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Will Ferrell spoofs NASCAR in new film but plays it straight in real life

Will Ferrell isn't funny.

Is it the hotel setting that's making him stiffen up? Is it the publicist lurking in the adjoining room? Is it because the actor hates doing interviews, as he eventually admits?

You want to grab him by his collar and shake him into action: Make jokes! Do funny voices! Be Will Ferrell! But no.

Whatever the reason, Ferrell, whose new film, ``Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," opens Friday, " goes almost half an hour without making an even remotely humorous remark.

Ferrell is a gifted comedian and ``Talladega Nights" is an intermittently hilarious spoof of NASCAR, but you'd never know it from listening to him run mechanically through the plot. Even Ferrell's encounter with Meat Loaf the night before, when they each threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game, fails to coax out a joke.

``Yeah, I didn't know Meat Loaf was going to be there," Ferrell says. ``I met him right after I threw the pitch. He was very nice . . . . We hadn't met before, I don't think."

Is he a Meat Loaf fan? Again, Ferrell resists the bait.

``Um, yeah . . . . I don't know if I've ever . . . other than his most famous songs . . . I couldn't call myself an aficionado or anything . . ."

In his short-sleeve shirt, blue jeans, and unscuffed running shoes -- a reminder, along with his slight paunch, that Ferrell's 2003 Boston Marathon run (3 hours, 56 minutes, 12 seconds) is well behind him -- the actor looks extraordinarily normal. If he hadn't become famous on ``Saturday Night Live" impersonating George W. Bush, if he hadn't cracked the Hollywood A-list in 2003 with ``Old School" and ``Elf," if his face weren't plastered on billboards and buses across the country to promote his latest film, you'd have trouble picking him out of a crowd.

Ferrell doesn't talk or act or dress the way you expect a comedian to talk and act and dress. He isn't over-the-top-crazy like Jim Belushi, a live wire like Eddie Murphy, or sharp-tongued like Al Franken -- all fellow ``SNL" alums.

In fact, the `` SNL " grunt-turned-movie star he most resembles is Dan Aykroyd. Like Aykroyd, Ferrell's an everyman, a blue collar, a professional. He's married (his wife grew up in Needham) with one son. He disappears easily into outrageous roles because there's so little to disappear from. If you don't have a type, you don't get typecast -- the curse that has relegated so many other `` SNL " vets (I'm looking at you, Jon Lovitz) to the ghetto of minor celebrity.

In other words, Ferrell is an actor, not a true comedian in the Richard Pryor vein. Ferrell doesn't have a background in stand-up, and you don't get the sense that he'd be very good at it. Like Jim Carrey in ``The Mask," Ferrell seems to need an alter ego for his comedic genius to emerge.

In 2004, after a decade of mostly forgettable movie appearances, Ferrell found the perfect mask in ``Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy ," directed by former `` SNL " head writer Adam McKay . The self-absorbed, mustachioed Burgundy was the ideal vehicle for Ferrell's brand of absurdist humor.

Ferrell and McKay enjoyed working together so much they decided to re-team on ``Talladega Nights," which would give NASCAR the satirical treatment the pair gave television news in ``Anchorman."

To Ferrell's surprise, NASCAR's front-office executives loved the idea and granted the film crew unprecedented access to its racetracks, its drivers -- including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Darrell Waltrip -- and, perhaps most importantly, its billion-dollar brand. Sequences in ``Talladega Nights " were filmed during actual races. And NASCAR wielded approval over the sponsors of the film's fictional cars, from Ferrell's #26 Wonder Bread/ Powerade car to his French opponent's #55 Perrier.

You could understand that level of collaboration for a movie celebrating NASCAR. But a movie mocking it?

``I think their allowing us to make this movie showed their confidence in their audience," Ferrell says. ``They realized we weren't making fun of the fans. NASCAR's just a great setting for these outlandish characters."

Then again, ``Talladega Nights " does portray Ferrell's character , Ricky Bobby , as a dim-witted, homophobic redneck who signs women's breasts with a magic marker. That's probably not the self-image NASCAR's trying to promote in 2006.

Ferrell says he sees a few similarities between Ricky Bobby and what is still his most famous character, President Bush.

``They're both not super articulate," Ferrell says. ``They both come off as somewhat brash: Ricky has this `my way or the highway' attitude, and Bush exhibits some of that as well. And of course they're both very pro-America."

Ferrell reprised his Bush impersonation in 2004 in a series of TV commercials for America Coming Together, a pro-Kerry get-out-the-vote outfit. But Ferrell says his liberal politics didn't bother the Bush-loving NASCAR nation.

``NASCAR didn't really express any political beliefs to us, and vice versa," Ferrell says. ``We just made a funny movie."

Ferrell, McKay, and co stars John C. Reilly (``Chicago") and Sacha Baron-Cohen (HBO's ``Da Ali G Show") actually took laps in a stock car as part of their preparation for the movie. Reilly was the fastest cast member, hitting 143 miles per hour at one point, while the other three contented themselves with beating NASCAR fan Britney Spears's pre-pregnancy mark of 112 miles per hour .

Ferrell finished the movie with a newfound respect for drivers he had previously only seen on TV.

``Actors will complain about press they have to do for a movie, but those guys have to do that much press every week of the season," Ferrell says. ``I just couldn't get over how much time and access they have to give. And then they have to race."

OK, we get it, talking to the press is tough. But Meat Loaf? Come on -- be Will Ferrell!

And that's when you realize: ``President Bush" is funny. ``Ron Burgundy" is funny. ``Ricky Bobby" is funny.

But Ferrell?

Will Ferrell isn't funny.

Michael Hardy can be reached at mhardy@globe.com.

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