Adam McKay Is Mad as Hell

From Will Ferrell comedies to The Big Short, Vice, and Succession, Hollywood’s greatest populist is taking aim at oligarchy — from the hard left.

Photography by Lauren Kai Quartey.

Adam McKay is lying on a couch in his office staring up at the ceiling when I ask him how he got to be so angry. It’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask him for a while now: How did the creator of an entire generation of absurdist comedy — Will Ferrell’s most frequent collaborator — decide to go so, well, dark? “I think the answer is really simple,” he says, his head firmly nestled in a pillow (an essential tremor makes it easier for him to conduct interviews this way). “I got very freaked out.”

He runs through the Iraq War, the economic crash, and the bank bailout — a whirlwind series of disasters organized by an unaccountable elite. “It was kind of a perfect stew of, holy fucking shit,” he says. And it all came crashing down just as McKay and Ferrell were dominating the American multiplex. Together, their movies have grossed over $580 million. And that’s only counting the five McKay directed.

His last film, Vice, a Dick Cheney biopic, was met with sharply divided reviews despite acclaimed performances from Christian Bale and Amy Adams. “I just had this fractured feeling that the press was mad that I was stepping in their backyard,” he says. While critics and audiences could handle the collapse of the global economy in McKay’s The Big Short, with handsome and familiar faces to help the medicine go down, Vice’s much grimmer tone — interspersed with jolts of violence like the torture of War on Terror detainees and the bombing of Cambodia — proved to be too much for some. Around the film’s release, McKay attracted controversy for daring to state that Trump is “nowhere near” as bad as the Bush/Cheney presidency. (“By the way, I’ll say it again, if you want to quote me again.”)

The actual filmmaking process took its toll as well. In a darkly ironic twist for a film in which heart attacks punctuate the close of every act, McKay went into cardiac arrest in the middle of production: “I’m laughing about it now, because it is kind of funny.”

When the 2016 Democratic primary kicked into gear, McKay endorsed Bernie Sanders — a surprising move for a major producer still in his Hollywood prime. (Will Ferrell endorsed Sanders, too, but then switched to Clinton as the primary heated up.) He’s once again a Bernie Bro for 2020 — this past spring, McKay held a Q and A at his home with Sanders and his wife, Jane. “We are the exact definition of an oligarchy, where we’re at right now,” McKay says. “We don’t say it enough. Remember, Jimmy Carter said it a year ago?”

He recently even joined the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, proudly proclaiming on Twitter that “I consider myself a democratic socialist. Always have.” When I ask him why a successful Hollywood filmmaker would do something like that, he looks at me completely shocked, even disappointed: “Why not?”

Shortly before Vice’s premiere in 2018, Adam McKay publicly walked away from Funny Or Die — the comedy website and production company he cofounded with Will Ferrell and Chris Henchy — after he discovered that they’d partnered up with Shell Oil for a series (“this is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” he tweeted. “I’m shocked and horrified FOD did this.”) Then, just this past spring, he announced that he and Will Ferrell were amicably splitting from Gary Sanchez Productions, the company they founded together in 2006.

At the moment, McKay’s the executive producer on HBO’s Succession, a bleak dramedy created by Jesse Armstrong about a Murdoch-esque billionaire family, the Roys, and their struggles to keep their media empire on top. But it’s really a look at the American ruling class from the inside, stripped of (nearly) any glamour and filmed perpetually in the coldest, flu-iest weeks of New York City winter. The most likable character — other than the Bernie Sanders stand-in — solicits cocaine from a young caterer at a family wedding only to then Chappaquiddick the boy in an icy creek.

McKay’s other shows at the moment? A series on Amazon Prime hosted by Kal Penn called This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy that tries to explain things like the Panama Papers and money laundering in engaging ways. And Dead to Me, a comedy about young widows in therapy. He’s also currently prepping a movie about the downfall of Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes starring Jennifer Lawrence.

We’re a long way from Ron Burgundy.

