Adam McKay grew up loving professional basketball. But even as the NBA began to explode in popularity in the 1980s and ’90s, McKay watched in horror as stunningly promising players like Len Bias died in tragic and utterly preventable ways. His new podcast, Death at the Wing, tries to make sense of what happened — and lays much of the blame on Reaganomics, drugs, and political opportunism on the part of Democrats and Republicans alike.
McKay’s sense of humor somehow still shines through even as he lays out a grim but persuasive picture of the 1980s as a time of incredible opportunity — and a mean obsession with success.
Greed was good, economics were trickle-down, and the official position on drugs was Just Say No. Talking about feelings was ridiculed as weak. Athletes getting their first taste of success succumbed to pressure, addiction, and worse.
Especially Black athletes who were scapegoated, stereotyped, and barraged with hypocritical demands.
McKay grew up rooting for the Boston Celtics, later found himself drawn to the Philadelphia 76ers, and is now making a show about the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers. But he doesn’t root for a specific team anymore, but rather for the game itself. In politics, he barely has a team, because he believes the entire game is rigged.
“I guess I identify more as a Democratic socialist. But even that I’m not doctrinaire about. I would say actually I’m a moderate European liberal,” he says, laughing.
You can listen to Death at the Wing as a basketball story about politics or a political story about basketball, but it’s mostly a story about soaring and suffering human beings, filled with constant surprises, unexpected laughter, and anguish mixed with an astonishing capacity for love.
“I didn’t make this show to convince anyone of anything,” McKay says. “And it’s the beauty of podcasts that you can do this. We entered the podcast with the question intact: Why did this happen? And with every interview we did, with every bit of research, we’ve been finding our answers to that question.”
Besides Death at the Wing, our topics in the full podcast conversation include the upcoming season of HBO’s Succession, which McKay executive produces; the bipartisan love for his comedies Anchorman and Step Brothers, and his upcoming Netflix film Don’t Look Up, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Hudson, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, and a barrage of other A-listers.
Tim Molloy, MovieMaker: It’s interesting to me that you’re focused on Reagan now and that you focused on Dick Cheney with Vice — which is an amazing movie — when everyone else in Hollywood has been so focused on Trump. And you seem to be really engaging with Republican politicians on policy, rather than on saying, “You’re racist and sexist.” Why have you decided to go and look at actual specific policies?
Adam McKay: That’s really where all the change lives. There’s nothing that makes the powerful billionaires or CEOs or those that now control our government happier than when we paint ourselves red and blue and fight amongst each other. Because the whole time, they’re just stealing us blind. And they love it. When people are racist, they love it. When people are upset about race, they love it — when we’re talking about anything except them hijacking trillions of dollars from working people in America.
Also, I really feel like the whole story of the Republican Revolution isn’t really told. We sort of act like it didn’t happen, or it’s just Ronald Reagan. And it’s an amazing story. And if you’re a Republican, you should be applauding it, because it worked like a charm. There’s some great books that have been written about it, like Invisible Hands by Kim Phillips-Fein and Dark Money by Jane Mayer, who’s in the [Death at the Wing] podcast. But I feel like that’s the story of what happened to America in the last 40 years. And we need to understand it in order to make decisions about it.
MM: I like what you said about how much they love when we paint ourselves red and blue. And I also read that Don’t Look Up is largely going to be — please correct me if I’m wrong — about navigating Twitter and navigating the world today, where it seems like as soon as you state an opinion on anything, people try to put you into one box or the other, and then paint you as extremely as possible, and disregard everything you’re saying.
Adam McKay: In fairness to people, we’re dealing with an explosion of media — social media interconnectedness — that I don’t think any of us ever could have imagined. It’s creating new types of communities. It’s creating new types of exchanges that have never existed in the history of Homo sapiens ever. So we we definitely are confused. We’re definitely angry. This happens to coincide in the U.S. with a time where your average citizen has never had less power than right now. So it makes sense that the little bit of power we do have, which is to yell our opinions on social media, to get angry and outraged, would go down like that. So I understand why people fall into it.
The really insidious part is when you add in giant corporations like Facebook that use algorithms to harness that outrage and frustration for profit. Then you really start to get into a dangerous zone.
I think it’s important to look at it all like just an old-fashioned scam that you would see out of the movie Drugstore Cowboy, where your friend pretends to have a seizure in the front of the store. And while people take care of them, you rip off the back of the store.
That’s really become our culture for the last 40 years — it’s distraction, misinformation, exaggeration, outrage, and all of it is in service of: We are being ripped off. Wages have been flat for 40 years, services have been cut, the rich have gotten preposterous — you know, hundred-billionaires now exist. I say this as someone who is overpaid here in Hollywood, but the level of wealth we see at the top 1% is incomprehensible.
I try and look at it like it’s an amazing story. There’s that book by Kurt Andersen… literally called Evil Geniuses. It’s a great book, if anyone gets a chance to read it. … A lot of powerful people, a lot of think tanks, a lot of different marketing firms, PR firms, changed the American narrative. … It lives in that incredibly complex media sphere, that polarized media sphere of a world where everyone’s trying to use everything as an opportunity rather than a problem to be solved.
