THE BLOG
09/30/2015 06:30 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

SNL in Review: How Will Ferrell Saved 'Saturday Night Live' 20 Years Ago and Transformed Comedy

In SNL IN REVIEW, we look back at some of the notable cinematic efforts from Saturday Night Live alum, and place them in context of the actor-comedian's career.

Throughout its history, Saturday Night Live has experienced ebbs and flows, departing cast members signaling the end of one era, new additions launching another. (Arguably, we are in one of those periods now.) Most famously, the Not Ready for Primetime Players exited SNL at the beginning of the 80s, giving way to Eddie Murphy "saving" the show singlehandedly until Lorne Michaels' return in 1985.

The definitive shift, however, took place 20 years ago.

SNL can really be split into two halves: boomer humor, and post-boomer humor. The first period (1975-1995) was a coup of sorts - a sign that anti-establishment voices, besieged by Vietnam and Watergate, had arrived. Their sensibility eventually became entrenched in the mainstream, typified by the Hollywood success stories of John Belushi in The Blues Brothers and Bill Murray in Caddyshack. However, as the first wave splintered, a different, post-boomer comic perspective began to emerge. The first appearance of a young Will Ferrell at the 21st SNL season premiere on September 30, 1995 doesn't simply portend this development; it's the line in the sand, the threshold, a link to today's universe of comic viral content. Ferrell himself described what was at stake to Marc Maron as "this will either work, or the show will get cancelled."

The release of his recent HBO special, Ferrell Takes the Field, and this summer's Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption demonstrates that Ferrell continues to enjoy long-lasting celebrity. But commemorating his casting on SNL is more than his iconic film characters over the years: Ron Burgundy, Brennan Huff, Buddy the Elf, Ricky Bobby, Mugatu, Steve Butabi. It's also about the shift in American humor from the ironic smarm employed by SNL's first stars to something more surreal and, regrettably, clickworthy.

In fact, a review of Ferrell's sketch work on the show reveals a foundation for what's been an often influential and successful film career. As a result, Ferrell is among the last true comedy superstar to be bred on Saturday Night Live.

A decade into Lorne Michael's second reign as showrunner, SNL was once again facing an identity crisis. Besieged by scathing reviews and low ratings, Michaels opted to once again retool. His timing was critical -- many of the show's stars (Dana Carvey, Mike Myers) had left for Hollywood, while others were dragging the show to increasingly juvenile, and possibly misogynistic, places. This conglomerate, the "Bad Boys of SNL," consisted of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, both of whom would be fired after the disastrous '94-'95 season. In more ways than one, the show was hitting a wall creatively.

With good reason. Remarkably, the show up until this point had mostly targeted, under its various incarnations, baby boomers. (Any lip service paid to Gen X was incidental, and not reflective of their perspective.) Musical guests and hosts during the 20th season resembled names that could've contributed during the show's initial run (and did): Bob Newhart, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Steve Martin, Rod Stewart. The original cast was hitting middle age - Dan Aykroyd was only 43 by 1995 -and it was not uncommon to still see Not Ready for Primetime Players still headlining films in multiplexes. (In 1995, the waning Chevy Chase starred in Man of the House, while Aykroyd inaugurated the "Home for SNL-Bred Ex-Box Office Champs" with appearances in Tommy Boy and Canadian Bacon.)

In order to stave off cancellation, SNL needed to turn the page. As host Mariel Hemingway states in her monologue, the show was filled with changes: "new director, new writers, new set." While many, including Chris Rock, have described Eddie Murphy's legendary contributions, less noted are the ways Ferrell's character work changed the course of the show.

It was an inauspicious beginning during the season premiere. Riffing on her then-controversial kiss with Roseanne, Hemingway introduces Ferrell (briefly) before fawning and kissing over the new female cast members. He's there, then gone.

Later, his knack for appearing well-intentioned and normal pays off. Mariel Hemingway's wife wants to get off the phone and enlists Ferrell, as her husband, to come up with increasingly outlandish reasons for her to hang up. This brief sketch captures the absurdity of the mundane that would soon become his hallmark. Later film roles, from Old School to Kicking & Screaming, are based on the simple notion that Ferrell looks like the average dad who accidentally loses his shit. He's a live action Randy Marsh.

