In the early 1990s, Will Ferrell was still honing his craft doing stand-up comedy routines with little success at Orange County establishments. “Thank God I have a college degree,” he’d tell his mom after a night on stage. Although Ferrell had graduated with a B.A. degree in sports information from the University of Southern California, he soon realized he did not want to pursue a career in sports broadcasting. Instead, he wanted to be a comedian.

His father, who was a professional musician, acknowledged that his son was indeed talented, but he believed luck would play a critical role if Will was ever going to make it in comedy. So he advised his son to give his dream career a try, and if over time he found himself stuck in a rut, it was okay to change his career path. 

In an Off Camera interview, Will recalls how influential his dad’s words were in paving the way to his eventual success. “I just approached [comedy] with like, ‘This probably is not going to happen, so I might as well just have a blast.” With no real pressure weighing him down, Will playfully performed on stage—and the ease with which he carried himself led to more and more opportunities in the world of comedy.

Ferrell moved to Los Angeles and auditioned for the famous improv troupe The Groundlings. He started in the advanced class but soon won a spot in the highest level comedic group. One night, a producer was in the audience, and Ferrell was invited to audition before Saturday Night Live’s main producer, Lorne Michaels. Will received a callback, but before it took place, Michaels pulled the rug out from under Ferrell’s feet. That is, the big cheese encouraged Will to ditch the material he’d prepared and instead come up with something altogether new by the following day. 

“You’re just alone in a hotel room, talking to yourself, doing characters,” Ferrell recalls of the stressful night before his callback.

The following day, Will was feeling the heat. He recollects, “I literally felt like my knees were going to buckle. You’re trying to remember what you’re going to do, you’re just pacing, you’re hearing the person on stage doing their auditions so you’re trying to block that out. Then the doors just open, and they’re like, ‘Well, yeah, come on!’ And it’s like, ‘Okay. I just have to do this now.’”

Here is the fruit of his late-night cramming—it’s his actual SNL callback audition.

Ferrell was sure he fell far short of the great SNL talents as he pretended to be the Chicago Cubs announcer, Harry Caray, as well as a white-collar worker who secretly plays with cat toys behind closed doors. “Here I am lying around with cat toys on the stage where the host of ‘Saturday Night Live’ delivers the monologue every week. I was like, ‘Oh, this is the end.’”

But, the intimidating producers were clearly impressed with Ferrell’s last-minute comedy skits. It was 1995, and he was invited to become a cast member on SNL. Will would go on to create countless characters and skits over the course of seven years on the show—the fictional Blue Oyster Cult member Gene Frenkle, the music teacher Marty Culp, cheerleader Craig Buchanan, and the nightclubber Steve Butabi to name a few. And the late-night show catapulted his career into film.

First, he appeared in several movies including the Austin Powers movies with Mike Myers and Zoolander with Ben Stiller. And from there, he moved on to leading film roles like Elf, Old School, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Step Brothers, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, and Daddy’s Home. And audiences have been laughing ever since. Turns out Ferrell was indeed very talented and had some good luck to boot.

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