A founding member of Upright Citizens Brigade and former performer at Chicago's Improv Olympic, Adam McKay made his way to the coveted job of head writer at Saturday Night Live. There, he met Will Ferrell, launching a partnership that has resulted in a number of comedy films directed and co-written by McKay: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers, The Other Guys and now Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (McKay also produced Ferrell's Land of the Lost, Casa de Mi Padre, and The Campaign, as well as producing Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and executive producing the HBO series Eastbound and Down). McKay sat down with press at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel to discuss the long-awaited Anchorman sequel.
Groucho: Sooo, let's start with the obvious question.
Adam McKay: Yes!
Groucho: How you going to spend those sweet, sweet royalty checks for "Doby"?
Adam McKay: (Laughs.) I don't know. Do you think that'll get replayed anywhere?
G: Well, every time the movie plays, right?
AM: Yeah, yeah, there you go. My ASCAP money. I actually finally did join ASCAP, like about six years ago. I was on SNL, and I used to always write songs for sketches. It was one of my favorite things to do. Someone's like, "You got to join ASCAP." And I didn't do it for years. So I did lose a bunch of money off of that. Yeah.
G: And I noticed Paramount put it up on the awards site, the song, for awards consideration.
AM: Funny, oh that they did that!
G: Best Original Song.
AM: Well, there's not that many songs. So you never know. Like, I mean, there's no way we're getting nominated for anything like that for anything we ever do. But if we were gonna sneak in, it would be the "Doby" song. So...
G: Just think of the live performance.
AM: Yeah. Let's pretend. For the sake of this interview, we'll pretend. Yeah.
G: But seriously, what sort of decisions did you and Will make, at the outset of this process, about how you wanted to approach a sequel to Anchorman?
AM: Well, you know, the reason we didn't do it for so long was that we were just like “Why do a sequel? They usually feel kind of, you know, perfunctory, and sort of just like a cash-grab. And, screw it, let's do other movies." But then people kept asking us and asking us, “What about Anchorman 2? What about Anchorman 2?” And then we were like "Wait! Why aren't we doing Anchorman 2?" And suddenly it became intriguing. So we just sort of looked at sequels and what makes sequels work and when don't they work. And the answer is very simple, which is the ones that work continue the story, and the ones that don’t just repeat it. So the key at that point was “Is there another chapter to this?” And we kind of spent an afternoon just hanging out and kicking around ideas, and we realized, “Oh my god. Twenty-four-hour news started in 1980,″ and that’s not that far off where the first one took place. And that's a huge moment. That’s maybe even bigger than the first female anchor. And once we had that, we knew we had a movie. 'Cause that is a different story to tell, and it does put them through different paces, a different change. So that was kind of the moment we knew we had a sequel...
G: To me, the McKay-Ferrell brand of comedy...runs on absurd, hyberbolic dialogue and sort of the comedy of randomness. And I wonder how you hit on that style and how you developed that style. Was there a sort of "aha!" sketch you remember or improv where you went, "Ah, that's the sweet spot"?
AM: I don't know, it’s kind of always been what I’ve liked, I mean going way back was always the stuff like the Fawlty Towers episode with the Germans, like when he comes in with the head injury. I just remember seeing that episode and just laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes. Or in Airplane!, when it's the spinning headlines and the one says, “Boy Trapped in Refrigerator, Eats Own Foot.” A lot of comedy writers have pointed to that exact joke as, like, a seminal joke. I used to work with Norm Hiscock at SNL, who was the former head writer for Kids in the Hall and has written for a bunch of shows. And he and I both remembered that joke. And he's like "You remember that too?" And I was like "Yes!" That is the greatest joke. So just those kind of moments where all order goes away and it's just chaos. And to me, as a kid, there was nothing more exciting than watching a movie and realizing, “Oh my god, anything can happen!” I remember from—God, what was the sketch movie? Old, old sketch movie. Not Amazon Women on the Moon. It was Kentucky Fried Movie!
Groucho: Yeah, yeah.
AM: Where the gorilla gets loose in the morning-show set? Do you remember that? And it's crazy. They do it really well! It really feels like a powerful gorilla is loose on a morning—and I remember that. So I've just always liked that crazy kind of heightening. The first time Will and I ever collaborated on it was our first year on SNL, a sketch called “Wake Up and Smile,” which was about the teleprompter breaks. And they—basically it becomes Lord of the Flies: since they’re not being told what to say, they all revert to their, like, animal self. And it ends with Ferrell ripping the head off David Alan Grier, covered in blood, and they form a cult, like “The Order of the Hand.” They just regress immediately. And that was the first time he and I ever—and he's like "I like that sketch."
