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Chroniclers of strange beasts: Men

With `Talladega Nights,' Will Ferrell and Adam McKay keep digging into guys' stuff.

July 30, 2006|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

REAL men eat yogurt parfaits.

That might be the conclusion after sitting down to breakfast with writing partners Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, two 6-foot-plus white-bread guys in khaki shorts, who also happen to be the director and star, respectively, of the upcoming "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," a cheerily demented look inside the world of NASCAR racing, in which the women are hot, the men dumb, and the racing cool.

McKay and Ferrell -- who've written together since meeting at "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-'90s -- specialize in "men being men." They are comedically obsessed with all the ridiculously self-important rites of masculinity. They adore lunkheads -- be it the swinging, mustachioed, chick-chasing newscaster in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," who finds himself dropped head first into the '70s battle of the sexes, or "Talladega Nights' " Ricky Bobby, the fastest race car driver in the circuit, who loses his mojo after getting upstaged by a Formula One driver who's not only French but gay (played by Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as Ali G).

"The type of guy who we like as characters are the act-first, think-later kind of males. There's so much chest pounding that goes on," says Ferrell, demurely spooning yogurt and granola into his mouth at an air-conditioned bakery-cafe on Melrose, not far from his home.

"We're so up on the 'Jackass' guys," chimes in McKay, who's eating the same, having been forced to give up burritos and the like by his wife, who wants him to live longer. "They are the most fun to play, and he does it really well," says the director, gesturing to Ferrell.

McKay seems much more likely to brag on Ferrell's behalf. In person, the 39-year-old comedy superstar possesses all the charisma of a dad getting ready to barbecue, with slivers of gray cropping into his curly fro, and green-blue eyes. Ferrell is so low-key and normal-seeming that when he was first hired at "Saturday Night Live," all his co-workers, McKay included, assumed he'd been employed to be the straight man. "I could tell, no one thought I was funny," he says, an impression he disabused them of at the first read-through.

Occasionally, his sense of humor peeks out. When a young, comely fan grabs his arms and stops him to tell him some supposed secret about his new home, Ferrell listens with warmth as if he actually knew the woman, and afterward explains the revelation: "Bill Clinton once pooped in my new house."

McKay, who's written with Ferrell both credited and uncredited (including "Elf" and "Bewitched"), seems descended from a similar gene pool -- but he hails from Chicago instead of California. The 37-year-old writer-director is physically broader, slightly messier, and sports glasses and, today, an orange baseball cap. He and his pals from the Upright Citizens Brigade theater troupe used to devote themselves to studying the male species at Yak-Zies, a chicken-wing bar in Chicago he describes as "the epicenter of white guy frat culture. We'd just look in the window and literally be there for 45 minutes. It was all guys with backwards baseball caps, listening to the same Van Morrison song over and over and over again."

"I used to spend my whole freshman year in college crashing fraternity parties. I was like, 'I'm Pete's cousin. What's Uuuuuuuuup?' " says Ferrell, launching into an impression of how he would try to talk his way into free beers before getting thrown out.

This is McKay's favorite Ferrell story: "He went in front of his whole fraternity and did a whole speech that the whole frat should go gay," says McKay. "It would be a way they could save on parties. The name 'fraternity' means 'brotherhood' and would bring them closer. And they also wouldn't have to worry about liability for sexual assault because it would be just them."

*

Fun with cliches

"TALLADEGA Nights," which opens Friday, parodies many of the staples of the male bonding movie -- the gung ho friendship, the lost male father figure who returns to instill confidence in his son, the pretty nice girl that Bobby finally notices has been standing by his side the whole time. It pokes fun at the tropes at the same time that it weirdly celebrates them -- as McKay cheerfully admits, he and Ferrell are not a species entirely different from the targets of their humor. McKay's done his share of beer bong hits, and Ferrell was in a frat after all, at USC no less. "There's a little bit of that in us," McKay says. "We're not free bohemian spirits either, but we like to make fun of it."

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