A few years ago, Danny McBride was at home in South Carolina when he was called up by Kanye West. The rapper wanted the very white actor/screenwriter to play him in the movie of his life. They then spent the day together, fishing and playing Fortnite. Now, as West seems to have become the pastor of his own church, McBride has launched The Righteous Gemstones, a black comedy series about an oddball family of superstar evangelicals. Coincidence?
“We were there first!” McBride says, laughing. “Great minds think alike, I guess.”
It’s no surprise West was drawn to McBride. For much of his career, McBride has written about and portrayed difficult men who mask insecurity, self-loathing and heartache beneath layers of bluster and bravado. Thanks to cult series such as Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, he’s also become one of our greatest comic storytellers. Much like Seth Rogen, his co-star in the comedies Pineapple Express (2008), This Is the End (2013) and Sausage Party (2016), McBride makes entertainment to get stoned to – soaking you in colour, silliness and deliberate provocation, before hitting you with sudden profundity.
“In a lot of comedies, and movies especially, I would start out laughing in the first act and I’d be invested by the second act, but then by the third act I rarely gave a s***,” the 43-year-old explains. “It was always some convoluted climax that just [fell apart]. For me, I want to make things that add up to more than a punchline. In order to do that, you have to have heart in there, it has to be about something ultimately. I don’t want someone to know what they’re gonna get. I like to sucker-punch people once they sit down.”
Sitting in a London hotel room, McBride is both heavily reminiscent of the characters that have brought him fame, as well as far removed. He speaks with the same gruff and breathless delivery as many of his wrong-headed creations, and occasionally mirrors their hard-done-by cynicism when it comes to his critics. Yet he’s also personable, upbeat and politically astute in a way that they often aren’t. Dressed in a leather jacket, trainers and a shirt decorated in an illustration of a cowboy, McBride embodies Deep South grit by way of a luxury clothing store.
On screen, McBride is most associated with aggrieved masculinity. He often plays men once at the very top of their fields, but who have subsequently crashed down to earth; forced to face their own insignificance. Kenny Powers, the self-sabotaging baseball pitcher crawling back to his hometown on Eastbound, remains his richest work, but The Righteous Gemstones looks set to achieve similar creative highs.
Part capitalist farce, part dark soap opera, it’s sprawling and genre-hopping. McBride, Adam DeVine and a revelatory Edi Patterson are the feuding siblings of the title, raised by a father (John Goodman) still haunted by the death of the family matriarch, and famous on the American megachurch circuit. What follows is a tale of blackmail, sexual dysfunction and wince-inducing violence – one that traces the same thematic contours as McBride’s previous work, and refuses to bend to stereotypes about faith or the southern USA.
“I don’t have some sort of agenda to normalise the south, but ultimately I’m writing about what I know,” he explains. “I feel like a lot of times when people write about the south, they’re people who live in New York or Los Angeles and they have no insight into the subtle, intricate things. They’re very generic and sort of one-note. Like I don’t walk around the south and see Billy-Bobs with hay [hanging] out of their mouths and wearing overalls. I see tanning salons next to karate dojos and strip malls, you know what I mean? I think it makes for a more engaging story than just latching onto cliches and stereotypes.”
Raised by a mother and stepfather who both worked on a military base in central Virginia, McBride suggests that his ability to find comic mileage in manliness stems from his upbringing. Along with close friends and regular collaborators Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, with whom McBride co-wrote the 2018 Halloween reboot and its two forthcoming sequels, McBride bore witness to the decline of more traditional forms of masculinity, while embracing progressive ideas of how to be a man.
“We got our first VCR when I was in third grade and then I think we had cable TV around the same time,” he remembers. “I feel like, for a lot of guys in my generation, it went from like, ‘Go outside and play’ to like, ‘There’s also this dope-ass thing to do inside’. All these things that maybe worked for males of a previous generation [were going away], and the world was starting to change a little bit, but there were still enough male figures around that were so embedded in this typical idea of masculinity. So then you grow up thinking, ‘I don’t want to be into sports – I’d rather just play video games or watch movies’. Like I’m not into hunting, and I went to art school, so I think I’ve always been a part of this culture that I’ve never really felt 100 per cent comfortable in.
