The psychology of human delusions with filmmaker Adam McKay (Transcript)

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Re:Thinking with Adam Grant
The psychology of human delusions with filmmaker Adam McKay (Transcript)
November 8, 2022

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking: my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guest today is Adam McKay: director, producer, and screenwriter extraordinaire. I started out as a fan of his comedy. He was the head writer on Saturday Night Live and made Anchorman and Talladega Nights with Will Ferrell. He expanded his range into action with Ant-Man and drama with The Big Short, and was nominated for Academy Awards for Vice and Don't Look Up, which, in my book, was the best movie of 2021.

If that wasn’t enough, Adam’s executive producer credits include my guilty pleasure, Succession, and my wife's obsession, Drunk History. He has a new documentary coming out, God Forbid, and a new podcast, Bedtime Stories.


[00:01:00] Adam McKay:
Hello, Adam.

[00:01:01] Adam Grant:

[00:01:02] Adam McKay:
It is indeed. How are you, sir?

[00:01:04] Adam Grant:
Good, how are you?

[00:01:05] Adam McKay:
Good. You lived in Philly, Adam?

[00:01:07] Adam Grant:
I do live in Philly, in fact.

[00:01:09] Adam McKay:
I used to do the horse garage tours around in the Independence Hall.

[00:01:14] Adam Grant:
Are you serious?

[00:01:15] Adam McKay:
Yeah, yeah.

[00:01:16] Adam Grant:
Wait, I could have, if I had a time machine, I could go to Independence Hall and get a horse carriage tour from Adam McKay?

[00:01:24] Adam McKay:
Yeah, and my friend Rick Roman, we used to make up things on the tour and try and slip them in, and people didn't notice.

My friend Rick would always say, “To your right is the Ben Franklin home, which was used as a beacon for ancient extraterrestrials, and over to your left is…”, and he got so good he could slip them all in.

[00:01:44] Adam Grant:
Wow. Was this your origin story for improv comedy or what?

[00:01:47] Adam McKay:
A little bit. Rick was really funny. He was a comic, and we certainly goofed around on that job a lot. But no, Chicago was the, that was the key to the improv thing ‘cause once you go there, you're chest deep in improv, which I was.

[00:02:05] Adam Grant:
Well, I eagerly await the day when you do a parody of National Treasure. I feel like you could do a killer tour of the city improv style.

[00:02:15] Adam McKay:
I still remember most of it. I probably could.

[00:02:19] Adam Grant:
All right. Maybe. Maybe that'll be a bedtime story to come. I'll be listening. I'm just gonna throw in a National Treasure Philadelphia and just, just go with it. Right?

[00:02:29] Adam McKay:
National Treasure of Philadelphia. [Laughter] There was one name they didn't sign on the Declaration of Independence. His name: The Devil.

[00:02:43] Adam Grant:
[Laughter] That’s amazing. We could just do this for the whole conversation.

[00:02:47] Adam McKay:
I like it.

[00:02:48] Adam Grant:
I will have Bedtime Stories questions for you, of course.

[00:02:50] Adam McKay:

[00:02:51] Adam Grant:
And definitely God Forbid questions. But most of my life is trying to figure out what makes people tick and how to bring out the best in them. And you have a, I guess, a history of profiling the worst in people.

I was reviewing your career and both on the comedy and drama side, I thought, okay, we've got a newsroom of inflated egos in Anchorman, a whole family of narcissists in Succession, an entire country of overconfidence in Don't Look Up. Why? Why are these people so awful in so many of your projects?

[00:03:27] Adam McKay:
I don't know if it's because of this media machine that we've created, which I think we downplay the fact that nothing like it has ever existed. That 40 years ago, there were just three channels, and now there's 8,000 channels, a billion internet channels, phones, like how fast it all happened.

And then when you think about the fact that the roots of profitizing all of this is sales, which necessarily involves a degree of delusion. I don't think it's any mistake or, or, or any accident that we do to some degree live in the age of the delusion economy. Pick your delusion, and you can make money around it, and there's other people that are into it.