G: Was that one of those last-half-hour sketches? 'Cause I was talking to—I'm name-dropping here, but Will Forte came through for Nebraska, and we were talking about, to me—I think it's a comedy-nerd thing, but the best sketches on SNL—
AM: Oh, always. Yeah, yeah.
G: Always are in the back end.
AM: Yeah, they don't know what to do with them, because Lorne knows it's not going to be a hit character yet. He's almost chagrined. He's like "It's fucking working. I gotta put it on." And it's not going to be a recurring character so he usually puts it on—if it really plays well, you'll get on right after Update, and I think that's where "Wake Up and Smile" got to; I think it did well enough that it kind of fought towards the top half of that last half hour. But it definitely was a later-half of the show sketch. And then the first sketch he and I ever wrote was this one called “Neil Diamond: Storytellers.” And that was another one where we just got fucking insane. Basically the joke was the stories behind your songs, and Neil Diamond has all these harmless pop songs, but the stories were just horrible, like “It's when I killed a drifter to get a hard-on.” And he's just getting more and more out of control, and we realized, “Oh, we both like this!” So, yeah, I think that, but I think a lot of it's influences, and the ones I'm listing are the same for Ferrell. We just love that style of comedy. Yeah...
G: When it comes to your alternate cuts, it's innovative stuff. I mean, the first one [Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie] was unheard of, and now you have an alt-sequel.
AM: It's insane. Yeah.
G: Does this one have any discarded plotlines, like Wake Up, Ron Burgundy?
AM: No, amazingly in this case—there's a lot of plotlines in this one too, which is bizarre. There's like—I was joking with [Judd] Apatow it’s like if James [L.] Brooks were eleven years old and into minotaurs and tridents, that’s what it's like. 'Cause there are like five storylines going through it.
G: Well, meeting the parents, and everything.
AM: Yeeahh, it just kind of goes on and on. And there’s the love story with Meagan Good, and there’s the broken-up marriage, and there’s the relationship with the son, and then Tamland has a love affair going, and then there’s the news and the kind of synergy thing, so there was a lot. And I thought for sure one or two of 'em would be cut, but they all seemed to at least semi-play. So, no, in this case, it was just the alt jokes, the sheer tonnage of improv. But once again it’s very funny when you tell the marketing department or you tell the studio. Y'know, in the first case, I said, “We have a second movie.” They can’t comprehend it. I told them, and they were like, “Ha ha! Must feel like that, right?” And I go "No, we literally have a second movie. We've cut it, if you want to watch it." And they just—it didn’t compute. And they were just like "Aahh, you guys are great!" And then later, when the movie kind of hit, they were like, “What did you mean about that second movie?” And then they finally put it out. They didn’t even do anything with it the first time. And it was the same thing in this case. I kept telling 'em, "We have a second version of this movie with all new jokes." And they'd be like "Ohhh, yeah, you must have a lot." And I'd go "No, no, literally every single joke, if you want to put it in theaters." This time, they believed us a little more, and now they’ve already scheduled it to be released. And it'll be on Blu-ray or whatever...
G: There's even that one joke in the movie that's an editing joke, where they're laughing uproariously and—
AM: Cuts, yeah. You know, it's funny. It was actually scripted that way. But then we cut out the second beat, so it became an editing joke. Yeah, yeah, the joke was always that they stop their laugh.
G: Yeah. Live.
AM: Yeah, live! But then you noticed it: there was an edit in there. And we were able to jump past a section we weren't crazy about. Yeah, yeah...
G: Did you have a Sorkin-esque desire to say something about the news with this movie?
G: Or did that just sort of come out the necessary function of plot that you accidentally said something about the news?
AM: Well, I mean, I think what we're saying about the news isn't such a brave, bold new thought. I think everyone knows the news has become ridiculous, and it's entertainment-driven. It did seem very natural to where we were. Ferrell and I realized that "Okay, the news changed. They folded the news into the entertainment divisions of all these networks, and it became ratings-driven. Well, how funny would it be to make it Burgundy's fault? That's really what got it going. And then once we were there, we were like "Well, this really is the news." I wouldn't call it Sorkin-esque. I would call it—I don't know if there's a comparison. Danny McBride-esque. Yeah, it was kind of just there, and...
G: Low-hanging fruit?
AM: Yeah! Medium-hanging fruit. Hopefully we were a little smarter than that. Yeah, it's funny. No one disagrees with it. Even the people from the media are like "Yeah! What we do is fucked up!" (Laughs.) Yup.