He may be the master of playing the onscreen buffoon, but when it comes to knowing his audience, Will Ferrell is no Ron Burgundy.
After a dozen years of starring in some of Hollywood's most outrageous and successful comedies, the actor, whose film "The Other Guys" opens Aug. 6, is keenly aware of what his fans expect from him.
"I do (know that), and yet, it's interesting to change it up and challenge myself, and also the audience a little bit," Ferrell said. "Bringing it back almost becomes a bold move in itself."
Ferrell seems to be coming to terms with the fact that at age 43, it may be time for him to stop showing plumber's butt and start acting his age.
"Land of the Lost" was one of last summer's biggest flops, and 2008's "Semi-Pro" disappointed as well. 2008's "Step Brothers," with his "Talladega Nights" co-star John C. Reilly, was a hit, but the warning signs that his fans may be tiring of his schtick are there.
"Ferrell is actually quite an intelligent and thoughtful comedian who has fallen into a (repetitive) schtick ... maybe doing something unexpected will allow people to take him more seriously ... which will just make his comedy stronger," said Ed Douglas, associate editor for the movie site Coming Soon.
Douglas believes Ferrell should be more selective about his projects. "Ferrell definitely is at a point in his career where he's known enough and he's made enough money that he doesn't have to be everywhere acting like a buffoon," he said.
Perhaps that’s why in "The Other Guys," Ferrell plays one of his more subdued characters. Detective Allen Gamble is a bookworm who listens to The Little River Band during car chases. Compared to previous roles, Gamble is almost, but not quite, normal.
A real guy for once?
The film pairs Ferrell up with Mark Wahlberg as mismatched cops. It's an obvious send-up of buddy cop movies such as "48 Hours" and "Lethal Weapon," but Ferrell said he and longtime collaborator Adam McKay, who directed "The Other Guys," were more interested in finding the right vehicle for Wahlberg than anything else.
"It wasn't necessarily like we said, 'That genre needs to be put on its ear.' It was more of, 'What (would be) a nice fit to work with Mark?' " Ferrell said.
"One of the reasons I'm so proud of this movie is that it's definitely a broad comedy and I definitely have broad moments, but for the most part it's a smaller performance in a way," Ferrell said. "I'm a very kind of composed guy and I mostly comment on Mark, who's kind of over the top. It wasn't like a Mogatu character or even a Ron Burgundy, or Ricky Bobby. It was more just a real guy."
Just as he did with James Caan in "Elf" and Robert Duvall in "Kicking and Screaming," Ferrell milks the against-type casting of Wahlberg, who has a reputation for taking himself a bit too seriously, for laughs. Drawing the funny out of actors not known for punch lines is a skill learned during his days as one of the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players.
"My seven years on 'Saturday Night Live,' the times we had really good shows was when we had (serious) actors, because they got to play against type," Ferrell said. "The De Niros, the Billy Bob Thorntons, the Steve Buscemis of the world. They didn't worry about getting laughs and subsequently, they were twice as funny as a comedic actor sometimes.
"It's a pleasure to cast those actors in comedies, because they're so thankful. They're like 'Wow, you think I can do it?' "
Eva Mendes, who co-stars in "The Other Guys" as Ferrell's devoted wife, gives the actor credit for his collaborative style. "I have never had a better time on set," the actress said. "They (Ferrell and McKay) were like, anything I wanted to try, they were like yeah. I've never felt so encouraged."
"It's not tricky (working with Ferrell because ... he commits so much to the role, there's so much truth in him," Mendes said. "You don't sense that (big comedic personality) when you're working with him."
Can he move forward?
Ferrell is at a bit of a career crossroads.
Just as Harrison Ford has struggled to get audiences to accept him as anything but the guy who saves the day, Ferrell can’t seem to separate himself from the cartoonish caricatures that have scored him his greatest successes.
"Ferrell may need to take a year off or even two from doing those comedies and let people miss them, because that worked wonders for Jim Carrey, leading to one of his biggest hits, "Bruce Almighty," said Coming Soon’s Douglas.
One comedy Ferrell would not hesitate to do involves his most famous character, Ron Burgundy. Rumors of an "Anchorman" sequel have swirled for years. Recently however, McKay said that Paramount had passed on the project, which makes no sense to Ferrell.
"That was a really successful movie. The cast, they're all excited to do it," Ferrell said. "There seems to be this great groundswell, this grassroots thing, 'Why aren't you doing this?' So ball's in their (Paramount's) court. It's their money, however they want to spend it. But I don't know why they wouldn't want to make it. It's really bizarre."
Ferrell added that he had nothing to do with the phony Twitter account ParamountFilms that poked fun at the studio for passing on "Anchorman 2."
"I'm not. I heard about it though. I know there was a rumor that said it was Will Ferrell. I wish I'd thought of it, actually."