Will Ferrell was born in Irvine, California, the son of Betty Kay (née Overman), a teacher who taught at Old Mill School elementary school and Santa Ana College, and Roy Lee Ferrell Jr., a musician with The Righteous Brothers. His parents were both natives of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and moved to California in 1964. Ferrell’s ancestry includes English, German, Irish, and remote French and Italian. He has a younger brother named Patrick. When he was 8, his parents divorced. Ferrell said of the divorce: “I was the type of kid who would say, ‘Hey, look at the bright side! We’ll have two Christmases’.” The divorce was amicable and both parents were committed to their children. The biggest problem was Lee’s line of work. As a person in show business, his paychecks were never steady and he was gone from home months at a time. Growing up in the environment made Ferrell not want to go into show business, but get a steady job.
Will Ferrell first attended school at Turtle Rock Elementary and later attended Rancho San Joaquin Middle School, both in Irvine. He attended University High School in Irvine, and was a kicker for the school’s varsity football team. He was also on the soccer team and captain of the basketball team, as well as serving on the student council. Ferrell called third grade “a pivotal year”. He realized he could make his classmates laugh if he pretended to smash his head against the wall, or if he tripped and fell on purpose, and said it was a great way to make friends. He told the Orange County Register that the dullness of Irvine contributed to the growth of his humor:
Growing up in suburbia, in safe, master-planned Irvine, there was no drama so we had to create it in our heads. My main form of entertainment was cracking my friends up and exploring new ways of being funny. I didn’t have to have the survival mode instinct like other comics, who grew up in tough neighborhoods. I had the opposite. For me, I grew up in Mayberry, and the humor broke the boredom. And there was a lot to make fun of.
In his senior year of high school, Will Ferrell and a friend would perform comedy skits over the school’s intercom system, with cooperation from the principal; the two had to write their own material. Ferrell also performed comedic skits in the school’s talent shows. He won the “Best Personality” superlative voted by his classmates. He enrolled at the University of Southern California, where he studied Sports Broadcasting and joined the Delta Tau Delta Fraternity. In college, he was known for a few pranks. On occasion, he would dress in a janitor’s outfit and stroll into his friends’ classes. He was also known for streaking around campus with a few other people from the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. Ferrell earned an internship at a local television station in the sports department, but he did not enjoy the work.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Sports Information in 1990, he knew he did not want to do broadcasting. He took up a job as a hotel valet where, on his second day, he tore a baggage rack off the top of a van by trying to drive it under a low-lying beam. He also worked as a teller at Wells Fargo, but came up short $300 the first day and $280 the second; he was not stealing the money, but was just careless and error-prone. In 1991, encouraged by his mother to pursue something he liked, Ferrell moved to Los Angeles. He successfully auditioned for the comedy group The Groundlings, where he spent time developing his improvisation skills.