“I went back after I got to know him, and I rewatched the Anchorman movies, and Step Brothers and Talladega Nights,” says Adam Davidson, cocreator of NPR’s “Planet Money” and a frequent collaborator of McKay’s. “I went back and really saw that passionate voice shouting through these funny movies and realized ‘Oh, those were, like, angry, pointed, and brilliant dissections of our culture.’”

Davidson served as an adviser on The Big Short where, despite very different temperaments and politics, he and McKay hit it off. “Our entire first year of collaborating was arguing about trade,” McKay says with a smile. “To his credit, he conceded some points.” Where McKay had the populist fervor, Davidson was trained in economics at the University of Chicago. “[McKay’s] texting me every single day on a huge range of topics about how does the world actually work and how should the world actually work,” says Davidson. “I don’t think I have anyone else in my life who is as voraciously curious about every aspect of it and whose brain is on fire trying to understand it.”

Shortly before the release of The Big Short in 2015, McKay and Davidson launched their podcast “Surprisingly Awesome” with the goal of making mundane subjects (concrete, mold, free throws) seem fascinating to each other. In one early episode, McKay tells the story of the radical anti-capitalist roots of Chumbawamba’s 1997 megahit “Tubthumping,” which he introduces as “the ultimate populist, activist story”: “[the song] was part of their deliberate thirty-year strategy to empower the working class and overthrow the status quo of England.” Davidson goes quiet. “I honestly don’t know if you’re doing a bit right now,” he says.

McKay backs up and sets the scene — Thatcher’s rise in the UK, the 1984 miners’ strike, and a little anti-capitalist collective, Chumbawamba, trying to figure out what the hell they could do about it. With McKay playing clips of their ever-evolving sound, we hear how the band eventually traded in the fuzzed-out guitars and guttural punk howling for drum machines and slick vocals, ditching the subculture to go pop. But their goal wasn’t money — it was to wage class war. And after fifteen years, it paid off with a hit that was no doubt heard by legions of workers around the globe — maybe more. The defiant chorus, still stuck in the heads of millions to this day, was about working-class resilience even after all the defeats: I get knocked down, but I get up again. You are never gonna keep me down.

“I have to say, McKay, it’s very clear to me why you love them,” says Davidson. “Because they are your model. They are who you are in your heart. And you are them.”

I ask Davidson what he meant by that. He thinks the political rage was always there in McKay’s work, especially in the comedies. That those films were smuggling in much bigger, and much angrier, ideas in an explicitly Chumbawamba-esque strategy. “I now go back and I’m like, ‘Wait. Why didn’t I see this? Why didn’t everyone see this?’ These are, like, Jacobin essays in movie form,” he says. “I had the impression a lot of people have, that there is phase one of his career and then phase two of his career. Like he left one industry and moved to another industry, and now I see it as just one brain doing the same thing all along.”

Born in 1968, Adam McKay’s childhood was largely spent in the kind of Rust Belt communities that have since become ground zero for the collapse of American workers. His parents split up early — his mom worked as a waitress for several years before going back to college on a Pell Grant. He credits “big-government” programs like that grant and food stamps for helping keep his family afloat. He describes an on-the-edge but nevertheless happy childhood full of comic books, street hockey, and Dungeons & Dragons.

“We lived in Worcester, Massachusetts up until I was in fourth grade. Like, every kid had a parent who was dead or in jail, or just gone. That was tougher. We had our house robbed. And my mom was like, ‘If we’re going to be poor, let’s move somewhere a little more rustic.’”

He spent a couple years at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he tried open mic for the first time. Then one day, he sold his comic book collection, bought a 1976 Chrysler New Yorker, and headed out to Chicago to try his hand at improv. There, he cofounded the Upright Citizens Brigade in the early 1990s, the sketch comedy group that launched the careers of Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, and Horatio Sanz. “We were very inspired by people like Augusto Boal, the political theater director from South America.” He tells me about one stunt from around that time in which McKay and some friends took over the Navy Pier during its grand opening: “Corn sweetener plants in the Midwest had been bought by a conglomerate, locked out the unions, and Pepsi was still buying their corn syrup,” he says. Pepsi, it turns out, was one of the major sponsors of the opening ceremony.

