Will Ferrell has always been a sports guy. In high school, he played basketball, soccer, and football. In college at USC, he studied to be a sports journalist. When he auditioned for his role on Saturday Night Live, one of the characters that won him the job was his wigged-out impersonation of Cubs announcer Harry Caray.
After he left SNL, Ferrell kept up the sports-related routines, from appearances on the ESPYs, to an audition for SportsCenter as Ron Burgundy, to a spot subbing as a PA announcer for the New Orleans Hornets.
He also made a pair of box office hits about NASCAR and figure skating, respectively, a less-popular film about the ABA, and a movie about coaching youth soccer you probably wouldn’t know existed unless you looked at his IMDB page. Now the latest of Ferrell’s sports-comedy ventures, a hybrid documentary/mockumentary called “Ferrell Takes the Field” premiering Saturday on HBO, is the warmest, zaniest and funniest of the lot (his iconic Harry Caray impression aside).
“Ferrell Takes the Field” follows Ferrell as he plays all nine positions and designated hitter for ten Major League Baseball teams in a single day of Cactus League preseason baseball this past March. The conceit of the special is simple enough: See what happens when they (sort of) let Will Ferrell into the Majors. Ferrell bounces between teams, trying to reenact the day shortstop Bert Campaneris played every position in a single game (Campaneris’s feat was achieved during an actual MLB regular season game in 1965 as part of a promotion by the then-Kansas City Athletics).
The film is partly an actual documentary that shows you what happens when a 47-year-old comedian is allowed on the field with professional baseball players to support a charity. Ferrell puts on the uniforms, goes through a series of trades, cuts, and signings (he was apparently traded from the Los Angeles Angels to the Chicago Cubs for a washing machine), actually pitches and hits against Major Leaguers (he made contact in one of two plate appearances—it looked painful!), and even gets his own page on the comprehensive Baseball-Reference.com (0.1 innings pitched, 0.00 ERA, .000 batting average and two strikeouts in two plate appearances).
But the movie is also a mockumentary of Ferrell play-acting like he’s actually trying to make it in the Majors. He talks about how he does in the clutch (“I live for those moments”), gives a poetic ode to the best play in baseball (“the sacrifice bunt”), and rages at A’s general manager Billy Beane after being traded (“He is a bloodsucking liar who hides in his ivory tower…”).
The HBO special has more laugh lines per joke than the mediocre-but-beloved Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, more heart than the funny-but-formulaic Blades of Glory, and more potential staying power than the crude and forgettable Semi Pro. (I admittedly never saw 2005’s Corky Romano-esque soccer film Kicking & Screaming, but think it’s safe to say that “Ferrell Takes the Field” would win a head-to-head match-up.)
In the years since Ferrell’s last sports-themed parody, 2008’s Semi Pro, his career has taken a general turn toward the surreal and the offbeat. He’s been involved in a string of projects that have been occasionally very funny, often very strange, and almost always original. In 2012, he did the Spanish-language telenovela-themed western Casa de Mi Padre, which was shot in 24 days and felt like it was made for the sole purpose of amusing Will Ferrell. In recent years he’s also done a series of completely gonzo, occasionally art film-inspired beer commercials in places like North Platte, Nebraska and Sweden (these ads are genuinely funny). This past summer, he starred with Kristen Wiig in a deadpan take on melodramatic Lifetime thrillers for that same network called A Deadly Adoption.
While the critical reaction to these sorts of so-ironic-that-they-seem-earnest performances has been mixed, thier common denominator is that Ferrell is quite likely the only person in Hollywood who would have ever possibly done them. This sort of constant spontaneity is an approach that few other comedians share (Bill Murray also comes to mind). So what makes this docu-mockumentary more fun than Ferrell’s previous sports-parody efforts is that it feels—despite the significant planning that was clearly required in order to make it happen—less like an artistic “project” than like an extended Ferrell-ian lark. In fact, the genesis of “Ferrell Takes the Field” appears to be a previous zany stunt where he took the mound for the Triple-A Round Rock Express as right-handed Venezuelan pitcher Rojo Johnson, who was tossed out of the game after his first pitch for throwing several feet behind the batter. As Ferrell’s temporary teammate on the Chicago White Sox Jeff Samardzija says in the documentary, “I think he just kind of ad libs most of his life as he goes.” We are all the beneficiaries of that ad lib. Except for, maybe, the Cubs.