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.
.. 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.
.. It’s an almost unrivaled come-up for the former head writer of ”Saturday Night Live,”
.. 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.”
.. 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 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 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.
.. 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.
.. “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.
.. “Anchorman” mocks the misogynistic buffoonery of an insecure newscaster desperate to preserve his privileged status.
.. 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.
.. 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.
.. 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 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.”
.. 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.”