Shortly after dropping out of Temple University, Adam McKay drove to Chicago to study improvisational comedy. There, he co-founded the scrappy improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, which became known for producing some of Chicago’s edgiest theater. (One skit involved McKay advertising his own suicide.) It was a deliciously preposterous, taboo-busting brand of art that revelled in the absurdity of everyday life and exposed the often paper-thin veil between comedy and tragedy.
McKay went on to write for Saturday Night Live for six years beginning in 1995; later, he achieved a new level of success after directing and writing a series of blockbuster comedies starring his former SNL colleague Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys and Anchorman 2). Then McKay switched gears. His 2015 film, The Big Short, a star-studded adaptation of Michael Lewis’s best-selling book about the 2007 housing and banking collapse, earned him his first Academy Award (for best adapted screenplay). Last year, McKay returned with Vice, which chronicles the political rise of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Even though viewers found it to be polarizing, the film received eight Oscar nominations, including for best director, best picture and best original screenplay.
McKay’s latest project, the eight-episode Amazon Prime docuseries This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy, is centered around the world’s financial systems. It builds on themes explored in his two most recent films, namely those of money and corruption, shining a light on the people who exploit the systems for their own schemes. As with The Big Short and Vice, McKay humanizes these systems, attempting to show the scope for agency or complicity within them, all with his uncommon eye toward absurdity. WSJ. spoke with McKay by phone ahead of the Amazon series’ February 22 premiere:
WSJ.: You initially auditioned for Saturday Night Live. You didn’t get cast, but you started writing for the show. What was it like to go from telling the joke to writing for others?
Adam McKay: I was directing and writing and performing in Chicago, so it was a natural [transition] for me. SNL was very collaborative. Lorne [Michaels] gives the writers a lot of leeway as far as how they do sketches. The first couple of years are insane. They’re like 80-hour weeks. But it was thrilling. You’re working in 30 Rock. You’re making a regular paycheck. You’re around fun and cool people. At the same time, you’re trying to filter it through someone else’s vision. It’s clearly Lorne Michaels’s show.
So you meet Will Ferrell there and go on to write and direct five films in which he stars. The first was Anchorman. Did you expect it to do as well as it did?
I did not. When the movie came out it did pretty well. It made a profit, and the reviews were generally good. We were like, Good, we get to make another one—that’s the only way we thought of it. It wasn’t until a year and a half later that my wife called me on Halloween night to say that she’d seen five people dressed like Ron Burgundy.
Your last two film projects were The Big Short and Vice. What inspired the transition to projects that wrestle with financial policy and corruption?
It goes back to Chicago. There’s a long tradition of that kind of work there. Even at SNL I was writing a lot of cold opens that were certainly political. But the economic collapse changed everything. Like, my dad lost his house. I happened to read The Big Short, and I couldn’t put it down. I got really inspired. I was making comedies, and my agent asked me, “If you could do anything, what would you do?” And I said, “Why isn’t The Big Short a movie?” It was so satisfying and fun and challenging in a different way. The world proceeded to get even crazier while we were making it, so it just felt like it made no sense to go back to those types of comedies afterwards.
It also indicated a shift from mass audiences to prestige cinema.
There’s definitely an awards lens that exists, but you don’t really make the movie thinking about that—you just make the movie you want to make. But there’s a freedom that’s different than when you’re doing comedy. When you’re doing comedy, you kind of feel compelled to get a laugh in every scene, and you have to have a happy ending. The big takeaway from The Big Short was that freedom. Suddenly there weren’t as many rules, and that timed up nicely with what I wanted to say as far as what was going on in the world.
Each episode of your new project This Beast That Is the Global Economy explores a specific subject, including money laundering, counterfeit goods and rubber. How did you determine what areas you were going to cover?
We had a long list of different subjects—I think it’s part of what inspired the title, This Giant Beast! [Co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money] Adam Davidson, who was a consultant on The Big Short and now is a really good friend, sent out an initial sheet of a dozen ideas. I threw in some ideas. I really wanted to talk about corruption as its own kind of thing. We wanted to go more psychological with one. Is it a ruthless nature that leads to people being rich? Or if people are rich then do they become ruthless? Honestly, you could do a thousand of these episodes, it’s so vast and huge.
I wanted to ask you about that straight-to-camera delivery style—“the explainers”—in which complex ideas are made more digestible. Here you have cameos from people like Ted Danson, Rashida Jones and Meghan Trainor. How do you think it serves the message?
The idea is that you’re not obeying the regular rules of storytelling. You’re able to just hit the beat and pivot. It’s definitely an aggressive move. You want it to be jarring. You’re breaking the comfortable rhythm that the audience is in; you’re shattering that and trying to make it uncomfortable.
So you’re wading in these waters of corruption and greed and globalization. After wrapping something like this, how do you go on and not get bogged down?
I think it’s the question. It’s the question for all of us. We were just in Europe for eight days and heard a lot of people talking in concerned tones about the rise of the right wing over there and corruption. The way I think about it? We haven’t been doing democracy that long, and we’ve clearly missed some stuff. I would be really interested to see some sort of conference about what we can do better. Why does corruption proliferate? Why do people freak out when stuff gets uncertain and turn towards blaming immigrants? The trends you see over and over again. It can get depressing. But we have to go back to learning and figuring this out, which is why I like the idea of continuing with shows and movies like this one. Let’s keep driving at it until we can see what the common faults and threads are throughout them.
How will the show galvanize people, do you think?
It’s like how I was excited by The Big Short when I first read it. There are some people out there that will watch this who are already curious and who will be sparked even more. There are other people that didn’t even know that they were curious who will take it further. I would be excited by any kind of engagement.
Kal Penn hosts the show, and he also has a political background, having worked in the Obama administration.
[He’s] a great blend of comedy and policy. The big key with Kal was his curiosity. He really wanted to immerse himself in this stuff.
Speaking of hosts, the Oscars are obviously without one.
Honestly, I haven’t been paying attention at all. I was actually surprised the other day when someone told me, “Oh, yeah, there’s no host.” It will be interesting though!
Any excitement for the ceremony? You’ve been nominated before.
You dive into the experience. The old cliché of you’re just happy to be nominated definitely plays.
That really is true. You want your movie to be talked about. As a writer-director, I definitely want my actors and editor and hair and makeup to be acknowledged. You’re rooting for them, but the win is without a doubt being on that list. So you strap into your tuxedo and jump into your car and dive in. It’s kind of a blinding, blur of a night.
And what’s next?
We have the second season of Succession. [McKay is an executive producer of the HBO series.] I’m also trying to crack something on global warming for a feature film. I think I would probably change up the approach from Vice and The Big Short. That’s what I’m kicking around!