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'Funny Or Die' Creator Adam McKay Takes On The 2008 Economic Crash In 'The Big Short'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Adam McKay, is best-known for writing and directing the comedies "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights." He's a former "Saturday Night Live" head writer and co-founded the comedy website Funny or Die. He wrote and directed the new film "The Big Short," based on Michael Lewis's nonfiction bestseller about the collapse of the housing and credit bubble in 2008, which led to the collapse of the global economy. The film's main characters, played by Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale, predict the collapse, realizing what most Wall Street players and top American financial leaders have failed to either see or acknowledge - that the bubble is based on bad loans from mortgages that the homeowners will never be able to pay off. Here's a clip featuring Christian Bale as Michael Burry, a hedge fund founder and manager who's convinced that the securities of bundled mortgages are going to lose their value, so he shorts them. He bets against them. The people invested in this fund already thought he was odd - listening to speed metal, wearing T-shirts to the office, and going barefoot. In this scene, two of the investors in his hedge fund come to his office to tell him his strategy is crazy.


CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Michael Burry) Hey, Lawrence.

TRACY LETTS: (As Lawrence Fields) We have no confidence in your ability to identify macroeconomic trends.

BALE: (As Michael Burry) You flew here to tell me that? Why? Anyone can see that there is a real estate bubble.

LETTS: (As Lawrence Fields) Actually, no one can see a bubble. That's what makes it a bubble.

BALE: (As Michael Burry) That's dumb, Lawrence. There's always markers - mortgage fraud, quintupled since 2000, an average take-home pay. It's flat, but home prices are soaring. That means the homes are debt not assets.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So, Mike Burry, guy who gets his hair cut at Supercuts and doesn't wear shoes knows more than Alan Greenspan and Hank Paulson?

BALE: (As Michael Burry) Yeah, Dr. Mike Burry. Yes, he does.

GROSS: OK. Adam McKay, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I have to tell you, if you had come to me - and there's no reason why you would have want - done that - but if you had come to me and said, should I make this movie trying to explain the economic collapse of 2008 and trying to explain all the financial instruments that caused it, like CDOs, which stands for - I never remember what it stands for - collateral debt...

ADAM MCKAY: Collateralized debt obligation.

GROSS: Yeah, if you came to me and said, should I make a movie like that? I'll say - I'd say, no, don't do it. Because I tried so hard in, like, 2008 and 2009 to, like, have interviews that explained what was going on. And we had on great explainers. And they would do a great job. And it was still always confusing 'cause this stuff is just intended to be confusing, I think. So why did you think you could actually make sense of it and make it an entertaining comedy even?

MCKAY: Well, you know, the book - I was lucky in the sense that we had a fantastic book by Michael Lewis. And what he did was - he did a very smart thing. He linked these amazing characters, these real people that saw the collapse coming before anyone else, with the vital information of the collapse. So their emotional arcs are tied to this information. So when I was done with the book I had a pretty good view of what had happened. It wasn't totally comprehensive. But most importantly I was just very emotionally engaged in these characters' story and the world, too - how deep he goes into Wall Street. I never, you know, had that feeling of being so intimate with that world. So I knew right away, the fact that they were so attached to the information and the characters, that you could do it. And then the next step I did was I just asked a lot of questions of a lot of experts and read a lot of books. And my final kind of analysis was it's really not that hard and that there's a lot of effort made on the part of the big banks and the ratings agencies and some of the financial media to make it so complicated so that people can't really react to it. But when I got to the essence of what really happened, it really wasn't that tricky.

GROSS: So had you lost money in the 2008 meltdown or known a lot of people who did?