“We bought shirts with ‘Pepsi’ on them and pretended we were from Pepsi and took over Navy Pier. And then did this whole staged action, where we had actors playing locked-out union members, that turned into a theatrical riot. Although, for the people there, they didn’t know it was fake. And in the end, the police came and arrested my friends, and I was like, ‘Oh shit, we’re all going to go to jail.’ But then they came up to me, and they still thought I was from Pepsi, and they were like, ‘How do you wanna handle this?’ And I went, ‘You know what? It’s been enough bad pr, just let them go.’ And we all ran and jumped in our cars.”

He joined the main-stage cast of Second City shortly after that, earning an early hit with a revue entitled “Piñata Full of Bees” that featured, among other things, McKay as Noam Chomsky teaching kindergarterners about the genocide of Native Americans. “A lot of people were like, that’s too political,” he says with a smile. One performance that didn’t go over so well involved the cast stopping the show to announce that President Clinton had just been assassinated. The crowd, apparently, believed them. The cast then wheeled out a TV to update everyone on the unfolding tragedy but instead ended up playing football bloopers. “The people in the audience slowly began to file out, dazed,” McKay said in a 2014 interview. “That was the end of our show.”

His big break came when Lorne Michaels hired him for the 1995 season of Saturday Night Live. One year later, he was promoted to head writer at the age of twenty-eight. But even having nabbed one of the most coveted jobs in comedy, he found his guerrilla lefty sensibility charging at the gates. So, shortly after his promotion, he collaborated with Robert Smigel on a short cartoon entitled “Media-Opoly.” The premise was a kind of Schoolhouse Rock! via Manufacturing Consent with lyrics like: “When GE made defective bolts / it was an unreported crime,” referencing the 1989 crash of United Airlines Flight 232. “Or when it was boycotted for operating nuclear bomb plants / just to squeeze a dime . . . But the big shots don’t care / They’re all sitting pretty thanks to corporate welfare / (What’s that now?) / They get billions in subsidies from the government / It’s supposed to create jobs / but that’s not how it’s spent.” Just as we hear the “That’s what NBC doesn’t want you to know,” a PLEASE STAND BY graphic crashes in, closing the cartoon.

Somehow, it aired. And it nearly cost him his job.

“The next day there was giant corporate fallout,” McKay tells me, beaming with pride. “That’s back when GE owned NBC. And there were a bunch of phone calls to SNL going, ‘What the hell were you guys doing?’ And then I got a call from the guy in the control room who was a buddy of mine, who was sort of lefty like I am. And he’s like, ‘They just pulled the Media-Opoly piece from the rerun, and they don’t want anyone to know about it.’ So we called some friends of ours in the press and kind of leaked it, and it was this big brouhaha. Lorne Michaels had me come into his office. He knew I was the one who leaked it.”

He kept his job for another couple of years, but the immense workload was starting to get to him. “After four years as a writer on SNL, I had had enough,” McKay said in 2003. “So I told Lorne Michaels, the producer, that I wanted to quit. But I said I’d stay on if he let me put on whatever scenes I wanted and let me name my title. He agreed.” McKay spent his final two years at SNL making bizarre and hilarious short films (google “The Pervert” and “SNL” and prepare yourself), a kind of apprenticeship for the feature films he would soon be making in Hollywood. And he did it, as per his agreement with Michaels, under his new chosen job title at SNL: “Coordinator of Falconry.”

“There’s a performance of authority that is absurd. And we, as a culture, are kind of recognizing that more and more. But Adam was very early to it,” says Davidson. “It’s like he figured out the operating code early and revealed the kind of creaky, jerry-rigged machinery behind it, and he did it in 2003.” Will Ferrell, with his towering height, sandy Scots-Irish hair, narrow-set eyes, and splotchy skin, was the perfect vehicle for this project, portraying an ever-changing series of deluded, infantilized, and self-pitying alpha males (he played a lot of dads) whose appetites and failings somehow still managed to catapult him into positions of power and prestige.