So, it does seem like a lot of the big stories right now that are hitting us involve some degree of delusion. Now let me be very clear. Including myself. I’m not exempt from this. Probably when I leave the studio, we'll go cheat and have a cigarette in my car. When I see an advertisement for a new bizarre hybrid mutant Mexican food from Taco Bell, I'm gonna order it at least once, so I subscribe to a host of delusions as well.

But yeah, if you look at all the big stories that have really shaped this, this tumultuous modern era, I, I call it the, the bouncy castle full of hyenas and wine glasses that we currently live in. Seems like delusions drive a lot of it and sort of a slipping away from empirical reality.

[00:05:17] Adam Grant:
As a social scientist, that scares me on many levels. I'm curious about what you think is driving it. A lot of people talk about confirmation bias and they say, “Well, you know, people see what they expect to see.” I actually think what's worse is desirability bias, which is the, “I see what I want to see, and then I might throw in”—to just, you know, complete the cocktail—“A little bit of the, ‘I'm not biased-biased. Other people have biases, but I am objective and neutral and I see the world as it is, not as I want or expect it to be.’”

[00:05:49] Adam McKay:
I mean, the one thing I would say is a lot of the problems that we're confronting tend to be, whether it's income inequality, corruption, climate, on and on and on, they're usually expressed through sort of this mythical individual that's doing something wrong.

And I would just put this out there that there's a long history of military psyops and information warfare. It is an exact science. They use a lot of the same technologies in designing slot machines, and it's about engagement and stimuli. They do experiments on mice with it.

If you unleash this on a civilian population, it's gonna work and, and so I would say you can talk about, what is it, Dunning-Kruger. You can talk about recency bias, all that kind of stuff. But when you're getting blasted by 120, like how many sales pitches a day does the average American have to contend with? I mean, I don't think any country in the world that deals with more BS per minute than Americans, right? Whether it's your phone, TV, even secondhand conversations, billboards, popup ads, and it really has kind of created a, a culture where the lie tastes as good as the reality.

I think when you look back at this period, we are dealing with a level of information and emotional manipulation through mass media. The science of advertising going all the way back to Edward Bernays that is hard for us even to fathom.

[00:07:39] Adam Grant:
Wait a minute, did you just cite The Engineering of Consent?

[00:07:41] Adam McKay:
Well, I was citing Adam Curtis' -- the documentarian’s -- movie Century of Self, where he talks about Bernays, which then led me to go read up on Bernays.

But yeah, these, these psychological buttons are very easy to push. They're very well tested, and I think that's the story of what we're living through right now. It's also funny. It's very funny to see people operate under a delusion. Look at Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. He thinks he's rich. He thinks he's high class. He's not. It's endlessly hilarious. Look at Ron Burgundy. He thinks he's the most important man in San Diego. Maybe the world. He’s not.

[00:08:25] Adam Grant:
Well, this is part of what I thought was so brilliant about Don’t Look Up. It was hilarious on one level, but also it was tragic on another, and there were multiple scenes where I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. And I'd love to hear a little bit about how you managed to capture both of those things as you were writing and then making the film.

[00:08:47] Adam McKay:
That was how it felt to write it because you know, we're living in a world where, you know, the president gives a fist bump to a world leader who murdered a journalist and then goes in to sell him weapons, and that's supposedly the good guy president?

Like, the fact that he gave him a fist bump is funny, but then it's so dark underneath it, and that just goes on and on with the news. Like, when someone asks Donald Trump what he loves about the Bible, his answer is one of the funniest things I've ever heard in my entire life. Like if you are a comedy writer, writing it is… I like the whole thing really. I can't really name one specific part. I mean, it's the most incredible interview. But then you realize the guy's gonna try and take charge and have unmarked federal troops pull protestors into vans and take them away Pinochet-style. So with the movie, I was trying to combine that ridiculous, funny, farcical feeling that we have with being alive right now, while slowly being aware that we're drifting towards the edge of the waterfalls, which is empirically, scientifically speaking, where we're at right now.

