December 19, 2013
Guests: Will Ferrell & Adam McKay
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANCHORMAN")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Channel 4 News Team with seven-time Emmy Award-winning anchorman Ron Burgundy.
WILL FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) I'm Ron Burgundy, and this is what's happening in your world tonight.
GROSS: That was Ron Burgundy in the 2004 film "Anchorman," set in the 1970s. In the new sequel, "Anchorman 2," set in 1980, Burgundy moves on from San Diego's Channel 4 news team to America's first cable news network. My guests are Will Ferrell, who stars as the terrifically vain and shallow Ron Burgundy, and Adam McKay, who directed both "Anchorman" films and co-wrote them with Ferrell.
Ferrell and McKay started working together on "Saturday Night Live." They also collaborated on the films "Talladega Nights," "The Other Guys," "Stepbrothers" and "The Campaign," and they co-founded the website Funny or Die. Let's start with a scene from "Anchorman 2." Early in the film, after losing his news job and his wife, then taking a job as an announcer at SeaWorld only to lose that, too, Ron Burgundy gets a job offer from a TV news producer at the fledgling cable channel GNN, the Global News Network.
The producer is played by Dylan Baker. Here they are talking at a restaurant.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANCHORMAN 2")
DYLAN BAKER: (As Freddie Shapp) Mr. Burgundy, we're starting a 24-hour news channel, first of its kind, GNN.
FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) That is without a doubt the dumbest thing I've ever heard. You mean news going 24 hours around the clock? A channel that's never off, in other words?
BAKER: (As Freddie) Yeah, yeah, just 24 hours. It's...
FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) No offense, but you are stupid.
BAKER: (As Freddie) I assure you, we are 100 percent for real. We've got state-of-the-art facilities in Manhattan. This is your first week's salary.
FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) By the hymen of Olivia Newton-John.
BAKER: (As Freddie) What do you say, Ron?
FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) I'll take the job, and I swear I'll be number one again. I'm going to do what God put Ron Burgundy on this earth to do: have salon-quality hair and read the news.
GROSS: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, congratulations on "Anchorman 2," and welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thanks so much for coming. I really enjoyed the film. That's such a great clip. I mean, you get an Olivia Newton-John joke right off the bat there, and...
GROSS: How did you decide to do a sequel?
ADAM MCKAY: God, we for years never even thought about doing a sequel, and people kept asking us. And rather than it getting quieter, it actually got louder until about five or six years after the first movie, Will and I finally said hey, could we actually pull off a sequel. And then from that point it took another three years to get the budget together and do all that stuff. Yeah, this was really a movie, the sequel that fans asked for.
FERRELL: What's so funny about the original, original movie was that it literally - you know, it had a modest opening, it was a modest hit, but it just kept growing in popularity through DVD and cable to the point where we just couldn't ignore the fans. And we thought why should we. This will be fun.
GROSS: So it's no longer set at a local station, at the news desk. It's the first global news network, kind of like CNN. And is that in part because very few people watch the local news anymore unless there's a big weather event? No offense to anyone in local news.
FERRELL: Well, we felt like we needed to jack up the stakes for Mr. Ron Burgundy and his news team. And it was just perfect timing that in '79, '80, that's when you saw, you know, 24 hour news come about. You saw ESPN, MTV. The whole broadcast media world completely changed. And anytime you say the word change, that's a fun world to throw Ron Burgundy into because you know he's not going to handle change well.
GROSS: So you make Ron Burgundy responsible for some of the worst excesses of cable news.
GROSS: Did you spend a lot of time watching cable news so you could really kind of, you know, feel it when you were writing the script?
FERRELL: Just when we discovered that we were going to land in the belly of 24-hour news when it was created, your next thought is oh, this is when everything changed, and this is when you started seeing the stories about the babies in the wells and the Peewee Herman in the porn booth. And oh, this is when it all turned really kind of into infotainment. And the idea of making that all Ron Burgundy's fault really made us laugh.
GROSS: So let's hear another clip from the film, and this is - this is a scene where Ron Burgundy and his team are at a meeting with Dylan Baker, the - Dylan Baker plays the producer from the Global News Network, who's bringing the team into the network. And they're talking about what their show should be, and their show is like the 2 a.m. shift. It's the shift, like, nobody watches. So here's the meeting.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANCHORMAN 2")
FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) Let's here. Global temperatures rise half a degree, alarm climate scientists, boring. What if we show a porno instead of the news, Freddie?
