Catching Up With Adam McKay

Comedy Features

It’s been about nine years since we first fell in love with the national cinematic treasure known as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Starting today, we can pay a long overdue visit to Burgundy and his band of merry newsmen in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues courtesy of director/writer Adam McKay and his comedy partner in crime (and star of the movie) Will Ferrell.

McKay’s comedy pedigree runs deep. He’s written for Saturday Night Live, been the mind behind movies like Step Brothers and Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Along with Ferrell, he founded Funny or Die, the comedy website that pretty much set the precedent for all comedy websites that have sprung up since. Now, with the much anticipated Anchorman sequel (although, some people may not have expected it to happen), McKay ups the ante with a new storyline, familiar characters and, of course, Burgundy-branded absurdist humor. We had the chance to talk to McKay about the sequel and trying to get the trifecta of Obama, Oprah and Clinton to make a cameo in the movie.

Paste: Considering the success and popularity of the first Anchorman, how did you even begin to approach the sequel?
Adam McKay: 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 like a cash grab. Then people kept asking us, what about Anchorman 2. Then we were like, “Well wait. Why aren’t we doing Anchorman 2?” Suddenly it became intriguing. So we just sort of looked at sequels and what makes sequels work. The answer is very simple. The ones that work continue the story and the ones that don’t just repeat it.

Paste: How did you come up with the new story?
McKay: We kind of spent an afternoon just hanging out and kicking around ideas, and we realized [that] 24-hour news started in 1980, and that’s not that far off where the first one took place. That’s a huge moment! That’s going to be even bigger than the first female anchor. Once we had that we knew we had a movie, because that is a different story to tell and it does put them through different paces and different change. So that was kind of the moment we knew we had a sequel.

Paste: What were some of the other ideas you were kicking around?
McKay: Well, keep in mind the other ones were bad ideas so I’d rather not do them [laughs].

Paste: Not even for a third movie?
McKay: No, we will not use them for a third one [laughs]. One idea was kind of an Irwin Allen idea. I think it was still 24-hour news, but the guy who owned the 24-hour news built an underwater hotel. The story was the glass they were using was faulty, but Burgundy covered up the story because he didn’t want to lose his job. So the end of the thing was this crazy 1970s Irwin Allen underwater thing with the glass cracking and water flooding. We were going to shoot it like those bad Towering Inferno shots. So we actually wrote that, and we wrote an ending with that and we’re just like, “Um … I don’t know. I could see this getting a little boring.” Although yeah, it still was pretty funny. Then the other one was just as dumb as this. It was just they go to space somehow.

Paste: How would that work?
McKay: I don’t know, but somehow we’re in space. We’re like, “Well you could justify it. You could go to the space shuttle. It could be about the first reporter in space.” I was wary of those action-y third act endings, where it’s like you’re in a comedy so you’re doing action but not quite as well. They can get a little boring, so ultimately we just said, “Let’s stick with the characters and let’s keep it about him and his wife, son, the news and stay in that pocket.”

Paste: Well, you still have an action-packed climax.
McKay: You’re talking about the gang fight?

Paste: Yup.
McKay: At first we said, “Let’s not repeat anything from the first movie.” We were going to be really strict about it. Then we’re like, “We’ve got to do another gang fight.” We can do some stuff we didn’t do the first time.

Paste: Without spoiling anything for the readers, how difficult was it to secure some of those cameos in the gang fight?
McKay: We drew up a wish list of all the people we wanted and what we ended up with was basically our wish list. It has never happened before. Usually you do your dream casting and you get 30 or 40 percent of the people. In this case they all said, “Yes.” It was insane. When they started saying, “Yes,” I said, “Wait a minute, shall we try crazier ones?” So we actually tried Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was immediate quick decisive, “No.” Oprah Winfrey’s person was like, “You never know…” There was like an hour where we were like, “She might do this!” Then we got a call saying, “No, she’s not doing it!” Then the Barack Obama one was crazy. We actually had a semi-connection to the White House. The connection said he might do it if he gets to say something with a point of view. The joke was going to be he was from C-SPAN, and he was going to say this thing about how C-SPAN is going to change news because it’ll be stripped down. It will just be the truth and you’ll see, someday everyone will be watching C-SPAN—that was going to be the joke. Then of course someone underneath him was like, “Are you fucking crazy? No he won’t do it. He’s the President.”

Paste: Did you have a Sorkin-esque desire to say this thing about the news with this movie?
McKay: 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. It’s entertainment driven. So it did seem very natural to where we were. Ferrell and I realized the news folded 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? Then once we were there we were like, “Well this really is light years away,” but I wouldn’t call it Sorkin-esque, I would call it … I don’t know if there’s a comparison … Danny McBride-esque.

Paste: Test screening a comedy movie is always interesting. How does that play into what jokes you keep in and leave out of the movie?
McKay: That’s an interesting question. I mean that’s sort of the fun of it. There is some artistry to that. You’re not a slave to those test audiences. We put jokes in even though they don’t work because we just think they’re funny. You need the audience to go on the ride with you. You can’t just isolate them. So it’s this give and take that you’re constantly playing with. For instance, the line between Brick and Chani (Kristen Wiig) where she says, “I’m trained and certified…” and then he finishes the sentence: “To fire a military grade missile launcher.” We never got a peep out of the audience, and that just one part I’m like, “Too fucking bad, that’s going in.” [laughs] Then sometimes it’ll even be a joke that I don’t necessarily love but then it kills. You’re like, “Wait, what? Why is that killing?” Sometimes you’ll just be like, “God they love it that much, they can have that one.” That process is just so much fun—taking the audience for the ride yet messing with them a little bit.

Paste: So you shot this film and have all this extra footage for a second edit of the film. How’s that coming along?
McKay: It is done. I just went in and gave all the last notes on it. I haven’t actually seen it since the notes have been put in. It’s crazy. It’s 350 new jokes. It’s about 10 or 15 minutes longer. There are whole new runs and riffs. I can’t imagine doing a comedy any other way. Like when you’re in that edit room, the worst feeling is when you’re painted into a corner on a crappy joke. I hate that feeling more and more, so I just make sure to have alts no matter what we’re doing.

Paste: Anchorman has its own brand of tangential, and it works well, but did you find it difficult to touch on different corners of that comedy that you haven’t explored before?
McKay: You know, either fortunately or unfortunately we could do that all day long. If you gave us 300 days to shoot, we could fill 300 days with tangential comedies. So that’s never a problem and if you gave us the most straight script in the world like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and said, “Go shoot it,” we could fill it with comedy. Every single scene in that we could come up with some bits. Our background is in improv. Ferrell’s from The Groundlings, and I come out of Second City, so that’s never a problem. The key is a good story. If you have a good story, you have enough emotional beats that you can hit. We just want one that gets it done enough, with a nice little four cylinder story. Although in this case it might be a six-cylinder story. It’s actually a pretty big story in this one.

Paste: How did you develop your comedy “voice” throughout your career?
McKay: It has kind of always been what I’ve liked. Like the Fawlty Towers episode with the Germans and 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. It’s a seminal joke. I used to work with Norm Hiscock at SNL. He was the former head writer for Kids in the Hall and has written for a bunch of shows. He and I both remembered that joke, and he was like, “You remember that joke?” I was like, “Yes, that is the greatest show.” So just those kind of moments where all order goes away and it’s just chaos. To me, as a kid, there was nothing more exciting than watching a movie and realizing, “Oh my God, anything can happen.”

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