THE ART OF IDIOCY

"I just love white male American jackasses," Will Ferrell says. Which is so sweet, because they love him right back. A recent Harvard study concluded that every 15 seconds a frat boy pops a beer and quotes one of Ferrell's lines from "Old School." Not really. But it feels true, doesn't it? In a flash-bang 17 months, the actor has rocketed from "Saturday Night Live" MVP to Hollywood's newest comic star. Last Christmas, "Elf," the first movie in which he had solo top billing, wrapped up $173 million domestically, outgrossing "The Matrix Revolutions" by more than $30 million.

Ferrell, 36, now has 10 movies in the pipeline, including Nora Ephron's "Bewitched," in which he plays hapless hubby Darrin to Nicole Kidman's Samantha. At the moment, though, the new funniest man in America is hunched over a coffee table in his hotel suite, autographing posters for his new film, "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy." "No one even asked me to sign these," he says, deadpan. "I just like it."

Ron Burgundy is a classic Ferrell creation: a sexist, egotistical idiot. He's a 1970s San Diego anchorman who mindlessly reads whatever's put in front of him, all sideburns and swagger, scoring with the babes and certain that he's god's gift to his fair city. He gets his comeuppance when smart, ambitious and foxy Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) joins the all-male news team and shows the boys who's boss. Like almost all of Ferrell's most enduring characters--Craig the overenthusiastic cheerleader, Frank the Tank from "Old School" and his "SNL" version of George W. Bush--Ron Burgundy is a total jackass. But Ferrell's gift is to make us warm to these people we really should despise. "Hubris is just so funny to me," he says. "I love pomposity, unearned confidence. I like playing a guy who's dumb and doesn't know it."

"Anchorman," directed by "SNL" alum Adam McKay, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ferrell, feels less like a movie than like a series of improvised skits, with the absurdity escalating minute by minute. For this reason, it's not nearly as satisfying as Ferrell's previous two films, and some critics will find it sophomoric. That almost doesn't matter. Ferrell is wonderful even in awful movies ("Boat Trip," anyone?), and "Anchorman" gives him plenty of room to play. "He'll do anything," says "Old School" director Todd Phillips. "Will has zero inhibition. Like all great comic actors, he has this element of danger. If he's in a movie, it means that anything, anything, can happen." In one scene in "Anchorman," Ron Burgundy's dog is punted off a bridge to its death by an irate motorcyclist (Jack Black). The distraught Burgundy isn't sure he can go on the air, and calls the newsroom from a pay phone. There doesn't seem to be much comic potential in such a moment (particularly for pet owners), but Ferrell begins flailing and sobbing and wailing, ramping up the histrionics higher and higher, going on and on and on, until the audience is weeping right along with him--from laughter.

Because a director can't reliably order up a moment like that, and because improvisation was rampant on set anyway, McKay had some struggles in the editing room. "The movie was like nine hours long," says Applegate. "They're actually going to release a whole other movie called 'Wake Up Ron Burgundy'." Oh, come on. "You're laughing, but I'm serious!" she says. "When we do the DVD, there's going to be a new one-hour-and-40-minute movie on it." And presumably, much of it will be unfit for the innocent and impressionable. McKay and Ferrell had a tussle with the MPAA to secure "Anchorman" a PG-13 rating. "We had to go in front of the board in the post-Janet Jackson booby era," Ferrell says. "We just hit them at the wrong time. If I had my druthers, I'd probably make everything R rated."

One scene that will need the DVD version to achieve its full effect has Ferrell approaching Applegate to tell her that he doesn't see her as a potential conquest but respects her as a colleague and a journalist. Trouble is, he's giving her this speech while in a very obvious state of arousal. When she notices, he looks down at his pants and says, "It's the pleats." The MPAA insisted that the camera couldn't linger on the offending part, so now the film cuts to it quickly and then back to the actors' faces. "It was just a silly, stupid boner joke," Ferrell says. "But I can't say I'm too disappointed." Pause. "The sanctity of it was preserved."

Just now, Ferrell has as little to be disappointed about as anybody in Hollywood, but he seems to be taking his success in stride. "It's felt gradual to me," he says. "So it hasn't seemed overwhelming. It really just seems like fun." Pause. "But if I wake up vomiting blood one morning, I'll call you." Did "Elf" make him feel that he'd been initiated into comedy's A-list fraternity, along with Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler? Yes. "There was a secret unmarked vehicle that picked me up on the full moon," Ferrell deadpans, "and it took me to a special chamber deep in the Hollywood Hills. We slaughtered a lamb and painted ourselves in blood. It was very satisfying." This refusal to take himself seriously makes Ferrell an anomaly among comedians, known for private demons and on-set diva behavior. "Generally, comedians want a lot of attention," Applegate says. "They overcompensate for their darkness and their tragic childhoods. But Will's this incredibly grounded, lovely person. He literally has no issues." Pause. "I think he may not be from our planet." Not possible. Everyone knows humor doesn't translate. This guy's a native for sure.

THE ART OF IDIOCY | News