Danny McBride puts the Homer in homeroom: "'The Odyssey' finds its way into everything we do"

Salon talks to the "Vice Principals" star about finding the weird humor in Southern culture, myths and masculinity

Published July 29, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)

Danny McBride in "Vice Princpals"   (HBO)
Danny McBride in "Vice Princpals" (HBO)

In HBO’s new dark comedy "Vice Principals," Danny McBride finds himself once again in the unenviable position of being perpetually unenviable. McBride’s uptight, insecure Neil Gamby is the star of the show, which was co-created and co-written with his longtime collaborator, Jody Hill. Born in Georgia and raised in Virginia, McBride’s take on Southern culture is less the bucktoothed yokel in a burlap sack and more the cross-regionally relatable angry man on a mission. In similar fashion to his role as everyone’s favorite horse’s ass-slash-former major league pitcher Kenny Powers in "Eastbound & Down," Gamby is tired of everyone’s shit. However familiar they may be to each other, though, each of his characters is like a McBride case study on the far-reaching and hilarious impact of social and cultural ineptitude.

Roles in comedies like "Tropic Thunder," "This is the End" and "Pineapple Express" have seen the 39-year-old take the lead in virtually every scene, due in no small part to the fact that his be-mulleted and forever embittered disposition is so damn believable. To that end, McBride’s instincts have offered a much-needed respite from the manufactured comedic tropes of zany person meets square meets unexpected situation. On "Vice Principals," McBride just goes with what he knows, which has been, and continues to be, reliably batshit hysterical. Salon recently spoke with him about the show and how his own Southern identity comes into play in portraying his characters.

Does being a Southerner yourself bring a sort of obligation to be especially sure that all of those complexities are there?

[Laughs.] Well, usually, when you see Southern characters in stories, they’re written as this stereotype of someone who’s ignorant or someone who's a moron who’s there purely for comic relief. I think with Jody and I, since we grew up in the South, to us, we didn’t really ever see guys that fit that stereotype all the time. We always found humor in other things in the South, like the idea of a Tae Kwon Do studio in a strip mall. Those are the kinds of things that made us laugh. People walking around like idiots wasn’t really what we were seeing where we grew up. There’s all different types of people in the South and not just the stereotypical Billy Bob or whatever. I think, with all of these characters, it’s easy to write them off like oh, they’re assholes, or whatever, but we look at them like these weird, complicated Southern men that hold on to these weird values and old ideas of masculinity and how those things are so outdated when you look at them next to the rest of the world.

Right. The comedy’s less about setting and more about the situation and individual, which isn’t always the case with this type of character.

With us, we never really write our stuff for punchlines or anything. All of our stuff comes from the idea of the more real the world feels, the funnier the comedy usually lands, because with a lot of these characters, they’re in very recognizable situations, but they’re behaving in a way which none of us would behave. I think in order to get that, you have to really make the world feel normal and feel right, and that’s something that we strive for in the formula for comedy. I think in doing so, we also end up making a picture that’s more relatable for people and especially people from the South. It’s just a way of seeing your neighborhood or your street or your shopping center not portrayed as some gigantic joke or clichéd statement about everyone shopping at Walmart. [Laughs.]

Do you see your own childhood experiences finding their way into the writing?

For sure. I mean, I was the weird kid in school. When we read folk tales or something like that, I’d get really into it. I can remember when we read "The Odyssey" in high school. Everyone else was just sleeping through it. We’d read it every day, and I was the only one walking in saying, “Fuck, I can’t wait ‘til we get back there today. Ulysses is about to smoke everybody.” [Laughs.] It’s funny, too, because "The Odyssey" finds its way into everything we do. It’s all over "Eastbound & Down" with Mackworthy as The Cyclops. There’s all sorts of strange little things we put in there from the weird knowledge we have, ranging from pop culture to Homer.

How much of yourself do you see in a character like Kenny Powers or Neal Gamby?

That’s the thing. [Laughs.] People think that I’m really like these guys, but I couldn’t be any more different. I’m a kid who in high school was into drama and went to art school for college, so I feel like these guys were the ones I saw growing up. Even though I wasn’t like them, I sort of understood where they were coming from, easier than maybe somebody from Los Angeles or New York would if they saw that same person. And I think a lot of it comes from just being from the South and understanding the things about it that people from the big cities trip out on, but also understanding those things about the South that people from the big cities don’t even stand to realize goes on. [laughs] I think, in the writing, it’s always been about playing with that weird dynamic of giving people what they kind of assume already about the culture. I mean, with Kenny Powers, we were talking about it the other day, and I told Jody, “If I’d seen the poster for ["Eastbound & Down"] and not known anything about it, I don’t think I would’ve watched. A sports show featuring a guy with a mullet?” [Laughs.] But you know, I think that’s what we really liked about it. You take these things that on the surface might appear broad, and then you try to find some kind of weird depth to it.

These characters are pissed off and bitter, too, but they’re also weirdly magnetic.

