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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“Eastbound & Down,” which wraps up its third and most likely final season this Sunday, tells the tragic story of Kenny Powers, once the most feared and exalted reliever in Major League Baseball. In his quest to make it back to the big leagues over the past three seasons, Kenny has been duped, gotten engaged, run off to Mexico, found his father, fathered a child of his own, and finally got back to the minor leagues pitching for the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Pelicans. In the past season, he pill-popped, drugged and boogie-boarded his way through a portrayal of the contemporary South that is both endearing and disturbing. In a sense, Powers is heir to the bigoted and poetic characters from “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
The brainchild of actor-writer Danny McBride, directors David Gordon Green and Jody Hill, and producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, “Eastbound & Down” has been the most consistently bizarre, hilarious and unique show on television. McBride’s portrayal is nuanced, absurd and deadly serious. In an episode two weeks ago, he emerged from the gutter of a bowling alley to deliver one of the most moving and honest speeches about parenthood and responsibility you are likely to see in American media. That it was delivered to his outrageous mother, Lily Tomlin, in concert with his scumbag father, Don Johnson, underlines the sheer talent and inventiveness that go into each episode.
Salon caught up with McBride over the phone on the eve of the show’s swan song. He discussed the genesis of Kenny Powers, the current election, and the weirdness of stoner and Confederate iconography.
Season 3 has been this odd mix of sentimental and truly weird moments. There was the moment when Kenny’s assistant, Stevie, was forced by the evil, racist car dealership owner Ashley Schaffer (Will Ferrell) to perform as a geisha in front of visiting representatives from Kia. How do you balance the two tones of the show, the emotional journey of this character and his almost being killed in front of visiting Koreans?
You know, I feel like it’s an idea that kind of came up without us really realizing what it was. In the first season we had Jody Hill, David Green and Adam McKay – three different directors with three different styles – working with the same material. Each one of those guys brought their own style, and in each episode, you can distinctly tell the difference in tone. I think that was kind of the kernel of what was exciting about it. To see this character go on this journey, but not stick yourself inside of the confines of what’s to be expected. It’s nice to work with material that pushes the boundary of what the tone can hold, and if it was just an hour-and-a-half movie, you wouldn’t be able to do that.
The shift in tone is something that we kind of do on purpose, and the trick is to figure out how far you can push it but still keep people rooted in what you’re doing.
It seems like, by placing it in Myrtle Beach, kind of the seedy side of the South, you and Jody and David have been working through some serious Southern baggage. Does it feel that way?
I think it all has to do with where it’s set. When we did the first season, we set it in a small town because we all grew up in a small town. We were pulling from what we had grown up seeing. When we set the second season in Mexico, none of us had spent a considerable amount of time in Mexico, so there were less things for us to pull from that we had known. When we did the third season, by going to a place like Myrtle Beach, a place that hasn’t really been captured on film before, it just was a place where we all had been, all been familiar with, and we could sort of imagine what this crazy monster Kenny Powers would do with this place. Just as much as Myrtle Beach is Chevy’s and big tits, and a place where Kenny does all this seedy, dark shit, that’s not all the city offers you. There are golf courses, there are old retired people, there are all sorts of people there.
Where do you find the T-shirts for your character? Are they sold at stands in Myrtle Beach? Did you get to keep your pot leaf/Confederate flag boogie board?
We found a lot of them in Myrtle Beach. There are these things called surf shops, though they’re really tourist shops, that are literally on every corner in Myrtle Beach and a lot of other beach towns in the South. Every single one of them will have signs that they’re going out of business or that “everything must go” and “50% off,” but you’ll come back a year later and the place will still be there with the same sign in the window. And it’s wall to wall of these kinds of T-shirts. Jody and I would go in there and be like, “He’d wear that one, he’d wear that one,” almost half of their inventory.
We were in an arcade in Carolina Beach, and there were these wall hangings that you could win if you won enough tickets on skee ball. There was a Bob Marley one, there was a Sublime one, and then there was this one that was a Confederate flag with a pot leaf on it, and we couldn’t stop laughing. We were like, “What the fuck does that even mean? What is that symbol even celebrating? That you’re racist and you smoke weed?” It just felt like such a stupid symbol for someone to wave, so what better place to put that than on a boogie board.
Do you have that boogie board?
Well, I don’t want to ruin anything, but that board might not survive this season.
Now I’m imagining Kenny swimming out into the sunset … It’s funny that some friends of mine who I think would find the show insensitive end up really, really enjoying it. There are so many moments where I cringe and say, Oh God, this is so weird and racist, but it somehow works. Do you ever worry about our sympathies for the character getting confused with sympathy for his bigotry?
Kenny is never rewarded for his horrible [behavior]. His narrow stand on things constantly puts him on his ass, constantly makes his life a steaming pile of shit. For us, instead of making a big deal about how racist he is, we’re like, “Yeah, he’s obviously racist, he fucking sucks, but let’s go beyond that. On a human level, how could someone get past that narrow view?” We’ve always thought from the get-go that this show would be super offensive to a lot of people. It’s not like me or Jody are misogynists, or racists, or even rednecks. For us it’s always been an extension of this character. For us it’s just taking this guy and getting an audience to see past the behavior that everyone in the world knows is bad.
