Writer-director Adam McKay has been one of the most forward-thinking faces of American comedy for most of his adult life. After early years performing stand-up in Philadelphia, he wound up in Chicago, where he earned accolades as a member of the legendary Second City, as well as being a founding member of Upright Citizens Brigade. From there, he went on to write for Saturday Night Live, where he was a head writer for three years. But he achieved his widest success as the co-writer and director of films with his friend Will Ferrell throughout the ’00s, including Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys. Together with Ferrell, he was also responsible for creating Funny Or Die and the George W. Bush-mocking Broadway show You’re Welcome, America.
With his new film The Big Short, about the events leading to the financial crisis of 2008, McKay has taken a decisive step toward more serious material, even as he made to sure to keep the film very funny and accessible to the largest possible audience. The A.V. Club sat down with him to talk about putting serious politics into silly movies, what it means to speak out as a humorist, and what he means when he says, “we’re living in extremely fucked-up times.”
The A.V. Club: Being back in Chicago, this is where doing comedy professionally got rolling for you, right?
Adam McKay: Yeah, I think you could say that. I mean, Philly obviously—that’s where I went to college and did stand-up and got interested in politics—but here is where it went into motion. There’s no doubt about that.
AVC: One of the most significant Second City shows you did at the time—one people still talk about—was from the mid-’90s: Piñata Full Of Bees. You shepherded some of the more overtly political stuff back then. Did you think of yourself even at that time as a guy who was more interested in the political humor?
AM: It’s the funniest thing in the world, no. I just thought I was a guy, like, “Hey! I love comedy–I love Kids In The Hall–absurd comedy. I love the movie Airplane! I love The Simpsons. But, yes, I pay attention to politics.” It was really weird, I started going into this scene and no one paid attention to anything that was going on, and they were doing political jokes that were like, “Clinton eats too many cheeseburgers.” I was like, “Really?” So by default, I became the more political guy, and that show was known for having a political bite to it, but we also did a lot of absurdist humor in there, a lot of dark humor. A lot of different kinds of scenes, because I like all kinds of comedy.
I was actually going to quit Second City because I was kind of, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to hang out here.” My friend Tom Gianas was directing the main stage show, and he said, “No, no, you gotta do it.” I said, “Why would I do that? I don’t want to do songs and blackouts.” So he said, “If you could open the show any way you wanted, what would you do?” I said, “Are you serious? Any way I want? I would have the cast in gas masks, surround the audience and accuse them of crimes against humanity.” He says, “We’re doing it.” [Laughs.] That’s how we did the show.
It became this kind of anything-you-want-to-try show, like break every rule; no pithy songs, no relationship scenes, we smashed the whole stage down. So the cast was always on stage at all times. It ended up becoming one of the great creative experiences of my life, where we got to really hone this very unusual show where we were improvising scenes with the audience. Not gimmicky, jokey scenes, but actual scenes. And at that point Blockbuster was editing movies without telling people, so we had the audience throw their Blockbuster cards onstage and we’d cut them up and it would just be raining Blockbuster cards. It was just fantastic. It ended up being one of the longest-running shows Second City had. So that was an amazing experience.
AVC: Once you moved into directing, with maybe the exception of Step Brothers, which is its own kind of transgressive, there’s not a thing you’ve shot that hasn’t at least partially addressed the fucked-up nature of American capitalism.
AM: We did that on purpose. That was something Will and I would talk about. We would always joke that we buried a German film student opinion at the center of our crazy comedies, and never tell anyone. Even Step Brothers had it; our whole idea with Step Brothers was consumerism turns grown men into babies. That was our idea. So, yes, we would always do it, but we also loved comedy and want to laugh, so we weren’t looking to make these polemics that were going to be maybe a wry smile or two. We wanted to make hard, funny movies that also had a bit of a point of view to them.
As we progressed and made these movies, America got crazier and crazier and crazier, and we started to get more overt. Like The Other Guys was our first attempt to be overt. I don’t think we completely succeeded, because we underestimated how much the laughs would kind of cover the mechanics of the movie, but then certainly with Anchorman 2 we just overtly did it. The whole reason we made the movie was to do that. Obviously, from that, that led me to this movie.