And it was the hardest challenge I've ever encountered of any movie, anything I've written, TV show, anything I've ever done, tonally for my editor, myself, my composer. Like the idea of trying to capture the feeling of what it's like to be alive right now. Definitely the hardest thing I've ever worked on.

[00:10:34] Adam Grant:
Well, you did it masterfully and one of the things I was really curious about is: what effect is it having on people? Have you heard from people who watched it and said, “You know what, I realized that I've been in that trap”? Or is everybody pointing fingers at the other guy?

[00:10:51] Adam McKay:
You don't see a lot of protests in America much anymore. Most of the protesting tends to be going on over in Europe. I'm speaking very generally here. Obviously, there are plenty of exceptions to what I'm about to say, but in general, there's this belief of like, “Well, what can you do? What does it matter? I'm just one person.”

And I got that a lot with this movie. “Well, it's just a movie. What is it gonna do?” And then in a very tangible way, we saw there were protests all across France. People took to the streets for the Just Look Up protests. There's the group in the UK Just Stop Oil that has gotten very active.

Zelenskyy, before the invasion, was talking about Don't Look Up. Don't Look Up really caught on in Brazil, because they've been putting up with Bolsonaro who is the epitome of a Don't Look Up leader. So they loved it in Brazil, and it ended up being number one in 92 countries on Netflix, which for a comedy is unheard of. Comedies usually have a hard time traveling across borders. It's just a constant hashtag, referencing people putting their head in the sand, pretending something huge isn't coming down the pathway.

So ultimately, I would say it's still just a movie. Every movie, song, protest, civil disobedience book, whatever it is, is a small part of a larger movement. So don't get me wrong, I still recognize it is ultimately just a movie, but I, I have never experienced anything like the release of that film and the straight-up global response that it got. It was really, like, way larger than us and kind of inspiring to see.

[00:12:38] Adam Grant:
And you've seen it on a scale that I think is probably not visible to most of the audience, right? Because they're seeing it in their country typically.

[00:12:45] Adam McKay:
Oh, you know what? I missed my favorite part of the reaction, which are the climate activists and scientists who have felt ignored for decades had this outpouring of emotion about the film. George Monbiot from the UK who's an eloquent, climate journalist-activist wrote this beautiful piece about how he was in tears halfway through the movie, he's like, “This is my life. Since we’re reaching out, thank you. You showed what it's like. We feel like no one will listen.” So that was just on a more immediate level, maybe the most emotional aspect of the release. It was really incredible.

[00:13:28] Adam Grant:
Well, it speaks to something that I've been hearing for years from climate activists, which is the problem is that this is not a fun issue. It's not funny, it's too serious, and nobody wants to pay any attention to it. And you proved right that you can actually take something dire that most people want to ignore and make it hysterical while also still delivering a message.

[00:13:51] Adam McKay:
Yeah, I, I've never been a believer in that point that the subject is too difficult. If that were the case, all the comic books with the Fantastic Four and Galactus, people would just throw them on the ground. We're talking about a civilization-flattening event. We're talking about mass extinction. We’re talking about fire tornadoes. We're talking about derechos, landlocked hurricanes, hail the size of basketballs, like this is stuff that's already happening, and there is no way you won't get TV ratings off of that.

To me, the big problem is our mass media. And either because of a lack of institutional imagination that they simply can't figure out how to tell this story because it's so large, or more likely because of conflict of interest from fossil fuel money advertisers. Not to mention the way a lot of these people are captured in a scene of money, whether it's speaking, engagements, friends, and just a professional bias that no story can be this big. And the number one thing to being a journalist is never freak out over a story. It's probably a mix of all of that, but it's been disastrous.

I point the blame squarely on corporate mass media for wanting to create a space for their viewers that's pleasant so their advertising can work or they can get clicks, or whatever it is. It's really remarkable how poor the coverage is. Once I, I tapped into it and started following the numbers, it was jaw-dropping and you could do it any night. Turn on CNN, turn on network news. Flip by MSNBC, of course, Fox, and they won't mention it. Even during Hurricane Ian, only 6% of the time was climate change mentioned in connection with that. Very strange, slow-moving, oddly behaving, massive hurricane.

