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July 5th, 2004

A founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, Adam McKay was a performer on Chicago's Second City main stage when he was hired as a writer for Saturday Night Live in 1995. In no time at all, he was named the show's head writer, a position he held for five years. Later, he became the show's "Director of Falconry," McKay-speak for "resident filmmaker."

Adam's appearance came on the eve of his feature film directorial debut, Anchorman, co-written with Will Ferrell.

Conversation Highlights

"I did stand-up in Philadelphia when I was in college, I was like 19 and I was working at such places as The Comedy Factory Outlet and The Ha-Ha Cul-de-Sac, places like that, making 50 bucks, and I always say my act got progressively worse from my first time to the very end. My big claim to fame is I think I was the first comic to do an 'I've fallen and I can't get up' joke, so my heart was expressing itself."

-On the teachings of Del Close
"He'd say 'treat your audience like poets and geniuses and lo and behold, that's what they'll become,' which is basically play at the top of your intelligence, and I think that was Del's biggest, biggest thing, you know, third thought, play at the top of your intelligence.

That would be the other thing too, third thought, I had never even heard of that when I started working with him. You know, we all have that first knee-jerk, first thought joke, then we have our second joke which is like, 'that's OK,' or a second choice, and the third choice is like the best one. And he would just make you stand on stage until you got to that third choice, he'd be like 'No, no, that won't do it, keep going,' and you'd have to throw out another line. 'No, that's half-assed, what else you have?' And it was awful in classes, you were like 'C'mon, let's go,' but it worked."

-On being the head writer at Saturday Night Live
"There's a lot of different ways to be head writer, and for me it was always write, write, write. And if I'm writing with the writers, that's the best way to make a difference. And my re-write table, we always had a distinct style, which was fuck around as much as you want, 'cause some of it will stick on the sketches. Yeah, I thought we had a great re-write table, we actually took pride in taking the worst sketches you can imagine and making them C+ sketches that you still forgot, but weren't quite as offensive as they initially were."

"The 'make a strong choice theory,' you know if there's not a strong choice, if you're not doing something out of the ordinary in a sketch, there's got to be, I always say about movies, if a movie has three original ideas in it, it's a good movie, that's all you need, three original ideas and it's O.K. And then if a movie has 20 original ideas then it's amazing and stuff, but you know there's nothing worse than seeing a movie that has no original ideas in it, it's like give me three things out of the ordinary and you're O.K.

I think it's the same thing with scenes, like, you know, the basic kind of thing is break the routine, which is how you always hear it being taught when doing improv, and that was as a writer what you were looking for, a great routine to fuck with, like job interview scenes, doctor's examinations, all those tried and true routines were the funnest scenes to write. We would just write those and if you did them crazy enough, it didn't matter if you had yet another job interview scene.

My last scene that I ever did on the show was Chris Walken, and it was him interviewing for chief of surgery for a hospital, and he was interviewing Parnell as a centaur, and that was, it's like 'you can get away with doing a job interview scene as a centaur, I'll watch that,' you know.

So yeah, that was the big thing, we'd look at sketches and be like, why do we need to watch this, what's going to happen here or surprise us or be exciting, you know, are you gonna build something, will you have be a character, is there something here we haven't seen before, and you kind of hold it under that kind of scrutiny. Or point of view, strong point of view, is it, I don't even mind if something's politically strident and I disagree with it, at least there's something there that I can react to, you know?"

"The other goal (at SNL) I had was to do the strangest, most out-there stuff, because I felt like the show needed it, I felt like it needed to have some unpredictability in it.

I did a short where Will Ferrell played Glenn Frey and sexually assaulted Ben Stiller - and you are the only people that ever applauded that - literally my mother would not talk to me for two weeks after that ran. I remember trying to explain that to people, 'It's a punk rock thing!' Ah, I just sound like an idiot."

"I have this theory that comedy can't work whenever you smell a budget, that anytime you see a comedy and it's like 'that movie cost $90 million,' you can't laugh because you could fucking cure homelessness with that kind of money. I just chuckled five times and human suffering in the Midwest could have been eliminated, so. I'm always a big believer that you should go under the budget if you could when doing comedy."

"We were at the Mars Bar down in the East Village and I was with a bunch of friends and there were like these 20-year-old punk rock types and I decided I was gonna fuck with them, and I was like 'The Ramones, man!' And right away the guy was like 'You're the audience guy from SNL!' There's no way you're cool at all if you're the audience guy from SNL, and I was like 'Yeah...' and he said 'You're hilarious dude, we smoke pot and watch those re-runs' and I'm like 'Alright, yeah....'"