MCKAY: I did lose money. I mean, my story is hardly worth bringing out the violin for because, you know, we were fairly well diversified and protected. But I had a close family member who lost their home. I had lots of friends who lost their jobs. It was more of a rippling kind of thing. And then even with the website I run with Will Ferrell, Funny or Die, we had to downsize. We noticed movie studios in towns started making fewer movies that put people out of work. So the effects were, you know, far-reaching. And then I just found it really interesting that before I read this book and started doing research I really didn't fully know what had caused it. I knew there was a housing bubble. I knew there was some negligence. And that's all I really knew. And I just thought that was crazy that we have this 24-hour-a-day news machine churning in this country and that somehow I didn't know the mechanics of how this had happened.

GROSS: So I just have to ask, have you invested a lot in the market? Like, did you think of yourself as an investor? And had you ever shorted anything? 'Cause the whole concept of shorting is essential to understanding how this whole game was played.

MCKAY: I have not shorted anything to this day. Although, we keep joking now - the people that worked on the movie - whenever we go to, like, a restaurant and we get bad service, we go, we got to short this place.


MCKAY: But shorting - no. You know, one of the worst things you can do is to know a little bit about something and think you know a lot. So I'm lucky enough to have a really good financial advisor, and I still play it very conservatively. I've almost shorted a couple companies, but thank god I didn't. One of them I was like, I'm going to short them. And then since I had that thought, they've gone up 20 percent. So don't listen to me for stock advice.

GROSS: So if you had to make, like, a one or two-minute pitch about what this movie is about, how would you describe it?

MCKAY: I would say it's about a group of outsiders and weirdos and - but at the same time brilliant people that saw what no one else could see, billions of people did not see, which was that the world economy was going to collapse. And the question is, why did they see it when no one else saw it?

GROSS: And how would you explain how that meltdown was connected to the housing bubble?

MCKAY: I actually practiced this on my family.

GROSS: Oh, good.

MCKAY: I practiced with my wife and then eventually it got down to my 10-year-old daughter Pearl from "The Landlord." And I got pretty good at it. So...

GROSS: That's from your Funny and Die sketch "The Landlord," yeah.

MCKAY: Exactly, exactly. And at first she like, Dad, stop, this is boring. And then eventually she was like, oh, I think I see what you mean. So all it is is that at one point in the late-70s, a guy thought, hey, mortgages are boring. You don't really make a lot of money off of them. But if you package thousands of them together and bundle them into one bond, a mortgage bond, you can then sell them, and with those returns you can make a lot more money. And because there's so many mortgages in it, it's safe. So they started doing this. And they started making billions and billions of dollars. And banking started growing. It grew four times the size it was in the 70s to where it is now. But what happened was they ran out of good mortgages to put in these bonds 'cause there's only so many people that can buy homes, so they started filling them with crappy mortgages. They call them subprime when they're really risky. So all the sudden these safe mortgage bonds that everyone goes, oh, they're completely safe were filled with crap. And no one noticed or cared because everyone was making so much money. And then off of that they started making other types of bonds that were even riskier and riskier and riskier. And eventually those risky loans started defaulting, and that was it. It was like a Domino just went down. And it had spread to foreign banks at that point and really literally brought down the world economy for like - there was a day in America where the paper markets froze, which means there was no short-term lending, which means hospitals can't get medicine, which means municipalities can't get fluoride for their water. And then they did the bailout of course.

GROSS: Bravo. That was good.

MCKAY: That was pretty good, right?

GROSS: I'm impressed.

MCKAY: All right.

GROSS: I'm very impressed.


GROSS: That's very good. And your main characters, like in the Michael Lewis book, "The Big Short," are the people who figured out that a lot of the mortgages that were bundled into these securities weren't any good, that there were going to be defaults on these mortgages and so that the characters in your story, the characters in the nonfiction book that they're based on, bet against these mortgages. And then when the mortgages defaulted, they made a lot of money on these bets that they made.

