Will Ferrell doesn’t mince words when describing Adam McKay, his longtime friend and comedy collaborator. “He’s kind of a dangerous individual,” Ferrell says. “He’s extremely funny; there’s no doubt about it. But he’s dangerous. I wouldn’t stay in a room with him, one on one, for any longer than I had to. There’s a criminal tendency there. We have a great working relationship because I don’t ask him much about his past. He just frightens me.” Ferrell is joking, obviously. But there was a time, years before McKay found Hollywood success directing and co-writing films such as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and The Other Guys (2010), when he might very well have been the most dangerous man in comedy.
The Pennsylvania native grew up idolizing mainstream comics like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld. While studying English at Temple University, he performed what he calls “family-friendly” stand-up in local bars and restaurants. But less than a year shy of graduation, he dropped out of school and moved to Chicago to study improvisation, and he soon became one of the most popular (and notorious) performers in the city’s vibrant comedy scene. With such pioneering groups as The Family and The Upright Citizens Brigade, he became infamous for interactive theatrics and elaborately staged pranks. During one show, he led an entire audience back to his apartment, where they witnessed a brutal (and entirely staged) murder from his bedroom window. During another show, he staged his own suicide.
Is it true that in the midnineties, while you were in the Chicago improv scene, you publicly improvised your own suicide?
Yes, that happened. I had an actor’s photo, a horrible eight-by-ten glossy, that I inserted into a poster. And the poster read: “On such-and-such-a-date, Adam McKay, 26, will kill himself. This is not a joke.” I put up the poster everywhere, and on the assigned location and date, there was a huge turnout. I went to the roof of a five-story building and yelled down to the crowd. We had a CPR dummy dressed exactly as I was dressed, and we threw it off the roof. Someone else was playing the character of the Grim Reaper, and he collected the dummy and hauled it away. Meanwhile, I ran downstairs and “came to life,” and we all ended up back in the theater where we finished the show.
Good luck not getting arrested in New York with that stunt.
[Laughs] It was the type of thing you could only get away with in Chicago. Anywhere else, I’d have immediately been hauled away. But it was also the perfect time. Nowadays with the Internet, people would just go, “Oh, it’s performance art” or “It’s a flash mob” or whatever. But it wasn’t commonplace back then. There weren’t as many hidden camera shows. Nowadays, this stuff is so common, you can’t truly surprise people.
There was just this freedom. There was just a freedom to try to get away with whatever you felt you could get away with. Del Close encouraged that.
So Del would actually encourage improv that took place on the streets, in front of unsuspecting people?
Oh my God, he loved it! You know, when I faked my own suicide, Del was on the street literally screaming, “Jump! Jump!” He had always thought our improv group was pretty good, but once we started doing these kind of stunts—we once even staged a fake street revolution, with audience members hitting the streets with lit torches and fake guns—an extra fondness came in. That’s when Del really started knowing our names and caring about what we were doing.
What did you take away from Del’s improv teaching that you later applied to writing and directing?
He had two key tenants: one was to always go to your third thought. Sounds really simple, but when you’re onstage, your first thought is knee-jerk. Your second thought is usually okay, but not great. Del would make you stay in a scene until you found your third thought, which was a little above and beyond what most other teachers would suggest. Basically, he wanted your third thought for your character choice, your third thought for your premise or your scene, your third thought for your heightened move.
Also, Del would make you do slow improv, and it was actually torturous. I don’t know if you know the book Thinking, Fast and Slow [2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux]. It relates a lot to comedy, and just the creative process. The author, Daniel Kahneman, is a psychologist who won the  Nobel Prize [in Economics]. His specialty is the psychology of decision making. The book is all about how we think: fast thinking and slow thinking. Fast thinking is what we do every day. It’s intuitive; it’s quick. Slow thinking is when you stop, shut out everything, really look into the foundations of the decisions you’re making, and then make changes. It’s extremely painful and uncomfortable. Kahneman performed all of these tests on slow thinking and found that the heart rate goes up; people begin to sweat. Especially in our fast-moving society, people hate it. But it’s the key to everything. The people who are more comfortable in slow thinking are more successful, have higher IQs, earn more money. They’re the innovators.
It was exactly what Del Close was doing. He was basically forcing us into slow thinking. Because of that, a lot of students were dropping out of Del’s classes. There were many people who didn’t enjoy working with him. There would be these other improv teachers who would create a sense of, “Everything’s cool, everything’s free and fun.” People would go to those classes, and those people never got any better. The ones who hung with Del, you could see tangible changes. He was not there to make you feel comfortable or put a big smile on your face or stroke your esteem. He wanted you to change the way you were thinking, and he wanted to help you achieve that change.
Another lesson was to always play to the top of your intelligence. If you treat the audience like poets and geniuses, that’s what they will become. Del never – ever – believed in playing down to the audience, in making cheap jokes. His feeling was, If you’re going to make a stupid joke, make it brilliantly stupid. Our group started doing it, and we were like, “Holy shit, this actually works!” Audiences are way smarter than people give them credit for. Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t do silly stuff. But when you play a kid, don’t play a dumb kid. When you play someone drunk, don’t play them overtly drunk. If you’re drunk, play the character as if he’s not acting overtly drunk.
Just very, very honest comedy. Improv is all about taking chances. You’re going to fail at first, maybe even fail the first few times. But you don’t have to be Oscar Wilde on every take. You can also be Frank Stallone on certain takes.
This interview is excerpted with permission from Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks, available for purchase right this very moment.