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Will Ferrell wins Mark Twain prize for humor. Was he the best pick?

Will Ferrell is lauded as being a fearless comedian with a sharp eye for the quirks of American culture, but some say he lacks the gravitas to be a national prize-winner.

By Staff writer / May 13, 2011

Will Ferrell in a scene from 'Everything Must Go.'

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Now that Will Ferrell has nabbed the nation’s top comedy prize, the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, it is somehow fitting that he steps out in his most un-funny movie role to date. This weekend marks the opening of “Everything must Go,” a drama based on a Raymond Carver short story about a man who loses his job, his home, and wife.

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But this role illustrates what makes Mr. Ferrell’s comedy so potent, say those who chose him for the honor and those who have worked with him. “There is something about the earnestness of his creative exploration that is powerful no matter which direction he takes it," says Cappy McGarr, executive producer of the PBS television awards ceremony, which will be broadcast in October.

The award was created to honor Twain’s spirit of being “a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective.” One of the creators of the 14-year-old prize, Mr. McGarr says Mr. Ferrell perfectly fits his criteria. “He’s just one of those comedians whose body of work has given us one continuous laugh,” he says.

Ferrell’s very seriousness of purpose is the key to his comedy, says Cherie Kerr, one of the founders of the Groundlings, the Los Angeles comedy club that has produced many nationally known comics, including Ferrell.

She describes an early Ferrell creation, his now well-known impression of late Chicago Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray, which he would trot out was he sat astride the Groundlings stage, taking questions from the audience. “People didn’t really know what to make of him, and it wasn’t even really that funny, yet somehow it worked,” she says, largely because of his intense commitment.

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