Danny McBride & Jody Hill hit a home run with Eastbound & Down, the HBO comedy about the horrible, endlessly hilarious magic of washed-up major league pitcher Kenny Powers.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
There is a voiceover in the debut season of HBO’s juvenile-but-weirdly-lovable comedy Eastbound & Down that helps explain why the show, now in the midst of its sophomore season and inked for a third, has become a hit.
Kenny Powers, the self-aggrandizing, impenetrably mulletted ex-major league pitcher at the series’ center has a come-to-God moment midway through the debut season where, after several existential humiliations, he realizes that, despite his resiliently inflated ego, he may actually be, “just like everybody else, normal, not special, no hopes and dreams, pretending to be happy when he’s really super sad.”
The fact that this moment of humility is so outrageously overdue and it doesn’t last long is the key to why Eastbound is so addictively appealing. Powers is ever-striving, imagining himself as more than he really is, and ever since Ralph Kramden, that’s a comedy archetype television viewers relate to and laugh at. The ultimate hook is perhaps the fact that, as ridiculous and failed as Powers is, he’s not just a “normal” schmo – in his way, he’s even kind of special.
Eastbound is also just really frickin’ funny. That’s how religiously unpretentious star and co-creator Danny McBride would explain it. He created the show with fellow North Carolina School of the Arts alums Ben Best and Jody Hill – the same pals with whom he made the micro-indie comedy feature Foot Fist Way. Foot got the attention of comedy kingpins Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and helped get Eastbound greenlit and McBride go on a streak of hysterical cameos in films from Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder and Up in the Air.
Even though McBride set out to be a director and writer, he is a natural on camera comedic talent with that rare capacity to play characters you love to watch and even root for even as they do horrible things. His pal Jody Hill, who directed Foot Fist Way, is all about writing and directing. He serves as McBride’s behind-the-camera guide to funny. The two spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the balancing act that is Kenny Powers, the seven years they both spent toiling fruitlessly in L.A. before returning to their native North Carolina, and how Eastbound was really born out of exaggerated autobiography.
Am I correct that you guys thought up this show while sitting in a baby pool drinking beers?
Danny McBride: That would be correct – yes. That is the genesis of the show.
Danny McBride in Eastbound & Down.
So it’s a hot summer day, and you’re in North Carolina at the time, right?
Danny McBride: That’s correct. It was a hot day and our buddy Chris Waldorf had a baby pool and, being grown men, we decided to get in that pool, and we’re not just gonna sit inside a shallow baby pool without drinking alcohol, so there was beer. As we started to prune, we started to get ideas for something to work on. That was the first time I think we ever talked about Kenny Powers, was in that meeting.
That meeting? I love that you call that a meeting. So Kenny Powers is the show, this dude that returns to his hometown?
Danny McBride: Yes, basically. At the time a lot of us were facing that. I had just left Los Angeles and moved in with my parents and Ben [Best, the third buddy/co-creator] and Jody were back visiting – he hadn’t fully surrendered to Los Angeles. We were all at this point in our lives where we’d left home with the greatest of intentions and things hadn’t gone exactly as planned. We were all starting to face coming back home.
It wasn’t like we had far to fall. We hadn’t accomplished a damn thing, but it was that idea of coming back home after being away for a while, trying to rekindle those friendships that maybe you had neglected a little bit in your move and in your self-absorbed quest to make it. As we started joking around about that we thought, wouldn’t it be more fun if we had a guy who had a lot further to fall than we had? And a guy who had gone out of his way to burn some of those bridges? That’s where he was born.
What year was this?
Jody Hill: This was 2002?
So pre-Foot Fist Way?
Jody Hill: Yes, definitely.
And you guys aren’t really big sports fans either, right?
Danny McBride: I don’t dislike sports by any means. I’m like a terrible athlete. I’ve been to games and have a blast watching ‘em. But I only have so much room in my head and in my personal life it’s always been used to memorize the names of bands and directors I like. That’s always where my attention has been.
It’s not that I dislike sports…
You’re just not a rabid sports guy.
Danny McBride: Yeah, exactly.
Jody Hill: For me, sports is the source of a lot of the insecurity and inadequacy that has followed me since I was about five years old into my adult life. I do not like sports. I do not follow sports, and I try to avoid any conversations that involve any knowledge of sports.
Well done on that front.
Jody Hill: Yeah, thank you.
You’ve started a hit show about a baseball player…
Jody Hill: A hit show and a movie about a Karate guy.
If I can go back a bit, before making Foot Fist Way, you guys toiled in L.A. for about seven years, right?
Danny McBride: Yeah, we moved out there in ’99 when we graduated school and came out with a group of buddies that we’d gone to school with. We all just did what people do when they move to L.A. – try to get it going. Jody and I both worked at the Crocodile Café, we were both PAs on this show Battle Dome, you know, just trying to make it however we could. I still remember getting that job on Battle Dome like a week after we got out here and thinking, “It’s already happening for us! Let’s do this shit!”