MM: There’s such a resistance from people on the right to people on the left quote-unquote preaching to them or shoving ideas down their throats. We just saw it with the Oscars, where people were really mad, even though that wasn’t a very political ceremony. How do you as a creator, and also a funny creator, get the other side to listen?
Adam McKay: I don’t know if there’s really anything I’m going to do or say that’s going to convince, say, someone that believes in QAnon, or someone that believes that universal health care means you’re a Marxist. … That’s someone who’s had their brain so scrambled by a lot of really high-priced persuasion propaganda that there’s nothing really you can say to it. So I think, you know, I’ve tried a lot of different things. I’ve done big comedies, I’ve done stuff that’s more dramatic like Vice, I’ve done stuff that’s kind of funny and a little more dramatic, like The Big Short, and I think I just, really in the last couple of years, have had to just reconcile myself to just doing my tiny little part, to chronicle it, to try and have a sense of humor about it to provide some perspective. … The right wing has become so extreme in this country that I’m not sure there’s any magic sentence or magic movie or magic song that’s going to make a difference.
MM: Is it possible that producing anything that has a lesson or advice to impart is actually making it worse, because they dig in more?
Adam McKay: I mean, I not only think that’s possible, I think that’s true. I think that the worst thing you can do is to talk down, the worst thing you can do is to lecture. … And believe me, I’ve had times where I’ve done it, there’s no no doubt about it, out of total frustration. I’ve argued with people on social media. I’ve tried to just straight-up chronicle what’s happened and I won’t mince words about the right wing in this country. It’s a dangerous political body. I mean, it’s a white nationalist, extremist organization, the only political party in the entire world that denies climate change.
But when you talk about individual people that are a part of it, I don’t believe the individual people are abjectly evil or foolish. I think a lot of it’s a byproduct of the broken political system with soaring income inequality, very little opportunity for for 90% of the country, 80% of the country. So this is the kind of stuff that happens when you have a broken system like that. But yeah, to chastise to lecture, we know that doesn’t work. It makes it worse.
MM: I’ve been really moved by Death at the Wing. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I was especially affected by a conversation between the brother of someone who’s been shot and the person who shot him. And the direction that it goes in is just such a incredibly human moment, and a beautiful human moment about forgiveness, that I didn’t expect to come up in the middle of a podcast about the NBA. And shame on me. That was stupid to me.
Adam McKay: No, it wasn’t, because I have the same reaction you did. I did not expect that to come up. And I was very moved by it, and you can maybe even hear it in the interview. I think everyone listening to it at that moment got very choked up. It was really a beautiful, beautiful, surprising moment. … And it was a really, really touching, beautiful, surprising moment amidst a dark tragedy, and the whole experience has been like that.
To get to talk to Jerry West, one of the greatest players in history, one of the toughest, nastiest competitors in history, and hear him be so vulnerable about his mental health issues while we talk about a young player, Ricky Berry, who unfortunately took his own life — that was also an amazing thing for me. I mean, this guy’s a stone-cold killer, a dagger thrower on the court. And to hear him really be vulnerable and open was just incredibly moving for me and inspiring.
MM: How do you like making podcasts versus making movies? Do you find it a lot easier? Or is it harder because you can’t use images?
Adam McKay: Oh, God, it’s definitely not easier. It’s just as much work. … We always joke when it comes to making movies, it’s easier to make a big $50 million studio movie than it is to make a $2 million indie film. Making a $2 million indie film is about the hardest thing you can do. When you make the $50 million movie, you’ve got a budget, so you don’t have to sweat as much, even though you would think the bigger movie would be more difficult. And I would say that’s true of this podcast as well.
MM: Obviously, last year was not a great year for movies, because there were no movie theaters for much of the time, among other reasons. Are you worried about movies?
Adam McKay: Not at all. I think the best indication was that while it was being offered free on streaming, or if you had a subscription on streaming, Godzilla vs. Kong still made nearly $50 million on its opening weekend, during a pandemic.
I have seen this conversation so many times in my life. I’ve seen it with cable TV, I’ve seen it with VHS, DVDs, I’ve seen it with the pandemic, I’ve seen it with the right-left divide in our country.
You know, of course the right wing hates Hollywood: We have unions or guilds. We have a trade surplus, we’re actually a successful us industry that employs a lot of people. But no, I’m really not worried human beings like to get together and laugh in groups be scared in groups and be thrilled in groups.
Now, does that mean that movies aren’t going to change? No, of course not. They are going to change, you’re going to see probably more of the IMAX theaters, they’ll probably start adding the seats that rumble, you’ll start seeing a more sensory experience. At some point, 15 years from now, it’ll probably become 360-degree holograms. Does the nature of that experience change? Of course it does. But I’m really truly not worried movies aren’t going anywhere.