Danny McBride has a habit of creating ultra crappy men for himself to play. Men who possess an unwavering belief in themselves, even when said belief is unwarranted. Through them, we’ve seen the embodiment of toxic masculinity and a sense of entitlement, presented in a way that seems as though it is aimed at lampooning them. But with The Righteous Gemstones (which premieres this Sunday at 10pm ET on HBO) and Jesse Gemstone (a megachurch pastor profiting mightily off of peoples’ faith), McBride has found a bigger target (and story) and one that feels like such an intrinsic fit for these times: power and hypocrisy.
We met with McBride in New York earlier this week to discuss those targets, the scale of this story, and why religion isn’t something he’s looking to attack. We also discussed his penchant for lingering near the third rail when it comes to comedy in the nuance-free age of outrage and a world where the President can pressure a film studio to shelve a film.
What was it about mega-churches and corrupt preachers that made you want to base this story in that world?
I feel like a lot of the stories we tell are always about complicated protagonists who have a lot of qualities and things on the surface that might turn the average person off. So just this idea of a pastor who flies around on private jets and has this immense wealth from ministering the word… they instantly felt like characters that were right for the sort of universes we explore.
You got a nice bit of free advertising from that Kenneth Copeland private plane thing a couple of months ago.
What’s crazy is that I wrote the pilot two years ago and had that joke in there about the family having three planes before I had read anything about that minister. Then, once we started seeing that, I was like, this is crazy that people will think we stole this from that, but this was from my own imagination and this is a reality.
What kind of research did you do? Did you go to mega-churches?
I went to a few different mega-churches and talked to a few different pastors there and my aunt is a minister at a pretty big church in Atlanta. So yeah, I did try to research it and figure out what goes on in someone’s head when they’re creating something like this. What are the expectations of it and how do you do it? How do you grow something like this? What’s the trajectory?
This is obviously something where, if you look at it on a surface level, it could be conceived as, “Oh, they’re taking a shot at religion.” Right now, we’re seeing things like what happened with The Hunt where… we’re not really great at nuance right now. Does that concern you going into something like this?
Look, when you spend all your time on something, you hope that people respond to it and you hope that people don’t take things the wrong way. But I’m no stranger to that. I’ve definitely made stuff that people have misinterpreted or missed the point [of] or whatever. So, I think it’s just part of the perils of being an artist in today’s time when controversy is so appealing to news headlines and people almost relish in the takedown factor. I know all I can do is basically just do what I think is right. For me, it was never about — with this show — trying to insult people for what they believe in. And I’m coming from an honest place about that because my family is… I grew up going to church, my aunt’s a minister. I’m not trying to make something that paints them as idiots or anything. I don’t believe that. So I wouldn’t try to portray that. I feel like, a lot of times when Hollywood has taken on stories about religion, I find it kind of hard to watch because the filmmakers are acting like they’re so holier than thou and criticizing people for what they believe in. I find it distasteful. I don’t find it interesting. And so, you know, I’m always trying to challenge myself as a writer, so, I figured this would be a very interesting thing to try and pull off. How can you tell a story in this world and be respectful of people’s beliefs but be honest and brutal about what you’re talking about?
Like you said, obviously, with Eastbound and Down, you have people who on the surface are going to think that that was something taking a shot at people from the South. Obviously, that wasn’t your intent. You talk about the challenge of that. Is that part of it: relishing the opportunity to toe that line? It’s a little daring, obviously. Especially in this climate.
Yeah, we’re never trying to intentionally offend people. That’s definitely not our point. But I think our sensibilities are… I tend to get laughs at stuff that’s closer to the third rail than it should be. I think it’s the same reason why people ride a fucking rollercoaster or why you watch horror movies. There’s something about being close, like, “Ooh, you can’t do that,” that I kinda find funny. But I feel like what we really try to do more times than not is, I think, between Jody [Hill], David [Gordon Green] and myself, we’re constantly trying to push each other’s sensibilities and then still remain true to our sensibilities. So, for us, it’s almost more about trying to tell a story of, “Can you get a laugh here?” And then a minute later, “[can we] get a heartfelt emotion here?” So I think we’re constantly trying to play to varying effects of how well we can pull that kind of stuff off.
