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Master of the Comedy Universe

In a narrow editing bay off a darkened hallway in a barely furnished suite of offices on the Sony lot in Los Angeles, Adam McKay is readying his new movie, The Other Guys, a buddy-cop comedy starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, for a crucial preview screening for the Sony brass. After interrupting his scrutiny of a bank of panoramic Mac screens to say hello, he lowers himself back onto an overstuffed couch. The cushions audibly deflate: McKay is a hulking 6'5" 42-year-old, albeit with the boyish, bespectacled features of a Sterling Cooper account executive.

Adam McKay may well be the most influential figure in American comedy today. This is probably news to you, because McKay has kept a low profile, even as he’s risen to superstardom in virtually every sphere of the comedy universe: onstage as an improv revolutionary; on TV as the head writer at Saturday Night Live; in movies as the writer and director of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers; and on the Internet as a cofounder of

McKay gestures at the monitors, on which a grimacing Will Ferrell is frozen in closeup. “This is the first time the studio heads are seeing the movie,” he says. “We want them to be excited, even if we do have a bit of a history with them.” In fact, McKay has “a bit of a history” with Sony the way Derek Jeter (who cameos in The Other Guys) has “a bit of a history” with the Steinbrenners: His last two Sony pictures earned more than $100 million each.

Inarguably, McKay owns the frat-boy demographic the way director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers) did in the 1970s and 1980s. “But the weird thing,” he says, “is that our movies play fantastically well with minority audiences, too. Step Brothers. Talladega Nights—they did a hip-hop dance called ‘Do the Ricky Bobby.’ You can see it online, man. It’s got like a million hits.”

Hunting on YouTube, his assistant pulls up a video of two sorority-ish blonde coeds dressed identically in short shorts and University of North Texas football T-shirts. They’re dancing, not quite in unison, to a hip-hop track. “That’s actually not the official video,” McKay says. “These are just people in their dorm room doing the dance.”

The whole thing is strangely reminiscent of Dale and Brennan in Step Brothers and their bombastic, incredibly unconvincing “video prospectus” for their start-up mega-corporation, Prestige Worldwide: There are people who believe that the act of recording themselves on video makes them credible and significant. Or maybe it’s just that they’re really proud of their school’s football team?

So…the director of Talladega Nights is watching two coeds sloppily dance to a song inspired by Talladega Nights while simultaneously bragging on their terrible (1-11!) football program—in other words, acting exactly like characters in an Adam McKay movie.

McKay’s movies work the thin line between genuine accomplishment and baseless bravado. But his own credits are so spectacular that his actors are willing to risk looking ridiculous, knowing that the final result will be hilarious.

“Adam basically lets you know you can’t fail, and that builds confidence and excitement in the cast and the crew,” says Will Ferrell, McKay’s frequent collaborator and on-screen alter ego. “And then the crew starts fornicating…and the health department shows up…and then the movie is shut down for a few days.”

McKay may not be a household name, but among comedians he is…kind of a big deal. People know him. “Of the many, many people I’ve worked with, he is by far the smartest and funniest,” says Horatio Sanz, a fellow cofounder of the Upright Citizens Brigade and former SNL colleague. “Most people are tortured. McKay literally starts typing, and in an hour you have a sketch. I’ve never seen anyone with that type of comedic mind.”

Scott Adsit, who plays Pete on 30 Rock and worked with McKay in Chicago at the Second City Theater, goes further: “He’s like Mozart.”

And like that musical prodigy, McKay found his calling at a very early age. Over takeout farro wheat salad in his office, he describes how he was born in Denver in 1968 to a 20-year-old cocktail waitress mom and an 18-year-old bank teller/bass player dad who would be an intermittent presence in his son’s life. “We were pretty poor,” McKay says. “Food stamps saved our ass for two, three years.” The family car was a deacquisitioned U.S. Postal Service truck, and McKay spent his childhood moving up and down the East Coast.

But from the beginning he had uncanny comic timing. His mother, Sarah, recalls that when he was three or so, Adam placed the following order at a restaurant: “I will have fuck.” Sarah swears he was saving the word, which he’d never used before, “for just the right scenario, so that there would be as many bodies as possible lying on the curb.”

