If things had gone just a bit differently, Will Ferrell might actually have wound up behind a TV news desk. The star of “Anchorman 2” pursued a sports broadcasting degree through the University of Southern California’s school of journalism.
“That’s what I set out to do when I graduated in 1990,” Ferrell said by phone recently. He went so far as to report and anchor for a local cable-access news show.
Luckily, his taste for deadpan absurdism prevailed, and America got butterscotch-voiced blowhard Ron Burgundy instead.
The new film, opening Tuesday night, has Ferrell reprising his puffed-up newsman role in a story set at the birth of 24-hour cable news channels. The publicity for the film has paired him with countless reporters asking him strained, jokey questions, a spectacle akin to watching Little Leaguers pitch against David Ortiz.
“To be honest, it’s horrible,” Ferrell laughed. The upside, he said, is that “it’s fun to try to answer all that stuff in a serious way. Serious in terms of how Ron would answer it, and not kind of shoo it away.”
The nonstop events also spawned a thousand YouTube clips showcasing Ferrell’s ability to ad-lib on the spot. Ferrell learned his craft with Los Angeles’ improv troupe the Groundlings, and his knack for spontaneously popping off lunatic one-liners has helped change the mind-set of American film comedy. Ferrell and his fellow riff-artists more or less buried the old written-and-rehearsed approach, replacing it with films substantially brainstormed on the fly.
With his director and co-writer Adam McKay, Ferrell said he “really tried to make the script good. That being said, it’s just an extra writing step if you can get a group of actors that are comfortable improvising, why wouldn’t you? Do those extra couple of takes and you might find a couple of jokes that fit really nicely.
“You might get off-story, but just chuck it in there. I don’t think the audience is going to sit back in their chair, arms crossed, and say, ‘I refuse to laugh — it got off-story.’ ”
The cast dreamed up so many gags while shooting that producer Judd Apatow screened two versions of the film for audiences, putting killer jokes from each in the theatrical release. An alternate version of the movie will be released on DVD with the same plot but 230 different jokes.
The promotional blitzkrieg for “Anchorman 2” has carpet-bombed every form of media short of skywriting and fortune cookies. Paramount’s marketing team has done everything in its power to make the film ubiquitous and inescapable, Ferrell said, because “they have a real love for this film. They saw so many different ways to promote the movie, and we wanted to make the choices a little bit left of center.”
The tie-ins include (this is true) a Ron Burgundy private label blend of Scotch, Ron Burgundy’s Scotchy Scotch Scotch ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s, and briefs from Jockey that come in Sex Panther Red and Beard of Zeus Blue. There’s also Ron’s memoir, “Let Me Off at the Top! My Classy Life and Other Musings,” and a series of spots for the Dodge Durango that spiked sales of the truck by 59 percent. (This is also true.)
“It’s like a superhero movie promotion,” Ferrell said. It took years to get the frenzy to this fever pitch, however. The studio, which sees higher returns from special effects blockbusters, initially had little interest in a $50 million ensemble comedy, even though the original “Anchorman” had become a cultural touchstone with the all-important 18-to-24-year-olds.
“Most definitely it’s harder to get a movie like this made now. Every decision is being scrutinized with an intensity I haven’t seen before, all tied to the bottom line. Everyone wanted to make it bad enough that we made financial sacrifices.” Ferrell, McKay, Apatow and actors Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and David Koechner cut their fees by two-thirds to get the project rolling.
Ferrell has a special affection for inexpensive, funny movies. His website Funny or Die showcases do-it-yourself videos by top comedians. His previous film, the bargain-basement Spanish language telenovela parody “Casa de Mi Padre,” was an experience he described as “sheer joy.” Ferrell said he wouldn’t rule out funding some small future projects through Kickstarter-style crowdsourcing.
“Absolutely, as long as I can convince people to give us $4 or $5 million to do things like that,” he said. “Especially as the big-budget ones get harder to make, if there are some resources out there to make the down-and-dirty fast ones, absolutely. I find they’re more of a grind, but the crew that works on an indie movie has this galvanizing experience. It really moves along quickly and there’s an energy to it. So yeah, I hope to do more of those little things.”
Ferrell has bad news, however, for those with an affinity for pixie culture. Ferrell rules out a sequel to his breakthrough hit “Elf.”
“No, that ship has sailed. I think Buddy might look a little pathetic right now in the tights. He’d need Spanx.”