He played Ron Burgundy in McKay’s directorial debut, Anchorman, a relatively lovable version of the same cultural figure he would revisit over and over again: the pompous fool who, simply by aping the appearance of authority, is reluctantly granted it. (In Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Burgundy accidentally invents the Fox News model back in 1980.)

Talladega Nights, released in 2006 at the nadir of Bush’s America, is a gonzo satire of McMansion Sunbelt culture. The film seems to be suggesting that it’s here that the American id — our true cultural values — finds its most vulgar, and therefore clearest, articulation. McKay opens the film with a quote (mis)attributed to a 1936 Eleanor Roosevelt: “America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed.”

You sense his exhaustion with the jingoism of the times — a country addicted to competition, cheap thrills, and crushing anything or anyone who questions any of it. Every scene radiates anger at the Southern upper middle class that swept Bush to reelection. Even the colors are overheated. The villain is a gay French Formula One driver named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) who is forced to break the hero’s arm simply because he refuses to say, “I love crêpes.” (Ricky Bobby, it turns out, does, in fact, love crêpes.) “Like the frightened baby chipmunk,” Girard sneers, “you are scared of anything that’s different.”

Even 2008’s Step Brothers, which opens with an actual George W. Bush quote (“Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dreams.”), looks today more like a lampooning of the bottom rung of the pre-crash One Percent than anyone caught at the time. Ferrell and John C. Reilly play Brennan and Dale, the forty-year-old failsons of two upper-middle-class professionals. The villain is Adam Scott’s character, Derek, Brennan’s older brother, sort of a twenty-first-century update of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. Derek’s a handsome bullshit artist and a part-time house flipper, the kind of guy who can’t help but brag that “I haven’t had a carb since 2004.” We first see him bullying his wife and children through a strained but terrifyingly accurate a cappella of a Guns N’ Roses power ballad (“Twelve hundred dollars a week for voice lessons, and this is what I get?”). But by the end of the movie, after Brennan and Dale have both reluctantly secured decent jobs, they’ve simply traded one adolescent identity for another:

Derek: You think you’re ready to run with the bulls?

Brennan: I’ve been earning and burning, snapping necks and cashing checks.

Derek: It’s the Catalina fuckin’ Wine Mixer. It’s the biggest helicopter-leasing event in the Western Hemisphere since 1997.

Brennan: I want to make bank, bro. I want to get ass. I want to drive a Range Rover.

But the real turning point for McKay wasn’t a Christian Bale film. It was another Will Ferrell one.

The Other Guys was written and released quickly after the financial crash, in that political dead zone between the bailouts and Occupy Wall Street. It was a time when even the suggestion that “inequality” (let alone “capitalism”) was a problem still put you firmly on the fringe. Today, it seems like another world entirely. “Everything just shifted in a really radical, large way,” McKay says. “I really feel like just everything was opened up. That any question could be asked, you could look at anything differently. So with what I was doing with movies and TV, I just felt like, the hell with it, let’s just dive right into the unknown.”

What started off as a buddy comedy with Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg became the platform for McKay’s growing anger at American oligarchy. “I think Adam’s political views started really taking shape,” says Chris Henchy, the script’s cowriter. “We had the bad guy and we knew we didn’t want it to be somebody’s coming into the port with $200 million in drugs. Nobody cares anymore.”

The premise: the big, loud A-team cops (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson) have just died, which means it’s time for the B-team of Ferrell, as a nerdy police accountant, and Wahlberg, as a hot-tempered wannabe hero, to step up. This time, however, the villain is billionaire Sir David Ershon (Steve Coogan), eager to raid the police pension fund to cover his losses. The problem is that Wahlberg’s cop can only see phantom Colombian drug lords, human traffickers, and organ harvesters.