BAKER: (As Freddie) No, absolutely not.
FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) Freddie, come on. We're just brainstorming here. We're trying to figure out how to make the news less boring, and you act like we peed in your milkshake.
BAKER: (As Freddie) The news is supposed to be boring, Ron. This is serious stuff.
FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) I just don't know why we have to tell the people what they need to hear. Why can't we just tell them what they want to hear?
BAKER: (As Freddie) Wait, wait, wait, say that again.
FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) I said why do we have to tell the people what they need to hear? Why can't we just tell them what they want to hear?
BAKER: (As Freddie) And what do they want to hear, Ron?
FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) That we live in the greatest country God ever created.
BAKER: (As Freddie) Damn straight.
FERRELL: I love that music, Adam, that you have underneath it.
GROSS: Oh, that music's perfect.
FERRELL: I love that it's heroic that he discovers pandering.
GROSS: So Will Ferrell, when you first started to, you know, take on the character of Ron Burgundy, talk a little bit about how you saw him and what you did physically and cosmetically to become him.
FERRELL: Well, I've kind of brought Ron out on occasion over the years for charity events, and there was a comedy tour we did where we went to eight or nine colleges, and halfway through the show Ron would come out and interview either the dean of the school or the head football coach.
GROSS: Oh no.
FERRELL: Which was always a big hit, and it reminded Adam and I that oh, it's fun to hear this guy interact with people. And it didn't feel dated. It didn't feel old. So I had kind of had some practice with him. But in terms of once we started filming again for this, it really - once I start growing the moustache, you put the wig on, you start wearing the clothes, I end up standing a certain way because Ron Burgundy is so rigid and moves like slightly robotic.
I find myself holding my shoulders and neck in a certain way because he's - I don't know. He's someone who even though he's very confident in a way, he's still wildly insecure and not comfortable in his own skin. And so all those things, you know, I kind of pool together, and then he's back. And we go from there.
GROSS: So the moustache is real?
FERRELL: Yeah, yeah, the moustache is real, even though people think it looks fake. The moustache - people think the hair looks real, but that's a wig, and they think the moustache looks fake, but the moustache is actually real.
GROSS: When you're in the middle of shooting the film, and you have to have that moustache, what's it like in the periods when you're not onset, but you still are stuck with that moustache?
FERRELL: Yeah, there is a lot of maintenance when it comes to facial hair. It gets in the way of eating. It - my children kept asking me when was the movie over so you can shave your scratchy face. It's an encumbrance to a lot of things. So I have a lot of respect for those who lived in the 1800s, when facial hair was mandatory.
But, you know, it - it's fun. It makes, you know, it makes the character, and yeah, I mean, it's such a vestige of television news from the '70s, and now you hardly see it, so it's a very distinctive thing. But the funny thing is after looking at yourself in the mirror for three months with a moustache, when you shave it, there is a moment, for about a 24-hour period, where you think you look better with the moustache.
FERRELL: You're not used to looking at your upper lip at all, and you think it looks misshapen and bizarre, and then yeah, so it takes about 24 hours to get used to seeing your lip again.
MCKAY: It's kind of a moustache Stockholm syndrome.
GROSS: My guests are Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Ferrell stars in "Anchorman 2" and co-wrote it with McKay, who also directed both "Anchorman" films. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. They co-wrote "Anchorman 2," which is the sequel to "Anchorman." Will Ferrell of course stars in it as Ron Burgundy, Adam McKay directed it, and they've been writing partners for years now, starting with their days at "Saturday Night Live."
Your movies manage to have - the "Anchorman" movies manage to have, like, the worst soundtracks ever in terms of the songs. Like if you asked me to choose songs I really hated from the era, we'd come up with the soundtrack. And I was wondering if that was your approach. I mean, and I'm thinking here of songs like "Hold Your Head Up" by Argent and "I'd Love To See You Tonight," England Dan and John Ford Coley, "Lady."
FERRELL: It's a beautiful song, Kenny Rogers.
GROSS: A beautiful song, yes.
MCKAY: I don't get your point. I mean, these are lovely, lovely songs.
FERRELL: That have stood the test of time.
MCKAY: Actually, we do a mix. It's actually a crazy process. We have like 300, 400 songs that we're constantly cycling through, and what we want the end sort of result to be is that half the songs are secretly enjoyable, and half are just horrible. And so something like "Ride Like the Wind" by Christopher Cross is a really catchy song. Like we were surprised when we started playing it.