Seeing the way that things have changed though, with social media and everything, especially going back to when Eastbound launched to where it is now… and then you see what happened last week with The Hunt and Blumhouse, who you’ve worked with…
I went to college with Craig Zobel, the director, too.
There you go. Does that scare you when you see something like that happen? When you’re trying to go close to that third rail? Again, that it could be misinterpreted?
You know, I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know what it is, ultimately, [or] why they’re not showing it. I don’t know. I think that for anyone to be disappointed in the way that the world is and to think that destroying art or going after art is a way to sort of even the playing field, I think that that’s dangerous. But I’ve never seen the movie. I don’t even know what the movie is about and so I don’t really have an opinion on whether they should have or shouldn’t have…
More a general question about, like you were saying, basically just about art.
Yeah, I feel like art’s here to help and I think that there’s so much of it out there that it’s very easy to just tune out of what you don’t want to see. I mean, I hardly watch fucking anything that’s on TV. It’s very easy to not do that. [Laughs]
It sounds like this show is something you want to do for a while. Not necessarily the two years and out plan with Vice Principals.
We definitely wanted to tell a bigger story this time. Even the sense that this is more of an ensemble than the other shows were. I had a blast working with Walton Goggins on Vice Principals and some of my favorite parts of that show were when we were able to explore Walton’s character. It really made me want to dig into a show where we could do more of that and create more characters and follow them independently of me. I just thought that it would make the show bigger and more interesting, ultimately, for me to watch at the end of the day, because I don’t really like to just watch me in things. And so, yeah, I tried to bite off a story that was much bigger. If we’re able to do what I want to do with this, this would be a show that would go on for a few seasons, definitely longer than Eastbound. In my brain, all that this first one has done is just set the table for who these characters are.
Neal and Kenny and this character… to me, Jesse Gemstone might be the least redeemable. He might be the worst of the bunch. Is that fair to say?
Yeah. He intentionally tries to kill someone in the opening. [Laughs] All of the other characters that we’ve done from Kenny to Neal, it’s like, those are all guys who are living in a very relatable world and they believe that their place in this small world is much bigger than it really is. With Jesse, he’s someone that is living in a gigantic world. He is on a world stage and I think it makes his indiscretions a little bit less forgivable because he has so much. But even that is what’s interesting to me about exploring with him. What Jesse’s problem is is that he was born into this dynasty and if he just keeps his mouth shut and goes along with it, he’ll always be rich and want for nothing. But ultimately he’s not cut out for what this world is, and he’s not being honest with himself about who he is and what his path is.
I’m guessing that’s part of the appeal? To explore something a little bit new, and a little bit bigger in terms of just the scale of the story.
Yeah, to me, the scale had to be there 100% because, once again, if we’re not making fun of people who are religious, then these guys have to be legit. They have to be good at what they do to justify why people would come and pay money and see them every Sunday. So, for us, their wealth, where they live, the show they put on, it had to be big. It had to be massive and it had to feel legitimate because if it felt anything less, I think, then the whole world’s a joke, and there is nothing that’s grounded about it.
Well, that’s all I’ve got. It’s a really fascinating show. I think people like justice and so the notion of seeing an injustice happen and seeing someone maybe get tripped up by that, I think there’s definitely something… it’s a good feeling.
Yeah, and I think if you’re religious, you feel that too. The Bible talks about false prophets and I think someone who’s religious doesn’t like the idea of a minister flying around on private planes and with expensive sneakers. Even from the pastors I’ve talked to… look, people might not be too happy with the language we use in this or the nudity or the drug use. But I think, ultimately, they’re not the butt of the joke, and I think the people that we are kinda pwning is someone that they, I think, themselves would think is right to pwn.
I used the word pwn twice. How about that? [Laughs]
‘The Righteous Gemstones’ premieres Sunday, August 18 on HBO at 10pm ET