Will Ferrell Finally Reveals Why He Left SNL

Will Ferrell says it was a "good time to go" when he left Saturday Night Live in 2002, crediting it to instinct to depart and make the film Elf.

By Vic Medina | Published

will ferrell
Will Ferrell

Will Ferrell has seen his movie career explode in the years since he left the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2002, and in a new interview with The Wall Street Journal, he talked about his decision to leave the show. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a problem on the set of the show, or even the call of a big movie project, that called him away; he just knew it was time to go. As it turns out, his instincts were right: his first project post-SNL was Elf, a Christmas comedy that began with low expectations but became a modern classic.

As his seventh season on Saturday Night Live approached, he had a feeling it was time to move on, despite being one of the most popular members of the cast at the time. “It was just feeling like, for better or for worse, a good time to go. It was a mix of scary and ‘No, this is the right time.’ I don’t know why,” he said.

Upon informing producer Lorne Michaels that he was leaving, Michaels gave him perhaps the greatest compliment of his career, telling him he was among the top three cast members to ever appear on the show.

During his time at NBC, he made a number of appearances on other TV series and in film, mostly small roles like Zoolander, The Ladies Man, and Austin Powers. He had two major roles under his belt: A Night at the Roxbury with Chris Kattan and Old School, which wasn’t released until 2003 but became a huge hit. The Todd Phillips-directed film made him a bankable comedic movie star, but he really didn’t have any big offers waiting for him once he left, just a particular little Christmas movie he was developing with Jon Favreau.

Will Ferrell in Elf (2003)

“We had this script that was a great concept but needed some work about a grown man at the North Pole who thought he was an elf. So I packed up. ‘I’m leaving the show. Let’s see what happens.'” Elf defied expectations and was a box office smash, and has become a annual movie tradition alongside films like A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life. It also helped propel Favreau into bigger films with Marvel in 2008’s Iron Man, and eventually to the Star Wars universe, where he co-created The Mandalorian.

He followed up the success of Elf with perhaps his best – and most popular – role to date: as a fictional 1970s tv newsman in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It, and its 2013 sequel, made Will Ferrell an A-list star, and he followed that up with more hits, including Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Blades of Glory in 2006, and Step Brothers in 2008.

He’s stayed active in the years since, appearing in dozens of films and series. That includes stints on series including The Office, Eastbound & Down, and 30 Rock. His films include The Campaign, The Lego Movie, and the Daddy’s Home movies. He’ll next appear in the live-action version of Barbie.

The winner of four PrimeTime Emmys stays relevant by being open to anything. He’s always appearing in the most unlikely places, from celebrity roasts to TV show cameos and even Funny or Die videos, making the most of his appearances.

Ferrell is currently starring with Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds in Spirited, a new take on Charles Dickens’ Scrooge in which he plays the Ghost of Christmas Present to Reynolds’ Clint Briggs, the new version of Ebenezer.