Ten minutes before curtain time, Will Ferrell sits backstage in a sports arena at the University of Rhode Island, wearing a Puma tracksuit, psyching himself up for the big show. Some 7,000 or so rowdy students are packed into the Thomas M. Ryan Center to see tonight's concert, the latest stop in an eight-venue tour the actor is headlining to promote the comedy website he helped launch last year, FunnyOrDie.com, and his latest movie, Semi-Pro. Ferrell is feeling worn out, having spent last night on a seven-hour bus ride from Penn State, trying to sleep with his 6-foot-3 body wedged awkwardly into a bunk bed. But the crowd that's come out on this frigid February night expects to see Ferrell bring the funny. He shakes his head. ''This is insane,'' he says. ''I don't know how the rock bands do it.''
At this point in his career, Ferrell doesn't exactly need to be hitting the road to drum up publicity. With his last two comedies, the NASCAR spoof Talladega Nights and the figure-skating romp Blades of Glory, having hauled in nearly $270 million in combined grosses, Semi-Pro which places Ferrell squarely in his wheelhouse yet again as Jackie Moon, the hapless owner of a failing 1970s basketball team should be an easy layup at the box office when it opens Feb. 29. And FunnyOrDie.com, which took off last year thanks to a viral-video sensation pairing Ferrell with a foulmouthed toddler named Pearl, has hit a comfortable cruising speed, drawing more than 3 million visitors a month. But for Ferrell, who's sharing the bill on tour with the rising comics Zach Galifianakis, Demetri Martin, and Nick Swardson, these concerts are not really about pushing product: ''It doesn't matter if it has a tangible effect on people going to see the movie or coming to the site,'' he says. ''It's just fun.''
In the 10 years since the former Saturday Night Live star first broke into movies with A Night at the Roxbury, Ferrell's appeal as comedy's absurdist Everyman has proven remarkably durable. With each hit (Old School, Elf, Anchorman), his fan base has grown, while his flops (Kicking & Screaming, Bewitched) have left him largely unscathed. Still, like many comedy stars before him, Ferrell finds himself, at age 40, caught in a dilemma: His most famous persona the likable buffoon who'll do anything for a laugh, including running around in his tighty-whities, hoisting a male figure skater in the air by the crotch, and wrestling a bear has brought him huge success, but if he dips into that well too many times, the laughs might start turning to eye rolls. Then again, despite Ferrell's well-received detours into more dramatic roles, like the mild-mannered IRS accountant he played in Stranger Than Fiction, many are happy to see him stay in a narrow zone of silliness.
Fairly or not, a few reviewers and moviegoers will ding the actor for plagiarizing his own shtick in Semi-Pro. But Ferrell knows it's fruitless to obsess too much over backseat career management. ''For every person who says, 'I've seen you do that before,' someone else will say, 'I love when you do that thing,''' he says with a shrug. Still, it's clear that he's wary of appearing to milk a joke for too long. Semi-Pro comes on the heels of two other sports comedies, and Ferrell says he's ready to retire his jersey, at least for now. He's passed on a Tootsie-like golf comedy and a beach-volleyball movie called Bronze God. ''I also got pitched, like, 'What if you're a thoroughbred jockey who's just way too tall, but you still want to do it,' '' he says. ''I'm like, 'Oh, and I go up against all the short jockeys?' 'Yes!' I was like, 'I'll keep it in mind.''' He laughs. ''I've been telling people I want to do a movie about a hot-air-balloon enthusiast. 'It's a little more erudite, but it's still a sport or, you know, sporting.' I get a lot of blank looks. No one laughs at that, ever.''
NEXT PAGE: ''Will would do an infomercial if it made him laugh. All the traditional ways people look at careers ascending or not going well none of it applies. So long as the work is interesting to him, he's fine any way you cut it.''