So did Will Ferrell's SNL cowbell end up in North Carolina or not?
A famous prop from a famous sketch was auctioned off in Roanoke Rapids. Or, maybe not. Which version of the story is real? And which one's more likely to be legendary?
The Setup: A very old SNL sketch that you still remember
This is absolutely, unequivocally true: Will Ferrell and I appeared in a movie together.
I was an extra in Talladega Nights, and if you squint, you can see my face underneath the fake camera that I purposely held over my head so I could identify myself later. I was there for two days of filming at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I have a few pictures from the set. Like, actual developed pictures taken on film, because some assistant directors gave us working disposable cameras as props. Kids, that wasn’t meant to be a retro or nostalgic touch. That’s how you took pictures in 2006, the year Talladega Nights was released. The first iPhone wouldn’t be released for another 10 months.
Anyway, it’s been some 15 years since my brush with Will Ferrell. That’s a very long time ago! Which makes this fact feel downright ancient: The “More Cowbell” sketch from SNL, which may have been the greatest single sketch of all time, predates Talladega Nights by six years. It was broadcast in 2000. It is now 21 years old. IT CAN BUY BEER.
I’m not going to dissect this sketch, because almost all of the lines from it are part of the American lexicon now. I myself stopped quoting from it around the same time I stopped quoting Austin Powers. I may be in the minority though. People often tell other people that they’ve got a fever. When it is clear that they are not actually ill, you know what the only prescription is.
So I did a legit double take last week when I saw… this:
What? What?! I personally visited Roanoke Rapids earlier this year, and while I found the high school to be stately, I had no idea that it or the city at large had anything to do with Will Ferrell. There are no signs up at the city limits. Nothing on the Wikipedia page. Zip.
What’s up with Will Ferrell and North Carolina?
Ferrell does have a public relationship with North Carolina. He’s made movies and TV shows (Eastbound and Down) set in this state. He campaigned with Roy Cooper at a Wolfpack football game. A Virginian-Pilot story from 2006 explained his connection:
Ferrell's parents are natives of Roanoke Rapids, where they met in the second grade. Mom became a schoolteacher, and Dad was a musician with the Righteous Brothers, so he was on tour a good deal of the time. They moved to Irvine, Calif., in 1964, where Will and his brother were born, but their parents divorced when the boys were young. Yet, the star said, "I've been visiting North Carolina since I was 8 months old."
Ferrell still has uncles and cousins who live here. He can rattle off the names of towns in northeast North Carolina with ease. And, he was once spotted at a Lakers game wearing the ultimate piece of Halifax County merch: a green Ralph’s Barbecue hat.
Okay, so Will Ferrell knows Roanoke Rapids, a town whose more well-known celebrity connection once centered around Dolly Parton’s brother. (His name was Randy, and he opened up a large theater that he named for himself out by I-95. It did not go well!) It makes sense Ferrell would donate something to help raise money for a lovely school that played an important role in his family. But still, we’re not talking about just some cowbell. This is an artifact that, legitimately, could go on display at the Smithsonian. How did it end up at auction in a town of 15,000 people?
Here’s where I ruin it for you
Well, spoiler alert, it didn’t. The News & Observer wrote up a story about the auction. Basically, the school wanted some cool stuff to sell to raise money, so they contacted Ferrell’s father. A cowbell arrived with no warning, with Will Ferrell’s autograph on the front. In videos from the charity event, you can hear the auctioneer mention not a cowbell, but the cowbell. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have the cowbell with us here tonight,” he says, “and the box it came in, with Will Ferrell’s address.”
That auctioneer goes on to build up the cowbell’s street cred as he tries to run up the price. “This ain’t no Tractor Supply cowbell,” he says. “You ain’t gonna find another one like it,” he says later. But, of course, none of that means that it’s the actual cowbell. The News & Observer story plays a little coy in the headline and waits until the third paragraph before saying, well, no, it’s a replica. Later, there’s a quote from a guy who knows it’s not the actual cowbell but really wants it to be:
“It’s not the original bell, but Will signed it. I remember watching that sketch when it came out, and to think having something from there!”
