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Adam McKay Discusses The Writers Strike and What Makes Comedy Successful

January 24th, 2008 10:25am EST
Adam McKayAdam McKay is a big player in the world of comedy. The former SNL head-writer co-wrote and directed Will Ferrell in the films Anchorman and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Now he's taking on a greater role as a producer, helping people's visions be seen by a larger audience. In part 2 of this two part Starpulse Q and A, Adam McKay shares some of his picks for the best new directors, actors, and writers and discusses what is, in his opinion, that makes for good comedy.

How do you think the writer's strike is gonna play out?
You know, there's what I think will happen and what I hope will happen. The word on the streets is that the DGA is going to sign some sort of deal and if they do that, and the deal is better than what the WGA turned down, then hopefully the WGA comes in and makes a similar agreement or maybe slightly better. That's what we're all kinda hoping is gonna happen.

It's pretty obvious that the networks took this as a chance to cut back all their TV production and development, which I'm sure they wanted to do anyway. I think when it's all said and done, it's gonna be a serious blow to television. I think you're gonna see a permanent loss of some viewers. And I don't think you're gonna see any of those big production deals anytime soon with TV. As far as film goes, I think film will be fine. I don't think it's gonna affect film. I think it'll just go back to chugging right along.

Hopefully the deal they set up as far as new media is open ended enough and the language is open enough that eventually there will be regular residuals sharing deals set up for new media. I think TV is the one taking the big hit on this.

During the whole strike, there's even way more reality shows than ever, including shows that normally might not even be on the air, like "Clash of the Choirs". How do you feel about…
(Interrupts) Wait. What is the one you just said?

It's called "Clash of the Choirs".
No. Really?

Yeah, it's exactly what it sounds like.
Wow. You said "Clash of the Choirs?"

Yep.
That's the most amazing thing I've ever heard. I've gotta see this show. I was not familiar with that. That's incredible. I was completely with the reality TV boom for a while. I really liked a lot of the reality TV and the one that lost me was the ballroom dancing one they do, "Dancing with the Stars". That was the one where I watched it and I was perplexed. I thought it was really boring. And I was seeing how it was getting all these crazy ratings and I'm like, "Oh, it'll fade, but it stayed huge." I really don't get that one. I have no problem with junk TV. I'll watch total garbage if it's fun. That one, even on the garbage level, I didn't find enjoyable. It made me wonder," Are they conditioning the audience?"

I thought initially reality TV was kind of undeniably enjoyable, but I'd say, with Dancing with the Stars, I can easily deny that that's enjoyable, yet it still did really well. I'm curious to see what happens with it. I think ultimately what you'll see is that it'll just continue to dissipate. The networks will just continue to become less and less a central part of television programming, and you'll go to this 500-600 channel kind of thing that'll all become about who has the best programs, which I think is really good actually.

When you say 'garbage TV', what specific shows are you referring to?
Some is more garbage than others. One of my favorite shows right now is the First 48. Have you ever seen that?

I have not.
Oh my god. It's one of the best reality crime shows that there is. It basically follows detectives for the first two days of a murder investigation, when they say most murders are solved, but it's in towns like Memphis, Miami, Phoenix. These kind of second tier cities, and its rough and grungey. After you watch it, you kinda can't watch any procedural cop show. They all seem bogus, except for The Wire. It's just really great. The soundtrack to it is really haunting. What else do I watch? There's plenty of good junk. I mean, I watch stuff like Keith Olberman, he's fantastic. I love the Wire, that's my favorite show, so I'll watch that. I'll dip into the occasional "Big Brother' (laughs). That's about as junky as you get. I'll watch a couple episodes of that. Oh, my assistant and I always talk about that True Life show on MTV. We actually quite like that. There's some good ones of those. That's some junk. I watch a lot of basketball too. I have a split. If you look at my Tivo its like Frontline, Keith Olberman, The Wire, and then it's like Surreal Life, First 48, Big Brother, and junk like that.

If they had "True Life" when you were growing up, would you have tried to audition for it?
No. No, way. I'm mystified why people go on those shows. I just don't get it. I don't know what they're looking for. I get when they go on for the million-dollar cash prize on Survivor and stuff. I understand that. Actually, that's the one show I think would be kinda cool to be on. It's taxing, it pushes you, it's an experience, there's a reward, and even the worst people on the show come off with some dignity because they're going through a tough situation. Amazing Race could be kinda cool. Those would be the only two I think, but I never understood why anyone would go on the Real world.

The Real World is the most predictable arc ever. They get on the show, they're all excited, we're gonna be best friends, then people start drinking and get hammered, and say stupid stuff, and that's pretty much it. And then all of a sudden a couple of people hate each other, and they throw someone off, one person always ends up having a drinking problem. The whole show is just fueled by alcohol. And by the end, there's always been 14 crazy embarrassing moments. It's also like the worst time in your life that you could film yourself, which is when you're 20. Out of the hundred dumbest things I've ever said, I'd say 80 of them I said when I was 20. That show completely mystifies me. And the best that you can hope for off it is that you go and become a spokesperson on some E Channel show at one in the morning. So, yeah, that I don't quite get.

Although, gladly, I'll watch it. There's some enjoyable train wrecks on it, so I will of course watch it occasionally, but I'm about to turn 40 in April, so I think I've crossed the line where you become creepy older guy watching the Real World so I actually haven't watched the last couple of seasons. But no, no way would I have ever audition for any of those shows.