AVC: It seems like the American business tycoon bad guy is such a staple of American art and culture, but now we live in a world where you have TV pundits arguing that old man Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life should be the hero of that movie.
AM: That’s a great way of putting it. I almost did a tweet the other day, like, “How do you watch It’s A Wonderful Life if you’re a Republican? Who are you rooting for?” It’s really true. Like, Stewart’s a whining liberal.
AVC: You said you’ve talked a lot with Will about the way in which you got more overt with these films and that you underestimated how much the laughs would hide the political stuff. It seems like your “onstage smile,” hides a lot of venom. Because Will is such a genial presence that it seems like you’re able to slide a knife in via his smile, like in You’re Welcome, America.
AM: I mean, that Bush show was filled with anger. We called that show our shower after eight years of Bush. We were traumatized by those years, so we felt like we needed to do that show. Even though it’s funny, I heard some left-wing friends of mine were like, “You didn’t go hard enough on him.” I’m like, “Really? What did we not hit? We hit everything.” I would even say—it was a flawed movie—but The Campaign, like the first two-thirds of that are really on point with the Koch brothers and these vain sort of careerist politicians. We kind of dropped the ball with the ending, it didn’t quite hit. I was a producer on that. But still, we never quite got that ending.
Here’s the real truth, here’s what’s under it: I think we’re living in extremely fucked-up times. There was a paper published about five or six months ago that we’re in the sixth great extinction, and there was really reputable science [accompanying] it. Hardly anyone talked about it. I actually think our culture’s a bit toxic; I think we don’t talk about what we should talk about. I think this Paris climate-change talk is maybe one of the most important things in human history, yet it’s kind of glancingly talked about when you see a story about it. So our beliefs are strong, and I think those Bush years were one of the darkest periods in American history: war crimes, torture. We completely gave up our moral high ground. I think it’s really sad and dark, dark stuff. However. I just bored you saying that to you just now. [Laughs.]
So the constant game is, how do you communicate with people about this? There’s something wrong. Money has swamped our culture too much. And I’m all for incentivizing people and, if someone works hard, I’m all for that someone being a little richer than someone else, but what’s happening in this country—you look at the numbers, it’s so off the charts, and no one wants to look at the numbers. So, how do you communicate that? I mean, this is the game we’re trying to play. The Big Short was one where I happened to read this book, and I was like, “Fuck, this guy [Michael Lewis] did it really well.”
AVC: This movie seems to be exactly what you’re describing right now. How do you convey ideas that you’re worried are going to bore people or bum them out? In the move, you do it by having Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining the financial system.
AM: Yeah, we sort of came up with this idea, “We’re going to take this pop culture white noise and use it to inform. We’re going to show a Ludacris video, we’re going to have iPhones, and you’re going to see Margot Robbie in the bathtub, but guess what? She’s going to tell you something worthwhile.” That’s sort of the conceit we came up with. But I feel like you guys do it, too; I feel like The Onion is desperately trying to do it and doing it brilliantly. I feel like The Simpsons had stretches where it was trying to do it, and certainly Michael Moore had stretches, but I don’t know…
The climate-change thing is going to come to a head, man, and we’re going to see a massive shift in our culture and the way we live. You’re going to start to see acts of civil disobedience and it’s really bubbling fast. It’s going to change everything. What’s our role in this? What’s your role in this? What’s my role in this? is kind of the question. The one thing for sure is, I don’t ever want to waste a movie. I don’t ever want to waste effort. We thought with our earlier, sillier comedies, like Talladega Nights, we had a point of view but it was also entertaining. But where we’ve elevated now, I don’t think that game works.
AVC: How does comedy punch through that lack of political engagement? Historically, the court jester has gotten away with speaking truth to power. But this movie feels like the biggest step you’ve made toward pulling off the hat with the bells and picking up a sword.
