The announcement that Will Ferrell would receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on October 23 made me smile. I think Ferrell has been under-recognized, until now, as a robust influence on American comedy. He's managed to right the balance between (on the one hand) concept comedy and wit and (on the other) earthy humor and spontaneous invention.

Let me put it this way. When Steve Martin, who won the Mark Twain Award in 2009, played different kinds of "wild and crazy guys" in the 1970s, he was playing different absurd concepts of the wild and crazy guy, including a stylized version of himself as a white-suited stand-up with an arrow through his head.

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But when Will Ferrell plays wild and crazy guys -- a couple of times, aptly enough, in a Bizarro version of the 1970s -- he becomes a wild and crazy guy from somewhere deep in his belly. whether as the preening San Diego TV anchor in "Anchorman" or, in "Semi-Pro," as the owner-player-coach of the Flint, Mich., Tropics (the worst team in the American Basketball Association).

When Martin got "happy feet," it was a delirious routine. Part of the joke was in realizing that Martin, so incredibly graceful and limber, was doing something flighty as a joke.

When Ferrell gets ecstatic arms in "Semi-Pro," he's like a one-man stadium wave caught in a riptide -- the star really becomes a man who's lost control of his limbs. He sweeps you up in his euphoria. He operates as much from his ample gut as Martin does from his well-stocked brain, but somehow gets at the same destination of sublime silliness.

I haven't caught his latest "serious" stretch yet, "Everything Must Go." But I thought his last big change of pace -- his seriocomic turn in "Stranger Than Fiction" -- was a performing triumph. No one since Alec Guinness had ever done a better job of acting the lonely guy in a crowd. I think Ferrell may be that rarity: an American comic actor who can bring vivid and authentic feeling to dramatic parts without losing his divine comic madness.

Photo by Jessica Rinaldi, for Reuters, of Will Ferrell at 'The Comedy Awards' in New York, March 26, 2011.

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