[00:15:57] Adam Grant:
It's ironic given the fact that the, in general, the media has a negativity bias, right? And it's like, “Oh, we can only talk about the small, horrible things that are happening, that are happening right now that you could personally escape if you watch my newscast.”

[00:16:13] Adam McKay:
I have a theory on it, and it is just a theory that, I mean, it's a fact that, you know, the broadcast news and a lot of the papers or news outlets are owned by media conglomerates. Microsoft and Disney and Elon Musk buying Twitter and on and on and on, and big money.

A private equity has rolled in it and taken over a lot of newspapers, folded them together. So we know big money, as a point of fact, owns a lot of these media outlets, and I think something we're gonna learn a lot more about in 2050, a hundred years, hopefully, is the way that power and money influences people in a myriad of unsaid ways that in a way money and power has its own gravitational pull. That even without it being said, just if you're putting together a broadcast news show, it's about who you hire. It's about the questions in the interview. There are all these millions of subtle ways to make sure that you have people on your staff who aren't gonna be pushing stories that, that risk transformation.

I think that's the number one rule of corporate media is “Do not, in any way, encourage transformation.” Protect the status quo at all points. Make fun of activists. Ignore them. Don't talk about problems that require transformation. Frame everything as inside policy, because if you started really saying the way things are—look at the sixties before they kind of learn these tricks, when they showed the civil rights protestors getting sprayed with hoses and attacked by dogs or the coffins coming home from Vietnam—people went into the streets immediately, and you will not see that on broadcast news now.

[00:18:02] Adam Grant:
I guess to build on your point a little bit, I was stunned to see in a massive empirical analysis of journalist coverage of climate change that climate deniers actually get more coverage than scientists.

[00:18:15] Adam McKay:
I mean, it's, it's insane. I mean, just think about that. It really would be like doing a story about a murderer and having a guy on the show who talks about the beneficial properties of lead entering someone's body. I mean, that's how crazy that is. But then you watch their commercials. And it's ads for Exxon and Shell, and it's car ads running on gas.

And by the way, there's whole, like, secondary, you know, tertiary economies around fossil fuels that are hard to even draw the links with. So all the money, all the political power, fossil fuels have defined the last 70, 80, 90 years of history, and they just have a really strong hold on our institutions of higher learning, on our halls of political power, the media. It’s a tremendous hold they have.

[00:19:09] Adam Grant:
I'm sure you've watched in horror as I have, the, the situation in Iran and the difficulty that people across the country are having in protesting, being killed, being jailed. And one of the things I've been thinking about is the role of comedy in facilitating peaceful protests.

So just a, a quick backstory. I was tremendously moved by a revolution in Serbia that overthrew the dictator Milošević when a friend of mine, Srđa Popović, had said, “Let's, let's use humor to create some dilemma actions that put the oppressors in a lose-lose situation.” So one of the things they did was they painted Milošević's face on a barrel.

They invite people in the center of the town square to start beating it with a stick, and the police show up, and everyone runs, and the police can't do nothing because that's gonna embarrass the dictator. So what do they do? They arrest the barrel.

[00:20:03] Adam McKay:

[00:20:04] Adam Grant:
And that just makes a laughing stock at the police. And all of a sudden, people realize, “You know what, these guys aren't so tough.” And it becomes a mobilizing force for more citizens to go out and protest. And I look at… Srđa does a lot of this kind of work now and, and trains activists to, to use humor as you know, as a weapon in peaceful protests. If we had your comedy skills in situations where people are being oppressed, you could come up with all sorts of clever ways to get people to, you know, take the wind out of the sails of the forces that seem insurmountable.

[00:20:36] Adam McKay:
So it, it's funny in mention that because we're in the middle of putting together, uh, a branch of our company, Hyperobject Industries, that's gonna be dedicated exactly to what you're talking about. You know, there's a lot of ways that you could mess with them that are harmless, but yet embarrassing. I mean, the Yes Men are two of my favorites. They've done a couple of different movies, and they do great pranks, and they have a move where you put out a press release from your enemy, and it would be great in Iran if they put out a press release from the government, uh, acquiescing to all the demands saying, “We've really thought about it. This country exists for the people. We've been too stubborn with our power, and we're gonna have a party on Saturday to celebrate the…” Like, and, what has to happen is your enemy then has to come out and deny a very reasonable, benign statement. They actually have to come out and say no to it. So that, that's a little tip that I stole from the Yes Men, but it's a good one.

