If you’re Adam McKay, you might just love this interview. However, if you’re Neal Brennan, you’re going to find this interview incredibly boring. If you’re not either of these two men, I have no idea what you’ll think.
I say this because Brennan apparently doesn’t like reading other people having fun, and, to be fair, the first four minutes of our conversation were overpowered by a looming discussion of Walt Whitman. For some reason.
So as a quick caution to you, dear reader, if you have a problem listening to two creative comedians and one idiot interviewer talk about how flaming a civil war-era poet and thinker was, I’d skip down a few lines and start there. I include a safety page-break so you’ll know where the Whitman stuff ends. Also as a caution, we talk about details from the movie, so if you’re really sensitive about spoilers, you may want to avoid.
Also, you probably won’t want to know that Rob Riggle plays a ten-year old that Kathryn Hahn’s character wants to bone silly.
On another note, despite knowing very little about Whitman, Neal Brennan has been a major player in the world of comedy for some time – writing Half Baked, writing for “Chappelle’s Show,” and now directing his first feature length film The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard. Adam McKay, who produced the film, is arguably one of the most influential creative forces in comedy right now. He’s the mind behind Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, Anchorman, and is involved with a host of other projects that range from the television success of “Eastbound and Down” to the internet sensation that introduced us to Pearl, The Landlord over at FunnyOrDie.
For some reason, they agreed to talk to me. My words are in bold to match my ego:
Adam McKay: Hey, it’s Adam McKay.
Hey guys, how’s it going?
Neal Brennan: And I’m…Neal Brennan.
How long did you rehearse that?
Brennan: I don’t know…six, maybe six or eight weeks. About four weeks out we get real serious.
I appreciate the professionalism.
Brennan: Yeah, you’re welcome.
McKay: I kinda feel like if all else fails, be a pro.
That’s the rule of thumb?
McKay: Yeah, there’s a lot of things you can’t control. But you can always be a pro. You know who said that originally? That’s a Walt Whitman quote: “If all else fails, you can always be a pro.” *
Do you just want to talk about Walt Whitman the whole time?
McKay: I wouldn’t mind. Let’s get into it. First off, had to be gay during the Civil War. Had to be rough.
Brennan: Like it was part of the Confederate Army that made him be gay?
Brennan: Had to be gay? Like he was on a gay strike and had to be gay until the war ended?
You’ve never read that? There’s a really gay subtext in “Democratic Vistas.”
Brennan: Wow. He dropped the D-Bomb on us.
Should I have mentioned “Song of Myself” or something different instead?
McKay: I’m catching up with you on “Song of Myself,” but…he was gay wasn’t he? Walt Whitman? Openly gay?
I’ve never asked him out or anything.
Brennan: I know literally nothing about him.
McKay: He was openly gay during a time where it was really rough to be openly gay. Back then they’d burn you as a witch. They almost didn’t comprehend. There was almost no word for it back then – it was like you had “the vapors” or something.
Brennan: Actually, Adam you’re wrong. [Flamboyantly] They’d burn you as a Bitch! Hey hey!
McKay: Nice! Nice. Victory lap.
Brennan: Let’s start this interview! Or let’s fucking end this interview.
McKay: That’s a closer.
Look, I have no idea whether he was really gay or not. But you have to imagine with that beard that he was.
Brennan: Again, you guys know way more about this than I do. I know nothing about him.
You weren’t prepped for the interview? The Walt Whitman portion?
McKay: They were pretty clear about it, Neal. They said it was mostly going to be about Walt Whitman.
Brennan: Also, this is gonna be a great article.
Brennan: You better switch the subject to the movie if you expect people to turn to the next page.
Are you shitting me? Our readers love Walt Whitman.
McKay: I gotta say – if I clicked on a movie interview, and the first part was all about Walt Whitman, I’d love that article.
Brennan: I’d give you two lines, and then I’d lose my patience.
McKay: Wow. You’re out that quickly?
Brennan: I’m a hard ass. I don’t listen. Give me information. I don’t want to read a transcript of other people having fun.
McKay: That’s rough.
Brennan: Well, I’m rough, Adam.
I guess I’m not writing this for you, then.
McKay: No, let’s get informational. How much does the film weigh? Neal wants information.
There is virtually no more Walt Whitman past this point. Enjoy.
Well, let’s talk about The Goods then. Is there footage of Kathryn Hahn fucking Rob Riggle on a cutting room floor somewhere?
McKay: Wow. He came strong.
Brennan: They didn’t fuck, but we had them making out. Riggle has no idea what’s happening.
Brennan: He’s groping at things, and she says, “Pull my hair!” and he says, “I can pull your hair? You should have told me that earlier. I would have been doing it the whole time.”
Brennan: Because he’s ten.
Let’s be fair. Rob Riggle’s character doesn’t know what he’s doing. We don’t want to spread any negativity about Riggle himself.