By high school, in Philadelphia, McKay had developed a perfect comedian’s sensibility: He was an extrovert with the passions of an introvert, “a full-out comic book geek” who played Dungeons & Dragons, and watched The Twilight Zone. He began writing bits with his friends, creating an Onion-like high school newsletter, and listening to Steve Martin and George Carlin records. When Late Night With David Letterman, with its folksy white-guy subversiveness, premiered in 1982, McKay thought, I want to try this. By his freshman year at Temple University, he decided to tackle an open mike night. “My first joke was about a company called Five Star Parking that was all over Philadelphia: ‘Who’s reviewing parking lots?’¿” he recalls. “Got nothing, of course.”

Despite some early success—he opened for Chris Rock—McKay eventually realized, “It’s brutal. At one point I was like, ‘Holy shit, what is my act? I wouldn’t laugh at this.’¿” When a fellow comic who’d moved to Chicago gushed about the city’s improv scene and its hipster guru Del Close, McKay—who had never even heard of improv before—promptly dropped out of school, sold his comic book collection to buy a car, and headed west.

To understand how Adam McKay, middling Philly stand-up, became Adam McKay, comedy colossus, you need to know something about the world of Chicago improv, a scene that has supplied TV and movies with comics—John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray; Mike Myers and Chris Farley; Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, and Tina Fey—the way USC has supplied the NFL with running backs. It is the crucible of American comedy.

On his buddy’s advice, McKay’s first stop was the ImprovOlympic theater, to sit at the feet of Del Close, a harshly unsentimental ex-junkie genius who had helped invent improv in the ’50s. “He would pull people off the stage and say, ‘You’re being an idiot,’¿” recalls McKay. “But he made a whole group of us a full notch better. It was life-changing.” McKay and three cast mates would also form a splinter improv group, the Upright Citizens Brigade, that has since become a breeding ground for fledgling comics—and for outrageous behavior.

“We’d do a show at a café, then we’d take the audience outside, and across the street McKay was on a ledge, threatening to kill himself,” recalls Sanz. “Eventually he’d throw this giant dummy off the roof. It built a myth of these insane shows: comedy as guerrilla theater.”

Word of mouth spread, lines formed around the block, and the show moved to a bigger venue. But when the Second City—a.k.a. improv’s major leagues—came calling with a $500-a-week main-stage gig, McKay decided to leave UCB and his pauper’s life behind. He would be replaced by Amy Poehler. “For them it was like the best trade ever,” he marvels. “Like the Celtics giving up draft picks for Robert Parish.”

At the Second City, McKay used what he’d learned from Close to help create “Piñata Full of Bees,” the longest-running and most profitable show in the group’s history. McKay had “a way of inspiring people and making them want to get on board,”former cast member Tina Fey has said. “He was the voice behind that show.”

McKay’s assistant knocks and opens the door to his office. “AC/DC’s all set, OK?” she says. “Great!” McKay exclaims. “One of my oldest buddies just moved out here, and he’s like the biggest AC/DC fan of all time, so I just said, ‘All right, I’m getting tickets. They’re in Vegas, I’ll get the rooms, we’re going.’ Weekends we usually family-time it up”—McKay lives with his wife, Shira (Jeremy Piven’s sister) and their two daughters, ages ten and five, in Los Angeles—“but every five months I’ll go a little nuts and head to Vegas.”

In 1995, McKay was invited to audition for Saturday Night Live kingmaker Lorne Michaels. McKay knew it was his voice on the page that played big, not his stage presence, so after an unremarkable audition, he walked off and handed Michaels some sketches he’d written. “It was the smartest thing I ever did,” he says. He was promptly hired.

On the strength of McKay’s admittedly bizarre first season, Michaels made him head writer, but it wasn’t easy translating his subversive humor to the longest-running comedy show ever. “There was a moment where my friends were like, ‘What’s going on, man? I’m watching the show. It still looks like…the show.’ I’m like, ‘I’m fucking 28, and this guy’s one of the most successful TV producers in history!’¿”

Finally, McKay says, he decided to focus on individual sketches, and began collaborating with the seemingly benign Will Ferrell. The first bit the two men wrote together was “Neil Diamond: Storytellers,” in which Ferrell-as-Diamond discloses his dark side in a series of disturbing, alienating confessions (like “I killed a hobo to get an erection”).

Ferrell and McKay found that they both detested what they called “cocky-for-no-reason guys.” “They both find the arrogance of man to be ridiculous and hilarious,” says Judd Apatow, who produced McKay’s first three movies. “They share an anger at people who are sure they are correct when they are usually self-serving idiots.” Cue the candidacy of George W. Bush.