You can get it published. You can make sure it goes through wire services. You can put it on social media. So that would be. I would throw out there. The other thing they could do is dress up as soldiers and do a flash mob, do a ridiculous, silly dance. That's not bad. You would take away some of the imposing kind of feeling around the soldiers.

[00:22:04] Adam Grant:
Oh, that's, um, that's almost a little bit like The Producers. Yeah, I'm picturing like a dance to Springtime for Hitler.

[00:22:13] Adam McKay:
Exactly. Do it to like Tainted Love or something and have like 20 people dressed as soldiers who look threatening in the beginning and then suddenly do an elaborate dance to, to uh, you know, Don’t You Want Me Baby or something like that. Some 80s new wave song.

Um, it's a good way to make them look ridiculous. Iran has already done a lot of the humor, the twisting, the turning. You know, there's those great Iranian filmmakers -- Like This Is Not a Movie is a tremendous movie. Great sense of humor that's all about what's going on there.

You know, A Separation is a master work, so there have been people in Iran doing very clever, creative things, but this thing seems to have really hit a boil, and, you know, it's a point sometimes you gotta hit in civilization where you're gonna get hit in the head with a rifle butt, where people do kind of have to put their lives at risk for against tyranny and malignant oppressors.


[00:23:22] Adam Grant:
I wanna ask you a little bit about your comedy career and then come back to the newer drama work. You've obviously had an extraordinary trajectory. I think about founding the Upright Citizens Brigade. I think about becoming Head Writer on SNL, where you recruited Tina Fey. I would love to hear a little bit about what that series of experiences taught you about humor that you didn't know instinctively.

[00:23:47] Adam McKay:
Yeah. I think the biggest lesson, because I started doing comedy at a little comedy radio station in college, and then I was doing standup comedy in the 80s when there was that standup comedy boom, and it really exploded. That's like what Seinfeld came out of and Jay Leno and on and on, like dozens of great comics.

And I remember doing standup when I was in college, and you know, I would get laughs, and I made a little bit of money. I wasn't great. It wasn't like a headliner, but I would MC occasionally middle. By the end, I did not like my act. And so when I went to Chicago to do long-form improvisation, that was where Del Close started saying, “No, no, you don't play down to the audience. You play up to them. They're way smarter than you think they are.”

And he kind of would tell us that. But then in classes, he would make you do it. He, he would say, “Is that the smartest thing you could come up with there? Is that the most creative choice?” And he kind of drills it in you. And then we started doing it and it worked.

And we were like, “Holy crap, he's right.” And you know, his point wasn't that everything must be erudite and dry. His point was: always be striving to make the most original creative choice. So even if you're playing an incredibly stupid character like Homer Simpson, well what's great about Homer Simpson is they write him in original, genius ways, even though he is stupid.

So that's what Del was saying, like always be pushing one step beyond and that kind of became the foundation of everything we did. And the other thing he always pushed was like, you know, even if it's silly, like your stuff's gonna play better if you aim for art and you miss, you're gonna end up with comedy.

But if you aim for comedy and you miss, you get junk. So, so he is like, always try and have something else you're going for. So even as silly as, like, Anchorman and Talladega Nights, we always had something else going on with those movies. Will and I would talk about it. We called it our secret behind the movie, and it really gave a lot of stakes, and it really gave a kind of energy to the stuff we’re, we're doing.

So that was a big change for me. It, it sort of introduced the idea of like, oh yeah, comedy has a history of being, you know, theater. Comedy has a history of standup comics really causing trouble and saying things that were hard for people to handle. He gave it the right dose of importance. It didn't make it overly important.

He just reminded you, like, you're here to do this. That right away sets you apart. You now have a responsibility to uphold what you're doing. And, and I, I like that he kind of put that responsibility on us.