MCKAY: Yeah, these were guys that really started with Christian Bale's character, Dr. Michael Burry. I sort of call him the Oracle. And it's really amazing what he did. He basically never left his office, and he sat in his office listening to heavy metal, and he read these mortgage bonds, which are filled - they're so complicated. They're filled with thousands of mortgages. And he went line by line, and he read a bunch of the bonds and walked out of the room, saying, this is a house of cards. So he was the one who really saw it way before anyone else. And then yes, he shorted the housing bonds, and then, Carell's character caught wind of it, Gosling's character, the two young guys, Jamie and Charlie, played by Finn Wittrock, John Magaro with Brad Pitt, these were guys that believed in the market. They believed that when there's a bad investment, you're supposed to have a counter investment, and that's how the market stabilizes. So they were doing the right thing, initially. They were doing what the market is supposed to do. But there's a terrifying moment in the movie where they realize there are loans on the other side of the bet and that the whole market's been compromised, and the world economy could go down. So what they thought was a good, sound investment and them doing their job turned out they looked basically into the abyss. And to this day, when you talk to these guys, they're still furious. They're still shocked. They still can't believe that no one was prosecuted. And most of all, they're disillusioned.

GROSS: And they're also very wealthy.

MCKAY: They are, but it's funny. I mean, part of the movie is, you know, so much of our culture keeps score by money, but I didn't see any of these guys tap dancing around. It's not like they're driving around in uber yachts and wearing, like, $7,000 suits. I mean, the primary emotion you get from them is disillusionment and anger.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam McKay, and he wrote and directed the new film "The Big Short," which is about the housing bubble and the toxic financial instruments that created the financial meltdown of 2008. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Adam McKay and he directed such films as "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights," "Stepbrothers." And his new film, "The Big Short," is an adaptation of the nonfiction Michael Lewis book that told the story of the toxic financial instruments and the housing bubble that crashed the economy in 2008. So you've managed in "The Big Short" to tell the story of some of the main characters in the financial meltdown of 2008 in a comedy, in a very kind of lively film. And when you sat down and asked yourself how do I do this? How do I take this kind of complicated Wall Street story that a lot of people don't understand and make it understandable and also make it entertaining? Like, where did you - like, how did you start to wrap your head around a method for doing that?

MCKAY: I always viewed the movie as two movies. The first half, it's a little bit like a card counting movie where, like, the MIT kids figure out how to count the cards at a blackjack table and they're beating the evil casino. So there's a ton of energy to the front of the movie. You're really rooting for these guys, and it's kind of fun. It's fun to see the banks roll their eyes at them and you know the guys are right. Also some of the characters are very funny. Like - even though they're being played very seriously and in a grounded way. Carell's character, Mark Baum, and his whole team, when you meet the real people they're very funny guys. And they joke around and give each other a hard time. So the first half of the movie does have that kind of energy and there are some laughs, and it has, like, motion to it that's really great. And then the second half I always viewed is where it becomes the tragedy. You think these guys have warned the village about the tsunami. They're up in the hills and then they realize the tsunami is 10 times bigger than the hill they're standing on. So someone referred to the movie as a traumady (ph).


MCKAY: Like a combination tragedy comedy, which I think is kind of accurate. Yeah, it doesn't really fit cleanly into any kind of genre box, which is also what drew me to the story.

GROSS: So you have some cutaways for popular personalities, not that I'm necessarily familiar with all of them (laughter) like actors Margot Robbie, and Chef Anthony Bourdain and actress and singer Selena Gomez. Explain some of the more complicated things. And they're just, like, cutaways where, like, Anthony Bourdain's in the kitchen and Margot Robbie is in a bubble bath. How did you come up with the idea to do cutaways like that and to find, like, the comedy - the comic way for them to explain it?