And then you're right, a song like "Lady" or "Muskrat Love" you would probably turn the radio station if you were in your car. So it ends up being this blend.
FERRELL: But I think at the same time, though, we hear from a lot of people oh, I love the music. I think there's some kitsch value to all of it that touches a nerve with the audience where they're guiltily tapping their toe or, you know, and thinking oh, God, that song is bad, but I kind of love it.
GROSS: OK, well, you mentioned "Ride Like the Wind," and on this soundtrack album, not in the movie but on the soundtrack, there's a duet with you, Will Ferrell, and Robin Thicke, that's really funny. So I thought we should hear it. Do you want to say anything about recording this before we hear it?
FERRELL: Well, they had wrangled Robin Thicke to record it, and so he had already made the recording, and then I, off of what he did, just riffed all these other lines. And Adam wrote some of the spoken-word passages. So it was - we never actually met each other or saw each other, but it somehow came out OK.
GROSS: Did he know what you were going to be doing to his recording?
FERRELL: I don't know. I don't think he did. Yeah, I don't think he did. So - but it's too late now.
GROSS: Have you heard from him since?
FERRELL: I haven't. I haven't heard.
MCKAY: He called me.
FERRELL: Oh, OK.
MCKAY: He's livid, yeah.
FERRELL: OK, well, glad he called you, yeah.
GROSS: OK, so this is "Ride Like the Wind" from the soundtrack of "Anchorman 2" with Robin Thicke and Will Ferrell.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIDE LIKE THE WIND")
FERRELL: I like how this is sounding. Hold on everybody. Here we go. Not quite yet. Pretty soon. Mr. Robin Thicke any minute now. All right. Here we go. Take it away.
ROBIN THICKE: (Singing) It is the night. My body's weak. I'm on the run, no time to sleep.
FERRELL: 'Cuz you're on the run.
THICKE: (Singing) I've got to ride, ride like the wind to be free again.
FERRELL: We all want that.
THICKE: (Singing) And I've got such a long way to go to make it to the border of Mexico. So I ride like the wind, ride like the wind.
You're riding like the wind, for those who don't know it.
(Singing) I was born the son of a lawless man.
FERRELL: You mean Alan Thicke?
THICKE: (Singing) Always spoke my mind with a gun in my hand.
FERRELL: That sounds dangerous.
GROSS: That's Robin Thicke with Will Ferrell doing the commentary from the soundtrack of "Anchorman 2," and my guests are Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. They co-wrote the film. Adam McKay directed it. They've been writing partners since their days on "Saturday Night Live."
FERRELL: Robin Thicke, the son of Alan Thicke.
FERRELL: The star of "Who's the Boss," right?
GROSS: No, no...
MCKAY: "Growing Pains."
FERRELL: "Growing Pains," sorry.
GROSS: "Growing Pains," "Growing Pains," yes. So what are your sessions like when you're writing "Anchorman"? Because, you know, one thing I have to say about both films is they're really packed with jokes. And my impression is you take great pleasure in just making things jam-packed with jokes.
MCKAY: That's the funnest part of making these movies is we just love, you know, the ensemble comedy where you don't know where the jokes are coming from and the idea of a dense movie that you want to watch over and over again. I think it's from Will and I, when we wrote the first "Anchorman," talked about those old ensemble comedies like "Stripes" and "Animal House" and "Caddyshack" and how no one was doing those anymore.
So the idea of having, like, four funny guys in the lead with Christina Applegate was fun for us. So yeah, when we write, we're constantly kicking around ideas, and even if it doesn't end up in the script, it'll be something we can remember on the day.
FERRELL: I think when Adam and I, you know, met on "Saturday Night Live" and started working together, you know, it's - you're surrounded by writers who have all these rules. And I think, you know, when we decided we would sit down and write a feature one day, we were really rebelling against all these rules that - you know, the three-act structure and how you can't do this, and this has to be set up in a certain way.
And the original "Anchorman" was, you know, just kind of a function of wanting to break through all of that. And why can't you have a scene break into an animated sequence? And we just wanted to take - you know, why can't the characters go for a stroll and then all of a sudden get caught in the middle of an epic gang fight between rivaling news teams that is superfluous to the story, if you're going to be very strict about it, but at the same time becomes one of the more talked-about moments in the movie?
And I think we've been governed by that ever since.
GROSS: Do you actually try to count how many jokes there are per minute or per five minutes?