[00:26:43] Adam Grant:
That is a good segue to a couple of things I wanted to ask you in a lightning round.

[00:26:47] Adam McKay:
I love it. Let's do it.

[00:26:49] Adam Grant:
All time favorite SNL sketch that you worked on?

[00:26:53] Adam McKay:
I would say a sketch called Wake Up and Smile. It was a morning show, the teleprompter breaks, and without the teleprompter, the hosts go from bantering and cheerful and slowly their language starts to break apart, and basically they go back to like the neolithic period. I just love it ‘cause it was unhinged and chaotic. My friend Dennis McNicholas wrote it with me and just really made me laugh. You want to see those sketches where you're like, “I can't believe this is on TV.” And that, that was the first one I ever got on SNL that was like that. So I, I just have a fondness for it.

[00:27:33] Adam Grant:
That sets up Anchorman very nicely, which is one of the few films that I'll just be randomly walking down the street and burst out laughing because I remembered a line from it. What do you think was the funniest line in Anchorman?

[00:27:47] Adam McKay:
Yeah, like I remember Ferrell and I would look at each other and be like, “We have professional equipment, we have a professional crew, and we're shooting the scene where Ron Burgundy tells Veronica Cornerstone that San Diego means a whale’s vagina.” And it just hit us in this moment, this is the most re—one of the most ridiculous scenes ever. How is it possible they've let us film this? And Ferrell and I couldn't stop laughing for like 20 minutes, so I'll treasure it always.

[00:28:20] Adam Grant:
I, I like to use clips from Anchorman to, to illustrate the psychology of a narcissist and an inflated ego. You couldn't have captured it more perfectly.

[00:28:30] Adam McKay:
He's somehow almost lovable. But yeah, king narcissist, no question.

[00:28:35] Adam Grant:
Okay. On that note, who do you think is the least unlikable character in Succession?

[00:28:41] Adam McKay:
Least, least likable?

[00:28:43] Adam Grant:
Least unlikable. Most tolerable.

[00:28:47] Adam McKay:
Oh, oh, okay. Um, alright, alright, alright.

[00:28:52] Adam Grant:
I have two hunches, but I'm not sure.

[00:28:54] Adam McKay:
I would say Gerri, or—

[00:28:59] Adam Grant:
Oh, Yeah, I can see that. She kind of sold her soul, but other than that…

[00:29:05] Adam McKay:
She kind of gets the game. She knows it's grimy. She's kind of skating through it, or I would say cousin Greg. Although it's funny, Greg, Greg has gotten less likable as it's gone on. First season, easily Greg, but now he's pretty gross, how much he sucks up to Tom.

[00:29:23] Adam Grant:
I was thinking you might go with Ken or Shiv because they almost seem redeemable as core members of the family.

[00:29:30] Adam McKay:
Oh, Shiv is nasty though. Ken, definitely. His soul is in the balance, and he has moments, but God, Oh, he is painful. I mean, that birthday party episode. I told Lorene Scafaria, who directed that, I had to like shower after that. That's the worst birthday party I've ever seen depicted in anything.

[00:29:53] Adam Grant:
[Laughter] I actually covered my eyes during part of it.

[00:29:55] Adam McKay:
Oh, it was brutal.

[00:29:56] Adam Grant:
With the exception of Ant-Man, what is your favorite Marvel character?

[00:29:59] Adam McKay:
The one I've said before, I would love to do a movie version of, but I think someone else is, or it's tied up in something else. I think a Silver Surfer movie could be visually the most spectacular movie ever, and his origin story pretty easily works as a stand-in for the climate emergency.

[00:30:24] Adam Grant:
Well, we, we will our breath. I'm ready. Adam, what's the worst advice you've ever gotten?

[00:30:31] Adam McKay:
It's all who you know. Not true. Let me say this over and over again. I hear people say it all the time. Not true. I knew no one when I started doing what I was doing. I knew no one that when I got into Saturday Night Live, no one. I auditioned cold for Second City. It allows people not to focus on doing the work. Unsharpening their skills. Trust me, these studios and networks want to make lots of money.

