People may complain that he’s a professional buffoon, or that it’s a bit boring to honor two comedians with similar trajectories two years in a row, but I must say, I’m rather happy that Will Ferrell will be receiving this year’s Mark Twain Prize for Humor. Ferrell has a lot of mediocre projects on his resume—Semi-Pro and Blades of Glory strike me as particularly unnecessary, and I say that as someone who paid to see both movies in theaters—but he’s an extraordinarily funny broad comedian. And I think increasingly, he’s taking on projects that showcase his ability to quiet all the way down and very productively create space for people to be funny around him.
Stranger than Fiction is a wonderful example of that: Ferrell is as straight a straight man as possible as an IRS auditor who discovers that he also happens to be a character in a novel Emma Thompson is writing, and that when she kills him off in the story, he’ll probably die in real life. It’s almost jarring to watch him in a scene like this one, where he’s awkwardly funny like a normal person, as opposed to uproarious:
An even better example is the scene where Dustin Hoffman asks Ferrell a series of questions designed to determine what kind of story he’s in, and a bewildered Ferrell tries to provide honest answers to increasingly baroque queries, ending in “Aren’t you relieved to know you’re not a Golem?” Ferrell is entirely reactive in the scene, and his escalating confusion only serves to make Hoffman funnier. It’s easy to forget that being a good straight man is as much of a skill as being a wild man. I haven’t seen Everything Must Go yet, but Ferrell has talked about how much he loved making Stranger Than Fiction, and how he saw Everything Must Go as a similar project, which strikes me as a good sign.
I’m not saying Ferrell should give up playing fast, loose, and out of control. The world would be a poorer place without Anchorman or Old School—another one of Ferrell’s singular talents is to play manchildren in a way that’s a very funny critique of men who resist adulthood, in contrast to Judd Apatow’s gentler treatment of less-exaggerated characters. But I can see why he’d get tired of the expectation that he’s always in Wild and Crazy Guy mode, and audiences are cheating themselves if that’s all they’re able to tolerate from him.