Read those sentences again. If you only read the first one, you’d understand that it’s not the actual cowbell. If you only read the second, you’d think it was.
It’s the real (coughs and mumbles) replica (clears throat) cowbell!
You could be forgiven for thinking that the real SNL cowbell ended up in Roanoke Rapids, though. News sites can have custom headlines and summaries that display differently on Google, Facebook, Twitter. Hence, while the headline on the actual story is: “‘More cowbell!’ for this NC high school, which now has a unique gift from an ‘SNL’ star,” the headlines on Google are different. In the first case, it looks like the summary was written before someone clarified that the cowbell wasn’t the real cowbell.
This isn’t necessarily nefarious: A good headline in a newspaper doesn’t work well when it comes to SEO, and vice versa. Hell, if you post a link to this newsletter on social media, the headline that shows up there will be different than the one at the top of this article. (You should definitely share this newsletter to find out what it is!)
You can’t just BLAME THE LAMESTREAM MEDIA here; we’ve all left a critical word or two out of something we’ve written.
I chatted briefly with Jason Etheridge, the guy who shot the video. He says his mother went to high school with Ferrell’s father. He also tells me that a lot of people knew up front that although the autograph was very real, the cowbell itself was a replica. Real or not, he says, the item is still cool (it spent some time in his wife’s office before going up for auction). But still, if you were just drifting along on the internet, killing some time while waiting in line somewhere, you could be forgiven for missing an important detail here.
Everything is tl;dr
One of the most important things I’ve learned from a career of writing things is that people barely ever finish what they start reading, no matter how short it is. (I’m not only talking about books, or long stories, but individual words; an ad exec told me that people would see “Charlotte” and then confuse that city for Charleston or Charlottesville because they’d read the first four letters in the city name and then move on.) Hence, a lot of people probably scanned the stories online and know that it’s not the actual cowbell. But a lot of people also never got past the headline, and now think a fake Blue Oyster Cult instrument is owned by a high school in North Carolina.
I hate to be That Guy, but this sort of thing matters, especially early on in the reporting. Over my career, I’ve tried to unravel and get to the truth of two stories that people held as gospel, even though hard evidence didn’t exist to support them. The first was about the textile plant in tiny little Rhodhiss, North Carolina that claimed to have made the material that went into the flags that Apollo astronauts planted on the moon. The second concerned Selma Burke, a woman born in Mooresville, who maintained throughout her life that the image of FDR on the dime was stolen from a sculpture she’d made. In both cases, the story that had been circulating for years couldn’t be definitively proven. The truth is always more complicated and sometimes unknowable. The myth is short enough to fit into a tweet.
Again, it’s pretty clear that the autographed cowbell wasn’t the actual SNL cowbell. In my opinion, that made for a very cool North Carolina story, but not a national one. But I’m curious to see if, over time, the “replica” part of the story fades. Someday, maybe, people will just accept that the cowbell really was the one from SNL. It reminds me of the last scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Where’s the actual cowbell, then?
For what it’s worth, the cowbell that Ferrell played in the sketch never left 30 Rock. Back in August, an anonymous source told a GQ writer that it still resides in SNL’s prop department. It is also, per the same story, a Black Beauty Senior brand cowbell, which retails for $40.
Still though, this particular cowbell is worth more than $40. Again, Ferrell himself autographed it (Weird fact: Autograph Magazine, which exists, once named him the worst celebrity signer). He’s signed other cowbells in the past, one of which is currently going for $1,459 on eBay.
In Roanoke Rapids, the winner of the auction paid $3,600 for it. That man, Todd Arthur, is a local dentist who graduated from Roanoke Rapids High School in 1985. He immediately donated the cowbell back to the high school, and got a standing ovation from the others in the room. “This high school means a lot to me,” he said. The money and the autographed cowbell go back to his alma mater. When you look at it that way, it’s a good investment.