This article originally appeared in the May, 2013 edition of The Progressive magazine. Subscribe today for 75 percent off the newsstand price and get a free 2014 calendar.
By David Sirota
Politics and comedy in America have always needed each other, since it is often difficult to discern whether what you are seeing, reading, and hearing is real life or fiction. Quite often, comedy is the way to both make light of it all and also distill serious political trends down to their core essence.
That, in fact, is what Adam McKay has made his career doing. For years, the writer, director, and producer has presented hilarious-yet-biting takes on everything from the shamelessness of Presidential politics to the demise of journalism to the nihilism of local Congressional campaigns -- and he's done it all while making America guffaw. In the process, this son of a working-class single mom has turned himself into a Hollywood mogul.
Today, McKay has his hands in seemingly everything. Through Gary Sanchez Productions, the firm he co-owns with his old Saturday Night Live buddy Will Ferrell, McKay runs the online juggernaut Funny Or Die, produces films like The Campaign, and incubates television shows to follow in the footsteps of his past hits like Eastbound & Down. In his off time, he also raises funds for Move to Amend, the nonprofit working to limit the role of corporate money in election campaigns.
Though he's one of the busiest people around, McKay made time to chat with The Progressive about how Hollywood and politics intersect, what drives his work and where his next projects will be.
Q: What do you make of Hollywood's liberal reputation?
Adam McKay: Hollywood is for-profit, is what Hollywood is. All the studios are owned by big, megacorporations that are the furthest thing from liberal you can possibly imagine.
The only way that Hollywood ever skews toward liberal is because part of what we make out of Hollywood involves writers, actors, directors, musicians, set designers, and photographers. In general, people like that are going to be more progressive, more open minded, a little more altruistic. You can't really be a significant or important or effective artist while arguing that billionaires should get to keep everything they want and fuck the poor. I don't think there's ever been a moment in history where that, as an artistic message, has played very well, because people in their hearts know that's terrible and a lie.
But in general, the final filter of Hollywood is for-profit. Nothing goes through unless it can make money.
Q: The right assumes that because this or that celebrity is personally liberal, that means that what Hollywood puts out in general is liberal.
McKay: Yeah, that's ridiculous. Just go look at Red Dawn or The Walking Dead. There are so many shoot-'em-up, action, jingoistic TV shows and movies that are made every year. I think the final line is that Hollywood is populist.
Look, Hollywood has to appeal to the broadest audience, and when it comes to most social and economic issues, America is progressive. Because of that, the messages that are in Hollywood movies tend to be, for instance, pro-environment. You're never going to see a kids' animated movie where they take the side of the developers, and think that we should pave over rainforest areas, because inherently that's an inhumane message. No one really supports that.
And it so happens that America, according to all the polls that are out there, is pretty progressive. So you're not going to see messages that support Ayn Randian individualism at the cost of the whole, because most people don't agree with that.
Q: Vice President Biden said that gay marriage wouldn't have been possible without Will and Grace. Do you think entertainment culture shapes political outcomes?
McKay: I think it's an interchange. I don't think any one takes the lead. It's about a tipping point. For example, you could feel America starting to ease up a little bit on racism, against blacks in certain pockets, and then suddenly The Cosby Show bubbled up and it was the right time for it.
I think that the job of art and culture is to jump on that time and realize that it's there and to push it just a little bit faster.
Q: Were you always political in your show business work? And where did your politics come from?
McKay: I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then a littler town outside Philadelphia called Malvern, which back then was a pretty poor little town. I grew up with a single mom who was a waitress. We were on food stamps. My mom then got Pell Grants, put herself through college to get a degree to get a better job. Because we were broke, I then had to go to a state school. I went to Temple University, and had to get loans. So I grew up in a world where I saw the government helping individuals pull themselves up, and saw it work very successfully.
When I started getting older, I started seeing the country just keep tacking harder and harder to the right, and that's really what woke me up. I started going: "Wait, that's not true. My mom worked seventy hours a week when we were on food stamps; there is no handout going on."
I read a lot and went to college and then started reading more to learn about the history of the oligarchs. I also got way into hip-hop in the '80s, when it all broke. Consciousness about race and class that came out of that music augmented my beliefs, as did punk rock. Then I was at Second City, and the whole tradition of Second City is political comedy and social comedy and pushing boundaries wherever you can.
Q: You ended up at Saturday Night Live during the early George W. Bush years. Did you ever get pushback for infusing some of the content with political themes?
McKay: When Bush came in, something very strange happened. The rules started changing. Here was this guy doing things and saying things that were so outrageous, I couldn't believe it. It was the first time where you saw a guy who did not know basic facts about our government, and was constantly tripping up and contradicting himself, and everyone just acted like it was a different point of view. So when we would start to write George Bush stuff, we were sort of calling him out, almost, as an uneducated, unconcerned sort of goofball. The audience would roar with laughter at it, but no one ever seemed very disturbed.
I remember asking some friends at the time, "Is anyone else really disturbed by this guy?" And everyone was like, "Eh, relax, it's just politics." And there was a little kind of push-pull battle going on at Saturday Night Live where people were sort of acting like he was just another side of the issue, as opposed to ringing the alarm bell that we have a dangerous leader in charge, which was very apparent very quickly. There was some frustration. They would do sketches that would go light on him, and kind of back away from real issues. I know Will Ferrell felt some of that frustration, too -- that why are we soft-shoeing on this guy?
I don't think it was like any sort of corporate plan. I think American culture had just become so disengaged from the process of government, and we'd been so fuzzed out by our pop culture around us, that I don't think people really saw this guy for what he was.
Q: Many of your most iconic movies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights have political themes, even if they aren't always overt and even if they are shrouded in comedy. Is that deliberate?
McKay: Well, it's sort of a collision of two circumstances. First and foremost, Ferrell and I are comics, and we like to laugh. However, just from doing this for a bunch of years, I've learned that when you're going to do something that's funny, there's got to be some meat on the bone.
In the case of Anchorman, everyone knows that our media has become a joke in this country and that media has become pure infotainment, and that the network news has done the same thing.
Now with Talladega Nights it was a little more overt. Talladega Nights was in the peak of Bush. America was in this weird spell, and Ferrell and I were fascinated by it. NASCAR to us seemed to be the center of this culture. So that one actually was way more overt. When Judd Apatow read our first draft, he said: "This reads like two guys who are pissed off that George Bush just got elected."
Q: Your recent film The Campaign taps into people's assumptions that politics and politicians are corrupt. Do you think you could have done that movie, let's say, ten years ago? Or do you think people only now see corruption for what it is?
McKay: Blanket cynicism toward government has always existed. But we were very careful with that movie; we didn't want it to go into that. We wanted to very specifically point the finger at big money for ruining politics.
Could you have done that back in 2000? Yes, I think you could have said they were all a bunch of crooks, but pointing toward the money wouldn't have been as poignant, because obviously you weren't in the post-Citizens United world. That's part of what inspired that part of the movie. Maybe folks weren't as aware of money's influence in politics ten, fifteen years ago. There was still a little bit of a blind belief that the system would ultimately do right, and I think we've seen too many horrible things happen from our corrupt system to fully believe that now.
Q: You've been involved in the Move to Amend effort to change the constitution to state that corporations are not, in fact, people. Why did you choose that particular cause to get involved in?
McKay: Citizens United was a shotgun blast to democracy in that it handed over a large part of democracy to an elite few. It's going to be a long fight back. I don't think that people fully know exactly what happened. So Move to Amend is a way of getting the word out. That's a cause I believe in a lot.
David Sirota is a nationally syndicated columnist, television commentator, and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising," and "Back to Our Future."