“I’ve never been afraid of silence,” he says. “Silence and listening in comedy are big things that are overlooked.” If you don’t get the joke, he can wait. Like a musician (it’s no accident his films are filled with musical numbers), he thrives on changing the beat and riffing on a theme, letting the gag go on “and on and on and on and start to dip, but then because it’s going on so long it starts to get funny again.”
The approach goes back to his long stint on Saturday Night Live, where he’d double down on sketches that were dying in front of the audience—unlike some of his plainly miserable co-stars. “If something wasn’t working, the tendency would be to speed up and get through it,” he says. “But I would slow way down, and I would have this thing—I don’t know why, I love the audience, I want them to laugh, and yet something would kick in like, ‘Okay, you don’t like it, I’m going to make sure you really hate it,’ so I would just take my time. I don’t know, it was like a perverse joy in the agony of it being so painful. I can’t explain that.”
It's that level of commitment to a bit and the confidence he brings that, in my mind, sets Ferrell apart from other comic actors.
The article also talks about how he and Adam McKay shoot their films.
He and McKay work with actors who can free-associate on-camera. McKay says that after three or four takes to get a scene down as scripted, he’ll tell the cast to go for it and do the next five or six with four cameras rolling. “That’s the part you’re waiting for,” he says. “All of a sudden you see six other jokes you can do, and then sometimes the actors are tired and I’ll throw out lines—‘Play that angrier,’ or ‘There’s something there, you can find it,’ and Will at this point just knows instantly what I’m talking about, and, yeah, that’s the best.”
“You’ll find a little tangent,” says Ferrell, “or an avenue to go down, and Adam will be writing in his head and say, ‘Maybe talk about the fact that … ’ and that will trigger you, and it’s process, you just learn not to judge what you say, and it’s this whole back-and-forth until we run out of film.”
Of course, running out of film isn't a thing anymore. I wonder how much the switch to digital (and how that removed film costs so people could shoot endless takes) has changed movie comedies in the past decade.