Adam McKay: Funny for life
I don't know how to put this - to paraphrase Ron Burgundy in Anchorman - but Adam McKay is kind of a big deal. I'm not sure if the guy behind the 2004 Will Ferrell numbskull classic has "many leather-bound books" and "an apartment that smells of rich mahogany," but McKay - 45, a graduate of Great Valley High in Malvern - does have a great comedy-world resumé.
I don't know how to put this - to paraphrase Ron Burgundy in Anchorman - but Adam McKay is kind of a big deal. I'm not sure if the guy behind the 2004 Will Ferrell numbskull classic has "many leather-bound books" and "an apartment that smells of rich mahogany," but McKay - 45, a graduate of Great Valley High in Malvern - does have a great comedy-world resumé: head writer at Saturday Night Live; cofounder of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv group; cofounder of the viral video site Funny or Die; a producer, writer and/or director of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers, The Other Guys, The Campaign.
McKay also wrote, with Ferrell, and directed Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, opening Wednesday. The hotly anticipated sequel finds San Diego's Channel 4 Evening News blatherer and his crack crew relocating to New York, essential cogs in the launch of the first 24-hour cable news channel. It's 1980. Do you know where your hair is?
"It sounds cheesy, but honestly, it's fun to see this much love for the original movie and for the sequel," says McKay, an affable 6-foot-5 guy who visited Philly recently. (He lives in Los Angeles now, with his wife, filmmaker Shira Piven, and their two daughters.)
Asked to explain the cult status of Anchorman - a modest box-office success, a home-video phenom, and a film that launched a thousand catchphrases - McKay had this to say: "Crazy, isn't it? I guess I'd go Malcolm Gladwell on it - that it's a fortuitous turn of time and place."
And he had this to say: "For Will and I, Anchorman was the first time we got to do what we do on a large scale, so it came off fresh . . . . You see it with bands all the time: It takes them forever to make their first album, and so their first album is full of all this stuff, all these accumulated details."
And he had this to say: "People respond to the jabs at the media and making fun of this ridiculous, odd world that the news is, that has its own rules, and hair, and way that you talk - it's almost like Kabuki ritual."
And this: "I'm still guessing, though. I still can't ultimately explain it."
McKay - hired as a Saturday Night Live writer on the same day in 1995 that Ferrell was hired as a performer - honed his writing/performing skills in Chicago in the early '90s. But from the time he, his mother, and sister came to Chester County from Worcester, Mass., in the early '80s, he was a joke junkie. He had Steve Martin and Monty Python albums. He watched Johnny Carson for the stand-up spots, and then Late Night With David Letterman ("a game-changer"). He'd buy tickets for the Valley Forge Music Fair to see Eddie Murphy, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld.
"I was a huge fan of comedy in high school," says McKay, who lived "on the wrong side of the tracks" in Malvern. "Literally, there were tracks, and we were on the wrong side . . . . My friends on the right side . . . would not come over to my neighborhood to play. They were afraid. Which is so funny, to think of Malvern - chi-chi and antique-y - now."
McKay went to Penn State for a year and wrote for a comedy radio station. "I wrote a lot of sketches for the radio show, and I knew I was pretty good at it, actually."
But the frat-boy culture wasn't for him. He transferred to Temple and began frequenting the comedy clubs that dotted the city in the late '80s - the Comedy Works, the Comedy Factory Outlet, Going Bananas, the Funny Bone.
"I actually opened for Chris Rock at the Funny Bone one time," he recalls. "I could do a good 10, 15 minutes. . . . I had a couple of sets where I had delusions of grandeur afterward - I just killed! But there were definitely loads of guys who were way better than me."
He lived on Juniper Street, between South and Lombard, "a sketchy block, but it was also like an art student block - sketchy and kind of cool at the same time. A guy pointed a gun at me once. Someone stole my wallet another time."
He worked as a tour guide, driving a carriage around Independence Park. He was a waiter in an Italian restaurant. And an usher at the Ritz Five.
"I cleaned the toilets there," he says. "Minimum wage, you only got two free passes for the whole month. But I remember exactly what was playing when I was there: Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, the Stephen Frears movie; Hope and Glory, the Boorman; The Dead, John Huston's last film ."
Custodial duties aside, it was a dream job for someone who loved movies.
"When I was 18, 19, I had a little bit of the pretentious young man in me, so I was seeing everything. I was seeing Kurosawa. I remember I took one weekend and watched all of Fellini's movies - I was just inhaling movies at that point. Repo Man was a touchstone - we would quote from it, con stantly."
And those influences - Kurosawa, Fellini, Spike Lee, Huston - are evident in Anchorman 2, as in the scene when Ron Burgundy is offending children and parents at SeaWorld, or sneezing onto the camera lens, or exclaiming, "By the hymen of Olivia Newton-John!"
Comedy, McKay would be the first to agree, is subjective. "Someone once asked me, 'Would you rather make a great movie that's funny, or a pretty good movie that's hilarious?' " he says.
"And I think that question betrays a prejudice. Because I would say a pretty good movie that's hilarious is a great movie . . . . The hardest thing in the world to do is to have someone in a seat in a theater laughing so hard that they're making weird sounds. And to me, that's the most pleasurable experience there is. It's only happened five or six times ever, where I'm in a theater and I'm laughing uncontrollably. . . . It's the coolest thing ever."
Opens Wednesday in area theaters.