You do end up rooting for this guy, and you can’t believe you are.
It’s odd. I don’t know what that says about us as human beings. You’ve got to put it from a standpoint where at the end of the day, Kenny is a very damaged human being. There’s no way around that, and I think that deep down, you want him to succeed. And he thinks that love is going to do it. On a human level, people want to see someone succeed who wants to change. That’s how you get around rooting for this guy, because even though he’s a bigot and a misogynist, everyone in this world wants to be accepted and respected, and they want to find love. So maybe that’s the truth that’s in the character.
Kenny Powers is this great American anti-hero. How was he conceived? Was it one part John Rocker and two parts some people you knew growing up?
Even to this day, when we talk about creating the show, I don’t know when it was that we decided he should be a baseball player. When we shot the “Foot-Fist Way,” it was a script that we spit out really quickly. It was the first time we’d ever written something from the point of view of an anti-hero. We didn’t want to make another movie, because we felt it would just be a rehash of the last movie we made. We wanted to do a longer story, and the concept started with that.
At the time I was substitute teaching, back in my hometown. So we just started coming up with ideas – this was a guy, he was a big deal at some point, and he comes back to his hometown, but he’s pissed everyone off somehow. We started building this character, like, what if he was an Olympic athlete, or whatever he was good at? Why would there be reasons that people would be ashamed of him when he once was a hero? We built it from that place. Jody and myself didn’t know much about baseball. It wasn’t a sport we really followed. And I think our choice to go with it was like, all right, this guy was the center of attention. He was the rock star who came in to clean up the fucking mess. He’s in the center of the field and everyone is screaming for him. Now, he’s teaching kids in the middle of a gymnasium. That image seemed like the biggest kind of fall that somebody could have. A lot of our education about baseball was John Rocker and other fallen sports figures who we learned about as we were making the first season. We didn’t base him on actual people.
It seems like every great character has come back for a reprise. When you cast guest stars, do you have them in mind when you write the part, like, obviously, Lily Tomlin as his mother. Or do you just cross your fingers?
We were big fans of Lily Tomlin. We looked up people from the past, people that we dug as kids. When we found Don Johnson, that was such a coup. That’s exactly the kind of cast we wanted for the show. And then we were like, where are we going to go with the mom? We didn’t want the mom to be just a cartoon character. We wanted the mom to be more like our moms, to be authentic. We wanted it to be Lily Tomlin because she is just so awesome, from everything from “9 to 5″ to “Nashville.” We sent her the DVDs, and she watched the show and was like, “I really like what you guys are doing. It should be a lot of fun.” When we were on set, there would be these bits she would go on where David Russell would look at me between takes and be like, “Holy crap, we’re getting a Lily Tomlin performance.” We couldn’t be happier.
David Gordon Green and Jody Hill have this ability to portray the most embarrassing, disgusting things so beautifully. The montage of April and Kenny on the boardwalk in the premiere was just amazing. I feel like each episode starts with a low point, where you do the freeze frame and the theme song, and it slowly builds to some beautiful moment. Is it designed this way?
It’s just like a recipe. It’s all about movement and having a place to go in each episode. When we end an episode in the middle of the season, people will go, “Oh, it’s so dark right now.” Well, of course it’s dark. You need to have darkness before there’s a triumph. You’re not going to be given it every single episode. To us it’s all about the tone.
It’s been a year since “Your Highness” was released, and it’s yet to garner the cult following I feel it deserves. Do you think it’ll become required stoner watching in the future? Are you going to be celebrating 4/20 by watching it?
[Laughs] I think at the end of the day, David and I would be super happy if that’s what it becomes, just required stoner viewing. We were trying to make one of those movies that we would just trip out to at the end of a late night during college. Even “Eastbound,” I don’t ever watch the movies I’m in. Once I’m done with the editing, I’m like, “Well, done with that.”
Kenny has become a father this season, and we want him to succeed so badly, because at the end of the day, he could be a really, really good dad. Do you think he would be? Does he want to be? Will he have to give up baseball to do that?
I became a father six months ago, and I think that every human being has an instinctual element when you have a baby to nurture, to take care of. But Kenny doesn’t have that. He’s still stuck in the mind of a teenager. He hasn’t evolved to see that his role might be to protect and nurture. For a lot of the research we did with how Kenny would deal with fatherhood, we literally just watched “Teen Mom” all the time. We just looked at the teenage dads who wanted nothing to do with it at all. The show has been all about Kenny looking for some sort of peace, and that will be either as a father or a celebrity.
Who will Kenny Powers vote for, if he does vote?
Kenny doesn’t vote. But he’ll talk mad shit about whoever does get elected.
You have always said there will be three seasons of the show. Is this the end of his journey? Will there be a fourth?
When we started the show, we always thought that if we got to three seasons, we would be able to tell a big story with an arc, and we can take the show to the outer limits of our wildest imagination. And I feel like we’ve accomplished that. We’ve told the story that we set out to tell. As far as more of Kenny Powers, I wouldn’t rule that out. But for now, I feel like we have seen the tale of Kenny Powers.
Max Rivlin-Nadler is a freelance writer who has covered culture and politics for The New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic, and Gawker.More Max Rivlin-Nadler.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)