As Hollywood Looks on, Former Malvern Kid Spins Absurdity Into Insanity

Photo by Jaap Buttendijk / 2015 Paramount Pictures

With this gem from our archives, find out how Great Valley High School alum Adam McKay made a name for himself in the entertainment industry.

This story initially ran in Main Line Today’s July 2009 issue. Since then, Adam McKay has gone on to write, direct and produce numerous award-winning movies and series. The lengthy list includes 2015’s The Big Short, which won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Three years later, Vice earned multiple Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, ultimately taking home the Oscar for Best Make-Up and Hairstyling. McKay is currently working on the Netflix comedy, Don’t Look Up, starring Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence.

In the 2004 comedy smash Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, there’s a classic moment in which members of San Diego’s five news teams square off for a rumble in a trash-strewn parking lot. The rules are simple: Anything goes—except touching the hair.

Rick March laughed when he first saw the scene, but it wasn’t until a man ran across the screen on fire that he totally lost it. In the midst of the ridiculous on-screen confrontation, March’s childhood friend had turned absurdity into insanity. A man on fire? Makes no sense.

- Advertisement -

Unless you know Adam McKay. “I saw [the man on fire] and said, ‘That was you!’” March says.

“You can’t believe what I went through just to get that in,” McKay told his pal.

“It turns out it cost an extra $50,000,” says March.

McKay and March were little more than low-level mischief-makers at Great Valley High School. “We threw snowballs at cars, made prank phone calls and did a little shoplifting here and there,” March recalls. “We were just having fun.”

- Partner Content -

McKay has been doing just about anything to get a laugh ever since. If turning a stuntman into a human conflagration cracks somebody up, then get the matches and gasoline. Some choose a career as a way to make money. A fortunate few have a true avocation—something they were destined to do. And while you may find it hard to believe that anyone was born to make fart jokes, McKay makes a pretty compelling argument to support that theory.

Since his grade-school days, McKay has thrived on producing big, loud, eye-watering laughs. Broad farce. Silly slapstick. Puns that make you groan. Off-the-wall scenes. They’re all in the McKay repertoire, and he won’t apologize for a minute to anyone who thinks he’s aiming low. Damn right he’s aiming low—a kick in the groin can be mighty funny. McKay knows that.

Moreover, he thinks it’s good for America. Laughter is the great equalizer. Jam a pie in someone’s face and watch everyone let loose, from the buttoned-up executive type to the shot-and-beer guy on the corner. “I think raunchy stuff can be helpful,” McKay says. “I think the country needs to laugh. There is a Puritanical stance here, and it’s time to realize that a little cursing is OK. The country is a tad uptight.”

So McKay sets his writing partner, comedic superstar Will Ferrell, loose on TV newscasters (Anchorman), NASCAR (2006’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby), family dynamics (Step Brothers) and a former president (Broadway’s You’re Welcome, America. A Final Night with George W. Bush). In the producers’ role, he and Ferrell are now poking fun at car salesmen with The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard.

McKay’s comedic reach isn’t confined to the big screen. He’s always busy creating delivery systems that induce laughs using the most technologically savvy methods. If it’s funny, McKay doesn’t care where it comes from or how you see it. He just wants to get it out there—all of it packaged in that unmistakable way.

- Advertisement -

And that’s what kills March. Here he is, looking up at the work of a guy he used to play basketball with at 3 a.m.—the kid who got good grades without really trying. Not that he’s jealous or anything. March takes pride in everything McKay does. He runs out to see every movie and buys the DVD as soon as it’s available. OK, so he has to schedule appointments to talk to his old friend and would like him to come back to the area more often, but March acts as if he made it big, too—because he was there in the beginning. “I go see his movies, and right away I see him in them,” March says. “It’s the same off-the-wall, crazy stuff we would think about when we were younger.”

Related Article: HBO’s Mare of Easttown

The Malvern of McKay’s youth is not our 21st-century vision of the town. There were no handsome housing developments and no upscale stores downtown. Paoli was the frontier of the Main Line at that point, and Malvern was in some ways uncharted territory. “There were a lot of pickup trucks and chewing tobacco,” McKay remembers.

McKay and his family “moved around a lot” when he was young, and his parents split up when he was in second grade. He moved in with his mother and older sister, Lisa—and after 18 months in Florida, it was time to move. “My mother said, ‘If we’re going to be poor, let’s be in a nice area,’” McKay says.

So they moved north to Malvern when McKay was in fourth grade. Although the Main Line qualified as “a nice area,” the McKay home wasn’t exactly on a tree-lined lane filled with stone estates. “You’d drive through the Main Line, and right where it started to get crappy, that’s where we lived,” he says.

In fact, a few of McKay’s friends weren’t allowed to come over because of the home’s location. “It was a classic ‘other side of the tracks’ situation,” he says. “Old Lincoln Highway was the divider.”