AM: Yeah, definitely. It helps that it’s a true story, it helps that it’s buoyed by lots and lots of facts that actually happened. I saw it as a chance—I think one of the big problems in our country is that we’ve just lost all care or attention or focus for data and facts. And that’s my constant boring old man thing that I constantly say, “Why are we arguing about immigrants? Look at the census—it’s flat! There’s actually more leaving. Why is it even a subject?” So I’m constantly acting like I’m 90-years-old, kind of hammering on this. You look at data, there’s so many answers. We have the best data in the history of mankind, yet we never use it.
So, what I loved about this, it was a chance to fuse facts, data, and understanding with amazingly rich characters. And I really hadn’t seen anything like it. The only other book I think really smacked me in the face like that recently was the [Gary] Shteyngart book, Super Sad True Love Story, really knocked me on my ass when I read that. It was like, “Whoa!” Although it was more of a prophetic book. I felt like the Lewis book is more of a useful book for the moment. So, yeah, just in that moment, who knows? Maybe in two years, my opinion will change, but, right now, I feel like people need to fucking engage, man. They need to realize you’re allowed to talk about banking, you’re allowed to call your congressman and go, “Why’d you take a hundred grand from Goldman Sachs?” There needs to be a little bit of a push from the people.
AVC: But this is precisely the problem, right? Because this is the danger of populism.
AVC: It can so easily fall into Trump-esque land, where people are pissed off and they’re like, “At least he’s out there, telling it like it is!”
AM: You’re 100 percent right. Populism, talk about a double-edged sword. It does wonderful, wonderful things when it’s FDR, and it does horrible, horrible things when it’s Hitler. Both countries were countries facing a great Depression. Both countries, one happened to have one leader, and one had another, and look at the way it goes. I do think populism is necessary and I just think it’s the job of the professionals and the experts to inform populism. I think there’s too much of a separation in our country right now between the experts and professionals and the people, and I think that’s really dangerous. That includes me. I think it includes northeasterners, Los Angeles people, cultural elite—I would never call myself cultural elite, but you might be cultural elite. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? I think the separation is way too much. I think the New Yorker magazine needs to make an effort to broaden—I think there has to be that connection or else it’s worthless. New Yorker has some great shit in it, but who’s reading it? A select group of 170,000 people? Does that really mean anything?
AVC: You get that progression to things like The Daily Show or something where they’re trying to fight the good fight, though.
AM: Which, I think he did an amazing job. Colbert, too.
AVC: It seems like what you’re doing with The Big Short is taking it one step further. You talk about the value of it being a true story; what’s interesting in the movie is you keep having characters turn to the camera, like, “Can you believe this is fucking happening?”
AM: Exactly, exactly.
AVC: This movie is almost the setup to go, “We have to stop just yelling ‘fuck you’ at people and start handing them lists of facts and saying, ‘You need to do something.’”
AM: I think that’s a great summary and, once again, my wife thinks I’m a crazy old crank, where, on my Facebook page, I friend people that look like they’re from the South, and then I’ll post some fairly benign political thing about whatever, how they want to get rid of the VA or privatize it or something, and I’ll say, “This is ridiculous.” Then I’ll get these guys jumping in saying, “You liberal son of a bitch” and then I’ll see if I can have a conversation with them that’s purely fact-based. I’ll say, “You can’t name-call, otherwise I’m going to unfriend you, we can only talk in facts”, and I’ll set the rules, and I’ll do it. It pretty much fails 97 percent of the time. I’ve had a few successes with it, and usually the success is that the person goes away quietly, but I don’t know if you can crack them. We’re trying with this movie. It’s all you can do. It’s a dilemma, it definitely is. I’d love to see an interview with [Jon] Stewart about how he feels about the end of his long, long run, like what difference did he make? What change did he make? There’s no question what he did was amazing. There’s no question he was a plus for our society. But would he do it differently now? Is there a new strategy in this day and age of [Ben] Carson and [Donald] Trump? How does the game change when the danger is becoming that cartoonishly overt? How are we expected to behave?