MCKAY: You know, it came about from, really, the - what I think once again is the central question of the movie, which is why did these people see it and we didn't when the numbers were so obvious if you looked at them? So one of the answers we started talking about was just this kind of white noise pop culture that America has a lot of. I mean, the rest of the world has it, too. So we started talking about the idea of, like, we want to represent that pop culture in the movie. We don't just want the movie to be in offices with Wall Street guys talking. We want to see what America is thinking. And then off of that thought I had the idea of, like, well, what would happen if pop culture actually gave us usable information? Like, what would happen if Kim Kardashian every time she was on camera explained the LIBOR rate scandal? You know, what would happen if any time you're watching a red carpet for an award show and everyone comes down in their gown, you know, each person, you know, talks about climate change statistics...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCKAY: ...And the rapid change that's happening? And so that's kind of where it came from, and it felt satirical. It felt funny. It felt like it had energy. And at the same time, it was a great way to get this information across in a simple, understandable way.

GROSS: So I imagine you making this movie and shopping it to two different sets of people as you wrote it, giving it one first, like, to the experts who actually understand really well what's - what happened on Wall Street, getting their approval and then giving it to people who didn't follow what happened carefully and seeing if they comprehend what you've written. Is that what you did?

MCKAY: That's exactly what we did. Yeah, it was a very interesting tug of war because we had - Adam Davidson was the consultant on the movie. He was an NPR guy. You know, he started Planet Money. And so he was the...

GROSS: And did this great piece with Alex Blumberg called "The Big Pool Of Money" for "This American Life" that explained one facet of the whole meltdown of 2008.

MCKAY: I agree. And I actually think it's one of the better pieces about the meltdown. If anyone has a chance, definitely listen to it. It helped me a lot. So we had Adam Davidson, who's a really rigorous thinker. He's a University of Chicago guy. And then obviously I was reading a lot and doing my own research, and then we had the real people that we would talk to as well. So somewhere in between that pocket and then on the other side I have to communicate with a regular audience. And we had some people in focus groups admit, like, they don't even know what a stock is or how a stock works. So there were little things that would happen, like when Steve Carell says sell everything at one point in the movie. You actually wouldn't say that. You would say unwind our position or it's time to call in our shorts. There's another way you would phrase it. So the experts said you would not say sell everything and I say, yeah, but an audience won't understand that unwind my position. What does that mean? So it became this kind of horse trading game where when it was a key story point I would say, well, can he - would it be terrible for him to say sell everything? And they would finally confess no. It's not crazy. There are some guys that would say that. So I go, OK, then we're going to keep that.

GROSS: So one of the lines in "The Big Short" is that - I'm paraphrasing here - that Wall Street went from the golf club to the strip club, you know, from these - you know, this image of these, like, you know, boring guys who, like - a little men's club. They go to the golf club to - you're, like, you know, rip roaring (laughter) out of control, you know, strip club kind of stuff. So did you come up with that line, with that praise, golf club to the strip club?

MCKAY: Yeah, I actually think it's country club to the strip club, but you're correct.

GROSS: Oh, country club, oh, OK, right.

MCKAY: Yeah. I read a number that just shocked me, which was that banking was 6 percent of our GDP - our nation's GDP - in the '70s and now it's 24 percent. So it literally grew four times the size of what it used to be. And I would talk to people about, like, when I was a kid, I would watch, like, "The Beverly Hillbillies" and Mr. Drysdale, the banker on there, was, like, a lackey. He was, like, a toady.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCKAY: And nowadays that would not be the depiction of a banker. The banker would be the guy in charge and the oil guy would be chasing him around. And so there was this massive shift that happened in the late '70s and a lot of it came about from these new types of bonds that they created. They call them, you know, securitizations, derivatives - there's a lot of different names for them. But basically they're new kinds of bonds. And it just completely changed banking to the point where those types of sales became way more than - way more than securities, way more than stocks. And the amount of profits they were making just, you know, quadrupled, and with that came a lot of lobbying power. And that was when in the '80s was when the banks really said, like, hey, let's hit Washington, D.C., and let's start giving out some checks, which as we know is what led to the deregulation that we saw in the late '80s and the '90s under - once again, under a Republican president and a Democratic president. This is not a right-wing, left-wing story. So that line was trying to kind of show that, that it went from the country club to the strip club. It went from this, like, safe almost accounting-like job to you're a rock star.

