went up and did my material,” he recalled. “There was dead silence. The next time I did it again. Suddenly everybody was laughing. I couldn’t figure it out. Finally someone said they couldn’t understand what I was saying before. I was so nervous and speaking so fast, I was, like, eating the mike.”

Ferrell says his musician father, Lee, who has toured on and off with the Righteous Brothers for 20 years, offered him a key piece of advice. “He told me to make sure I keep evaluating whether I’m happy doing this. Because if it ever stops being fun, I ought to think about doing something else.”

In 13 weeks, when Ferrell’s contract comes up for renewal, he’ll have a better idea of how much fun the SNL grind can be. But, he says, for now he is fulfilling “every comedic actor’s dream.” Besides, he adds, “I don’t have anything on the back burner. It’s not like I want to be a veterinarian or something.”

* The season premiere of “NBC’s Saturday Night Live” airs tonight at 11:30 on KNBC Channel 4.


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