LOS ANGELES — “Will [Ferrell] and I joke that we single-handedly ruined Paul Thomas Anderson’s producing career before it started,” Adam McKay says, casually splaying his 6-foot-5 frame across the couch, as though in a weekly therapy session. The original script for his eventual comedy classic “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” was so deliriously absurd that Anderson, the auteur behind “Boogie Nights,” “The Phantom Thread” and “Magnolia” — a movie that ends with a preposterous rain of frogs falling from the sky — threw up his hands and amicably bowed out of the agreement.
“He was, like, ‘I don’t know what to tell these guys, because I love this, but I know it won’t work,” McKay adds.
Of course, it did work — at least half a dozen lines from the movie are firmly entrenched in the greater American lexicon — and pretty much everything else has worked for McKay in the decade-plus since he brought Ron Burgundy into our lives.
As the market for mid-size-budget traditional studio comedies has dried up over the past decade in favor of blockbuster properties and adaptations, McKay has quietly become a mogul in Internet video, television and film. McKay’s latest, the tragicomic Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” leads the pack, with six Golden Globe nominations (including best picture, comedy), and McKay finds himself nominated for best director and best screenplay. He’s one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, albeit so self-effacing that you could never imagine him saying that with a straight face. At the movie’s mid-December premiere in L.A., all he could talk about with the A-list crowd was how proud he was of designing Amy Adams’s dress. (He did not design Amy Adams’s dress.)
It’s an almost unrivaled come-up for the former head writer of ”Saturday Night Live,” whose first cinematic opus was a dadaist disco-era lampoon that convinced a generation that San Diego means a “whale’s vagina” in German. A decade later, 2015’s brilliant “The Big Short” permanently altered his trajectory from go-to comedy guru into one of Hollywood’s most astute chroniclers of political and economic corruption. Inspired by a Michael Lewis tome about the 2008 housing crash, the fourth-wall obliterating parable of American greed netted McKay a slew of Oscar nominations and a win for best adapted screenplay. At age 50, the card-carrying member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has not only become one of the industry’s most sought after commercial filmmakers, he’s become an unlikely heir to ’70s political satirist Hal Ashby — or perhaps the answer to the question, what if Mike Myers directed “All The President’s Men?” And for this, you can blame Public Enemy.
“When Public Enemy hit, it changed everything,” McKay says. “Those songs stopped me from being a moron teenager and politicized me in a big way.”
He’s speaking nearly 30 summers after “Do the Right Thing” and its Public Enemy soundtrack sparked a political awakening in a generation of hip-hop fans. So maybe it’s a poetic twist that his best-director competition at the Golden Globes includes Spike Lee for “BlacKkKlansman.” With his gray hair and spectacles, worn T-shirt and loosefitting olive pants, McKay looks more liberal-arts professor than Professor Griff. But hearing him talk hip-hop and politics affirms the carefully considered values of a longtime traveler.
In a National Review screed against “Vice,” right-wing firebrand Ben Shapiro claimed that Hollywood’s “leftist contempt” for conservatives led to President Trump. He incorrectly attributes McKay’s critiques to a hardened ideology, rather than a caustic fury that takes widow-making aim at those who abuse power and the public trust.
“I believe in profit regulations, fair tax structure, clean air, clean water. These didn’t use to be crazy things, but now I’m considered a ‘democratic socialist,’ ” McKay says. “I remember people screaming at me when I was protesting the Iraq War, saying I was anti-American, anti-this. I wanted to call them up and go, ‘Okay, so that didn’t work. So, what am I? Am I still a liberal?’ I hate these tags you get whacked with. All I want to do is judge politicians and our government by their actions. Are they corrupt or not? Are they effective or not?”
The future creator of Ricky Bobby grew up in Malvern, a blue-collar exurb of Philadelphia that McKay remembers as “dirtbaggy.” Civic life at the time revolved around the town’s primary employer, the heavily unionized Deluxe Corp. McKay remembers his mom circulating petitions around the neighborhood. She’s since become an antifa-loathing conservative.
“I don’t know if it was the times or the place, but we just talked about that stuff,” McKay recalls. “Then I became a goofball idiot in high school and pretty much only listened to hip-hop and played basketball.”
You can see some of the artifacts of adolescence in his West Hollywood office: a framed photo of hoops legend George Gervin and a signed photo of “CHiPs”-era, Erik Estrada. An embalmed-looking John Wayne doll scowls underneath an end table, presumably a nod to his old hero, Chuck D, who famously roared “F--- John Wayne!” on “Fight the Power.”
The pretensions you’re theoretically supposed to acquire by the time you’re feted at the Dolby Theatre are absent. McKay is garrulous and whiplash-quick, unguarded to the point where he complains about his hemorrhoids before the tape recorder is even turned on. A film junkie versed in high and low, McKay is quick to shout out “Vice’s” stylistic influences: “Being There,” “Z,” “Sid and Nancy,” “American Splendor,” “Repo Man” and “24 Hour Party People.”
But McKay seems more excited remembering weekly teenage trips to buy hip-hop 12-inches at a Philly record store, and making mix tapes on a Gemini mixer for his friends. The obsessive streak that led him to pore over every bit of available data about Dick Cheney was there when he was memorizing the lyrics to songs by Run-DMC, Mantronix, Three Times Dope and LL Cool J. For the past dozen years, he’s worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood — Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell — but his proudest name-drop is that he used to know the percussionist of Philadelphia gangsta rap pioneer Schooly D.