GROSS: And, you know, like, another example of how the stock market changed - I remember when I was growing up and the national news was on it would always end with how Wall Street did that day. It would be - and today the Dow Jones was up a quarter of a point or was down a half a point as opposed to up 300 or down 250 (laughter).

MCKAY: Absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah...

MCKAY: Yeah, volatility has gone through the roof. There's no question.

GROSS: My guest is Adam McKay. He wrote and directed the new film "The Big Short." After a break, we'll talk more about the film and about writing a sketch in which George Lopez plays the Mexican equivalent of Donald Trump. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Adam McKay. He wrote and directed the comedies "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights" and co-founded the comedy website Funny or Die. He wrote and directed the new film "The Big Short," based on Michael Lewis's nonfiction book about a few of the high finance guys who realized that the credit and housing bubble was based on bad mortgages and toxic financial instruments and bet against those mortgage bonds. These guys made a fortune when the economy collapsed in 2008. The film stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling.

So occasionally in your story, Ryan Gosling, who is with Deutsche Bank in this story - his character's with Deutsche Bank and he's also kind of betting against the bank, but he's also the narrator of the film. And occasionally he comes on as the narrator and says, OK, that didn't really happen that way. But sometimes he comes on as the narrator and he says, what you're about to see, it really happened this way. Why did you decide to have the narrator explain when something was really fictitious and then reinforce the point when something seems so outrageous but was actually true?

MCKAY: You know, our whole goal with this movie was that we wanted to pull the curtain back as far as we could to see inside this world. And I really felt like you had to have this conversation with the audience - not the whole movie doing it, but occasionally we had to check in and just let the audience know we're doing the best we can to really show you what happened. You know, it was influenced by there's a Michael Winterbottom movie called "24 Hour Party People" that I really love that did a lot of that and, you know, a little bit from my theater background I'd seen it work as well. So there would be certain scenes in the movie that were just so unbelievable that they actually happened that while Carell's character was giving a speech about how Bear Stearns was no good and everyone's going down, and he's arguing with a guy who's saying, no, Bear Stearns is fine, in the middle of that speech, Bear Stearns is plummeting while he's giving this speech. And if you wrote that as fiction, that would just be bad writing. I mean, it's so cartoonish. And also the fact that Carell's character's company found out about the deal through a wrong number, which is actually true. So I wanted to make it clear that these haphazard relationships, these kind of accidental, you know, deals that came about were absolutely true. And a lot of times that's how the world works.

GROSS: Some of the characters in your movie have real names, like Christian Bale's character Michael Burry is a real name. But I think most of the major characters are fictionalized versions of the people they're based on and the names have been changed. So how did you decide who was going to be based on a real person with their actual name and who was going to be more of a composite or a fictionalized version?

MCKAY: Really they're all pretty much the real people. It was just a matter of some of them for privacy reasons didn't want their last name in there. Like Jamie and Charlie, who are Magaro and Finn Wittrock, those are the real guys' first names. And same with Pitt's character. They just...

GROSS: But not their last names?

MCKAY: But not their last names. They just did - they just said, please don't put my last name in the movie 'cause then everyone knows 100 percent it's me. The one guy who's really kind of a composite is Gosling's character. I would say he's a little bit influenced by the real guy, but because he's dancing in and out of the movie as a character and a narrator, I think that's the character where you see more liberties taken where he's definitely not doing an impression of the real guy. But, you know, a lot of the actions the real guy did he is doing, and there's some elements of the real guy in there.

GROSS: So let's talk about your casting. Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, who is a trader at a hedge fund. I want you to describe his character.

