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Maybe Danny McBride’s success as a comedic writer and actor comes from his failure as a redneck. Born in Georgia and raised in small-town Virginia, he grew up around “alpha-male rednecks and all these dudes with this crazy confidence that didn’t really have anything to back it up.” A quiet kid who shied away from cowboy boots and wanted to go to film school, he found his loudmouthed, narrow-minded peers intimidating. And ultimately, hilarious. He started making movies in his back yard, many of which he didn’t realize until later were uncomfortably dark, explaining in a 2011 interview “I’ve always loved comedy that wasn’t appropriate for my age. I was always into shit that was way dirtier than what I should have been watching, and I loved anything that felt naughty. In fifth grade I had all of Eddie Murphy’s Delirious memorized. It was the funniest shit I had ever seen.”
Even if that’s all you know about Danny McBride, it explains a heck of a lot about some of his most memorable characters, and how we react to them. The first was created out of necessity. He went to North Carolina School of the Arts to become a writer/director, not to act. Then with only a shoestring budget for a film that he realized no studio was going to finance, he did what he had to do. Thus was born Fred Simmons, one arrogant bully of a self-involved strip-mall marshal arts instructor with an adulterous wife and imploding life. No distributors bit on The Foot Fist Way at Sundance in 2006, but DVDs started making the “you gotta see this” circuit of agents and assistants, eventually landing in the hands of the comedy triumvirate of Adam McKay, Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow, who’s first thought was, “How can I get Danny into one of my movies so that people will think that I discovered him?” Hollywood had taken a comedy sucker punch, but came off the ropes fast, casting him in comedies like Hot Rod, Superbad, The Heartbreak Kid, Pineapple Express and Tropical Thunder, to the tune of three or four movies a year. Seth Rogen, a frequent co-star, explained it. “Danny’s fun to write for. He has an epic nature to his speech, something Patton-esque, even though the characters he plays are usually so stupid and reprehensible.”
But McBride is best when he writes his own characters, taking advantage of how well he knows them in all their foul-mouthed, offensive glory. In 2009, he and writing partners Jody Hill and Ben Best created Eastbound & Down, McBride playing Kenny Powers, a washed up, racist former major league baseball pitcher bursting with anger management issues and self-regard. A GQ reviewer wrote, “It didn’t take long – Kenny Powers says, “You’re fuckin’ out!” about twenty-seven seconds into the pilot – before I was certain that Eastbound had clamped a node onto this dark, devolved, otherwise unused hunk of my brain and pumped the funny in. I took the first season in one sitting, straight to the face. I laughed until I made sounds I hadn’t heard before, and by the time I straightened up, I couldn’t get Kenny’s delivery off my tongue.” Despite some objections to its sex and profanity, the show ran for four seasons on HBO, and as with The Foot Fist Way, the star nearly outshone the vehicle. McBride/Kenny Powers received not only raves, but offers to play minor league ball with the Pensacola Pelicans and an endorsement deal with K-Swiss.
There’s a freedom that comes with playing such self-blind louts, and a delightfully naughty glee to watching them. But what’s unique about McBride’s work is its lack of the clichéd sentimental lessons usually served as a side dish in most comedies. His characters don’t ask for sympathy, which lends a startling pathos to their occasional bleak flashes of self-awareness and powerlessness.
Perhaps McBride – as both a writer and an actor – hits us so hard because he knows where we live. There’s hilarity, but also discomfort, in investing small people living small lives with grandiosity. If we’re honest (and if he’d let us stop laughing for just a second) we might acknowledge that to some degree, that’s most of us.
His most recent gift to television was Vice Principals, a dark (what else?) comedy for HBO co-written with Hill. McBride is Neal Gamby, one of two high school administrators in a power struggle for the top job. Their uneasy alliance to unseat the capable black woman who becomes principal has been cited as many times for being racist and political as it has for being funny. “I don’t see it as a story about race,” says McBride. “It’s a story about power and how people think it can fix things that are dysfunctional in their own lives. With a lot of our comedy we don’t approach the writing as if it is a comedy. We approach it as something dramatic then figure out how to put in dick jokes or ridiculous humor to disguise it.” Maybe what some naysayers are really reacting to is the show’s subtle jabs at our own PC stereotypes. Regardless, McBride isn’t apologetic. And apologetic is exactly what comedy can’t be, if it’s really going to work.
This year, he continues leaving dirty comedy footprints on the small screen, while making a couple departures on the big one, first in Alien: Covenant, and then as a scriptwriter for a John Carpenter/ Jason Blum reboot of Halloween, in which he’s promised “Nobody will be laughing.” Well, even if we do find ourselves stifling giggles at scenes that should in no way be funny, so be it. McBride believes that making us question why we like what we like is what art is supposed to do.