Interview: Adam McKay Schools Us On Mean-Spiritedness and ‘The Other Guys’

With The Other Guys, director Adam McKay walked a fine line of not making another cop spoof and has instead turned in a straight-faced comedy. But it’s really more of an action movie. It follows the tropes, the story structure and the whole cop movie formula we all know… except it has an oblivious non-hero duo at the center.

Mean-spirited is possibly the best way to describe most of McKay’s protagonists. They’re usually completely oblivious and seem to have no guilt for what they do and say. While McKay slightly disagrees with that stance when it comes to Allen and Terry for The Other Guys, he agrees there are still sprinkles of cruelness to them.

McKay and I talked about this at length:

Here’s what Adam McKay had to say about The Other Guys:

Note: This interview contains spoilers.

What’s your attraction to mean-spirited characters?

Well, there’s nothing more fun than mean-spirited characters. Which ones are you thinking of specifically?

Both Allen (Will Ferrell) and Terry (Mark Wahlberg).

Allen is not that mean, though.

You think?

He seems alright, right?

Well, he’s not very complimentary to his wife.

(laughs) Well, you know, I also think a lot of it is that if you have mean-spirited characters then there’s issues there and things you gotta deal with. Part of the fun is that mean-spirited characters get to break norms and behave in slightly different ways. So in comedy, to me, the greatest comedy character of all time is W.C. Fields, who was just nasty. He was awful to kids and awful to everyone.

Wouldn’t you say Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby are a bit mean-spirited, too?

I wouldn’t quite go with mean for Allen Gamble or Ron Burgundy, I’d say oblivious would be better. I think you’ve hit on a good point that there’s a really thin line between oblivious and mean. George Bush is great example. I always thought George Bush was more oblivious than mean, but oblivious can quickly go to mean.

I’d also say Terry is a pretty mean guy, as well. He does hit on Allen’s wife…

Terry is definitely mean. Terry has got an anger disorder and there’s no doubt about it. He’s really struggling with some shit. But I think we like oblivious characters more than mean. I think Ricky Bobby was more oblivious than mean. Dale and Brennan in Step Brothers were super oblivious, but they actually were mean. They were awful to their parents (laughs).

You’re finally realizing (laughs).

I’m realizing oblivious and mean are close cousins.

What makes the different for you?

It’s tricky, but all my favorite stuff and all my favorite comedy tends to operate in that world. A big trick is the actors. There’s certain actors that can pull that off. Will [Ferrell] is a guy that just has this inherent decency to him. Wahlberg is the same way. He has a vulnerability to him that shows through even when he’s being awful. And there’s other guys I’ve seen who’ve been able to pull it off. Danny McBride does it masterfully in Eastbound and Down. On paper, he’s the most despicable character ever, but you can’t help but to feel sorry for him. That’s usually the case with oblivious or nasty people. There’s usually some giant wound operating behind it all. With Terry, clearly he’s a guy with a big wound behind him. If you’re able to flash that pain occasionally you can make these characters sympathetic, while also being able to laugh at them and at the same time somewhat root for them.

I like how Terry’s wound is shooting Derek Jeter.

(laughs) Yeah. It’s probably the worst shoot in the history of the NYPD. It’s an absolute PR disaster larger than LeBron James with dissing Cleveland on television.

Where did the idea come about of making him not just a total nerd, who’s okay with being picked on?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I definitely have a nice nerd streak running through me and I have many friends who are nerds. Probably the biggest, giant nerd I’ve ever met is this guy in Chicago who had a one hundred and eighty IQ and he was a city planner. He was no pushover though, man. He was kind of cocky and had his own type of aggression.  I think that a lot of nerds are more like the comic-book store owner in The Simpsons, you know? They have this strident type of know-it-all thing down.

A feeling of self-importance.

Yeah. Even Napoleon Dynamite had a bit of that to him, even though he was a complete loser. He was very confident in what he thought. I think there’s a tendency to think geeks and nerds are just sweet guys that were picked on, but that hasn’t been my experience. I’m certainly not like that, in a lot of ways. There’s a difference between being meek in a fistfight and being meek in an argument, and Allen Gamble is not meek in any way.

He’s arguably more stronger than Terry, too.

Oh, I think so. Absolutely. He’s a more together guy and he knows what he is, in a lot of ways, even though he’s battling with a dark side. Terry is a bit of a mess. Terry is going off this old movie idea of cops and trying to make it work, but he doesn’t really understand crime beyond drug dealers whereas Allen actually has a foot in the real world.

All you really need to know about Jack is his favorite movies are: The Last Detail, Rumble Fish, Sunset Boulevard, The Truman Show, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Verdict, Closer, Shadow of a Doubt, The Long Goodbye, Spider-Man 2, Jaws, Adaptation, Get Carter, The Last Days of Disco, Carnal Knowledge, Almost Famous, Ed Wood, Ace in the Hole, Barton Fink, and L.A. Confidential.

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