It’s a running theme throughout McKay’s work: the powerful force looming over all of our lives that’s either so terrifying or so dull that we’ll take any chance to look away. A financial conglomerate raiding a workers’ pension fund is just too damn boring to spot. “That’s the new bad guy,” says Henchy. “And Adam was very in tune with that.” The script is peppered with McKay’s lefty rage. Mark Wahlberg throws a fit in a modern-art gallery: “This coffee table isn’t ‘the ego.’ It represents our shattered sense of community in the face of capitalist-driven iso­lation!” A pair of macho cops taunt another officer: “We found your red Prius. It was trying to vote for Ralph Nader.”

McKay even shot an epilogue in which Derek Jeter, playing himself, acts as a kind of left-wing Deep Throat (with a touch of Matt Taibbi), handing our heroes their next assignment, this one on Gold-man Sachs: “The whole damn system is clogged up with dirty money. And the news doesn’t say a word about it,” says Jeter. “’Cause who owns them? The same corporations who own the government.” It was cut from the theatrical edition.

“The audiences hated it,” McKays says. “We would screen it, and it would just thud.” So he decided to drive home his point, instead, in the end credits, with a slickly crafted animated presentation on the startling rise in economic inequality. It charts everything from the explosion of the CEO-to-average-worker pay ratio to a comparison between the NYPD retirement benefit and the average chief executive package. Everything he’d been wanting to scream at his audience came pouring out in that sequence. It was a risky move — going full Bernie Bro just one year into the Obama presidency, when Bernie Bros didn’t even exist yet. And when polite liberals really didn’t want to hear it.

David Edelstein’s review in New York magazine dismissed the political subtext entirely: “The Other Guys’ narrative clearly engaged McKay, Henchy, and Ferrell as outraged progressives, not storytellers . . . I barely paid the stock-exchange milieu any mind.” The credits are mentioned as a curious oddity. The New York Times was similarly baffled, dismissing the sequence in the lede paragraph as “a tease for a movie quite different from the one that has just concluded,” wrote A. O. Scott. “Looking at these shocking numbers in isolation, you might be tempted to think that you had just watched an angry populist satire skewering the powerful and the privileged. But such topical provocation has been missing from commercial American comedies for a very long time, and ‘The Other Guys’ is no exception.”

I ask McKay if he thought the message was getting lost in his “Tubthumping” model. He nods. “Without a doubt. And I think that’s why I shifted gears. I really felt like the comedy with the subversive piece of salami underneath it just wasn’t enough.”

But he did make one more go at the Chumbawamba strategy. After The Other Guys, McKay tried to get a comic book adaptation off the ground — The Boys, by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, set in a world where superheroes are very much real, but are also deeply corrupt and dangerously unaccountable corporate-sponsored celebrities. The title refers to a secret black-ops team tasked with keeping those superheroes under control — by any means necessary.

It’s the total antithesis of The Avengers and its celebration of libertarian billionaires thumbing their nose at democracy. “The famous line where [Tony] Stark lands and he’s like . . . what did he say? ‘The US military is privatized,’” McKay says, wincing. The dangers of an arrogant, unaccountable elite with blood on their hands flying around the world? For McKay, they might as well be hedge fund managers on coke. He cut a proof-of-concept trailer for The Boys and shopped it around town, but nobody would bite. (A few months ago, it premiered on Amazon Prime, but without McKay’s involvement.)

So, for his next film, he would shed the idea of a pop formula altogether and directly tackle a subject not exactly known for putting asses into seats: high finance.

“There’s some writers and filmmakers and artists that you experience in your life who you feel like a light goes on when you see them or read them,” McKay says. “And he was one of those for me.” He’s talking about Adam Curtis — a name that he brings up a lot. McKay’s a big fan of the BBC documentary filmmaker, the man who specializes in telling big political and social stories through mash-ups of archival footage and John Carpenter movie scores. The 1975 NYC fiscal crisis, Gaddafi, UFO sightings, and 1980s Trump: all threaded through an editing suite, chopped up and turned into an epiphany. Watching Curtis’s films is kind of like being on the receiving end of a sonic and visual attack. “He’s one of the more aggressive voices out there when it comes to really performing an autopsy on the industrial revolution, and modern civilization and what it means, and what we’re going through,” McKay says.

