Adam McKay says his life was changed by a stand-up comedian. In the late 80s McKay was a discontented English major at Temple University in his native Philadelphia. He sought creative fulfillment at open-mike nights, and when a fellow stand-up told him about improv–“a comedy form that you could do anything with”–McKay immediately decided to move to Chicago.
“I dropped out of college, sold my comic-book collection, bought a 1976 Chrysler New Yorker that was actually a dead man’s car, and set out to do anything I wanted,” he recalls with a chuckle. “It’s almost a Johnny Cash song, but I was looking to do something that would give me infinite possibilities as a performer and would never bore me onstage.”
He took classes at the ImprovOlympic and in 1990 cofounded the Upright Citizens Brigade. A contributor to the groundbreaking Second City show Pinata Full of Bees, he eventually landed the job of head writer for Saturday Night Live. Yet at age 33, McKay felt it was time for another challenge: he became a maker of short films.
With ten shorts aired on SNL over the last two seasons, McKay has come to appreciate the challenges of cheaply made movies. And that love is bringing him back to Chicago for the opening program of the fourth annual Chicago Short Comedy Video and Film Festival at the Biograph theater.
“I have a real love of films that are maybe made for seven bucks but have the guts and energy to try anything,” says McKay, who will emcee a screening of 16 shorts, including two of his own–The Procedure, a macabre story of surgical implants starring Willem Dafoe and Andy Richter, and Five Finger Discount, about a pair of dog thieves, featuring himself and Molly Shannon. “It’s refreshing to see something that hasn’t had to be toned down because a lot of money’s being spent on it or you have to worry about what advertisers think.”
McKay first experienced the liberating joy of improv as a student of Del Close, who championed the extended multiple-scene form called the Harold. McKay was so adept at Close’s games that he quickly became a member of the ImprovOlympic’s house team, the Family. After helping to start the Upright Citizens Brigade, McKay was called away to join the Second City touring company. He was soon promoted to the main stage, where he saw an opportunity to shake up the institution.
Abandoning the Second City’s skit-and-blackout formula, McKay and his cast mates applied the Harold’s techniques of interweaving story lines and recurring characters. Their show, Pinata Full of Bees, ran for 18 months, the longest-running revue in Second City’s 42-year history. In one memorable segment McKay portrayed Noam Chomsky as a kindergarten teacher terrifying his students with an anti-American take on Thanksgiving.
Pinata’s success came just as SNL producer Lorne Michaels was seeking to repopulate his show after a disastrous season, and McKay and Second City director Tom Gianas were picked up as writers. In 1996 McKay became head writer for the show, but four years later he’d had enough. He decided it was time to move on after marrying onetime Chicago director Shira Piven. Just as improv had opened a world to him beyond what he could accomplish as a stand-up, making a film seemed like the next logical step in his endeavor to “never be bored” with comedy. “After years as head writer I’d faced all the challenges, and I was getting ready to deal with marriage and wanted a different schedule than writing all night,” he says.
McKay told Michaels he wanted to quit, but Michaels refused to accept his resignation. “He said I should at least ask for a crazy demand of anything I wanted. I said I wanted to make short films, just be a regular staff writer again, and he said absolutely, so I had to stay.”
Energized by his new role on SNL, McKay is happy with his lot. “You don’t ever wanna be the angry young man with comedy,” he says. “It can be cool and enlightening, but remember you’ve gotta laugh.”
The Chicago Short Comedy Video and Film Festival is on Thursday, July 19, with different programs at 7:30 and 9:30 at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln. McKay hosts the 7:30 show. For more information, call 312-409-1860. Tickets cost $10 per show.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Davis Barber.