Only a few months separated Adam McKay from his graduation at Temple, but it was time to leave.
“I was an idiot,” the “Anchorman 2” director recalled at a recent roundtable interview in Philadelphia. “I was 22 and I said, ‘To hell with it.’”
McKay dropped out from the university a semester-and-a-half before he was set to earn his bachelor’s, instead settling with what he calls an “imaginary degree.” After packing up his belongings, McKay set off to Chicago for a chance at a career in standup comedy. McKay, who attended Penn State for his first year of college, said he still thinks back fondly of his time at Temple.
“I liked Penn State, I did a comedy radio show out there, but I was dying to get into a city,” McKay said. “I wanted to do standup comedy and I wanted the life of a city, so Temple was perfect for me.”
Although he still makes the occasional visit to Philadelphia – his cheesesteak of choice is Tony Luke’s – McKay has not returned to the university since dropping out. He has, however, been told of the changes the school has experienced during the past two decades.
“When I was there, it was a warzone,” McKay said. “Our campus bar was a strip club, I’m not kidding. I remember having a beer with a professor once and it was like a strip club. There was a topless lady standing there with soap operas playing, and they had pictures of all the Temple teams around us. That’s how rough that campus was. It was dangerous.”
The environment at Happy Valley was much more stale, however.
“You don’t meet anyone at Penn State,” McKay said. “It was just all people that look like you, but wearing Penn State sweaters.”
Having grown up in nearby Malvern, Pa., McKay embraced living in Philadelphia. Majoring in English, he gained inspiration from writers like John Dos Passos and William Faulkner.
The video store up the street from where he lived introduced him to new directors, like Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini, whose works were not available in his hometown.
“It was the perfect school for me,” McKay said. “It was also great, I left and had no massive student debt – like $2,500, that was it. It was so cheap back then. I loved it. I learned that you can get the education you want out of anywhere. At Temple, you could blow it off and just get C’s and still get your degree. But if you go and really work it, there were good enough professors there that I got a quality education out of it.”
McKay performed standup throughout his tenure at Temple, attending – and at first bombing – open mics at the Comedy Factory and Comedy Works, the latter of which is still in operation at a new location in Bristol, Pa.
“By the end, I got OK,” McKay said. “I could do 15 minutes and be respectable.”
McKay said learning the principles of standup comedy was “everything” in terms of developing his writing skills, and his beginnings of bombing open mics were not wasted. McKay has garnered enormous success during his time in Hollywood, as his films have grossed nearly $700 million worldwide. After meeting Will Ferrell during his time as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” McKay went on to write and direct “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” “The Other Guys” and “Step Brothers.”
His most recent production, “Anchorman 2,” premieres in theaters on Dec. 18. Despite the star-studded lineup of the first film, McKay was able to secure the actors for a sequel that comes nearly a decade after the world was introduced to newsman Ron Burgandy in the first movie.
“Adam McKay has such a fertile mind,” Steve Carell, who plays Brick Tamland in the “Anchorman” films, said in a recent teleconference. “He sits at the monitor in his little tent with a microphone and just throws ideas out. And, you know, you can pick and choose. You don’t have to say what he’s giving you. But invariably you want to because everything that he says is kind of golden.”
Avery Maehrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer.