'Anchorman 2': The Chicago roots of Adam McKay

Co-creator of Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby likes pushing audience boundaries while fanning the comic fires of his talented casts

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NEW YORK —  Adam McKay still has the improvising chops that made him a Second City standout, but now he's doing his work with microphone in hand, video monitors arrayed in front of him and fellow funny guys Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and David Koechner in the next room in bandages, slings and, in Carell's case, a dog cone over his head.

"I can't scratch my cut anymore," McKay suggests as a line for Carell, whose "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" character, Brick Tamland, has just survived a Winnebago rollover with his fellow news teammates.

"I'm not supposed to be scratching my wound, so they got this collar on me," Carell/Brick says in a subsequent take, banging his hand against the cone like a frustrated dog.

"He doesn't realize he can go over the top yet," adds Koechner's bandaged sports anchor Champ Kind.

McKay, who directed and co-wrote 2004's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" with Ferrell and is doing the same on this long-awaited sequel, leads the foursome through a few more largely improvised takes of the scene, which marks their 1980 arrival at GNN, the newly launching New York-based 24-hour news channel.

"This is how Adam does it," Judd Apatow, producer on both movies, says while watching the action. "He does the script a couple of times and then explodes with ideas."

"Quick tip: Never put a deep-fryer into a Winnebago," Ferrell's Ron Burgundy, his arm in a sling, says in one take.

"I can't brush my teeth," Carell says in another.

"And anything else you want to try," McKay says to his cast, giving them one more chance to mine comedy gold before they move on.

"My urine looks like watered-down ketchup," says Rudd's reporter Brian Fantana, in a neck brace and crutches.

This free-form, everybody-pitch-in approach has been key to McKay's work on the five movies in which he has directed his producing/writing partner Ferrell — "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" (2006), "Step Brothers" (2008), "The Other Guys" (2010) and the two "Anchormans" — as well as his prior experience on Chicago's improvisation scene. McKay, 45, grew up in the Philadelphia area and was doing stand-up comedy there before he made an early-'90s pilgrimage to Chicago to learn from improv guru Del Close at ImprovOlympic (now iO).

"It changed my life," McKay says, leaning his hulking frame way back on a loveseat in his trailer on a cold, rainy May day in Manhattan, where the production has moved for a few days after two-and-a-half months' shooting in Atlanta. "What he was talking about was so revolutionary to us, the idea that you try and be intelligent, whereas what everyone else was saying was try and be dumb. It didn't mean you couldn't do silly (stuff). He would always say if you're going to be a dumb character, be brilliantly dumb."

"He was always saying something on stage," recalls iO co-founder Charna Halpern, on whose couch McKay camped for a bit. "That was Adam's philosophy, that if you don't have something to say, you shouldn't be on stage."

McKay maintained this mindset as he co-founded the Upright Citizens Brigade company in Chicago (which subsequently moved to New York) and eventually joined the Second City as a touring company understudy. Kelly Leonard, then a Second City producer and now its executive vice president, remembers McKay as a prolific sketch writer who wanted to push boundaries.

"Coming out of the original UCB, Adam was very interested in theater that would cross the line and assault the audience," Leonard says.

Apatow says he first saw McKay improvising with the UCB, and when in an unrelated conversation more than a year ago I was asking Apatow about Melissa McCarthy, the "Bridesmaids" producer said, "I really thought this is the funniest person I've met since Adam McKay. And no one on earth is funnier than Adam McKay....They are the fastest on-their-feet improvisers I have ever seen."

"He is certainly one of the most effortlessly hysterical people I've ever had a conversation with," agrees Scott Adsit, who worked with McKay on Second City's mainstage before going on to play Pete Hornberger on fellow Second City alum Tina Fey's NBC show "30 Rock."

Leonard recalls that while McKay's touring company was doing a month-long stint in Dallas, Second City actor Carell came down to visit future wife Nancy Walls, who was in the cast, and Carell wound up doing a bit in which he posed as a random audience member called up to the stage by McKay. McKay proceeded to tear into Carell for his poor improvisation skills, Carell broke down and cried, and the audience, not in on the joke, was appalled and alienated.

"We weren't invited back," Leonard says.

McKay's most extreme stunt came when he and Adsit told a Second City mainstage audience that President Clinton had been shot and presumably killed, but when they brought out a TV to follow the coverage, they wound up watching and laughing at a bloopers show until the audience filed out in disgust.

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