The running theme through Curtis’s work: inequality and social breakdown happens when the public turns away from the messy business of politics and democracy — an extremely close fit with McKay’s own concerns. And he seems to be almost the singular cinematic inspiration for what brought McKay from Anchorman to Vice and beyond.

Now, McKay wasn’t just going to lambast corporate America with a few scraps of dialogue and subtext. He was going to grab Americans by their ears and make them understand what exactly a collateralized debt obligation is; what credit default swaps do; what the fuck a tranche is. And how a massive wave of fraud brought down the American economy — sparing the rich, of course.

“Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you to just leave them the fuck alone,” Ryan Gosling’s character says in The Big Short. “So here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain.” “Every one percent unemployment goes up,” says Brad Pitt’s character, Ben Rickert, “forty thousand people die! Did you know that?” Steve Carell’s character, Mark Baum, is even more blunt — and more McKayish — sounding something like a character from John Carpenter’s They Live trying to wake the public up to the alien invasion all around them: “You have no idea the kind of crap people are pulling, and everyone’s walking around like they’re in a goddamn Enya video.”

The results were unanimously praised. McKay and his cowriter, Charles Randolph, won the Oscar for The Big Short’s screenplay. And the film made more than $150 million at the box office. The public, it turns out, was willing to show up to learn about the big, boring, scary thing looming over them all: the disaster that, only seven years in the past, had financially wiped out a good many of them or kicked them out of their homes. Of course, casting Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling didn’t hurt either.

It was a radical evolution in his filmmaking but one that, looking back, seems inevitable.

But when I ask McKay about its reception, he zeroes in on one review in particular — one he seems quite proud of. “You know, [Obama] didn’t like The Big Short,” he says with a smile.

The surprising thing about talking with Adam McKay is that it feels less like a conversation with an affluent progressive who cares about corruption and more like, well, a talk with a contributor for this magazine. “FDR doesn’t do the New Deal without the rise of unions, without the rise of a Socialist Party, Communist Party, different people pushing in different ways,” he says. “There’s no way the New Deal happens without it. Civil rights? LBJ was kind of passionate about it, surprisingly so, but there’s no way that happens with-out Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, and all of that. None of it happens without that.”

McKay is now producing another podcast with Davidson and Laura Mayer, this one entitled “BROKEN: Jeffrey Epstein.” While the subject is Epstein, “BROKEN” intends to look at him more as a symptom of our ruling class. It seems that a lot of McKay has rubbed off on Davidson. “McKay is a big part of how I have changed how I think about the world,” says Davidson. “I was very much sort of a conventional believer in the system to a degree that embarrasses me now. I think that is forever changed.”

But it’s not just Davidson — the culture has radically shifted in the past fifteen years. In some ways, it’s finally caught up to what McKay’s been doing since “Media-Opoly” blew my teenage mind more than twenty years ago. And just as Bernie Sanders’s rise took everyone by surprise, so has what audiences are willing to stomach under America’s Second Gilded Age. “To me, it’s not an option to not do what you feel is relevant. And to go make a movie or a TV show that feels like it could be set in 1992, I’d be so bored,” says McKay. “And I really feel like audiences now can handle a lot.” But I wonder how far he can take it — how dark can he get?

When I ask him about his next project, he’s eager to tell me all about it.

“A giant meteorite is going to hit earth, we’re all going to die, no one gives a shit, is the premise,” he says. “The scientists are getting angrier and angrier and screaming on shows, ‘We’re all gonna fucking die!’ And then the internet hates them because they keep saying that. And then eventually, of course, a company finds out the meteorite has profitable minerals on it, so they want it to hit!”