March couldn’t have cared less where McKay lived. The two met in eighth grade and became inseparable, carrying out their pranks and honing comic sensibilities throughout high school. McKay’s academic career was relatively nondescript, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t handle the work. He just didn’t want to do it. Still, he earned good grades, according to March, and directed his energies toward making people laugh— and playing basketball, a passion he still pursues today.

McKay and March weren’t particularly athletic, but they were devoted to hoops. They’d watch a game on TV and spend hours trying to replicate the moves they saw on the screen. March recalls one summer when he and McKay would play all day, much to Lisa’s consternation. She was working the nightshift at the time and trying to grab some sleep during the daylight hours. That became rather difficult with the incessant dribbling. “She’d come out and threaten to kick our asses,” March says, laughing.

McKay tried to get serious about basketball as a senior at Great Valley, when he joined the varsity team. He rode the bench for most of the season, seeing minimal time, mostly in blowout situations. “He had a great outside shot, but he wasn’t a real athletic guy,” March says. “He couldn’t run well, and he sat at the end of the bench. I’d laugh at him.”

To this day, McKay remains a basketball freak, playing Thursday nights at a Los Angeles-area church. And when he returns to Malvern, it’s one of his main activities. Since smoking and a cavalier approach to nutrition don’t allow him to stay in the best shape, McKay won’t be tearing too many people up. But he can still take some shorter opponents inside. If faced with a taller rival, he’ll hit a couple of jumpers.

McKay’s collaborator, Chris Henchy, reports that his pal is deceptively good. “He has a good crossover dribble,” Henchy says. “You see this 6-foot-5 guy coming down the court, and he tries this crossover dribble. You think, ‘I have to be able to stop that.’ But you can’t.”

McKay didn’t make much of a name for himself as an athlete, but by junior year, he’d become popular because of his quick mind and offbeat sense of humor. “That’s when people recognized how funny he was,” March says. “People wanted to hang out with him on weekends because he was so off-the-wall.”

McKay enjoyed the attention—and soon realized he enjoyed making people laugh. After graduating from Great Valley in 1986 and spending a year at Penn State, he returned home, began classes at Temple University and started performing standup at local clubs. Initially, it was grim. One night, a guy wouldn’t stop flicking bottle caps at him. “I had some rough sets,” McKay says, adding that it took him 10 to 15 tries to do “a respectable 15 minutes.”

But McKay stayed at it. An established comic complimented him on his “smart stuff.” That gave him confidence, as did the brief moments when people actually laughed at his stuff.

“Off of the three seconds where I didn’t suck, I got enough to build on,” he says. “That’s what you need at that age—to get your ass kicked a little.”

At Temple, McKay studied philosophy, read Thomas Wolfe and James Joyce, and made the most of the cultural opportunities available to him in Philly—and not just the Comedy Factory Outlet. When he heard about the work legendary hipster/comedian Del Close was doing in Chicago, he left school (not far from a degree) and headed west in a beat-up Chrysler New Yorker. Standup was fun, but it didn’t hold the same power as improvisational comedy. “Improv was made for me,” McKay says. “It’s spontaneous yet smart. It’s subversive, and you’re connecting with the crowd.”

Chicago was a great time for McKay, who loved the purity of the form and didn’t care that he was making $150 a week. That’s what cheap beer and burritos were for. “You can live on 150 bucks a week when you’re in your 20s,” he says.

McKay joined the Windy City’s Upright Citizens Brigade and moved to sketch comedy. He also had stints with Chicago’s Improv Olympic Theater and Child’s Play Touring Theatre. In all cases, McKay had the freedom to expand his manic comedy. Not everything worked, but what hit the mark showed signs of genius.

In the early 1990s, McKay auditioned for the famous Second City troupe and earned a spot. He quit UCB, a move that allowed the group to hire Amy Poehler, a former Saturday Night Live stalwart and big-screen draw in her own right. McKay joined Second City just as an all-star cast was breaking up: Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello were all moving on. “I understudied with that group,” McKay says.

With Second City, McKay gained notoriety for highly charged political pieces like the award-winning Piñata Full of Bees. “This was before the Internet hit and things like YouTube were around,” McKay says. “There was no way to do the stuff we were doing without going to Chicago and joining things like Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City.”

In 1995, McKay auditioned for SNL as an on-air performer. “I don’t do impressions, and I do very few characters, so I wasn’t chosen,” McKay says. “But as I stepped off the stage, I handed some scripts I’d written to [SNL executive producer] Lorne Michaels and said, ‘I also write.’ It was one of the smartest things I ever did.”

McKay joined SNL as a writer in 1995 and adjusted quickly to the round-the-clock schedule and unpredictable environment. He remembers running down the hallways rewriting scenes that were scheduled to air in 20 seconds and cutting a minute from a sketch as it was starting.

At Second City, McKay had taught improv. One of his pupils at the time was Upper Darby’s Tina Fey, whom he hired at Saturday Night Live. For six years, he lived the live-TV life, working and playing hard. He survived low ratings and staff purges. He also met Will Ferrell. Before long, the two were writing together weekly. When it came time for Ferrell to branch out into films, he called on McKay to help him create a vehicle. Their writing process is simple: Start laughing and go from there. “We’ll talk a little about what we want to go into, and once we connect, if it makes us laugh, we write down 10 pages of new ideas,” McKay says. “We’ll say, ‘I want to see this in the movie,’ and we go from there.”