FERRELL: We've never - I mean, that's the other funny thing. We've never been conscious of a joke count. You know, we've - we have never really clocked any of that. And then there's, you know, there's also the other - which, you know, writing pass that happens, which is the improvisation that the cast brings to the filming, you know, on the day and also the, you know, additional lines that Adam comes up - and that we all come up with for each other.
So yeah, there's never - I don't think there's ever been a moment where we're clocking something having too few jokes or too many.
MCKAY: The one thing we do do in the edit room, and it's - you can't quite call it a rule, but in general we try and only keep things that are funny, interesting, original, story or character. So if something doesn't fit into one of those categories, we try and cut it out of the movie. So ideally you always want something to be happening, whether it's just something that's cool or funny or forwarding the story.
GROSS: Well, Adam, I've read that you actually - I don't know if this is during the rehearsals or the shoots, but you actually have a mic in which you feed improv lines to the actors.
MCKAY: Yeah, that was something on this movie, because we had so many actors, and some of the sets were really big, we started playing around with the microphone and the speaker, and it worked really well. And yeah, just when they're in the middle of a scene, if there's an extra line, or if Will starts improvising in a certain direction, I can throw something out without having to run out onto the set, which is what I used to do.
And it ended up being pretty comfortable by the end. It was the first time we'd ever done it.
GROSS: I want to play another track from the soundtrack, and this is a scene from the film. And, you know, one of the conventions of a lot of movies where there's a father and son is that the father has to sit his son down and give him an inspirational talk about the things he can achieve if he sets his mind to it. And here's your version of it from "Anchorman 2."
And the reason why you're so negativo in this scene with your son is that, you know, your wife has left you, and you've been drinking. You really just, like, you're falling to pieces.
FERRELL: I've actually been fired from the network, and she's been promoted, and Ron simply can't handle - he can't view that there's shared success in their marriage and has a completely narcissistic reaction.
GROSS: So this is Ron Burgundy and his son Walter.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANCHORMAN 2")
FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) Life isn't a fairytale. It's not a bunch of jumping rope and grabbing ass. It's complicated. What do you want to do with your life? What do you want to be when you grow up?
JUDAH NELSON: (As Walter Burgundy) I want to be an astronaut or a cowboy.
FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) You're never going to be any of those, OK? You've got to set the bar a lot lower, service industry: fry cook, prison guard. Maybe you're a lighting guy at a porn shoot, which basically means you hold up a flashlight while adults do things.
GROSS: That's great.
MCKAY: It's beautiful, beautiful.
GROSS: Will Ferrell, I hope you've been giving your son advice like this.
FERRELL: Ron, so selfish, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Do you love those movies where there's that inspirational talk?
FERRELL: Oh yeah, I mean, that was another opportunity that the sequel presented was, you know, in the first movie, I don't think we really get into Ron's personal life so much. It's more about the team and dealing with Veronica Corningstone, Christina Applegate's character, encroaching on their turf. So when we started talking about the sequel, we thought oh, this - you know, we can kind of delve more into the relationship between Ron and Veronica.
And what if Ron has a kid? We just kept thinking of things that would not be good for Ron to have. So the fact that he has to deal with a child, and he's the ultimate narcissist of all time is a winning combination for comedy, I think.
GROSS: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Will Ferrell, who returns as Ron Burgundy in the new film "Anchorman 2," and Adam McKay, who directed both "Anchorman" films and co-wrote them with Ferrell. They also collaborated on "Talladega Nights," "Step Brothers" and "The Campaign," and they co-founded the website Funny or Die.
You started promoting "Anchorman 2" just at about the moment you signed the contract to do the film.
GROSS: At least it...
FERRELL: It appears that way.
GROSS: It appears that way.
FERRELL: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: And so a year ago, you were on Conan O'Brien's show to announce that there was going to be a sequel to "Anchorman." And I want to play your...
GROSS: ...appearance on that show.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")
FERRELL: (as Ron Burgundy) I actually have an announcement. I want announce this to everyone here in the Americas.
(as Ron Burgundy) To our friends, in Spain, Turkey and the U.K., including England that as of 0900 Mountain Time, Paramount Pictures and myself, Ronald Joseph Aaron Burgundy, have come to terms on a sequel to "Anchorman."
(as Ron Burgundy) It is official, there will be, there will be a sequel to "Anchorman." There will be a sequel. Gentlemen?
GROSS: And that was Will Ferrell, in character as Ron Burgundy in 2012, on Conan O'Brien's show. So you must enjoy taking the character out into the world because like you did it on Conan. Promoting the movie, you've done it in commercials, which isn't exactly in the world.