As Bush emerged as the 2000 GOP nominee, McKay began thinking about Yak-Zies, a chicken-wing joint he’d known in Chicago. “Everyone there wore sweatshirts and backward caps,” he says. “And everyone was vaguely aggressive. These people were our age, making no effort whatsoever, and they were really confident about it. Like ‘Frat! The House!’ with nothing to back it up.” At the Second City, McKay had written a Ramones-style song mocking frat culture. “We were laughing so hard during rehearsal, but when we did it onstage no one laughed. It got me thinking: What’s a purchase point where you can get an audience to go down this road with you?”

At the risk of sounding like Dr. Seuss, the purchase point wasn’t a what—it was a who. Ferrell and McKay’s squinting, dunderheaded Bush returned SNL to the forefront of the national conversation and made Ferrell the show’s biggest star, preparing the way for his career-making role as a fortysomething frat dude in 2003’s Old School.

“Of course, the irony of this is, who’s loving all this shit now?” McKay asks. “The frat people!”

In 1999, Ferrell asked McKay if he’d like to collaborate on a screenplay, and together they wrote August Blow-Out, about the month in which car dealers slash prices to make way for new inventory. Jeff Tanner (Ferrell) is the movie’s hero, a super-salesman obsessed with Top Gun (or T. Gun, as he calls it) and whose conquests reportedly include Crystal Gayle. This particular August, though, Jeff goes into a horrible selling slump. His legend collapses. “Don’t you get it?” he tells a disappointed coworker. “I never slept with Crystal Gayle! I once pulled Juice Newton’s pants down on a dare! That’s it!”

“The script never got made,” says Ferrell, “but we got a lot of attention on it and thought we should continue this process.”

By now McKay had spent four years at SNL. He was eager to concentrate full-time on scriptwriting, so his manager urged him to first make an “unreasonable demand.” Thus, McKay requested that Michaels: (a) demote him, (b) excuse him from meetings, (c) confine his duties to digital shorts, and (d) pay him more money. Michaels agreed to all of it.

McKay’s hope was to establish himself with the shorts so he could direct features in Hollywood. “The films were pretty much ‘Adam Unfiltered,’¿” says Sanz. The most out-there was The H Is O, in which Ben Stiller makes a bet that he can seduce Glenn Frey (played by Ferrell) in a bar and succeeds—only to end up mauled and cowering in Frey’s bed.

McKay put in two more seasons at SNL, then left the show for good. “I was writing some scripts,” he says. “Plus, I thought, I can’t keep doing this, because it is a little uncool that I’m a writer and I don’t have to go to meetings. I think it annoyed some people.”

On a bench on the Sony lot, McKay smokes a cigarette and discusses the genesis of Anchorman, which remains his signature (and favorite) movie. One day, he says, Will Ferrell happened to see an interview in which the retired Philadelphia newsman Mort Crim was reminiscing about his tenure working alongside pioneering newswoman Jessica Savitch. “It was hilarious. Crim was like, ‘I’ll be honest, I was a male chauvinist pig!’¿” McKay laughs. “We kept talking about it: ‘God, can you imagine what fuckers those guys must have been?’¿” Ferrell found the voice, and then they started writing.

“When Adam was editing Anchorman, I must have watched it 200 times, and I never got bored,” says Apatow. “As a comedy nerd at heart, I feel lucky just to get to watch him create. After a while I would stare at an actor—whom the scene was not about—and notice the most insane, hilarious stuff Adam had them do: ‘Wow, look, Brick is eating a banana for no reason.’¿” The movie took in almost $85 million in theaters, then achieved cult status on DVD and cable, launching Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and McKay himself into the comic stratosphere. “I’ve seriously seen the movie about 30 times,” says Eva Mendes, who play’s Ferrell’s wife in The Other Guys. “Anchorman is my Gone With the Wind.”

In 2006 came Talladega Nights, about the fall and rise of a NASCAR champion, and in 2008 Step Brothers, a heavily improvised movie (for which McKay shot more than a million feet of footage) about the 40-year-old stay-at-home sons of a newly married couple. Both took in nine figures at the box office.

McKay describes The Other Guys, out this month, as “an old-fashioned action movie” in the vein of Midnight Run. Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play marginalized NYPD detectives, the former a geeky forensic accountant and the latter a frustrated beat cop. From Ferrell’s hilariously deranged monologues to the over-the-top pyrotechnics of the Die Hard–like finale, it promises to be the funniest movie of the summer.

“Our movies appear to be just broad, loud comedies,” says Ferrell. “But when you view them multiple times, you pick up on the subtleties as well as the satire. In other words, we’re smart as shit.”

