Before “the Frat Pack” and $20 million paydays, before “Old School,” way before “Saturday Night Live” even, Will Ferrell wanted to be a sportscaster. Then he heard comedy’s siren call.
Now, at 40, he’s a brand name, branching out from TV to movies and onto the Web (funnyordie.com), a sponsored viral-video venture where, Conde Naste Portfolio wrote, “Hollywood’s screwball king” may rewrite “the rules of the entertainment business.”
But there are ways Ferrell keeps his foot on the court with sports fans. He does ESPN promos. And he makes a lot of movies about sports.
Ferrell, who took the swish out of figure skating with “Blades of Glory” and let a little of the air out of NASCAR’s tires with “Tallageda Nights,” revisits the last days of the ABA, the American Basketball Association, in his latest, “Semi-Pro.” The league was famed for its red, white and blue basketballs, its showcase dunks and such teams as the Virginia Squires and Kentucky Colonels, playing to arenas so empty you could hear the players cuss each other out from one end of the court to the other.
“Semi-Pro” has Ferrell playing a disco-singing, promotional stunt scheming owner-coach-star of the Flint Tropics, a fictional team in a league that sometimes seemed every bit as far-fetched as the one Ferrell and friends re-create for the movie. We reached Ferrell in Los Angeles.
One aspect of the ABA that you can see making a comeback - the tri-color ball, the tight uniforms, the afros, the Virginia Squires?
Oh, I’m thinking the Virginia Squires. That’s just what the NBA needs.
Those tight shorts, the Lakers tried that when they played the Celtics earlier this season in Los Angeles. The Lakers, in an homage to the 1979 championship team, came out in short shorts. Half of the crowd laughed and half cheered. But you could tell the players were really uncomfortable playing in those shorts. They switched at halftime. So unfortunately, the shorts won’t be coming back any time soon.
I could kind of see the tricolor basketball making a comeback. I’ve read that ABA players just hated it, at first. Thought it was a joke. But you can see the rotation of the ball so much better that players fell in love with it. So maybe it’ll come back.
Thirty years later, the number of sports fans who even remember the American Basketball Association, much less its reputation, has to be shrinking.
Yeah, hard to believe there was a time when the NBA was the clean-cut league, and the ABA was the one where guys looked a little more militant - hair, attitudes, all of it.
Our director, Kent Alterman, grew up in San Antonio going to see the (then ABA) Spurs play and was such a rabid heckler that Dave Cowans charged him once, in the stands. We had (ex-NBA star and now TV analyst) Bill Walton come by the set, and he remembered that story! Totally true, our director, who was just “The Kid,” would heckle and the stands would be so empty the players would hear it and just freak out.
What is it about scripts set in the `70s that you connect to? What does the decade mean to you?
This movie was probably more a product of the fact that the ABA, this cheesy league, was around in the `70s. “Anchorman” was more about the attitudes of the `70s, the fashions, being out of step with today.
The `70s are just intrinsically a funny period. When you look back at photos of the fashions, the hairstyles, the creative facial hair, styles that don’t exist anymore, and then you watch anything from movies to old TV shows, the look, the lingo all feel like a foreign time and a foreign place. Who were those people?
When did you realize an afro was your best, most natural look?
I had straight hair as a kid, and it just kept getting progressively curlier. I kept trying to part it, all the way up to the eighth grade. After that, I just gave up.
I loved wearing my hair this way for the movie. But what I really loved was the reactions. People would look at me like, I don’t know, a crazy person. The hair got a laugh.
People would go, “What’s up with your hair?” And now, they go, “Man, where’s your afro?”
Your character Jackie Moon’s single, “Love Me Sexy,” is out in stores, a real `70s disco-soul-makeout music flashback. Ever had a desire to be the new Barry White?
That song is Jackie Moon’s homage to Barry White-meets-Isaac Hayes. That was fun to do, hit the studio and record that. That was also one of the things that made me laugh really hard when I read the script. “Jackie opens every home game by singing his hit song,” subjecting, what, 80 people in the stands to that song? Night after night.
We’ve seen a lot of Will Ferrell in recent years. In your underwear. But getting naked with the basketball in “Semi-Pro,” something you had to be talked into or something you were dying to do?
I was talked into it, because I was told there was a guy in the league who did that very pose for a magazine. (Wendell) Ladner, I think he was. He was like, “Mr. Excitement,” the good-looking guy in the league. He’d do stuff like comb his hair at halftime and women would just swoon.
He did the pose, stretched out on a bench. Kent the director tells me, “You’re just emulating this famous pose.” So we did it. Then, much later, I got to see the original photo. Ladner has his shorts on! I got duped. Oh well, too late now!
The other common thread that’s running through a lot of your work is this love of taking on and taking down a sport. Is that a way of getting some use out of that sports information degree from Southern Cal, or do you see comedy when you watch a sport on TV or in person?
Obviously, there’s a lot to comment on in a comedy about NASCAR. The culture, the works. And figure skating was just begging to be made fun of.
But I view this movie more as making fun of this rinky-dink league, the ABA. The sport itself isn’t really the target.
There’s always stuff in sport that’s an easy target.
So I’ve got to take my daughter to gymnastics. Is that next on your radar, or are you bulking up, getting the tattoos, to take on Ultimate Fighting Challenge?
Oh, gymnastics? Never thought of that. Yeah. Totally see that. Thank you!