Images courtesy of HBO
Last week 19 million people watched the narrative landfill known as The Big Bang Theory. It makes me wish Charlie Sheen and the nutso Seventh Day Adventist who played his nephew on Two and a Half Men would go on a drug-fueled killing spree, using data from Nielson boxes to pinpoint the exact location of their prey. Or maybe they could just develop a primetime comedy show based on this premise. They could call it The Big Bang Theory, for Real; I know more than a few people who’d watch it.
But enough bitching. Streaming and on-demand services have provided an audience for amazingly well written and produced TV shows that otherwise might’ve been canceled after their first seasons. Breaking Bad, the series finale of which aired last night on AMC and now has the entirety of the internet creaming its pants, is one such example.
Another is Eastbound & Down, which coincidentally entered its fourth and final season on HBO minutes after the tale of Walter White came to its bitter end. While in many ways a deeply dark episodic drama about a science teacher turned meth kingpin is diametrically opposed to a balls-out comedy about a washed-up Major League relief pitcher with a mullet and a penchant for cocaine and jet skis, they both share many important core elements: meandering but believable story arcs that constantly introduce new characters, locations, and conflicts; relying on unexpected plot twists that, without careful consideration and writing, could easily alienate audiences who have been conditioned through blatant foreshadowing to know what will happen next long before the characters become aware; and protagonists adapting and changing, like real people, according to a situation at hand.
And so the story of Kenny Powers—played by the show’s co-creator Danny McBride—continues. I was fortunate enough to preview the first two episodes of the new season, which I have been absolutely assured will be the last. It takes place at an undefined point in the future, which judging from the age of Kenny and April’s son seems to be about a four- or five-year leap forward from when we last left the troubled couple. In case your memory is fuzzy: the first episode of the third season (which, when first announced, was also said by the show’s creators to be its last run) sees April leave Kenny and their son in the middle of the night; from there the newly single father is drafted by a minor-league team in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he struggles to find his stride. In the end he manages to get an offer to reenter the majors, but instead bleaches his hair, fakes his own death, and returns home to find April and commit to becoming a family man.
In the first episode of season four, it appears that Kenny has finally submitted to his fate, content with the comforting routine of being a husband and father who works at a car-rental agency. But things quickly change, of course. They always do.
A few days before the season premiere, I spoke with Danny to ask about how his life has changed along with the show, and to glean some insight into what happens to Kenny Powers in the end.
VICE: So is this really the last season? I am somewhat dubious, given that you guys have said that before.
Danny McBride: I think it's definitely the last season. Maybe there will be a time where we'll come back to this character again years from now. From the outset though, we approached every season as if we weren't going to have an opportunity to do it again. Even when we were shooting the pilot, we kind of were like, “Well, you know, maybe, who knows who will pick this up, but at least we'll have a 30-minute short film.” But this season was definitely more of a surprise just because we kind of thought that we were done after the third season and, you know, HBO called us and just wanted us to do one more. [Co-creator] Jody [Hill] and I were kind of looking at each other and we felt good where we left things off last year, but they were just very persistent about it.
They pretty much asked us what would it take to get you guys to do this again. Originally, our third season was going to be about Kenny and April together. But Katy Mixon, the actress who plays April, was on Mike and Molly so we found out after we started to write the third season that we were only going to have her for two episodes, so it kind of fucked up what our plan for the whole season last year was gonna be. We had all this material, all this stuff, all the angles that we basically had to just throw out the window. So what we told HBO was, “Look, we liked last season but we weren't really able to do what our original plan was because we didn't have Katy.” So they were like if we could get her would you guys be interested in doing it again? And sure enough, they got her, and we said, “All right, well, why not, let's do it.”
I feel like Kenny's been stuck in that same zone for the past three seasons, and now it's like maybe there's a higher aspiration or at least a realization that his career could evolve. And what I find interesting about the show—and what’s maybe risky about it—is that the show, even though it's a sports comedy, isn’t really about baseball.
When we first set the show up we never really imagined we would see Kenny Powers in a game or anything like that. When we set this up, we always were kind of like that'll just be his backstory but the story will be about how he has to function in society now. As we got into it, and as we started writing that first season, suddenly it kind of became about him trying to get his abilities back and hinging those hopes upon getting April back like it would somehow fix his pitch. It brought us into the world of baseball more than Jody or I ever could of imagined.
Then we had him playing on a team in the second and third seasons, and we actually ended up digging writing that stuff. But at the end of the day we never really sold the show where wins and losses in a baseball game were going to play into like the overall story arc. That was one thing that was kind of nice about this season, we feel like it kind of got back to what we did in the first season where it clearly is dealing with Kenny outside of baseball.
How much experience do you have with sports? Did you play baseball when you were younger?
I did a little a T-ball until I could barely stop pissing in my pants. Jody grew up like a martial artist and I fucked around with a little martial arts as well, but never really into sports. I ran track in middle school and was like the fucking ball boy for the basketball team. That was the extent of it. Even when I was a kid I was just into cable TV and movies and that was just it. That's what I kind of lived and breathed on. So it's funny to me because when we wrote the pilot, it was like a week before we started shooting. Jody and I looked at each other and I'm like, "Fuck dude, I don't even know how to pitch." Jody was like, "I'm sure you'll look fine, let's just go look at it." So I go out there and throw a few balls at them and I'm like "Dude, I know I don't know anything about baseball, but I know we can't film me looking like this." So we got this guy from the UNC-Wilmington baseball team, and he sort of came on and tried to train me basically. And it was somewhat successful, I mean I wouldn't be able to play in a game with high school kids. We really never thought of this as like a sports show, so much so that we never even thought about the idea that I would actually have to pick up a fucking baseball.
