Chroniclers of strange beasts: Men
REAL men eat yogurt parfaits.
That might be the conclusion after sitting down to breakfast with writing partners Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, two 6-foot-plus white-bread guys in khaki shorts, who also happen to be the director and star, respectively, of the upcoming “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” a cheerily demented look inside the world of NASCAR racing, in which the women are hot, the men dumb, and the racing cool.
McKay and Ferrell -- who’ve written together since meeting at “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-'90s -- specialize in “men being men.” They are comedically obsessed with all the ridiculously self-important rites of masculinity. They adore lunkheads -- be it the swinging, mustachioed, chick-chasing newscaster in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” who finds himself dropped head first into the ‘70s battle of the sexes, or “Talladega Nights’ ” Ricky Bobby, the fastest race car driver in the circuit, who loses his mojo after getting upstaged by a Formula One driver who’s not only French but gay (played by Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as Ali G).
“The type of guy who we like as characters are the act-first, think-later kind of males. There’s so much chest pounding that goes on,” says Ferrell, demurely spooning yogurt and granola into his mouth at an air-conditioned bakery-cafe on Melrose, not far from his home.
“We’re so up on the ‘Jackass’ guys,” chimes in McKay, who’s eating the same, having been forced to give up burritos and the like by his wife, who wants him to live longer. “They are the most fun to play, and he does it really well,” says the director, gesturing to Ferrell.
McKay seems much more likely to brag on Ferrell’s behalf. In person, the 39-year-old comedy superstar possesses all the charisma of a dad getting ready to barbecue, with slivers of gray cropping into his curly fro, and green-blue eyes. Ferrell is so low-key and normal-seeming that when he was first hired at “Saturday Night Live,” all his co-workers, McKay included, assumed he’d been employed to be the straight man. “I could tell, no one thought I was funny,” he says, an impression he disabused them of at the first read-through.
Occasionally, his sense of humor peeks out. When a young, comely fan grabs his arms and stops him to tell him some supposed secret about his new home, Ferrell listens with warmth as if he actually knew the woman, and afterward explains the revelation: “Bill Clinton once pooped in my new house.”
McKay, who’s written with Ferrell both credited and uncredited (including “Elf” and “Bewitched”), seems descended from a similar gene pool -- but he hails from Chicago instead of California. The 37-year-old writer-director is physically broader, slightly messier, and sports glasses and, today, an orange baseball cap. He and his pals from the Upright Citizens Brigade theater troupe used to devote themselves to studying the male species at Yak-Zies, a chicken-wing bar in Chicago he describes as “the epicenter of white guy frat culture. We’d just look in the window and literally be there for 45 minutes. It was all guys with backwards baseball caps, listening to the same Van Morrison song over and over and over again.”
“I used to spend my whole freshman year in college crashing fraternity parties. I was like, ‘I’m Pete’s cousin. What’s Uuuuuuuuup?’ ” says Ferrell, launching into an impression of how he would try to talk his way into free beers before getting thrown out.
This is McKay’s favorite Ferrell story: “He went in front of his whole fraternity and did a whole speech that the whole frat should go gay,” says McKay. “It would be a way they could save on parties. The name ‘fraternity’ means ‘brotherhood’ and would bring them closer. And they also wouldn’t have to worry about liability for sexual assault because it would be just them.”
Fun with cliches
“TALLADEGA Nights,” which opens Friday, parodies many of the staples of the male bonding movie -- the gung ho friendship, the lost male father figure who returns to instill confidence in his son, the pretty nice girl that Bobby finally notices has been standing by his side the whole time. It pokes fun at the tropes at the same time that it weirdly celebrates them -- as McKay cheerfully admits, he and Ferrell are not a species entirely different from the targets of their humor. McKay’s done his share of beer bong hits, and Ferrell was in a frat after all, at USC no less. “There’s a little bit of that in us,” McKay says. “We’re not free bohemian spirits either, but we like to make fun of it.”
Perhaps the difference can be best summed up in a ritual from their days on “Saturday Night Live” that they called Tuesday Gentleman’s Club, when they used to meet on an off-Tuesday for an hour at a museum to get some culture, and then start drinking. Theatrical stunts were usually involved, like the time Ferrell stood in front of an Edward Hopper painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and just began sobbing, torrential sobs, like an art connoisseur gone berserk. “These guys would pretend they didn’t know me,” says Ferrell with a laugh.
