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.

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

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.

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.

Subsequent figures in the Ferrell ouevre retain this aura of irony-free dedication to figuring out the world at all costs. Whether it’s Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman,” NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights,” President George W. Bush, or the homeless man who opts to be a nude artist’s model, “he isn’t afraid of embarrassing himself,” says Ms. Kerr.

For example, she points out that the art model character sported only a nude tone brief, “and this was before he got into running and being fit,” she says, adding, “so he was letting all his flabbiness hang out.” This lack of vanity, “is the secret to his comedy,” she adds.

His comedy is also “pure Americana,” says comedian Brian Balthazar. “What makes Will Ferrell so distinctly American in his humor is his fondness for this country's archetypes. He loves to take on an aspect of the American culture and give it an over-the-top personal stamp,” he says. Everything from cheerleaders to hot tub wine-sipping enthusiasts. “If it's a big part of American pop culture, Will Ferrell is all over it,” he adds.

Some have questioned whether Ferrell is worthy of a national award. “He is certainly funny, but I’m not sure he has the gravitas for such national recognition,” says Christopher Sharrett, who teaches film studies at Seton Hall University. “It might be a bit much at this stage of his career,” he says, noting that throughout Twain’s career, “he was very socially pointed. I don’t know that we can quite say that of Ferrell yet.”

Other comedians also may have longer and deeper résumés, suggests Joseph Boskin, a professor emeritus of history at Boston University, who teaches a course in humor. He points to personal favorites such as Garrison Keillor, whom he would nominate for the prize.

But he says the award itself is important to the national psyche. “Humor plays a critical role in American culture,” he says. “We are such a pluralistic, diverse society. Humor is what has made it all cohere, has helped to integrate and weave all those worlds together,” he adds.

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