One of the most popular and successful comedy stars of the 2000s, Will Ferrell’s improvisation background with The Groundlings led to huge success on Saturday Night Live, on which he became one of the biggest stars the sketch show has ever produced. He made his name on SNL for his spot-on George W. Bush impression before taking over the silver screen in Zoolander, Old School and Wedding Crashers. With a huge film career and several successful behind-the-scenes ventures (including the website Funny or Die), Ferrell is easily one of the most popular comedians of the last 20 years.

Who Is Will Ferrell

From sportscaster to comedic master, Will Ferrell’s transition from local comedy troupe funnyman to box office headliner is definitely not a joke.

After being born in front of America’s eyes on Saturday Night Live and become audiences’ favorite cast member of all time, Will Ferrell went on to become one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. He is most well known for bringing iconic characters to life such as Buddy The Elf, Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, and Brennan Huff of Step Brothers. Though the actor has been in the game for over 20 years, Ferrell remains one of the most bankable comedy actors to this day, outlasting many of his peers.

Not The Class Clown

John William Ferrell was born in Irvine, California to Lee and Kay Ferrell, a keyboard player for the Righteous Brothers and a teacher, respectively. But, contrary to young Will’s personality, Irvine was the ultimate business-suburb, an inorganic, meticulously organized cul-de-sac of homogony and Republicanism. Ferrell later said of his hometown, “humor broke the boredom. And there was a lot to make fun of.”  

Even with his parents’ divorce when he was eight, Ferrell’s childhood was mostly a happy one. He played soccer and baseball in high school, did well academically, and says that contrary to what some might assume, he was not a full-fledged class clown. Which is not to say that he wasn’t funny—he and a friend did comedic skits over the school PA to help sell senior class T-shirts, and did so well that the principal asked Ferrell to do all the school announcements. It was Ferrell’s first in what would be a long and hugely successful career of inventing characters to make people laugh.  

Unexpected Career

After high school, Ferrell went to USC to study sports information, a highly specialized concentration for aspiring sports broadcasters. He would still find outlets for his comedy, but it wasn’t until after graduation, cracking jokes in front of a camera at an internship with NBC Sports, that Ferrell had a revelation about what he wanted to do for a living: it wasn’t sports, it was laughter.  

Within a year, he had left his sportscaster ambitions and enrolled with the famous Los Angeles improve troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell rode his Groundlings success for years, honing his impressive talent and understanding his own gift. “What I recognized when I started doing comedy,” he said later in an interview, “was that I’m probably not the wittiest, not the fastest on my feet, but the one thing I can guarantee is that I won’t hold anything back.” Indeed, Ferrell’s comedy is marked by his lack of inhibitions, and his instincts earned him a spot among the troupe’s main performers.    

Life To Live

Talent like Ferrell’s doesn’t stay local for very long and in 1995, he scored an audition with Lorne Michaels, who’d come to Los Angeles looking for new talent for the floundering Saturday Night Live. Ferrell gave him a Harry Carey impression and a psychotic suburban father. Both characters saw airtime on the next season of SNL and helped to make Will the star of the show for the next six years. “Will is the glue that holds the show together,” Michaels told People magazine in 1998.  

Thinking about leaving the show in 2000, they lured him to stay with a record $350,000 salary. But Ferrell had spent enough time in New York and left for Los Angeles in 2002 to make movies. Many an SNL-alum has Hollywood dreams, but after the success of his hilarious co-starring debut, Old School, Ferrell was hot property. Even hotter after he carried Elf all by himself (with a level of tenderness mixed with his signature goofiness) and scored nearly $200 million in the box office.  

True Comedian

In 2000, Ferrell married Swedish actress Viveca Paulin, and the couple had three sons over the next 10 years—Magnus, Mattias, and Axel—splitting their time between New York City and Orange County, California. He has steadily churned out hit films, including an unexpectedly good dramatic turn in the inventive Stranger Than Fiction. While not all his movies have been hits, his overall bankability more than justifies his seven-figure paycheck.  

Off-screen, Ferrell has devoted himself to all things funny. His website, FunnyOrDie.com, has become an Internet comedy mainstay, and his myriad of cameos never fail to bring in the laughs—as did his limited release Broadway show, You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush. Whether or not he was the class clown, his work proves that he is a true comedian

Why is he so famous?