Oh man, so many people have had that Battle Dome experience. When you first came out and were all young and pumped and ready to rock, was the idea that you would be writers and directors?
Jody Hill: For me that was kind of the plan. I came out with a couple screenplays in hand and thought that I would try to sell those and that would be my way into the industry. It didn’t work out that way.
What about you, Danny?
Danny McBride: I had the same idea. I went to School of the Arts to be a director, that was my major there and acting just came from being in each others’ films. When I moved to L.A., I was focused on writing because I just figured that I’m not going to have the money to make a film right now, so I’ll just write a screenplay that hopefully someone will read. I was just working in the days doing the PAing and waiting tables and then working on scripts at night, trying to get it together.
How much writing did you guys really do during those seven years? Did you bang out a bunch of scripts or struggle with a couple? Did a lot of writing and learning go on during those seven years?
Danny McBride: I toiled on the same script for like three years when I got out here because you never really feel like working on a screenplay after waiting tables and not being tipped for 10 hours a day, you know? So one script took three years.
After Foot Fist Way I was finally able to sell that script. It hasn’t been made or anything, but that was a moment of victory that those three years of toiling turned into a sale at the end of the day. I mainly focused on that and I would generate a lot of ideas, start a lot of things that I wouldn’t finish. Those are the same ideas that we kind of come back to now that we’re in a place to actually have someone read our shit.
Is it weird that now people give a shit about your ideas after all those years?
Jody Hill: To some degree it is. It’s a very nice thing. Now it’s become the type of thing where I don’t want to just sell every idea I have. I wanna make sure the choices are good in terms of the movies I want to make. It’s just a different type of thing you think about now.
But the idea of somebody who will volunteer to read your stuff, that’s a luxury we have now.
And just out of curiosity, what was that script that you finally sold, Danny?
Danny McBride: It was a movie called Most Scariest that was about a haunted frat house. It was like this fraternity that moves into a haunted house and comedy and a few bumps in the night ensue.
Nice. And probably some boobs in there…
Danny McBride: Yeah, there were a few boobs in there.
Danny McBride: Dead boobs and living boobs. Both.
When you guys began developing Eastbound in earnest, once you actually got into breaking story, did the material surprise you in terms of what it could do, like a car you don’t really know until you start driving it?
Jody Hill: One thing that actually made us want to take this from an idea to an actual developed show is the fact that Danny and I wanted work together again in the same way we had on Foot Fist Way, where he’s in front of the camera, and I’m behind the camera, and we’re both in synch in terms of an antihero we both could explore over a long period of time. With Foot Fist Way, it was a short period of time. We both wanted to do something over a longer term.
Foot Fist Way was great because it prepared us for doing this kind of humor about an unlikable guy. So I don’t know if we were surprised. We were well aware of the goal we were aiming for in terms of tone and comedy, and certainly we were both on the same page in terms of pushing each other as far as we could with that.
That makes sense how Foot Fist Way prepared you for this kind of character and humor, but what about doing it in the episodic form?
Danny McBride: Honestly, I thought that the episodic format was the saving grace as far as reapproaching that sort of comedy. We had used a character like that in Foot Fist Way where he had to go on the arc of an hour and a half movie. There wasn’t an idea of how to dip into that humor again. Another hour and a half movie would have just felt like we were repeating ourselves.
With the episodic, we were able to take the arc of this guy and spread it out. We didn’t have to make every story about just pushing his character forward. We were able to slow it down and develop characters like Stevie and Cutler. That’s where we started having a lot of fun was developing these other characters and the people that he lives with.
The biggest surprise is how people have responded to the material. With Foot Fist Way we were just making what we thought was funny and really had no concept or idea that anything would come of it. We had our fingers crossed, but, you know, it wasn’t like that movie reached the masses by any means. We understood that working with that kind of material, we might always be limiting ourselves and our audience... So with Eastbound, we haven’t pulled any punches, but we’ve somehow found this audience that we couldn’t find with Fist.
Do you guys have any system to approaching whatever that weird balance is for Kenny Powers – maybe it’s just the way Danny is on camera – but what is that narrow margin that still makes him likeable?
Jody Hill: Danny does have a lot to do with it, the fact that he’s able to take this really unlikable character and infuse it with this humor and a human quality. The other element is that Kenny Powers has dreams – he has goals and vision. Traditional thinking is that he has to have a goal, but he also has to be likable, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. You’re able to follow a guy if he has a goal, and we believe that he believes in that.
Just to see him aspire?
Jody Hill: Exactly.
Danny McBride: A lot of it comes down to what’s entertaining to watch. It’s a 30-minute comedy. We’re not trying to change the world or anything. We’re just trying to tell a story from a different point of view. So whether what he’s doing is right or wrong, or morally corrupt, as long as it’s entertaining at the end of the day, that gives you a lot of leeway with the audience.
It’s not like we’re trying to draw a thin line with Kenny Powers: “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?” It’s pretty obvious that he’s a bad dude. This is just a bad dude who’s trying to fix himself and find redemption like anyone who’s normal. You’re just watching his hopefully entertaining way to get there.