I actually just read an interview where, Adam, you said that Kathryn Hahn is one of the best improvisers you’ve ever worked with. Why is that?
McKay: Yeah, she’s pretty incredible.
Brennan: You know why it is? You know the line: “If Jeremy sells that car, I’ll eat my own Blank?”
That was my favorite line of the movie. And you can say pussy if you want.
Brennan: I thought of that line a week before we started shooting, and I told her about it. She tried to say it in two other scenes. That’s how committed she was – she’ll say anything.
Brennan: She would ask, “Can I say that line again? About eating my own…,” So she’s great. And the other thing is she went to Yale and Northwestern and she could not be less fussy. You know?
McKay: Yeah, she’s just a great actress. That’s the other trick to her. She did Revolutionary Road and has done Broadway, and it’s all from a grounded place. But once she goes into it, she’s absolutely fearless. I’ll never forget the first scene we did with her on Step Brothers. She came onto Riley in the doorway, and said, “I wanna roll you into a little ball and put you in my vagina.” And she was just rolling with that. After the first take of that, she was improvising so much that she stepped away, and the whole crew applauded. I’ve never seen anything like it – it was amazing.
It’s really beautiful to see that. Especially with more and more funny women being put into funny movies.
McKay: She’s as funny as anyone out there. It’s one of my favorite performances of the movie.
Brennan: Absolutely. And I think it’s one of those things. I tell girls, “You are going to love this woman when you see it.”
There’s a hint of Mel Brooks-style absurdity. Is that something you intended or am I projecting that into it?
Brennan: Yeah, I think that my favorite scene of any of Adam’s movies is the guy on fire running through the anchor fight [in Anchorman]. And there’s guys on horseback, right?
Brennan: I mean. You wanna talk about Mel Brooks – I don’t know if it’s Mel Brooks or Zucker Brothers – but I think of it more like punk rock than that.
McKay: We always said, you know Norm Hiscock – guy that was head writer for “Kids in the Hall,” wrote for “King of the Hill” – we always used to point to one joke that cued that sort of sense of humor for us. It was in Airplane! when the headlines spin toward frame. The first two are something like, “People doomed on airplane,” “Everyone going to die,” and the third one is, “Boy trapped in refrigerator eats own foot.” Both of us had a similar experience with that where we saw that joke, a light when on, and we thought, “Oh my god.” It was so out-of-nowhere but somehow worked with what was going on. Mel Brooks, I think, was kind of a sillier version of that. I think Airplane! sharpened it, and I think “The Simpsons” have a lot of that as well.
It’s weird. I picked Mel Brooks because there’s no real consequences to the elements. Like in Blazing Saddles. The whole thing just devolves and doesn’t matter even if you do care about the characters. The stuff in your movie is a little bit more morbid maybe.
Brennan: Mel’s stuff was pretty charged with antisemitism… So it was pretty pointed. It’s a little jagged.
McKay: But it’s no accident that I think Blazing Saddles is his funniest movie. And it’s dealing with racism. So any time you get that absurdity with a jagged edge on it – and “The Simpsons” does it too. They’ll just have a film about natural selection that they’re showing school kids, and they’ll show a lion eating a gazelle. Then they’ll cut to a gorilla in a tree, and a shark jumps up and eats the gorilla in the tree. The parody of the film is a warped corporate view of human nature, so there’s always a bigger agenda there. As far as a car lot, there’s this kind of flash just to sell. I think it came from that.
Well, that exploration of the darker side of humanity works perfectly with our discussion of Walt Whitman earlier and segues perfectly into my next question about what you find safe or dangerous about working in comedy.
McKay: Nice. Nice!
McKay: That was a multi-layered pivot turn you just made. Nice.
It’s the only time it’ll ever happen in my career. So you guys were here for it. Thanks.
McKay: I’m gonna latch onto your Walt Whitman reference. I’m gonna say that the Body Electric is a very complicated organism. Naw, I don’t know. What’s safe or dangerous about comedy?
What do you find safe? What do you find dangerous?
McKay: You wanna go first, Neal?
Brennan: I find there is always, well, more people bring guns to set than you’d think.
Brennan: I find that dangerous.
That doesn’t make you feel safer?
Brennan: No, well that’s what the NRA would have you believe, but it makes me feel – it’s dangerous. And there’s a lot of glass. Shards of glass. Like in my trailer, they would dump, there would be tons of shards of glass.
McKay: Don’t go any further. You don’t wanna know who “They” are.
What about you, Adam?
McKay: What’s dangerous about comedy is, Neal and I were just talking about it, it’s like walking into a room full of people and going, “Hey! I’m really, really funny!” The initial idea of a comedy comes off a little cocky and dickish. So then you almost have to work for the whole first twenty minutes to say, “Alright, everyone calm down. We’re just like you. Here’s what’s going on.” Once you get back to a neutral place…it’s the reason I say standup comedy is so hard. You’re playing at a place called something like The Laugh Hut. There’s not a lot of subtlety to it. Yet it’s also kind of what l love about it. The game is clear from the get-go.