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“In some regards,” he continues, “that was what we were doing with Kenny Powers. Like, the way he’s living his life and these antiquated thoughts about machismo and what it takes to be a man, it’s getting him nowhere – it’s not serving him in the long run.”
Convincing television financiers that these kinds of characters were worth investing in was a struggle, however. “When I first started coming up in writing and even with Eastbound, there was a big idea from Hollywood that main characters had to be likeable,” he remembers. “It was just something I didn’t subscribe to.” He credits British comedy, notably Alan Partridge and Fawlty Towers, for teaching him the power of characters who were “jerks”, but compelling enough that “you were still weirdly invested in their happiness at the end of the day”.
McBride’s late-Noughties cinematic rise was charmed. There were initial setbacks, of course, notably when he moved to Los Angeles in the early Noughties in the hope of being discovered – only to find work as a waiter and a substitute teacher. His low-budget screenwriting debut, however, managed to get into the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. The Foot Fist Way, which he wrote with Hill and Ben Best, cast him as a karate instructor whose life spirals out of control after he discovers his wife gave another man a drunken handjob. It was quickly bought for distribution by Will Ferrell’s Gary Sanchez Productions and became a minor sensation within comedy circles.
From there, McBride fell in with industry power players such as Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Judd Apatow, portrayed a pyromaniac effects coordinator in Tropic Thunder (2008), and provided scene-stealing support in comedies like Hot Rod (2007) and 30 Minutes or Less (2011), and the sci-fi sequel Alien: Covenant (2017). There were also starring roles, too, most significantly Your Highness (2011), the dumb but hilarious medieval comedy that also featured James Franco, Natalie Portman and a necklace made out of a minotaur’s penis. It bombed, and the critics, McBride suggests, relished going to town on it.
“When critics don’t like a comedy, they almost take it f***ing personally,” he says. “They’re almost mad that they don’t get the joke. I feel like they’re just more vicious, whereas when they don’t like a dramatic movie, I feel like they don’t have their knives out as much. Doing something like Alien, whether people liked it or not, they always seemed engaged with the filmmaking or took it more seriously. But I feel like we really got boned on Your Highness. We made an R-rated movie for 13-year-olds. It was ahead of its time!”
Critical bias appears to be a bugbear for McBride, especially the controversy that surrounded Vice Principals. It was a show about male insecurity and resentment, which gradually evolved into something deeper and darker, but was written off early on in some corners. Broadcast in the midst of Donald Trump’s campaign for president, the pilot climaxed with its two main characters (played by McBride and regular co-star Walton Goggins) setting fire to the home of a black woman they believed had unfairly taken their dream job. “Vice Principals marinates so much in its own outrageousness,” wrote Vulture, “that it’s depressingly easy to imagine that some people will laugh at the show’s antics for all the wrong reasons.”
McBride felt much of the criticism was misguided. “A lot of the people who had an issue with it didn’t watch the whole show,” he says. “So your job is to examine this art, but you’re making an assumption and then running with it and printing it.
“The funny thing is when Gemstones was coming out, none of the people who bashed on Vice Principals were even reviewing TV shows anymore. We’re just like, ‘Yeah, I’m around, and you’re not around so…’”
Then again, he adds, “That just comes with the territory. You can’t, as a writer, expect to have that privilege and then say, ‘No one’s allowed to get mad at me about it.’ If you’re trying to push the boundaries of comedy, you’re an idiot to not expect people to push back.”
The Righteous Gemstones is on Sky Comedy and NOW TV from 5 February. NOW TV is the exclusive home of HBO box sets and originals in the UK
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