Ferrell's audition reveals similar thematic terrain; as Tina Fey has said, he always had an eye for subverting All American males and heartland values. He launches into Ted Kennedy-as-a-standup, a bad Bill Clinton impression, before beginning his classic "Get Off the Shed!" routine (which he also does in his first show), and acting out his corporate executive playing with yarn. That seeming docility, and its lurking rage, made Ferrell a prime pop cultural figure at the beginning of the new millennium - a representation of suburban residents and their discontent. This thread begins at SNL, before its eventual transition to "We're Going Streaking!" (Worth noting: his first feature length writing credit, A Night at the Roxbury, tweaks the inherent silliness of youthful machismo and hook up culture.)

Viewing Ferrell as a comedy auteur makes his sketch work significant within the broader scope of his now legendary film career. In fact, since joining SNL, Ferrell has always resembled something of an outlier. By the early 90s, many of SNL's stars still fell within a second cohort for baby boomers - Farley and Spade were born in 1964. Phil Hartman was born in 1948. Ferrell, for his part, was born in 1967, but his peak popularity would fall just as a generation of young people were signing up for Facebook. Sure, he cut teeth doing standup in Orange County during the early 90s, before linking up with the Groundlings. (Which soon became the training ground for sitcom and SNL performers, displacing Second City, which had been the dominant clearinghouse for cast members in the 70s and 80s.) However, a combination of timing and the uniqueness of his characters would allow Ferrell to transcend his peers.

Characters played by Ferrell on SNL were often innocents (Spartan Cheerleaders), or oddballs (James Lipton, Goulet). Collectively, they lent the template for his later onscreen portrayals. Marty Culp proved his musical chops, giving way to his unhinged song & dance as Franz Liebkind in The Producers, as well as his pivotal, earth shattering performance at the end of Step Brothers. Craig Buchanan might've graduated high school, one day moved to North Pole and become Buddy the Elf. The basic lovable American idiot first shown in his George Bush would soon give way, in one variation or another, to Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby. Never fully disappearing behind makeup (a la Mike Myers), or a natural mimic (like Carvey), Ferrell's success in Hollywood has been forged on the subtle range of types he perfected as an SNL cast member.

His best film work utilized him as a friendlier, commercialized, updated version of Andy Kaufman. (Besides Bewitched or Land of the Lost, none of his film projects approach the disaster of Heartbeeps, thankfully.) Moreover, his frequent, now trademark use of non-sequiturs was first witnessed in sketch work, such as the ones focused on the unseen Bill Brasky. Becoming his calling card, that brand of humor has been central to his ongoing success as a film star, whose movies have grossed nearly $2.4 billion domestically, adjusted for inflation. Moreover, Ferrell's legacy may include the way his trademark humor's role in today's increasingly online hub for comedy and viral content (and, in the case of Brasky, serving as the obvious inspiration for Dos Equis' Most Interesting Man in the World campaign).

The reverberations of Ferrell's SNL work goes beyond his own films. The immortal "More Cowbell" skit was done only once, and is frequently cited as one of the greatest sketches in the show's history. (Character Gene Frenkle has since reappeared when Ferrell has hosted alongside the SNL musical guest.) Perhaps only Peanut Butter Jelly Time! has been as widely circulated with comedy's transition into the millennial-centered world of memes and share-able links. And "More Cowbell" (then Pearl and Anchorman) were at the front lines. Andy Samberg is often credited with shepherding SNL into the digital age, but Ferrell's output, and the catchphrases he invented, certainly pointed in the direction of the wind.

Today, Ferrell is still ubiquitous, particularly with the success of Funny or Die. It's odd to recall that his early film work was amidst the tail end of Lorne Michaels' bid to translate every popular sketch to film: A Night at the Roxbury, Ladies Man, Superstar, and the fatefully aborted Sprockets movie. Ferrell was a fixture in the original Austin Powers and worked with Jim Carrey, yet has never felt like a dated relic of the 90s.

Indeed, it's hard to imagine comedy today without More Cowbell, strategery or much of what makes Talladega Nights and the original Anchorman so memorable. Along with Family Guy, Ferrell succeeded in pioneering a new path for mainstream comedy that's been copped and practically beaten to death. Twenty years since his SNL debut, his everyman fury, gift for improvisation and random, digital friendly quotables ("By the beard of Zeus!") is now common in pop culture (if not a tad trite). There's a reason, at age 44, he was selected as the 2011 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Few comics have sustained as diverse and lengthy a comic resume as Ferrell. Alongside Kristen Wiig, Ferrell altered the kinds of characters shown on SNL. Whether they were secret weirdos, or typical American dolts, Ferrell tapped into a humanity which still resonates with audiences. In doing so, he liberated SNL from its own legacy, allowing the show to avoid cancellation and grow into a third golden age.