McKay has now made four movies with Ferrell, and it would be easy to assume one was riding the other’s coattails if the collaboration weren’t so balanced. “Will actually types,” McKay says of their process. “He sits at the computer and I crash on the couch and we just kind of throw shit out. Our first draft’s usually 150 pages long and an absolute mess.”

Their talents, both men say, are complementary. “We share the same approach,” says Ferrell. “Write fast, don’t overthink it, and don’t ever pause to wonder, Wait, is this too crazy to actually do?” Ferrell’s contract, when he works with other directors, stipulates an optional McKay rewrite (as McKay has done with Elf and Bewitched). Their movies are literally revised as the camera is rolling; McKay estimates that as much as 25 percent of the dialogue is improvised. “Adam will give you a key word or idea and say, ‘Go chase that!’¿” says Ferrell. Would it go too far to suggest that the two men function for each other as…muses? “It’s not as creepy and as sweaty as it sounds, but that’s definitely part of the relationship,” says McKay.

I ask Ferrell the same question, and he is unequivocal: “I think in the strict definition of the word muse, ‘a goddesslike figure who inspires one to write poetry or attain creative pursuits,’ then absolutely, yes, I am Adam’s muse.”

In 2007 the same venture-capital firm that funded YouTube approached the pair and invited them to launch the Web comedy start-up that would become “I didn’t want to do it,” says McKay. “The dot-com thing had already crashed.” But his manager persisted, and McKay realized, “We’d get to do sketches, which we hadn’t done since SNL. So we just went and shot a couple of fuck-around videos, and then one of them was Pearl, and…boom!”

The Landlord, starring Ferrell with McKay’s then two-year-old daughter, Pearl, has amassed 71 million hits to date—and seemingly almost as many attacks on McKay’s parenting, because in the video sketch he had prompted Pearl to say the words “bitch” and “asshole.” Parents at his local playground literally shook their heads in disgust. Bill O’Reilly castigated him on air. McKay was flabbergasted. “That girl gets more love than 99 percent of human beings on planet Earth. I had some friend say, ‘You’re exploiting your daughter for your site.’ I’m like, ‘Fuck off.’¿”

Since then has introduced Between Two Ferns, a talk show hosted by the loutish Zach Galifianakis; the comically smarmy Acting With James Franco; and Drunk History, in which a shitfaced comic recounts a scene from American history while A-list talent (Jack Black, Don Cheadle, Michael Cera) reenacts it.

The site makes a modest profit, McKay notes, and has become both a virtual venue for rising comics and a whistle-stop for actors pro­moting movies. “It started that we would approach actors with ideas, but now agents call us.” McKay says.

In the late afternoon, back in the editing bay, McKay is trying to select “the most awful song we can think of” to score a scene from The Other Guys in which Will Ferrell, in a careening New York taxicab, locks his jaws onto the ass of a Chechen hitman. This is not just filmmaking; it’s a renegade act of pop music criticism: McKay seemingly wants to create a lasting Pavlovian association between bad music and the taste of ass.

His music supervisor, Erica Weiss, rolls the footage, cuing it, variously, to an Andrea Bocelli aria, then Michael Bolton’s “Said I Loved You...But I Lied,” and then a strummy-jangly something by Taylor Swift.

“I’m not sure the Bolton song is recognizable enough,” McKay says thoughtfully. “I mean, as Bolton.”

“Enya?” counters Weiss.

“The thing is, I’ve gotten massages to Enya,” McKay confesses. “I like Enya. If you ate fantastic steaks to Celine Dion, you’d like Celine Dion.” (“Adam has a deep love for what I call spa music,” says Ferrell. “Mostly synthesized instrumentals with a lot of wind chimes. I hate it, frankly, but after a while I’m so relaxed that I can’t put up much of a fight.”)

McKay steps outside for another smoke on the terrace, and I ask him how seriously he takes reviews of his movies. “They matter only if you really get raves or really get panned,” he says. “Don’t let me get 11 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But 50 percent, who cares? We actually laugh at the negative ones. Roger Ebert wrote one for Step Brothers, which is one of my all-time favorites.”

When we get back to the editing bay, McKay asks Weiss to pull up Ebert’s review on her Mac. She reads, “Step Brothers has a premise that might have produced a good time at the movies, but when I left I felt a little unclean...” McKay begins laughing; by the end he’s howling. Writes Ebert, “Sometimes I think I am living in a nightmare. All about me, standards are collapsing, manners are evaporating, people show no respect for themselves…What is going on here?”

“That is fantastic!” McKay catches his breath. And then decides to go with the Taylor Swift.

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