MCKAY: Yeah, he's brilliant. He's, you know, the one - the funny thing in Wall Street is a lot of these guys will slag on each other, kind of like slightly poke at each other and go, he's not that good, he's not that good. But the one guy no one ever said a bad word about was Dr. Michael Burry. Like, everyone acknowledges that guy is a heavyweight genius. And, without exaggeration, his job, before he started a hedge fund, he was in his residency as a neurosurgeon and he got bored and (laughter). He got bored with neurosurgery and instead went and started this hedge fund. He's an amazing guy. And I spent some time with him, and he listens to speed metal. I mean, I'm not talking like light heavy metal. He listens to hard heavy metal. And he is on the spectrum, so he's able to hyper-focus. And he will sit at his office for 16 straight hours reading documents. He's a sweet, sweet guy. And his experience to the whole thing was just really miserable. I mean, when he was certain that he was right and the markets didn't change, he got very physically ill and almost had his lower intestine - half of his lower intestine removed. And then the second that he sold his position or unwound his position, instantly the pains went away. So Christian spent a lot of time with him. They spent an entire day together just sitting in a room talking. And Christian's very method, so Dr. Burry gave Christian his real clothes. And you see in the movie that he tends to wear this one T-shirt and shorts a lot that he actually wore during the period. And Christian learned how to play speed metal drums. And so it was an amazing process to work. I mean, we all know Christian Bale's one of the great living actors, and to really just see him become this person was - it was kind of jaw-dropping.

GROSS: So let's talk about the character Steve Carell plays. And why don't you describe the character?

MCKAY: He plays a character Mark Baum, who is based on a real guy, Steve Eisman - and very, very strictly based on him actually. He's really doing the character based on him. And Mark Baum's a fascinating character. He really is a crusader. He's really a guy who looks for corruption. He looks for the BS out there. And he looks for companies that are fluffing their numbers, that aren't legit. And he relishes, you know, shorting them or putting sell orders on them. And he had had a long history of busting these bogus subprime companies back in, like, the late-90s, early 2000s. And he had this team of people that are played beautifully by Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, and Rafe Spall. And they all sort of had this distrust of the system. Their basic approach was you have to prove to us that your company is legit, otherwise we assume you're not. So when this trade came across Carell's character Mark Baum's desk, he was more than ready for it when no one else was. And it quickly becomes a bit of an Ahab crusade for them, sort of the ultimate corruption deal, the ultimate sign that he's right all along, the entire system is rotten. And he's the guy who sort of represents his audience a little bit. His outrage matches ours. And at a certain point, kind of a lot like Ahab, he loses his mind a little bit. And really it all becomes about this personal crusade. And you're really kind of worried for him. Is he going to wait too long to sell? Is he going to self-destruct? And Carell just did an amazing job. I mean, he really transformed himself. He put on like 20, 25 pounds. And he really did this...

GROSS: Yeah, why did he need to do that? Why did you think he needed to do that?

MCKAY: You know, there's a quality to the real guy - the real guy is not a bad looking guy, but he's a little bit heavier. His clothes don't always fit him well. I wanted Steve to be a little bit schlubby. I didn't want him to be - you know, Steve's a decent looking guy who's usually in good shape. And these guys are all the guys with the, you know, the lousy clothes, the bad haircuts. They're the guys who can't make eye contact. So I needed Steve to kind of just be a little off-balance and a little uncomfortable. And God bless Steve. He did it. And then the real guy is very - larger-than-life guy - really good guy, but definitely larger-than-life, and Steve found a way to really play him in this grounded way that still had vulnerability to it, yet righteous anger. And I really think it's one of the best things Steve's ever done, and he kind of blew everyone away on this movie.

GROSS: My guest is Adam McKay. He wrote and directed the new film "The Big Short." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam McKay, and he wrote and directed the new film "The Big Short." And he also directed "Anchorman," "Talladega Nights," "Step Brothers," "Anchorman 2," and other films.

So you co-founded Funny or Die, and you do some videos for Funny or Die. And it's a comedy website that has a lot of different contributors. And you recently did something very funny called Donaldo Trumpez with George Lopez as like the Mexican Donald Trump. Would you describe that video?