Has anyone ever asked you to come out for a pickup game or something?
I've been asked to throw out the first pitch many times, and I always just turn it down. Because there's no way in hell I'm going out there and throwing the first pitch.
People are always saying it's based on John Rocker or Mitch Williams. I don't know if I really see that though, since Kenny is such a specific character. Is it true that you based it off someone?
We didn't even know any baseball players, so it was completely based on our own idea of what kind of guy we wanted him to be. Even the choice to make him a relief pitcher was just the idea of just like, this is a guy who's used to the pressure being on, being the center of attention, everyone's fucking cheering for him and now he's got nothing. That idea of the guy in the center of the field who's now sitting in the center of a gym class was the image that put baseball in our minds. The more we wrote for the show, the more exposed to baseball we were, so its funny, the similarities, between Kenny and some of those guys like Rocker and Canseco who've fallen from grace. It wasn't intentional though.
I want to talk a bit about Stevie. Where the hell did you find him?
We found him the old-fashioned way, dude, just through casting calls. It was one of those things where we were casting the pilot, that role, how it was written, we had everybody and their mother coming in, auditioning to play a nerd. It was just all an act for everybody and Steve was the first guy who came in where it was like, this doesn't feel like an act. It just felt natural. We thought he was so funny. His sensibilities were so on with what we wanted. He's just like this filthy disgusting Don Knotts. At its inception, the character was a little over the top and silly, and I think if we would have gone that route it would’ve fucked up the whole show. Steve brings this realism to this role and keeps this goofiness in there that I think is essential to like what the show ends up being at the end of the day.
I think he does a lot of voiceover on cartoons, right? He's Lolly Poopdeck on the Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, which is ironic because in the fourth season it's revealed that Stevie now has a gaggle of half-Mexican children who have absolutely no respect for their father. They are constantly calling him a "pussy" and "dick-licker," and this made me laugh extremely hard. But it made me wonder: How do you deal with children on the set and all the profanities?
Yeah, he gets a lot of pussy from those roles. I have a two-year-old now, but before I had a kid, I never even thought about even what you're asking right now. I never thought about any of the implications of any kid hearing any of the stuff that we talk about, or them even repeating it. And now that I've had a kid, I'm always like, "Fuck, Jody are you serious? We're gonna make a kid say this shit?" Luckily Jody doesn't have kids because he's like, "Yes, stop being a fucking bitch. They're definitely gonna say the lines." He was able to snap me out of it and keep it real.
When you're on set you’ll see Jody Hill kind of kneel down by the camera looking at a kid and being like "All right now, say 'fucking pussy.' No. No. 'Fu-cking pussy.'" He's going to hell, dude.
You did As I Lay Dying last year. Were you shooting this new season directly after? When I saw you in the trailer for it, I was really surprised. What do you have to say about your experience working on it, and what do you think about Faulkner?
There was a gap. After As I Lay Dying, I did that Larry David movie Clear History. And after that was done, we waited a few weeks. I'm a big Faulkner fan, and if you're from the South, Faulkner is pushed onto you in school. I liked the book in high school and thought it was cool, and I liked the different points of view. It was definitely surreal to act in a movie based on a book I read in high school. I've worked with James Franco a handful of times as an actor, but he was great to work with as a director. He really was, and I'm not just blowing smoke up his fine ass. He made the process really easy. I feel like doing serious stuff is much easier than doing comedy. With comedy it just feels like every fucking moment of the day you have to be on point, so it was just nice being in scene and it's like I can just say what the fuck’s on this page and I don't have to think about hanging out.
You've had a phenomenal year. Are you just strutting around your house naked?
It's really funny because Jody and I were talking about this on Eastbound. When you work on something like this, the climax of the whole experience is just when you wrap it. In a weird way, whether people like it or not, the experience is sort of done when we finish shooting it, and it's like, what’s next? When This Is the End was released I was so busy shooting Eastbound the whole time that I didn't even really have a chance to process that people were really digging that movie. So when I got back to LA I found out people liked it and that's great. I think that movie is so fucked up and so crazy that it's great to see that something like that can still find success at the box office. Sometimes you see what's successful, and as a creator, it's disheartening. I feel like This Is the End was subversive enough and successful enough that it just reinstates your faith in humanity. People paid money to see these dick jokes. That's good. People are still cool.
You did some voiceovers for Grand Theft Auto V. What was that like?
I used to play a lot of video games. I wasn't a crazy gamer or anything, but I would play whatever was new and cool. Now, it's kind of hard to sit down and be like, I'm gonna sit down and play a game for three hours. I love the franchise, so it's cool to be part of something like that.
Did they let you be whatever kind of DJ you wanted to be?
Everything was all scripted out already. So I just went in for a few hours and hammered it all out. Then one day in the mail, you get a copy to play yourself. I have it here if you ever want to come by and jam on it.
More Kenny Powers:
Click here to hear Kenny Powers rip your favorite baseball team a new goddamn asshole.