When Will Ferrell dropped his drawers to run through the streets for a scene in last February's hit comedy Old School he had no idea he had created the perfect ice-breaker for Nicole Kidman. The Oscar winner, who is in talks to play Samantha to his Darren in a movie version of Bewitched in development, is a fan of Old School, and she told him so on the phone. Then "she just started laughing," says Ferrell. "I was like, 'You're thinking about my butt right now, aren't you?' And she was like, 'No, I wasn't. Well...now I am!' "

Whether he's the butt of jokes or just making them, Ferrell, 36, has made the often treacherous Saturday Night Live-to-movies leap successfully. In roles like Buddy, a human raised by Santa's elves who travels to New York City in search of his real father in the hit Elf (which earned $32 million its opening weekend) or Old School frat guy Frank the Tank, "your heart goes out to him," says Elf director Jon Favreau. "Even in a silly comedy, he brings a level of humanity to his stuff."

So what's a more flattering costume, Elf's tights or the modesty-protecting sock he sported while streaking in Old School? "It just depends on what mood you're in," says the 6'3" comedian. "Sometimes if you want a more slimming effect, you go with the tights. But if you just feel your most confident, you'll go with the sock. After three takes, you can do anything. That's what I've figured out." Ferrell has proved he'll stop at little in pursuit of goofiness, from his Late Night with Conan O'Brien appearances as a lap-dancing leprechaun to his SNL creations like Craig the cheerleader and killer impersonations of George W. Bush and Janet Reno. Yet in real life, Ferrell is more restrained than zany, much to the dismay of many TV interviewers and his Elf dad, James Caan. "He'd look at me and say, 'I thought this would be fun, but you're just a guy. You're not funny,' " says Ferrell. "I just told him, 'Jimmy, it's all a sham.' "

Not quite—but his idea of a good time is running a marathon (he's completed three). He saves most of his off-camera zingers for wife Viveca Paulin, 34, an art auctioneer. He keeps Viveca, who is expecting the couple's first child next March, entertained with voice mails he leaves at their Hollywood Hills home. Recently, "I left her this message, 'You think you're so hot walking around all pregnant and saying, 'Look at me!' " says Ferrell, who wed Viveca in 2000. "And she loved it, because she so doesn't feel that way."

Ferrell has always preferred to dole out his comedy in measured doses. Growing up in Irvine, Calif., Ferrell—the son of Kay, a schoolteacher, and Lee, a longtime keyboardist for the Righteous Brothers—"would try to make my friends laugh," he says. "But at the same time, I was telling everyone to shut up and listen to the teacher."

In high school Ferrell's penchant for cracking jokes and going to class wearing pajamas led classmates to vote him Best Personality. After graduating from USC in 1990 with a degree in sports information, he enrolled in theater classes in Costa Mesa, where he met Viveca. He ended up in the L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings in 1992. Money was tight, leading to one miserable moonlighting stint walking around Pasadena dressed as Santa with fellow Groundling (and future SNL castmate) Chris Kattan as his elf. Ferrell kept his spirits up. "He looked at me after five hours of handing out candy canes and just went, 'Uh, Elf, you're looking pretty good,' " says Kattan. "I was just like, 'Oh, Santa....' "

After seven starmaking years on SNL, Ferrell left last year for the big screen. Next up, he'll play an egotistic TV broadcaster in Anchorman and appear in Woody Allen's next film. "It was funny to go from, 'Have you seen this guy on Saturday Night Live?' to 'the guy who does the cheerleader,' to 'the guy who plays George Bush,' to 'Will Ferrell,' " he says, grinning. "Now they actually know my name."

JASON LYNCH
Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Julie Jordan.