GROSS: But, you know, you've...
GROSS: You said before, you interview people in character at universities. But you really have to think on your feet to do that.
FERRELL: Yeah. You know, when we had our - some initial marketing meetings with the studio, I had kind of put it out there that I'd be up for doing some things in character because it's so much fun to improvise as Ron Burgundy because he is an expert talker on everything, all subjects, and knows very little about anything, so it's, I can kind of walk into any situation and pretend to know all the facts. So we kind of devised a strategy of various things we do and it's been a fun way to get the word out about the movie without actually having to talk about it and do the standard interviews.
GROSS: Like I'm making you do. Right.
GROSS: Without having to do this.
FERRELL: Right. But it's, I think it's been appreciated, and we've kind of gotten into different pockets of the audience that we never would have reached, through Ron's appearances.
GROSS: So Emerson College changed the name of its communications school for one day...
FERRELL: Yes. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...and called it like I think like the Ron Burgundy School of Journalism or of Communications.
FERRELL: Yes. Communications - which Ron, much to Ron's chagrin - he thought it was a lifetime, it was going to be...
GROSS: A lifetime honor. Yeah.
FERRELL: Yeah. Yeah. Just for one day.
GROSS: But did it make you feel a little bit awkward to ask the university to do something like that to help promote a movie?
FERRELL: No, not one bit.
FERRELL: I mean they're the ones saying yes. And if everyone said no, then you just wouldn't do it. That was another very ironic moment that, you know, we did a 45 minute press conference. It's a fictional character and they were up to 100 media requests in the Boston area. And it's just fascinating - and there, you know, there I sat in between the president of the university and the dean of the school of journalism, and they weren't asked one question. All the questions were...
FERRELL: ...were posed to Ron Burgundy and...
MCKAY: A fictional character.
FERRELL: ...a fictional character. And here we are poking fun and media and yet media can't get enough of what we're doing. So it's very ironic.
GROSS: Of course, nobody thinks of themselves as a Ron Burgundy type; it's always like the other guy.
GROSS: So has anybody ever come up to you and said that's me, like you really captured me?
FERRELL: I think we get it all the time - especially local news, everyone will bring someone up from the past and say, was that based on this person? I was actually approached by a newscaster in Los Angeles - a guy by the name of Harold Greene who went from San Diego to LA and back to San Diego, and he actually had a mustache. And he stopped me on the street once in Beverly Hills and said, hey, Will Ferrell. I'm like, yeah, hey, Harold Greene, because I had remembered him. And he said, hey, I love that movie, "Anchorman." And I got to ask you, is that based on me? And I just started laughing. And I said no, no. It's actually, it really isn't. It's kind of an amalgamation of all of you guys. And he said, there's an old saying in the news game - yeah, right - and he walked away.
FERRELL: So he's convinced that Ron Burgundy is based on him.
GROSS: What other kind of stories do you hear from news anchors?
MCKAY: Yeah, when we went into making the first movie, we did interviews with a bunch of legendary anchors, like Larry King in Philadelphia. And we met a guy named Jack White, who is based out of San Diego. And we would talk to him and we were always amazed how the stories they would tell us were actually crazier than what we had...
FERRELL: Had in the movie.
MCKAY: Like he told us a story about his news director getting into a big argument with a producer, going down to the bar on the, you know, ground floor and getting really drunk. And finally the producer is saying, look, you've got to come back up here. We're about to go on the air. We need you to direct the broadcast. And the director just said, give me the phone, from the bar, made the bartender turn the TV to the new station and drunkenly directed the news from the bar, calling the shots out into the phone.
And Jack White said...
GROSS: That doesn't even make sense. I mean...
FERRELL: Jack White said it was it was a great broadcast.
MCKAY: All the stories end with, you know what? Hell of a broadcast.
FERRELL: Yeah, he had the news on the TV live and he was on the phone saying go to camera two, cut to this, cut to that. And they somehow pulled that off.
GROSS: So how did you come up with the catchphrase stay classy, which has really caught on? You know, it has caught on, it's -it entered the vocabulary.
FERRELL: I think we were just searching for, you know, you watch news and - on a local level and, you know, everyone had their signoff line. And we were just searching for something so benign that literally meant nothing, and stay classy just stuck with us. I don't even know what it's trying to articulate.
MCKAY: I always think it's funny; the word classy is so not a classy word.