It’s funny, and I didn’t really realize this until we started looking at everything, but what they all have in common is that they’re dreamers. They all have these grand visions of how life is gonna turn out, and for each of them it doesn’t really end up the way they thought it would. It’s that hopeless sort of anger that arises from when there’s really not anyone to take that out on, so the times that there is, it’s usually yourself. That creates this dilemma — how do you right it, if you’re the one who got you there? As a kid growing up in Spotsylvania, Virginia, talking about how I wanted to make movies when I got older, it was basically a lifetime of people going, “Yeah, sure.” [Laughs.] Because of that, I think we’ve carried that cross before, of being somebody with a big vision [and] nobody else is onboard. I see that in a lot of these characters, for sure. 

That sounds more along the lines of drama. Is that idea of going to the left of comedy something that drives your writing?

The thing that’s weird about it is that when people ask us stuff like what comedies we were into growing up, honestly, our biggest influences aren’t even comedies. It was growing up on [Martin] Scorcese and [Francis Ford] Coppola and all of these amazing filmmakers from the '70s. That’s what was really the touchstone for us, more than any sort of comedy, really. We don’t even approach them as if they were comedies, honestly. We approach them as if they were dramas that just have really fucked up funny parts in them. [Laughs.]

I mean, if you watch "Goodfellas," Henry Hill is a murderer, but you still like him and root for him, and I think those are the kinds of rules we apply to this. I think that’s what really bored me about comedies back in the day is that a lot of them were, like, here’s this guy who’s unlucky in love or he’s just gotten over a breakup or something. It’s just all of these clichéd things, and the guy’s got a heart of gold from the beginning, and you can just see where it’s all going. I think, if you start off with a character that isn’t as easily recognizable, you cause a little bit more confusion, where the viewer’s thinking, “What’s supposed to happen? What do I even want to happen to this guy?” I think that’s what makes this more interesting to write [for].

A lot of it also just plays off of the fact that we’re in a culture now where we’ve grown up on movies. Every year, hundreds of new movies are coming out, and everyone has seen these stories a million times, and I really feel like to keep people on their toes. It’s half playing with what people expect just from seeing movies and being familiar with these stories, and then it’s half surprising people and turning those concepts on their head when they come up. I mean, for me, when I see a movie where the guy gets broken up with at the very beginning, I feel like I already know exactly where the movie is going. But if I see a story that starts with this vice principal losing his job and then burning someone’s house down, I’m gonna be like: What the fuck? Where’s this going? We write the stuff that we would want to see, and I feel like what I get bored with the most, when I go to the movies, is just predictability. That’s what we’re ultimately trying to do. It’s just about trying to find a way to get people to engage in a story that they don’t see coming.

Speaking of unpredictability, how much of the show is improvised?

We improv a little on this show, but on "Eastbound" we did a ton. It was one of our main ways of fleshing out a scene. We’d do maybe a take of what was on the script, and then we’d just riff the whole time, and we loved that. But because "Vice Principals" is really so story-driven, anytime we’d start to improvise it just felt like it belonged somewhere else. I also feel like I see improv in so many comedies now where you can almost sort of see it coming, so we would improvise a little bit but not nearly as much as we used to.

Of course, working with Walton [Goggins], anytime it was just he and I, there’s just a comfort between us where it wasn’t too hard to find that rhythm. It’s funny, too, because when we wrote the character, Lee [Russell], we knew it was a very specific kind of Southern guy, and when we were auditioning for it, nobody had it. Everybody was turning him into this sort of cartoon, and it was like no, it’s not that. It’s a dialed down sort of manner, where he seems almost effeminate but he’s not. Lee’s like a metrosexual before the South even had a word for it, and when I sent [Walton] the script, he called me back, and he just had it. He was like, “I went to high school with a guy just like this. I know exactly who you’re talking about.” He’s just a lovely person, too. We’ve kind of become best buds through doing this together. He’s just an incredibly funny guy who’s heartfelt and genuine.

Did the writing process involve you interviewing actual teachers and principals?

I was a substitute teacher for a little while, so I’d seen it there, but yeah, when we were writing this, I actually went around to a few different schools and interviewed department heads and vice principals and principals. Without anyone really selling out the other side, it became instantly apparent that at most of these schools, there was a rift between administration and faculty. [Laughs.] I just thought that was so interesting because I never really saw them as separate entities.

Going from a show as successful as "Eastbound" to what’s just started for "Vice Principals," were there new challenges as far as meeting your own standards?

The biggest challenge is always just getting someone to say yes. While we were drafting this story we definitely wanted it to be something where an "Eastbound" fan wouldn’t instantly be turned off, but then have the story morph into something completely different. On this show, it’s the same crew of people that I’ve worked with all along, and it is interesting to see how everybody has grown and gotten better at what they do, and how we all have a better understanding of how we work best. I don’t think we’re in a place where we think we’re so comfortable that we’ve got it made. We still have to hustle and convince people to say yes to what we wanna do next.

By Jonathan Dick

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