Class Clown

When Adam McKay made his motion picture directorial debut in 2004 with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the world was introduced to the “kind of a big deal” ’70s newscaster. Since then, the Saturday Night Live alum has co-founded comic-video hub Funny or Die, produced numerous films and television series, and directed five movies. This winter, McKay brings back his pompous hero, in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which opens in December. He is also co-executive producer of The Spoils of Babylon, the star-studded (Tobey Maguire, Kristen Wiig, Tim Robbins, Will Ferrell, Haley Joel Osment) mock-Dynasty miniseries that airs in January on IFC.

EMMA BROWN: When did you realize you had a knack for humor?

ADAM McKAY: I remember being in first grade and laughing so hard at The Three Stooges that I had tears coming out of my eyes. My mom was really funny, too. She would read us bedtime stories and change them to make us laugh. I guess when I started getting in trouble in school for joking around—that was probably the first time. Nothing to me is better than a big, hard, real laugh.

BROWN: Did you get the “class clown” award?

McKAY: I did not. My buddy John got it. He did more the fall-down-the-stairs kind of thing and we were much more the smart-alecks-in-the-back-of-the-room kind of guys. I see him quite frequently. He constantly tortures me about it.

BROWN: Do you remember your first encounter with Will Ferrell?

McKAY: We were waiting for our interview with Lorne Michaels to find out that we had gotten our jobs at SNL. Will seemed so normal, I figured, He must be the straight guy they hired. Then the first read through, of course, he uncorks these fantastic characters. Then I get to know him and he’s crazy funny. But he was very unassuming when I first met him.

BROWN: What is the most frequent Anchorman line that people quote to you?

McKAY: The one that people don’t realize is actually from Anchorman is “That’s how I roll.” That’s almost a part of speech. I had to ask a friend, “Am I an egotistical maniac, or is that not from Anchorman?” It was a phrase that kind of existed before, but we twisted it a little. The other ones are pronouncing San Diego “San Dee-ahh-go.” My favorite is, “60 percent of the time, it works every time.”

BROWN: Was it easy for everyone to slip back to character?

MCKAY: It was remarkably easy. Part of it is that Will and I write the script together, so while writing we’re doing the voices of the characters and he’s getting to rehearse Ron Burgundy. He had done a few it a few times since the first movie—we did a big Funny or Die tour and he would pull out Ron Burgundy, and we’ve done a couple of videos. It’s probably the easiest character for him to get into.

BROWN: What about the rest of the cast? Did you re-watch the movie together?

MCKAY: Everyone individually watched it; they all said they took a look at it. Will and I definitely watched the first one together when we started writing. They all got into it pretty easily; David Koechner has some of the mannerisms of Champ Kind. That sort of cheeseball playboy thing is in Paul Rudd’s wheelhouse.  [Steve] Carell was a little worried early on that he wasn’t nailing the character—he kept asking me and I was like, “You’re great. It’s fantastic!” Slowly, as he went along, he was like, “Okay. I think I’ve got it.” I think he had a little bit of a hard time because he had just come off another movie when he came to us, so it just took him a little while to get going. Well, according to him. He was actually, by my eyes, pretty fantastic with everything he was doing.

BROWN: In the first film, his character kills someone with a trident. Where did the trident come from?

MCKAY: No logical place. If I’m going to see a big, crazy fight, at one point I want to see someone get killed by a trident on horseback. It’s just got to happen. As far as your list of slightly obscure, bizarre weapons—that’s probably where it came from— it’s scimitar, trident, jō stick, bill-guisarme. Five or six crazy weapons you can think of. For my money, nothing’s more enjoyable than a trident.

BROWN: Are nunchucks too mainstream?

MCKAY: Too mainstream. It’s sad, but it’s true. I would go sectional staff before I would go nunchucks. Or sai.

BROWN: What period music did you want to include in the new film?

McKAY: It’s set in 1979, 1980. So it’s early ’80s, which is a whole different game from mid-’80s. Mid-’80s is more the terrain of Richard Marx and St. Elmo’s Fire [1985]—that kind of stuff. The main problem we had, and it’s a compliment to Paul Thomas Anderson, is he used every great late-’70s, early-’80s song in Boogie Nights [1997]. So I was pissed at him while I was trying to find music. We did get some good gems.

BROWN: At the beginning of the The Spoils of Babylon, Will Ferrell’s character has this line: “At a certain point in my career as an artist, I made a necessary decision to discontinue suffering fools.” Have you ever made this decision?

MCKAY: [laughs] No, no. I’m in comedy. The whole foundation of comedy is fools suffering other fools who are suffering other fools. I’ve never quite gotten dark enough to make that choice. I have to be as self-important as Eric Jonrosh to get to that place. I think part of the leap—the way you get there—is I need to start using a walking stick. As soon as I have a cane in my life, with a gold elephant head on it or something decorative, or an eye patch… You’ve got to start with that kind of choice: white linen suits, walking stick. Then you can get to the point where you’re going to stop suffering fools and move to Panama.

BROWN: What would you do if you were an oil baron like Tim Robbins’ character in The Spoils of Babylon?

McKAY: I would immediately start giving gasoline away to tank the whole world market, take all of our profits, and run against oil. I would be the Gorbachev of oil barons. Then I would buy a semi-professional basketball team and call them the Delusional Cobras.

BROWN: Not a professional basketball team?

MCKAY: No, it’s too much of a hassle. I want a CBA team that’s a little more low-key. I can get a buddy to run it, it’s not that expensive, you’re not going lose your shirt. If you own the frickin’ Oklahoma Thunder or The Mavericks, that’s a full-time job.

BROWN: What would their jersey look like?

MCKAY: It would be a cobra, kind of cross-eyed, weaving, like it’s sick somehow and you don’t know what it’s going to do to you. I would get all the players that are in trouble with the law and kind of on the fringes, but still talented. I would serve horrible beers—cheap beers—and malt liquors at the game. Then, during the half-time, I would have one player challenge anyone in the stands to a game of one-on-one and if they can beat him to a game of five, they get $10,000.  

BROWN: Kristen Wiig’s character, Cynthia Morehouse, corrects another character saying, “I don’t think that you’re using the word extrapolate correctly.” Are there any words that you’ve consistently used in almost, but not quite, the right way?

MCKAY: I just found this out. I’m 45 so, I’m going to say I’ve done this for 25 years. A friend of mine just told me that “nonplussed” means “agitated.” It doesn’t mean relaxed. It means the exact opposite of what everyone uses it for. I was like, “You’re fucking crazy!” And we looked it up and he was right. It’s a universal misunderstanding.

BROWN: Who makes you laugh in your personal life?

MCKAY: My 13-year-old daughter is really funny, Lily McKay. She genuinely really surprises me and makes me laugh. Also, Chris Henchy who works at our company. Then my favorite comic right now is Louis CK. He’s the only guy I’ll watch talk shows for.