If you get really good at what you do and put it out there in any way, shape, or form, they will find you fast, especially these days. Maybe “it's all who you know” might have worked 50 years ago before the internet and all this stuff, but it's bad advice.

[00:31:26] Adam Grant:
Well, I think part of the, the reason that it's bad advice is that who you know depends on what you create and what skills you bring to the table, right? So your, your network is a function of, originally the comedy that you generated.

[00:31:39] Adam McKay:
It's, so, that's even a better way of saying it. If you are like, “Oh, I'm all about networking,” you're gonna hang out with a bunch of other actors, writers, directors, painters, whatever they are, or even psychologists, or whatever you're up for, and they're all gonna be into networking and who you know, and then all of a sudden who you know are a bunch of other people worried about who they know, and then boom, you've got the US federal government.

[00:32:09] Adam Grant:
Speaking of which, I watched your new documentary, God Forbid. Uh, that entire story could be powered by somebody's belief. Uh, this might be, uh, Giancarlo, at least a caricature of him, that it was all about who you know and that if he could only get in the good graces of Falwell, that great things might happen. What was it that drew you to that story, and what was your big takeaway from it?

[00:32:37] Adam McKay:
That's a really good point. The reason I really loved it is I thought it took a tremendous amount of courage for Giancarlo to tell that story because you see it just all over the place in today's world. These individuals, these companies just roll over people, and they just trust that you're not gonna have the guts to speak up. You're too embarrassed to speak up. They'll crush you if you speak up.

So, you know, this guy really got chewed up. He really stepped into a very dark, twisted upside-down world, and in the end, the Falwells were very confident that he was gonna keep his mouth shut and go away, and they really had that power over him. We live in kind of NDA nation. I'm convinced if you eliminated the NDA, this entire country would get its act together in about three months. There'd be a month of total chaos. And then we'd hear everything that the NDAs were keeping silent, and we’d, like, put our business in order. I love that Giancarlo did it.

I just love that he stepped out and told his story about this. We're all very familiar with gross hypocrisy from the powerful, whether it's the Falwells or whether it's people on Wall Street, in government, whether it's people in for-profit health. I mean, on and on and on. You can name Hollywood, you're gonna find individuals who do horrible things and act like nice people or do horrible things and cover it up.

So, it's a very American story. And then at the root of it, there really is a revelation about the interaction of the Falwells and Trump that that is kind of historical in nature, like worth writing down as far as how it affected Trump running for the presidency. And to remember usually the people telling you the loudest what you can and cannot do are the ones doing whatever they want.

[00:34:31] Adam Grant:
So true, and one of the questions it left me with that I, I cannot get outta my head, is the question of whether it's better if they believe their own lies or if they don’t. And in some ways, this is a question that, that runs through a lot of your work.

[00:34:49] Adam McKay:
Well, this goes back to the very beginning of our conversation, right where we were talking about pick your favorite delusion. Pick your favorite fantasy, and live in the economy of that fantasy because, you know, sometimes I play poker, and I'm not very good or anything, but you know, I play a fair amount, and I've learned that the way to bluff is to believe that you have the cards.

And so, I think if you really want to scam people, if you really wanna rip people off, if you really want to, like, use your power while subjugating other, you know, all that kind of stuff, it's always better to get yourself to to believe it to some degree.

Now, I think the Falwells are a little different. I think Jerry Falwell wanted to blow that up. I think anytime you talk about the son of the guy who's gonna go into that life, because he's the son of the guy, you could just see it in the way he carries himself the whole time. He just looks dead inside.

[00:35:51] Adam Grant:
You subscribe to the George Costanza theory of “it's not a lie if you believe it.”

[00:35:55] Adam McKay:
It's definitely still a lie if you believe it, but the lie works better if you believe. But it's still a lie. I mean, the oil companies did it right, with climate? They swept it under the carpet. They all went around going, “It's fine.” I think a lot of them started to believe it, and no, it was never fine. It was always a lie.