Brennan: It’s like in modeling. Models never say, “I’m hot.” They say, “Look at these clothes.” Whereas, with comedy, you have to say, “I’m hot.”
And you feel like you have no clothes?
Brennan: Yeah. There’s nothing there. You’re not up there to read the news and then get into a bit. You’re there to do bits.
McKay: The easiest time to be funny is during a fairly serious situation. That way you can break the ice. It’s crazy, but even at funerals, people will get huge laughs. They’ll say something like, “And we all remember how much John loved his…”
Brennan: Ugh. People get way too much credit at funerals. I’ve always said that.
Brennan: People get laughs at funerals that bug me to this day.
You know you’re actually giving an interview right now that’s going to read by thousands and thousands of people so if you’d like to use it as a soapbox, you can.
McKay: Soapbox it, my friend.
Brennan: No. I think I just did.
McKay: You know, I think what’s dangerous [about comedy] is that you’re coming into the room announcing your intentions. And, you know what else happens, I would say that The Goods – obviously comedy is subjective and some people aren’t gonna laugh because it’s too dirty or something – but it is a funny movie. There are big laughs throughout the entire movie. And in a weird way that sometimes bothers people. They’ll say, “What about the story?” It’s almost like they’re uncomfortable that they’re at a comedy and it’s really funny. So then at that point it’s viewed as kind of low. It’s crass humor. It’s easy to do. So most of what’s tricky about comedy is the perception of it and the audience’s expectation.
Walt Whitman knows what's dangerous about comedy.
It sounds like you have a firm grasp, but I’m not sure I understand what’s safe about it yet.
Brennan: Nothing is safe about it. Don’t you see!
I’m getting a real paranoid vibe from you, Neal.
The “They’ are leaving glass shards…
Brennan: They’re onto us! They’re onto us.
McKay: Stay away from the “They.” Don’t go near the “They.” Did you hear who the “They” was?
McKay: It. Is. You.
Now we’re talking about looking into the abyss…this is the deepest interview I’ve ever done.
Brennan: Hey, fellas. I don’t know how to tell you this, but I have to leave so I can go to the FUCKING PREMIERE of OUR FUCKING MOVIE! [Singing Techno-style for several minutes]
Brennan: That was “Y’all Ready For This.”
Beautifully done. I’m glad you’re excited about it. Thanks for the time, Neal. Is there anything you want to say before you leave?
Brennan: Just you know – if you liked – okay: The guys who did Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, Half Baked, and “Chappelle’s Show” made a movie with Jeremy Piven.
I’ll put an exclamation point on that.**
McKay: I like it.
Have a good one, and Adam, thanks for sticking around.
So I’ve heard a report earlier that Anchorman 2 was on. Then one a week later saying it was off. Then one saying it was back on again. I was wondering if you wanted to confuse the film world again by confirming that it’s off completely or that it was a Gothic rock opera or something.
McKay: It’s not in anyway off. It’s all about schedule with this one. We’re doing this movie, The Other Guys, which is why I’m in New York and then it’s all about getting everyone’s schedule lined up because there’s so many actors in it. But we have an idea, we’re excited about it, and everyone is excited about it. So it’s all about scheduling. Movies take so long. The truth is it’s about two years away. But no, no, it is completely on. We’re definitely doing a second one. It’s just all about getting it together.
One more question: Kenny Powers, Ricky Bobby, Don Ready, Ron Burgundy. Four-way melee. No weapons. Who emerges?
McKay: [Laughs] Huh. That’s a good one. I’m gonna say that Kenny Powers probably snuck a shiv into the fight. I think he probably has the fewest morals of the group. Alhough I think maybe all four end up in a wrestling position, then start laughing, and all go out for beers. But yeah, boy, those are four cocky, self-deluded, mediocre American men.
And it devolves into a tickle fight. Are we gonna see Landlord: The Movie sometime?
McKay: You know we actually got offered that.
McKay: No joke. I’m not kidding. Two things happened after that. One is – I got a call from an agent saying Jackie Chan was doing a movie and would we pair Pearl up with him? Not kidding. And the second thing was we had an executive call me and told me we could do Landlord: The Movie and make X amount of money.
It’s funny how they always know how much movies will make.
McKay: And they’re always right…
Whether or not we see Landlord: The Movie any time soon, The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard is currently in theaters right now as you read this. Unless you’re reading old interviews on the Internet and the movie’s been out of theaters for quite some time. Anyway, it opened on Friday August 14th, so use that as a guide.
* This, to my knowledge, is not actually anything Walt Whitman ever said.
** As you can see, I didn’t.