Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler: The Ultimate Comedy Team
Other than a mere year of overlap on Saturday Night Live (which produced one of the greatest sketches of all time, “Short Shorts for the USA”) and mostly isolated screen time in the no-one-knows-what-it-means-but-it’s-provocative Blades of Glory, Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler have never performed together in a proper two-hander. Which is no laughing matter when you really think about it. How have these two towering titans of comedy never been given the proper court to volley their signature humor and acerbic wit back and forth before?
That all changes tomorrow with The House opening in theaters. Ferrell and Poehler play a happily married couple who resort to extreme measures when they discover they won’t be able to afford their daughter’s college tuition. With some arm twisting from their equally desperate friend (Jason Mantzoukas), the domesticated duo open a rowdy illegal casino in their quiet neighborhood and, before they know it, things spiral out of control. Run-ins with corrupt local politicians, low-level gangsters, and a bloodthirsty Avenger are just some of the many hurdles Ferrell and Poehler have to clear as the hilarity heightens and the situational ante keeps getting upped. Basically, it’s everything you’d want to see in Ferrell and Poehler’s first true film together.
I sat down with Will and Amy to discuss The House, what they’ve learned from the new generation of comedic voices, and who’d they want to play from Trump’s administration in an SNL sketch.
There’s something inherently funny about chaos consuming the ‘burbs and mild-mannered parents being pushed to the edge. The House manages to find new ways to turn that premise on its ear. As parents to young children yourselves, was that what attracted you to the script?
Will: I think specific to this, it was a chance for Amy and I to work together, which we hadn’t gotten to do since Blades of Glory and even in that we were on separate storylines and hardly in scenes together. That combined with hearing the pitch “husband and wife try to finance their daughter’s college education through an illegal casino” just felt like the backdrop to something absolutely fun to be a part of. So it wasn’t necessarily thinking about the idea of suburbia, but there is something comedically appealing that world.
Amy: Once you and Andrew [Jay Cohen] started to talk about the idea of seeing the way the the whole town would be affected by this illegal casino, as well as the couple, it really stuck. All the lying and secret hideouts they had to meet up at to keep the casino under wraps in hopes of making a little bit of money really tapped into this American obsession with “making it”. That’s why everyone’s addicted to gambling. [laughs] That’s why we have the lottery. There is that sense of if they just — pun intended — play their cards right their life is going to change.
So there might have been a bigger theme but Will and I were also really into the idea of playing a couple that’s similar to our own experience, even though our kids are younger — a couple who we felt could live in our world or a couple we actually know.
Will: While we were exploring this world we all agreed that this couple should get in way over their heads. It should get to the point where they are running around and shaking their neighbors down for money. This casino causes their quiet lives to go completely off the rails, but even though they hate to say it, they realize it’s the best time of their lives too. They’re torn between feeling bad about that but it feels so good and they feel so alive. And then it all comes crashing down.
Amy: Because — spoiler alert — they’re really bad at it.
Despite the massive mainstream successes both of you have attained, you always make room for sublimely strange, absurd cult projects. For every The House you’ll do A Deadly Adoption or They Came Together. Has that balance been difficult to maintain?
Amy: Will does that so much, and so well. He’ll do these big films then go do these left-field things or go do these insane bits on late night. I love that. I think any comedy person wants to go to what they find funny and work with the people they want to work with.
Will: Amy and I both share that love of the Andy Kaufman-esque experience where you go off and do something that a small percentage of your audience will appreciate and find funny but 70% will be like, “What were you thinking? What the hell was that?” But after a while, that 70% slowly starts to catch up to it. But those are always the most fun, fulfilling projects.
Amy: They really are the best.
Both of you have helped usher in a new generation of comedic voices — Will with Funny or Die, and Amy with your Paper Kite banner. What have you learned most about yourselves from these younger comedians?
Amy: Will, what have the kids taught you? What have the millennials taught us?