[00:36:16] Adam Grant:
Let's talk about Bedtime Stories. You have a new podcast. You are making things up on the fly, putting your improv skills to the test. What's the inspiration here and what impact are you hoping for?

[00:36:27] Adam McKay:
My daughters, Lily and Pearl, growing up, I used to tell them bedtime stories all the time, like a lot of parents do, and I really enjoyed it. Now my oldest daughter goes to UCLA. She's actually taking ancient Sumerian, the language, which I just can't get over. She's a very interesting person. My youngest daughter is now looking at colleges, so I don't do bedtime stories anymore.

The second thing that happened was in the last three or four years, with upside-down bouncy castle full of hyenas and wine glasses that the world became, I started having a hard time going to sleep. So I started listening to podcasts and books on tape, ‘cause I found it was just comforting to hear a voice. And I started coming into the studio a couple times a week and just improvising stories. And first couple times, you know, they were all right. And then I started to get my sea legs, and we started to have a lot of fun with it.

And then the idea was floated that “Let's bring in some guests.” And lo and behold, some really interesting people who raised their hands to come on the show. Like Sarah Silverman, Michaela Watkins, one of my favorite guests, John Lurie, who does the show Painting with John that we produce here at Hyperobject on HBO Max, which by the way, if you have not seen it, you must watch Painting with John. Incredible show.

There's something about telling stories that's like, really calming and relaxing. It's one of the great things with podcasts who you can try an idea like that. You don't have to build a studio and get $15 million for the pilot or whatever the amount is. My favorite stuff about podcasts are people having the conversations you're not gonna hear somewhere else. People doing the shows you'd never see on TV or in a movie. It's always my favorite stuff.

[00:38:20] Adam Grant:
I'm glad we get to bring your voice into the mix ‘cause I think it's so both thought-provoking and entertaining to listen to you and for most of your career, I've only been able to do that through other people delivering your words.

[00:38:32] Adam McKay:
It's very personal. There's a couple podcasts I listen to regularly, and it's just a different connection than turning on a talk show on television, which feels like far away because of the distance of the camera, plus the TV screen, whereas the sound is in the room with you the way it would be if someone was talking to you. So I've just always responded to that.

[00:38:54] Adam Grant:
Or better yet, it's even the voice in your head.

[00:38:56] Adam McKay:
Yeah. Yeah, it’s true.

[00:38:58] Adam Grant:
This has been great fun and also taught me a bunch of things I didn't know, which is always the goal, but also a bonus when it happens.

[00:39:06] Adam McKay:
Adam, absolute pleasure and uh, what an interesting conversation. Thank you so much for having me on.


[00:39:19] Adam Grant:
People often say that comedy is tragedy plus time, but sometimes we don't have time. And I think part of the power of Adam's work is he teaches us that if we can take the tragedy, and tilt it 30 degrees, and amplify the absurdity of it, that it becomes funny because it's so preposterous, and as we laugh, we can start to look at the issue that it represents with a more open mind.

I think that's what he did with Don't Look Up. He took the climate crisis, and he said, “All right, let's, let's put this in just an absurd context where people refuse to see an asteroid that literally is on a collision course with Earth,” and that's just gonna be outrageous enough that it doesn't quite feel real.

And yet, you can't watch that movie without thinking, “Wow, that is real. And we better not get to the point where we can look up and physically see the asteroid with our own eyes. We need to take action sooner.”


ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by Ted with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winick, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case, BanBan Cheng, and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact checker is Hana Matsudaira. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Layton Brown.

[00:40:53] Adam Grant:
I, I also get a, just a good laugh out of yogging.

[00:40:56] Adam McKay:
Love yogging. Ferrell improvised that.

[00:40:59] Adam Grant:
That was improvised?

[00:41:00] Adam McKay:
Yeah. Yeah. That joke wasn’t. I mean, the idea of, “I'm trying something new, it's called jogging.” but then Ferrell added, “It might be yogging, might be a soft j.” I mean, there's a lot of improv in that movie.

[00:41:11] Adam Grant:
I loved it. Apparently, you just run.

[00:41:14] Adam McKay:
It's supposed to be wild. Yeah.