MCKAY: The second you're saying you've put a Y at the end of class, you're immediately not classy.
FERRELL: So, yeah, Ron asking his viewers to stay classy - ridiculous.
MCKAY: It has nothing to do with news. It has nothing - I mean how are you supposed to even pretend to do that? We don't know. But it obviously stuck.
GROSS: Well, his new catchphrases is - have an American night?
ADAM MCKAY AND WILL FERRELL: Don't just have a great night; have an American night.
GROSS: And what were you thinking of when you wrote that?
MCKAY: I think it says it all in the phrase - don't just have a great night; have an American night.
MCKAY: You may be thinking about having a great night. But you know it's better than having a great night? An American night.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. And they co-wrote - they're writing partners, and they co-wrote "Anchorman" and the sequel "Anchorman 2," which, of course, Will Ferrell stars and Adam McKay directed both films. And let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. They co-wrote "Anchorman" and "Anchorman 2," as well as several other films, like "Talladega Nights." And Will Ferrell, of course, stars in both films; Adam McKay directed "Anchorman" and "Anchorman 2."
This being Christmas, probably a lot of people are watching "Elf," which is a Christmas movie that, Will Ferrell, you star in. What's it like to be in a popular Christmas film, knowing that every Christmas people are going to be watching that?
FERRELL: It's very surreal. You know, especially considering the nature of the project, which was an idea that I remember when it was presented to me, I thought all of that, yeah, that could be funny. But the script needed a lot of work, you know; Adam came in and did a lot of work on it and yet there were moments where I was, there I was running around in the streets of New York in elf tights...
FERRELL: ...and curled shoes - and I had just left "Saturday Night Live" and I thought, oh, this could be it. This could be the last movie I make.
FERRELL: And so to have that kind of grow into this thing, obviously it's wonderful. But it still makes me laugh because I think that's the type of project that could've been very, very touch and go. But Jon Favreau did a wonderful job and we somehow threaded that needle between the right amount of sentimentality and humor and made this movie that keeps, you know, coming up every holiday season. So it's, ultimately it's great.
GROSS: Tell us how you first started working together back in the "Saturday Night Live" days. Did you choose to be writing partners or were you assigned to be together?
MCKAY: We - no. It's pretty loose at "Saturday Night Live" as far as who writes with who. And, you know, Will's a good writer in his own right. So he would bring sketches to the table that were really funny - with characters, and pretty quickly everyone liked to write for Will. But it was kind of an accidental thing where I had a premise for a sketch based on the old VH1 "Storyteller" show, where the musicians would tell the stories behind their songs. And I wanted to be a pop singer and all the stories would be horrible behind these very light, sugary songs. And Ferrell said he wanted to do Neil Diamond. So we sat down and wrote it and it was just really enjoyable, and the sketch worked. It was a very easy process and I, I think we both noticed, we had very similar senses of humor. And neither one of us liked to, you know, drag it out for hours and hours and, you know, agonize over each line. We kind of were believers in let's put it up and see how it feels, and then we can rewrite. And from then on we would write sketches together periodically.
GROSS: Will Ferrell, why did you think of Neil Diamond right away? Had you already worked him up?
FERRELL: I think I heard a Neil Diamond song on the radio and just playing around with the voice. And, but I didn't really have a context of how to do him and so when Adam brought up that premise, I thought oh that's, what if we did Neil Diamond? And, you know, that's kind of how that started. But, yeah, Adam and I, it was, we had so much fun and, you know, "Saturday Night Live," understandably so, you know, from the writing standpoint, you only get a couple shots each week to get your sketch in there. So a lot of the writers would really agonize and rewrite and spend eight hours writing a sketch and we were always like, why would you spend that much time? You know, write three or four things and just spend a couple hours and, you know, don't over-think it. And so we started making a point to try to write a sketch every two or three shows, we'd get together and hammer something out. And, you know, we, I think we probably had just as much success not over-thinking as people who spend their entire Tuesday night crafting their one sketch.
GROSS: Will Ferrell, did you ever sing seriously? Like were you ever in musicals, singing in your own voice as opposed to in character - in comedic character - where the character, where you're either impersonating a real person or your singing satirically in character?
FERRELL: Right. No. No. I wasn't, I wasn't really in the school plays. I was, you know, I was actually more of a jock. I was on all the sports teams and I really didn't start delving into any of the performing until after I graduated from college. And yet, the singing, I mean I grew up around music, so fairly musical, but, but yeah...
