For Adam McKay, being funny and being topical have never been mutually exclusive.
Succession, a new HBO drama about an aging media mogul and his fractious family, might seem a long way from the Will Ferrell comedies for which the former Saturday Night Live head writer and Funny or Die cofounder has long been known. But to McKay, who directed Sunday's premiere, they're all expressions of an interest in the way the world works.
The Malvern-raised writer and director, who won a screenwriting Oscar in 2016 for his adaptation of Michael Lewis' The Big Short into a film that employed some comic techniques to explain the forces that led to the financial crisis of 2007-08, traces his comedy roots to Chicago, where working in improv taught him to find the funny in real-world issues.
"So even when I did the kind of absurdist comedies with Will Ferrell, like Anchorman and Talladega Nights, believe it or not, those movies were tied to a certain point of view," McKay said after an HBO news conference in January. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is "about sexism in the workplace, and Talladega Nights was sort of about red state pride."
Succession, which stars Brian Cox as Logan Roy, the head of a family-controlled international media company, is the creation of another comedy veteran with a topical bent, Jesse Armstrong (In the Loop, Four Lions), and "it's really just the question of what would happen to any of us if we were brought up as the child of a multibillionaire, whether it's a banker [or] a media baron," McKay had told reporters.
Though there are parts of Succession's first episode that resemble a Forbes.com-published description of Armstrong's earlier, unproduced screenplay about Fox News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch and his family, Armstrong said that the Roys are fictional and that he and the show's other writers drew inspiration from, among other people, "Robert Maxwell, the British press baron, [and American publisher William Randolph] Hearst. And we even talked about the British queen, and Charles, who has waited so long for his succession. So there are loads of succession stories to draw on."
Cox plays the thrice-married father of four adult children and the head of a media empire called Waystar Royco, who chooses on his 80th birthday to delay plans to turn over the reins to one of his sons, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), triggering a family struggle that includes his third wife, Marcia (Hiam Abbass). Alan Ruck, Kieran Culkin, and Sarah Snook play the other Roy offspring, Conor, Roman, and Siobhan, who's known as "Shiv"; Nicholas Braun plays their cousin Greg. The son of Logan's estranged brother (James Cromwell), Greg's hoping to find a foothold in a family business where family members don't necessarily look out for one another.
"I think the idea is that you're looking at this dynastic kind of congealed wealth," McKay said. "It wasn't about one family. It's more about the question of what happens when this kind of power is handed down through bloodlines. How does that affect the world around it? How does that affect the family members?"
And Succession has its share of comedy, some supplied by Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Shiv's boyfriend, Tom, who may be even stranger than the family he longs to marry into.
"People like to think of comedy and drama and horror as all these very different things, but they're really not. They're much closer than we all think. And so in the case of The Big Short, I was able to do that and kind of find a playful rhythm, but I was trying to show the audience my excitement at the information. So this show's very similar, and it's no accident that it came from Jesse Armstrong, who's a great comedy writer," McKay said.
The Great Valley High School graduate joined Succession, along with Ferrell, as an executive producer, working on it at a time when he'd been preparing to focus on his forthcoming film about former Vice President Dick Cheney. It made for busy year, he said.
"I was like, this is too good, I have to do it. It was a lot of work. When you do a pilot, especially for HBO, it's a little bit like doing a mini-movie. And so that was like a good four-month chunk and then we came off of it, caught one breath, and went right in to Cheney," McKay said.
Did McKay, who in The Big Short found a way to explain credit default swaps to the masses, take any economic courses before dropping out of Temple University to pursue comedy?
"I did not. I became a geek [later]. I did the thing of realizing how much I had wasted my schooling about five years after I got out, and I became a math nerd and an economics nerd and I was like, 'Why didn't anyone ever tell me how great this is?' " he said.
"The good news is that in the age of Google, you can move pretty fast, so, yeah, I started devouring all this information. A lot of it is just kind of my job. I write stuff, I direct stuff, and you want to know what's happening. So I'm constantly reading books from different disciplines and trying to be aware of what's going on."
He doesn't expect Cheney, who's played by Christian Bale, to have a problem with the movie. "Everything's true, it's all cross-checked. This is the life he led," McKay said.
"As much as it is about Cheney, it's about how America got to where we're at. And … I'm incredibly thankful. Because this is exactly the kind of work I want to be doing right now. And I'm just so lucky to have Jesse Armstrong and Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox and people like this and Christian Bale," McKay said. "I feel completely spoiled. Yet also slightly sad to get to do this type of material. I miss the days of Step Brothers."
Not that he considers his days in comedy over.
"I still do comedy. I'm actually working on a comedy right now, for the future. Nothing I like to do more than laugh all day long. And even when we do these projects, like Succession and [the Cheney film], we laugh all day long," McKay said.
"I love to laugh, and I believe this work should be playful even when it's serious, so I'm not done with comedy. There's no big shift. My rule right now is trying to do what needs to be done. We're at this shift right now historically and I just don't want to be the guy who is oblivious to it."