After leaving Temple University a few semesters short of an English degree, McKay moved to Chicago to co-found the Upright Citizens Brigade. He became a member of the last generation tutored by improv legend Del Close, the sensei who mentored Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Jim Belushi, John Candy and nearly every other major comic figure to emerge from the pre-millennium SNL pipeline. It’s also where McKay started attending protests.
“In Chicago, the improv and theater traditions were always tied to political activism,” McKay says. “But [early ’90s] culture wasn’t going in that direction. When I got to SNL, they asked me, with a bit of surprise, ‘you’re into politics?’ I was, like, ‘not really politics, but government.’ And so I become the guy writing a lot of the bits about presidents.”
At SNL, McKay quickly formed an enduring friendship with Ferrell and became head writer at 28, after just one year on the staff. During his half-decade at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, he married director Shira Piven, and they had their first child. (You probably remember his youngest daughter, Pearl, as the titular towheaded antagonist from Funny or Die’s iconic “The Landlord.”) Later, he brought Tina Fey on to eventually replace him.
“I noticed that when you’re writing a comedy piece that has a bottom to it — that gets at something deeper — it hits 10 times bigger than a guy who just has a funny tick or needs to get his tooth fixed,” McKay says.
In retrospect, the fixation with the machinations of power can be spotted during his first decade in film. “Anchorman” mocks the misogynistic buffoonery of an insecure newscaster desperate to preserve his privileged status. “Talladega Nights” sends up “Freedom Fries”-era American excess and the blundering desire to conquer the world, while combating a French nemesis sipping espresso and reading Camus at 200 MPH. “The Other Guys” functions as a transitional work, a $100 million studio comedy whose thematic subtext involves a bumbling detective pair in feverish pursuit of a crooked billionaire looting municipal pension plans. In homage to McKay’s hip-hop roots, Ice-T plays the narrator, who concludes the film with the populist sentiment that everyday people are the real heroes.
The genius of “The Big Short” lay in its ability to blend surrealistic gonzo comedy with a cogent unraveling of the impossibly complicated fraudulence that led to the financial crisis. The reflexive instinct would have been to play it straight and offer a sober rendering of the grotesque avarice that had ruined millions of lives. Instead, McKay had Selena Gomez (playing herself), sitting at a poker table next to the father of behavioral economics, explaining the intricacies of synthetic CDOs (collateralized debt obligations).
“I come from that improv background where you’re allowed to break stuff and narrate,” McKay explains. “It’s just a matter of getting the timing right. If you don’t, it doesn’t work.”
He cites one of “Vice’s” best scenes, a “Wayne’s World”-style fake ending that arrives at the end of the second act; it posits “what if” Cheney had opted out of the vice presidency, stayed at Haliburton and kept America out of Iraq.
Reviews of “Vice” have been decidedly mixed. Although some have lambasted the whimsical lens it took to Cheney’s life, it’s quite clearly a deliberate stylistic bent. In his direction of the pilot episode of the stellar HBO drama “Succession” (which McKay and Ferrell executive-produced), McKay demonstrates his versatility, offering an artfully restrained and subtle glimpse into the corrosive effects of power.
Although “Vice” might not fully illuminate the inner murk at the heart of Cheney — the biggest “known unknown” conceivable — it remains consistently funny and doubles as an effective shorthand history of the past half-century of power politics in Washington, including ostensibly minor-but-myopic decisions such as Reagan dismantling the solar panels atop the White House roof. McKay operates with the requisite curiosity of an outsider, dumbfounded at how everyone systematically abdicated their values, and does his best to find the tonal sweet spot between a Richard III soliloquy and Ron Burgundy blustering about being kind of a big deal.
Politics is, unsurprisingly, the most obvious force animating McKay at the moment. He singles out Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’ Rourke for praise but reserves his highest admiration for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Wherever she’s going, I’m going,” he says. “She’s awesome, and what I’d like to see American government get back to: accountability, transparency and letting people know where you’re taking money from.”
The imminent crisis of global warming has begun to occupy more of his psychic space than any one adversarial politician — although there’s that, too.
“The midterms left me hopeful, especially the fact that 15 percent more people voted,” McKay says. “All I care about now is getting this guy out of there and us to an America that believes in and is working to fight global warming. What ties into ‘Vice’ is the need to get big money out of our democracy. It’s responsible for so much — from the denial of global warming to oil companies doing whatever they want.”
It’s this recurring nihilistic streak within American life that haunts McKay. It’s what ties him to Nixon-era filmmakers like Ashby, Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet, who tried to lance the boils that had crept into the nation’s body politic. And like almost any worthwhile artist, there’s a deep-seated empathy for his subjects that McKay can’t shake. Even if his protagonists aren’t necessarily likable, he’s gifted at making them seem human — whether it’s a lecherous Southern California newscaster or the Mr. Burns of real-life political memory.
“I learned that these are people with actual vulnerabilities, who I could actually identify with when they were young,” McKay says. “Yes, there was some anger, but the biggest surprise for me was that I genuinely felt sad for [Cheney and his wife.] Don’t get me wrong. I’m not discounting the horrible things they did, the people who died, the torture. But I teared up at the first big screening. I couldn’t believe it, but it was like a spiritual tragedy, not just for them, but for the entire country enduring this similar kind of loss.”