In 1994, ratings for Saturday Night Live were dipping. Upon seeing The Groundlings, a comedy group that included Will Ferrell, a producer for SNL had Ferrell audition for the show and after that, the improv genius became a major cast member for a full seven years. The actor even went on to release the underrated feature length movie A Night At The Roxbury, based on characters he created on SNL. Since his departure, Ferrell has guest hosted the show five times, making him a member of the exclusive SNL five timers club. In 2014, the actor was even voted the best SNL cast member of all time.

Though Ferrell had huge roles in movies such as The Suburbans, Zoolander alongside Ben Stiller, and Old Schoolthroughout his tenure on Saturday Night Live, none of them were particular huge record breaking blockbusters. But it was in 2003 when his profile as a movie star sky rocketed as he starred in the beloved Christmas movie, Elf. It has been long enough since the movie’s release that it’s now safe to call the movie a Christmas classic. However, the role was written for Jim Carrey, and we may not have the Will Ferrell we know in our lives today if it wasn’t for Jim Carrey turning down the role. Strangely enough, the movie opened at number two in the U.S., behind The Matrix Revolutions, but then rose to number one in it’s second week, which almost never happens, and was clearly a result of word of mouth.

The following year, Ferrell returned bigger than ever, playing the now iconic titular character in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which was an experiment in improvisation that paid off massively at the box office and turned the whole cast in to stars over night, especially Will Ferrell. Since then, the actor has gone on to star in literally dozens of movies and the past 16 years and has made audiences laugh in movies such as Semi-Pro, Megamind, and The Other Guys, to name a few.

When did Will Ferrell make it?

Will Ferrell is a box office magnate. Starting in 2003, his movies gross hundreds of millions of dollars at a time and it’s prominently thanks to Ferrell’s presence. The stretch began with 2003’s Elf, which had a mid sized budget of £33 million and went on to gross over $220 million worldwide, a number that even the producers must have been shocked by. The actor made $7 million for Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and after the huge success of that movie, Ferrell would rarely take a lead role for less than $20 million, taking home the massive figure for Kicking and Screaming, Bewitched, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Semi Pro, and Land of the Lost. Thanks to these movies, Ferrell made $100 million in just four years, and that doesn’t include the salaries he earned for Blades of Glory and Step Brothers, which were released in the same time-span.

Many of Ferrell’s movies have gone on to spawn sequels, making him an important part in a ton of franchises. Though Zoolander didn’t make hundreds of millions upon release and was more of a modest box office success, it made gastronomical numbers in DVD sales year after year, and so a sequel was green lit. He also starred in The Lego Movie and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, with the first movie making close to half a billion dollars.

As Ferrell is essentially the producer for all of the movies he now stars in, not only will he receive a salary for acting, but he will also see a percentage of profits from the back end. Some of the most successful movies he has produced are The Other Guys, bringing in $170 million, Get Hard with $111 million, and Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2, which made $220 million and $180 million respectively. Ferrell is also the co-founder, along with his writing partner Adam McKay, of Funny or Die, a video streaming platform responsible for creating Drunk History and the Emmy Award winning Between Two Thrones. Though it is unclear exactly how much the platform is worth, it is likely to be worth tens of millions of dollars.

How is he so successful?

After his years on SNL impersonating famous personalities such as George W. Bush, James Lipton, and Alex Trebek, Ferrell went on to use his skills to create an outlandish set of characters that has made the world fall in love with him. Magnatu in Zoolander, Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, and Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights among others are all outlandish characters with strange quirks that few other actors could bring to the roles. His characters come under two categories, the first being Characters that are a product of their times, often mocking American culture. The other category is one more absurd, where he embraces costume design, strange accents, and truly surreal comedy, such as in Zoolander, Blades of Glory, and A Night At The Roxbury.

Will Ferrell is a master of improvisation. Though he has had years of practice thanks his comedy group The Groundlings and spending seven years in the extremely competitive environment of Saturday Night Live, improvisation has become an essential part of most of the actor’s movies. Ferrell clearly enjoys improvising just as much as people enjoy watching it, and that energy spills out on to the screen. He is known to improvise so much on set and not stopping until the whole cast and crew are holding their stomachs with stitches from laughing too much. It’s almost as if the comedian doesn’t care about how the movie turns out and he’s just having fun.

Summary

Over decades of honing his skills on various platforms, whether it’s in movies, TV, or even on the internet in a Funny Or Die sketch, Will Ferrell has become the king of improvisation. Thanks to his now iconic character, Will Ferrell now has an estimated net worth of $160 million. You can see Ferrell flexing his improv skills in the newly released Netflix original, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, where he stars alongside Rachel McAdams.

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