How Adam McKay writes a comedy


Photo: Dreamworks

Many comedies have this point in their third act where they suddenly forget to be comedies. Most of their runtime is spent cracking jokes and then the writers realize that they need to try to deliver an emotionally satisfying climax, and so the film becomes serious and plot-focused. In Adam McKay’s 2008 film Step Brothers, this trope is subverted in the most ludacris way possible. Instead of a emotional climax, we’re given a scene where the two psychotically immature protagonists sing an opera song that abruptly causes all of the characters to have emotional awakenings and realize what they needed all along. It’s a scene that laughs at the very notion of a dramatically resonant ending to a comedy.


The discussions surrounding the filmography of Adam McKay have become increasingly dominated by his films of the last decade, which are nearly all critical missteps whose comedy is supremely unfunny and whose moral outrage is maddeningly pretentious, a trend that is epitomized by his abysmal new satire Don’t Look Up. But instead of delving into McKay’s turn to moral posturing, let’s turn back the clock to a time in which he was churning out hit after hit, and explore how Adam McKay constructed his most acclaimed comedies.


McKay began his career in the 1990s as a sketch writer for Saturday Night Live, before transitioning to feature films writing and directing his own comedies in the 2000s. Most mainstream comedy movies made at that time are grounded and movie star-driven stories, while McKay’s films are anything but. In these movies, every character is a complete moron. Every scene’s framing is preposterous. No story element is intended to be taken seriously by the audience. They are anarchic explosions of complete absurdity. And they all feature seemingly egoless ensemble casts that work together wonderfully.


McKay’s secret to comedic success is using conventional narrative structure in the most unconventional ways imaginable. Anchorman, for instance, follows the journey of a television broadcaster struggling with the concept of gender equality in the workplace. But the entire film is pervaded with this sense of total derangement as it subverts the established conventions of storytelling at every turn. And, as silly as these films are, they all are supported by phenomenal characterization. All the characters in McKay’s films are so well defined and so well realized by the actors that the audience intimately understands who they are and what motivates them. For example, the scene in Talladega Nights where the characters try to get a knife out of Will Ferrel’s leg by prying it out with another knife. That scene that works so well on a comedic level because it’s completely in line with what we have come to expect from these idiots over the course of the movie. And while these films all have the trappings of dumb comedies, they act as searing critiques of Bush era America. Sure, McKay’s comedies from the 2000s are delightfully unhinged displays of absurdity, but these underlying themes make them feel politically relevant in a way that few other comedies of that era really do.