Will: That’s a great question.
Amy: Working with a lot of young female voices, I’m always inspired by how their take on the world is so much different than mine even though we aren’t that far apart in age. They’re coming up in a different time. I also like that people push me and remind me that my privileged white female experience is not the only experience. So I’m constantly being educated by young people.
But we are of a different generation, even on the performance level. Will and I didn’t have our stuff on YouTube or any platform with a reach like that. We had to audition for stuff in person or if we did a show, it was like Waiting for Guffman where we’d be like, “Oh my God, Comedy Central is coming to the show!” and we’d have to tape off seats. And we couldn’t go online to see what everyone else had done so far. Even when we were at SNL — and we were just talking about this the other day — we didn’t have the internet to research our impressions. We’d have to get VHS tapes from the research department to study who we’d be impersonating that week. Another major thing was I couldn’t look up online to see what people thought of me. I couldn’t read comments that would get me in my head. So there was a freedom that we had there that I feel people don’t get anymore, because they feel they might have to create some sort of persona to go along with their work.
Will: I’m amazed by just the sheer amount of comedic voices making neat and interesting stuff really quickly. That is extremely inspiring. At the same time, I’ve seen some people in comedy, because of that fear of internet judgment, doing their thing but also making sure their hair looks really good or just being mindful of their appearance and image. I love watching someone who you can just go — and I used to talk about this with [Rachel] Dratch — “Oh, that person has the heart of a comedian.” Someone who is willing to just go for it and not really care what people think online. That fear can creep into a performer sometimes.
Amy: At the end of the day, there isn’t much that is different, but it’s been both inspiring and intriguing to see how these new voices approach their work.
Will: Also, short-form content has exploded, which has been great, but doing long-form is still a whole different skill set. Not to say that Amy and I have it down or we feel supremely confident in it all the time, but it’s still really hard to write a 90-minute movie that works all the way through.
Amy: But we are counting on it being hard.
Will: [knocking on the wood table, pretending to hyperventilate]
Amy: There’s not enough room at the end!
Will: [still hyperventilating] Whoa! [adopts an omniscient narrator’s voice] At this point in the interview Mr. Ferrell took off all his clothes and released all of his bodily fluids.
Amy: He’s planking on the floor!
Will: Why did you have to bring up the younger generation of comedians?!
Amy: Will just hurt himself trying to dab.
If you could come back to SNL not to revive your iconic George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton impersonations, but to play someone in Trump’s administration today, who would you be?
Amy: God, are there any more of them left?
Will: Well, Jimmy [Fallon] did Jared Kushner and that was such a great one — him just not speaking. It would be fun to write an Andrew Steele-esque sketch of that weird cabinet meeting Trump just did. Did you see that clip of that bizarre meeting where Trump went around the table and had all those cabinet members compliment him?
Amy: Please don’t remind me.
Will: I bet all the old SNL cast members were like “I wish I was still on there for that!”
Amy: [laughs] Just think about all the cutaways.
Will: I’d love to do that sketch but the cabinet is 70 actors and they’re all white middle-aged men. Just this cartoonishly long sketch where we go down this insanely long line and they’re all forced to compliment Trump.
Amy: I’d pitch that it’s Will playing all 70 of the men and he just goes from seat to seat changing into different wigs and facial hair, with only one visibly shaken lady at the very end of the line.
Will: [laughs] That would be perfect. Also there’s this one guy who isn’t part of the cabinet who I thought if I was still on SNL I would love to play: Richard Painter, who was George W. Bush’s ethics counselor. [Will contorts his face into a droopy eye and adopts a nasally, twangy lisp as to mimic Painter] “You see, what the president is doing is very dangerous and he needs to watch himself.” Not that anyone wants to see that guy played, but I’d force that guy onto the show.
Amy: I want to play Ted Nugent. Just let me play Nugent, damnit.
The House hits theaters this Friday, June 30th.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.