MCKAY: Yeah, there was a piece I wrote with Owen Burke, who's the new creative head of Funny or Die - actually, interestingly, whose dad was the - created "Nightline," was like a tighten of the news world.

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding.

MCKAY: Yeah, it's kind of interesting. And now his son runs Funny or Die. So the premise was - I just started laughing with Owen about the idea of, like, well, wait a minute, how do the Mexicans feel about, you know, all the drunk college students that come down there and all the criminals that escape and go hide in Mexico. So we came up with this guy Donaldo Trumpez, who's the, you know, the equivalent - the Mexican equivalent - of Donald Trump. And he wants to build a wall to keep the Americans out. And he wants to get rid of Sammy Hagar and his tequila. And he wants to get rid of Senor Frogs. And he wants to get rid of these factories that don't pay the workers any money and pollute their rivers. And it was funny. We were writing it as sort of an absurdist sketch, and about halfway through we realized, like, wait a minute, this guy has some good points.

GROSS: He also wants to build a wall separating America from Mexico because the Mexican cartels exist only because Americans have an insatiable appetite for cocaine. And he says the America - America's colors should be red, white, and blow.

MCKAY: (Laughter) I think Owen wrote that line. I love that line. Absolutely, and by the way, kind of a valid point. So it was amazing. That thing caught fire. I think it got like 20, 25 million views on Facebook and a couple million on our site. And it just - yeah, it was very cool. And we specifically had Mr. Lopez do it in Spanish, too, which I thought was very cool.

GROSS: It's subtitled on Funny or Die.

MCKAY: I have a really funny other sketch I did but it's in Mandarin. Do you think you could play that?


GROSS: Sure. What - you're kidding, though. Do you really have a Mandarin sketch?

MCKAY: Well, actually, they translated "The Landlord" at one point into about 20 different languages. So there really is a Mandarin subtitled "Landlord" that's out there. But, no, I have not recently written a Mandarin sketch.

GROSS: How do you think your sense of humor has changed over the years?

MCKAY: I definitely think through the years - I probably started more in my teenage, early 20s as just a fan of absurdist comedy. You know, I grew up on "Monty Python" and Steve Martin. I definitely think as I've gotten older I've just taken more of an interest in a lot of things in the world, so that leaks into my comedy more. But I still think at root I love comedy that has a prank quality to it, a comedy that messes with audiences and upends expectations or you think it's one thing and it's another thing. I'll always love that. Like, I'm 47 years old, and I swear if they didn't have caller ID I would still be doing crank phone calls.

GROSS: Did you do crank phone calls as a kid?

MCKAY: Oh, my god, constantly. Oh, yeah. For pretty much...

GROSS: What was your thing?

MCKAY: (Laughter) Pretty much age 15 through college - we had one we would do in college where we would just - everyone was constantly getting pizza, you know, in the dorm rooms. So you'd get a call and it'd be like, hey, it's, you know, whatever pizza place - Tony's Pizza - giving you your pre-call, be in the lobby in two minutes with your pizza. You take the elevator down. You get your pizza. You pay the guy. You go back up. So we would just sit around because they had a student guide, and so it was people's names. So you would call them and go, hey, is this, you know, Ben Leviton (ph)? And they would go, yeah. And I'd go, it's your pre-call. Your pizza's coming. And they'd go, I didn't order a pizza. And we'd just go, look, I don't have time for you smart-asses, you know. Just come and get your pizza. I'm telling you, I didn't order a pizza. And we'd just go like, look, I am so sick of you spoiled kids messing around with me. I'm down here with your pizza. And then, eventually, we'd talk them into a fight and it'd be like, I'll fight you right now. And then my friend and I would run downstairs and go sit in the TV room. And we'd watch these four or five jacked-up guys come out of the elevator pacing back and forth, flexing their muscles ready for a fight. And we did that dozens of times. And we'd tell people that they're, you know, they were having a hot tub delivered to their dorm room. Or we'd call them up and tell them that I was an exchange student, that I'm at the bus. 'Cause you could see it in the student guide they were a Spanish major. And it's like, hello, I'm Manuel. I'm at the bus station. I'm in from Nicaragua. They'd be like, what are you talking about? I'm supposed to stay with you. You're a Spanish major. And we were idiots. We were full-on idiots. But, oh my god, would we laugh.