GROSS: What do you mean you grew up around music?
FERRELL: My father is a musician...
FERRELL: ...so, yeah, he...
GROSS: What does he do?
FERRELL: He is a keyboard player, saxophone player, and he played on and off with the Righteous Brothers for years and years and years and did his own nightclub act and that sort of thing. So, but I was, yeah, singing has really only been used in a comedic way for me.
GROSS: So did you grow up seeing lounge acts and seeing a lot of - seeing a lot of showbiz?
FERRELL: Yeah. Yeah. You know, a fair amount. We would, we always thought it was very exciting to go see him play with Bill Medley. And they would do a week of shows in Vegas and my brother and I would get to go and, you know, watch the shows. And, yeah, it was very glamorous and exciting. And then I also saw the other side of it, which was my father, having, you know, a nightclub job for a year and a half and then it would just go away. And he'd have to - he'd have to pick up and find a new place to play. And so that actually was more impactful on me because I was very resistant to any idea of pursuing anything in entertainment as a little, little kid.
I thought I was going to have a real job. I didn't know what that meant exactly, but I wasn't going to do what dad did because it was so inconsistent.
GROSS: You wanted more security.
FERRELL: Yeah. Yeah. For sure.
GROSS: Adam McCay, can I ask what your parents did for a living?
ADAM MCCAY: Well, my dad was actually a musician.
GROSS: Your father was a musician too?
MCCAY: Yeah. Yeah. He still plays to this day. He's in several bands around the Connecticut area and was always growing up - he's a bass player - growing up was always in two or three different bands. You know, he would work the day job as well. He sold cars for a while, worked in a bank. But always we would have bands practicing in our house and be going to shows, even when we were little kids.
GROSS: So you worked together on "Saturday Night Live" as writing partners for several years. Did you agree to leave at the same time? Did you plan it?
MCCAY: I left...
MCCAY: I left two years before you, Will?
FERRELL: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MCCAY: I was head writer for three years and then my last two years Loren was kind enough to let me shoot some short films for the show and still write sketches. It was very fun. But after a couple of years of that it felt like it was time to move on. And I was starting to get work rewriting scripts and writing scripts based on - the first script that Will and I wrote, a story about car salesmen, it was never made, called "August Blowout," and because of some success with that script I was starting to get regular work, so I left two years before you.
GROSS: And Will Ferrell, you didn't feel ready to leave yet?
FERRELL: No. The end of my five year contract was 2000, so that was - that was right, you know, in the Bush-Gore election. And so I think playing Bush was fun. So that was fun to stick around for. But at the end of seven seasons, for some reason, that - an internal clock felt like, for better or for worse, it feels like it's time to leave the show.
GROSS: Were you afraid to leave? You had mentioned that you wanted more job security than your father had.
GROSS: As a musician.
FERRELL: Right, right, right.
GROSS: And, you know, "SNL" certainly gives you job security. And some people who leave "SNL" have great success. They become huge stars. And others kind of make a few flops and then kind of slip away. Were you concerned about what your future would be?
FERRELL: Well, you know, I wasn't - I really, I really didn't have this stockpile of projects waiting for me. We had - I had filmed the movie "Old School," but that was still in the can. It wasn't - it hadn't been released yet. And, you know, we were puttering around with this elf idea. But that kind of was it. And so, yeah, it was a little - it felt a little strange to kind of leave that safety net that the show provides.
That having been said, I'm really kind of someone who, once I close the door, I really don't look back. And I just figured, well, here we go. This is the next chapter and, you know, let's just trust in the fact that good things are going to happen. And luckily, you know, "Old School" came out and that allowed us to actually get a green light for "Anchorman."
So I got very fortunate because the first three movies I was in after leaving the show were "Old School," "Elf," and "Anchorman." And that's a pretty great way to start, you know, in terms of once you've left the show.
GROSS: Right. Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. It's always fun to have you on the show, and congratulations on "Anchorman 2." Thank you and Happy Holidays.
FERRELL: Thanks, Terry. Thanks so much.
MCCAY: Thank you, Terry. Always a pleasure.