It’s the latter antics that have put Ferrell and McKay in perhaps the most elite frat in America: the ring of multimillionaire comedy stars, writers and directors. Lest anyone doubt their standing, one only has to remember a hilarious scene from “Anchorman” in which newscaster Ron Burgundy rumbles with teams of rival newscasters including a thuggish Vince Vaughn, Latino dervish Ben Stiller, a foppish Luke Wilson and a pipe-smoking PBS commando, Tim Robbins. Steve Carrell plays Burgundy’s idiot friend, and Jack Black, a smart-ass biker who chucks Burgundy’s dog into the ocean. In “Talladega Nights,” the gang has been joined by the inimitable John C. Reilly and British import Cohen, whom Ferrell and McKay first met playing hoops at comedian Garry Shandling’s house -- a regular pick-up game that appears to involve mostly comedians over 6 feet and straight-man ringer David Duchovny.
“Talladega Nights” grew out of “Anchorman,” specifically the experience of having their script about an obnoxious newsman turned down by every studio in town -- 14 rejections in a 24-hour period. At the time, Ferrell and McKay were holed up in a New York hotel rewriting a movie in which Ferrell was to play a giant elf. The actor was simply another “Saturday Night Live” star trying to break into movies. (The show has a mixed success rate launching performers; for every Adam Sandler, there’s a Chris Kattan.)
“ ‘Anchorman’ was too abstract for studios to get their heads around. In the process, we started half joking, half not -- we said we should just pick an idea that’s really accessible. What’s the biggest, fattest, funniest undeniable idea you could ever pick?” recalls Ferrell. They picked NASCAR, the holy grail of redneck manhood, and giggled. They forgot about it after 2003’s “Old School,” which finds Ferrell and pals trying to reclaim the frat boy life, became a hit, with the particularly memorable image of Ferrell running buck naked down the street. To no one’s surprise, studios were suddenly clamoring to work with the comic.
Full speed ahead
A year and a half later, Ferrell called up McKay and told him he’d come up with a character for the NASCAR idea. “He came up with the name Ricky Bobby, and he started doing the voice. It was a cross between a cocky guy and a little wisp of George Bush,” recalls McKay. “The second he started doing it, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be shooting race cars.’ ” Of course the duo, who describe themselves as “reform” (i.e., liberals who are disgusted with the wimpiness of the Democratic Party), had never been to NASCAR, let alone driven cars that whip around tracks at speeds over 200 mph.
All the actors enrolled in the Richard Petty Driving Experience in Charlotte, N.C. “We were all very glib about it, making jokes during the instructional video,” says Ferrell. And then the instructors put them in a van going just 70 mph, and took them around the curves. At that speed, “you feel like the van is going to tip over. You’re kind of like, ‘I’m immediately frightened now. I’m terrified.’
“But we’re all trying to act cool. Finally Sacha Baron Cohen said, ‘Is anybody else terrified?’ ” says Ferrell, adopting Cohen’s British accent. “Thank God he said it. I considered quitting. Then it got worse and worse.” They stuck them in a car with a driver hurling around at 170 mph.
“You feel nauseous. You feel scared.” At that point, the Richard Petty instructor told his actor minions to stop talking so loudly about their fears -- “You’re scaring the people who are paid the money to actually do it.”
“If it had been a diplomatic mission, they would have been paid to return to California,” cracks McKay.
Fortunately, driving turned out to be a lot more fun once they had control of their own wheels. “That changed our whole opinion of the thing,” says McKay, channeling the group’s sentiment.
Of course, this being Hollywood, the director hired the most gung-ho car stunt specialist in the business and Oliver Wood, the cinematographer from the “Bourne Identity” action movies, to make the driving sequences look as splashy and authentic as possible.
Ricky Bobby might be the dimmest, most boastful race car driver east of the Mississippi, but boy, can he drive.
Ferrell recalls when they first saw the race dailies. “It looked so insanely good that we all started laughing. It looked way too good for our movie.”