Chris Henchy was in his office working when McKay showed up, a black trench coat thrown over his arm. He had big news. “Obama just tabbed me to be Secretary of Energy,” he declared, clearly pleased. “He read my blog, liked it and tabbed me.”

Henchy was shocked. “What about the movies and everything else?” he asked.

McKay didn’t blink: “I’ll do it all.”

Still stunned, Henchy asked the only pertinent question that remained: “Do you know anything about doing this job?”

McKay responded, “No, but I can do it. I’m already talking to the Saudis.”

“That sums up Adam,” says Henchy.

As it turns out, the above exchange never happened. It was a dream Henchy had in January, around the time Barack Obama took over as president. Henchy has no doubt that his friend and business partner would believe he could handle the job—and tackle all the creative projects he has percolating at the moment. “He’s incredibly intelligent,” Henchy says. “He knows comedy and how to be successful.”

McKay’s six years at SNL included three as head writer, and plenty of experience creating characters and absurd situations. He was ready for the longer form.

McKay describes August Blowout, his first script with Ferrell, as a “sweeping epic about a car salesman. ”SNL’s Michaels pushed hard for the project, but Paramount didn’t buy it. It resurfaces this month in the form of The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard. It stars McKay’s brother-in-law, Jeremy Piven (his sister, Shira, is McKay’s wife), as a used-car liquidator brought in to help ensure that a dealership’s July 4 sales event is successful. And as you might expect, the film has plenty of raunchy humor to go with its ensemble cast. “It has a Caddyshack feel to it,” McKay says.

One of McKay’s favorite movies is Being There, the sublime Peter Sellers comedy about a simpleton gardener who, through a chain of absurd events, becomes a key presidential adviser and eventually a chief executive. It has some truly funny moments, but there isn’t anything that makes you laugh as hard as, say, watching Ferrell run across the racetrack in Talladega Nights. “When you’re laughing like a maniac, you’re not too smart,” McKay says. “At that moment, you get rid of your ego.”

It would be easy to imagine McKay’s ego as a Brobdingnagian creature run completely amok, but those close to him are quick to point out that’s not the case. Though Henchy pleads for this article to “take him down a peg,” he can’t come up with a bad thing to say about his friend. Perhaps he’s afraid McKay will use his growing Hollywood clout to squash him like a cockroach, but he praises McKay’s collaborative tendencies and his vision. “I think there’s a big-picture plan in his head that we’re all being brought in on,” Henchy says. “We don’t know our places yet.”

Perhaps that’s because McKay hasn’t completely wrapped his own brain around the concept. He’s still exploring the many ways to present comedy through Gary Sanchez Productions, the company he and Ferrell created and that Henchy runs day to day. Included are; the new comedy series East Bound and Down and an as-yet-unnamed show based on, both on HBO; You’re Welcome, America. A Final Night with George W. Bush, a one-man Broadway play starring Ferrell; and a slew of movies. McKay even wrote the lyrics for the song that appears at the end of The Goods.

What’s next, children’s television? That might not be such a good idea, considering the furor over the skit, The Landlord, which stars Ferrell and McKay’s 2-year-old daughter, Pearl, as a drunken, profane landlord. Then again, it’s gotten 60 million hits and counting.

Even Gary Sanchez Productions began as a goof. McKay and Ferrell created Sanchez and pawned him off as a combination spiritual adviser and financier. For good measure, they added a previous career as a failed Paraguayan NFL kicker and introduced the whole thing as completely legit. The business angle of it was real: The company exists and produces much of what McKay does these days. The namesake, however, is a complete gag.

Not that the Hollywood Reporter found it funny. The paper ran the Sanchez story in its entirety and looked pretty stupid because of it. Rule No. 1 with McKay: Don’t believe half of what he says. He’s not lying—just seeing how far he can push things. “He’s the master of the insane story,” says Henchy. “He’ll come up with details that make you not question him at all.”

Perhaps that’s why McKay has so many people who want to work with him. “In this business, you get some people who are jaded and don’t laugh,” Henchy says. “You see Adam on the set, and if somebody says something funny, he’s the one laughing the loudest.”

That willingness to enjoy himself makes McKay approachable—and it keeps him tethered to his youth. When March went to California last year for McKay’s 40th birthday, the pair reconnected as if they’d been apart a week, not several years. One evening, they sat in Ferrell’s living room, laughing. “Right away, Will said, ‘You’re the one Adam tells me about. He told me all about his childhood,’” March says.

March brought some pictures of the old neighborhood with him, and McKay was “blown away” by the changes. He’s upgraded, too—going from the guy who cracked ’em up at high school parties to someone who has us all laughing at the most ridiculous stuff.

And begging for more.

Related Article: Ardrossan Makes It to the Big Screen in the New Film A Call to Spy

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!