GROSS: Will Ferrell stars in "Anchorman 2." Adam McCay directed both "Anchorman" films and co-wrote them with Ferrell. Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg chooses his Word of the Year. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: At about this time every year, our linguist Geoff Nunberg chooses his Word of the Year. Last year his choice was big data. At the time, some of us were scratching our heads because we weren't yet that familiar with the expression, but he really got it right. Big data became a theme of 2013 because of controversies surrounding data collection by corporations, retailers, and especially by government agencies after the revelations by Edward Snowden. Let's see what word Geoff's chosen this year.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: I feel a little defensive about choosing selfie as my Word of the Year for 2013. I've usually been partial to words that encapsulate one of the year's major stories, things like occupy or big data. Or like privacy, which is the word Dictionary.com chose this year. But others go with what I think of as mayfly words - the ones that bubble briefly to the surface in the wake of some fad or fashion.
Over recent years, the people at Oxford Dictionaries have chosen items like locovore, hypermiling, refudiate and unfriend, among others. You'd never know it was a period touched by economic collapse, bitter partisanship, or the growth of the surveillance state. So I wasn't surprised when Oxford announced last month that their choice for the word of the year was selfie, which beat out twerk and binge-watch.
It struck me as a word that wears its ephemerality on its outstretched sleeve. Any phenomenon whose most prominent evangelists are Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, Kendall and Kylie, probably isn't a good bet to bet around for the long haul. What changed my mind about the word was the uproar over the photo that the Danish prime minister took with President Obama and David Cameron at the memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela - and not because it was a selfie, but because it really wasn't.
There are people who use selfie for any picture you take of yourself as a document or record, even a passport photo. But that isn't why the word was invented. It's natural to want a photo when you find yourself sitting between the president and the British prime minister, or if that doesn't work for you, imagine standing next to the pope or Mariano Rivera.
And now that the camera lens has migrated to the front of the Smartphone, you don't have to look for somebody else to take it for you. But selfie came into existence for the pictures people take of themselves to display on social media sites like Instagram and Tumblr, often in stylized poses or artfully faded effects.
For a recent fad, selfies have unleashed a torrent of portentous yammer and invective. The word imputes an aura of narcissism to whatever it's attached to, whether it's apt or not. Use selfie to describe that banal Johannesburg snapshot and all of a sudden Obama becomes the selfie president.
A columnist at the New York Post writes that the event symbolizes the global calamity of Western decline. That gives selfie a cultural resonance you're not going to find with any of the other word-of-the-year finalists, not even twerk. The word lends itself to that coloring.
The self of selfie may originally have come from self-portrait, but once it's detached, it oscillates between positive and negative meanings depending on what follows it - from self-esteem to self-regard, from self-awareness to self-absorption. And the diminutive suffix on selfie can seesaw in the same way, from endearment to insult.
Selfie began its life as cutesie slang, like prezzies for presents, but now it's often derisive. It sounds infantile and, well, girly like hankie or tummy. That's how most people think of selfies. Men may post plenty of them, but say selfie and you evoke the Kardashians or a 16-year-old girl, not Geraldo Rivera posting a Twitter picture of himself naked to the waist.
And that's where a lot of the debates are focused. Are the selfies girls post a desperate kind of approval-seeking or the male gaze gone viral? Or are they tiny bursts of pride, empowering women to challenge conventional standards of beauty? Are they pure exhibitionism, or a kind of visual diary?
The answers, boringly, are yes, yes, yes and yes. Adolescents do selfies in different ways and for different reasons, just as grown-ups do with the other images that they feel the need to bring to the attention of their friends and followers - of their dinner cocktails or the view from their hotel window in Oaxaca.
There are people who have written about this with subtlety - I think of The New York Times' Jenna Wortham. But most readers aren't interested in stories about selfies that begin with fine distinctions. In a competitive media environment, the phenomenon calls out for a Grand Unifying Theory, for taking a stand for or against.
Or better still, you can make the selfie a proxy for all the deleterious effects of social media - oversharing, incessant distraction, fragmented identity, low self-esteem, and anything else that ails the culture. Hence the spectacle of critics and columnists vying for eyeballs with scathing denunciations of a selfie society where people will stoop to anything to get attention.
The connection to young girls isn't lost in all this. Phrases like the selfie society are meant to evoke a flighty puerile narcissism. It may seem a stretch to pin the state of the culture on what adolescents are doing on Instagram. But we have a penchant for diagnosing narcissism where other ages would have seen nothing more than old-fashioned vanity.
Anyway, I give the critics a lot of the credit for making selfie a contender for Word of the Year. When we look back on 2013, we'll recall this not just as the year when everybody was posting pictures of themselves on social media, but as the year when nobody could stop talking about it.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information. You'll find links to his pieces about his Word of the Year for 2012 and 2011 on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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