GROSS: Did you ever feel the least bit of guilt for doing this?

MCKAY: No. None whatsoever. They were all...

GROSS: Why not? Why not?

MCKAY: 'Cause the guys - you had to know - I mean, I went to Penn State for one year and then I transferred to Temple University. And there's a lot of guys at Penn State who are very jacked up and like to think of themselves as like wannabe football players and frat guys. And the idea of stirring up a bunch of those guys to come down into the lobby ready to fight. And then the hot tub one was harmless. No one ever did anything. We'd just call them and the person would be like, what, there's a hot tub? And, you know, same with the exchange student. It would all just kind of go away. So we weren't taking anyone's money. We weren't putting anyone in danger. We were just kind of giving them a chaotic hard time, which I think is good. I think that's healthy on some level, as long as there's not serious emotional distress.

GROSS: Now I know early in your career, when you were at Second City in Chicago...

MCKAY: You - I'm sorry to interrupt you. I'm going to totally interrupt you.


MCKAY: You realize now, I am definitely going to crank phone call you at one point in the next six months?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCKAY: It's going to happen.

GROSS: What are you going to do? What are you going to...

MCKAY: I'm not going to tell you what I'm going to do, but I swear to you, I promise in the next six months you are getting a crank phone call. You're going to forget, too. You're going to think, oh, he's just kidding around.

GROSS: Are you threatening me?

MCKAY: It is not a threat. It's a playful warning.

GROSS: OK. If you do that, we're going to talk afterwards.

MCKAY: OK, all right.

GROSS: All right? OK.

MCKAY: It's coming.

GROSS: OK, OK. So one more question - has making "The Big Short," about the financial collapse of 2008 and Wall Street's role in that, has that changed your relationship with your stockbroker?

MCKAY: (Laughter) My financial advisor loved the movie. He really loved. I have a cousin who is in private equities, too, and I had a little conversation with him before I saw it. I just go, you know, this movie is not targeting bankers. Banking is good. We actually need banking. But banking that overreaches or banking that has corruption is not good and can do a lot of destruction. And right now banking just has way too much power. So we really went out of our way with the movie never to point the finger at any one individual. We really believe it's a systemic issue. So, so far all the banking and finance people in my life have really enjoyed the movie. But, who knows, I could be talking to you in two months from now and I'll have a black eye after someone's punched me, so we'll see.

GROSS: I was thinking you could talk to your financial analyst or manager or whatever their title is on a higher level than you ever could before.

MCKAY: Oh, well, actually that's funny. I mean, as far as talking to my financial advisor, I have annoyed the crap out of him several times. I have gone and talked to these real people, these geniuses, and they've told me things. And I go back to my guy and I just go, Matt, you're never going to believe it. There's a, you know, there's a bubble in this and we have to short this. And always it's the same thing. He takes a two-second pause and he just goes, relax. God bless him. He's got the patience of Job. But - and thank god he doesn't always listen to me.

GROSS: Adam McKay, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much. And I wish you a happy holidays and a wonderful 2016.

MCKAY: Terry, always a pleasure. Happy holidays to you, as well, and much love to my hometown of Philadelphia.

GROSS: Adam McKay wrote and directed the new film "The Big Short." And while we're on the subject of movies, I want to let you know that tomorrow our film critic David Edelstein will talk with us about his 10 Best list. And our TV critic David Bianculli will be here with his top 10 and a look at some of the trends that are transforming television. After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review the new album that's a sequel to the album critic Robert Cristgau called the greatest folk album of the rock era. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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