So, how do you feel about the state of comedy today?
I think we're in the midst of a great great period for comedy. I think you're seeing, in my opinion, some of the best film comedies in years, and I think it's as good as its been, especially in the movies. You just look at the couple films Judd Apatow's directed, you look at Jay Roach, you look at Todd Phillips's first couple movies, there's just so many laugh out loud funny movies out there, and that didn't used to be the case. It used to be, even like 10 years ago, if there was one funny movie during the whole year, you'd be happy with it, and I think now there's like three or four funny movies every year. Superbad and Knocked Up last year, you had, shit, what else was there, I tend to consider Kung Fu Hustle a comedy, but that's like one of my all time favorite movies from the year before you had…I guess Charlie Wilson's War isn't quite a comedy…what else was funny last year? Oh, the Simpsons Movie was crazy funny, and right there, that's already four good movies from last year, and I just don't remember that happening when I was younger.

Since comedy is so subjective, what do you think are the marks of good comedy?
You know, there's so many different kinds of comedy, it depends if you're talking about the "Airplane" genre of comedy, which is an assault of nonstop laughter. In that case, it starts drifting kind of into The Simpsons, where, I'd say the big word is unpredictability. You wanna be surprised, you wanna not see where the turn is coming from, and I guess that's closer to what we do with our movies. Anchorman, and Talladega Nights is a little bit more laugh driven and the trick seems to be surprising the audience, with both how stupid you can be, how intelligent you can be, how satirical you can be, how broad you can be, and how small you can be, kinda using everything at your disposal.



Then there's the Albert Brooks kind of comedy, where's it's more reality based, which would be, I would put Apatow in that kind of category, and his whole thing is that it's so real, you know, it's the way people talk, and then at the same time it's really smart. The average person tends to be about twenty percent smarter than you give them credit for. That's what I think is so nice about his, you're hearing these kind of high level, intelligent discussions coming out of supposed losers, and they're incredibly thoughtful, but at the same time incredibly foul and rough and hilarious. I think the hallmark of Judd's comedies is a degree of honesty, and a genuine insight into what he's talking about, and then when you go for more laugh driven stuff I think surprise tends to become more key. I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting three or four other kinds of comedy. For my money, I don't think there's been a better comedy than Kung Fu Hustle in a lot of years. That movie just knocked me over. Have you seen Mail Order Wife?

I have not, but it's on Netflix's On Demand service, so I'll check it out.
You gotta check that out. It's director Andrew Gurland it's one of my favorite comedies in the last couple years. Crazy, brilliant movie, that kinda got ignored.

So, how do you feel people and critics should judge comedy then?
Umm, yeah, you talk about critics, that's really really tricky with comedy . First off, comedy's funny, a friend of mine Ian Roberts from the Upright Citizens Brigade had a great line about comedy. He said it's the only form where in order for it to work you have a bodily function has to happen. (Laughs) He said, the only other form like it, the only other one you can compare it to is porn. So it's like, if you're not laughing, for you, it ain't good. You read a lot of reviews where it's just that person isn't into that sense of humor or even sometimes just doesn't even get it. It's just not on their kind of radar, and they'll just authoritatively say it's not funny. And I guess on some level they're right, if they're not laughing, then for them, it's not funny. It's very tricky.

Another thing is that any time a comedy has a sort of silly edge to it, right away, you feel like the critics can only say it's so good. I think a lot of the way critics present themselves and sort of get their reputation is by supporting movies like Atonement, and very serious, kind of heavy movies. It's not the case over in Europe so much. In Europe I think they kind of understand that with any kind of art there's silliness, there's absurdity, there's gravitas, and here, as a country we tend to only view art that's very serious as having any power to it. So you get a lot of those kinds of reviews too with comedies, but, yeah, there's no definite answer.

Some comedy filmmakers say that what they'd like to see is more humanity in comedies, such as the works of Woody Allen and Albert Brooks.
It's funny, but hearing them say that, right away, makes me not wanna see more humanity in comedies. (laughs). Simply because if we saw a whole wave of comedies with more humanity in them, you'd get sick of them, and then suddenly a comedy like Airplane would come out. Really that's why Airplane worked so well. It was coming off a run of movies like that, like Woody Allen and Albert Brooks, and I remember Airplane just being like a thunderclap, like I'd never seen anything like it. So, the answer is, I don't wanna see a lot of any one kind of comedy. I want all the different kinds of stuff to be happening. I mean, I love Woody Allen. I love Albert Brooks. But I also love Airplane and one of my favorite movies too recently, was Idiocracy, and that's a completely absurdist movie. And the Simpsons Movie, and you kinda wanna see them all.

When it comes to emerging comedic talents, who are some people that you think people should keep an eye out for?
Well, Danny McBride's an obvious one. People have already fingered him as a big one. There's a couple people, Kathryn Hahn is in Stepbrothers, and she's crazy brilliant, crazy funny. She's a big one I would say. Also, Dr. Ken, from Knocked Up, he's in a movie we're producing about car salesmen, and he's just phenomenal. So, So, good. He's another one I'd keep an eye on. A big one is Rob Riggle, who's on the Daily Show. He's in Stepbrothers, and he's in our car salesman movie. That guy is as funny as anyone around. Those are pretty good ones. Catherine Hahn, Rob Riggle, Dr Ken- he's a weird one. Here's an older guy, so you can't really say he's emerging, but I'll tell you man, Richard Jenkins, he's as funny as anyone around. He's in Flirting with Disaster, he plays one of the cops, he was in I Heart Huckabees, and he's in Stepbrothers, and he's just incredibly good.

Interview by Ben Kharakh
Starpulse.com contributing writer

Read part 1 of interview: Adam McKay Talks Will Ferrell, Funnyordie.com, And Upcoming Projects