Danny McBride has described The Righteous Gemstones as the latest entry in his “misunderstood angry-man trilogy” after Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, but the second season of his HBO series about a dysfunctional family of televangelists is as much about regret as it is about rage.
In 2019, the series introduced patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) and children Jesse (McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam DeVine), presenting myriad obstacles to their faith and fame. Over the nine-episode second season, McBride and his collaborators — including longtime creative partners Jody Hill and David Gordon Green — look backward, uncovering the secrets the Gemstones have hidden from each other and the lies they’ve told themselves. The questions of how Eli’s history of violence paved his road to megachurch success and whether any of the power-hungry Gemstone heirs are actually fit to lead guide the narrative in a dramatic direction, while the series’ abundant male nudity, florid vulgarity, and petty infighting between characters maintain its comedic atmosphere.
“Rules of genre, I just feel like they’re there to be broken,” says McBride, who created, executive-produces, writes for, and co-stars in The Righteous Gemstones. With season two in the books and writing for the series’s upcoming third season already underway, McBride recently discussed the way his series addresses Christianity and the American Dream, the messiness of calculating a “puke trajectory,” and what cinematic genre Jesse Gemstone cannot get behind.
Note: Spoilers ahead for the season-two finale of The Righteous Gemstones.
You’ve talked before about the formulaic nature of “edgy comedy” and the blurry line between comedy and drama. I’m wondering what you think of those genre binaries, and if they inform how you’re creating this show.
You know, I never think about the genre. I feel like it’s a label that people put on things, but I don’t sit down and think, This is a comedy, and now I have to follow these rules, because this is what comedies do. I just work from, What’s a story that is going to interest me? And then I feel like, Why limit yourself to the traditional tools of a genre? Why not use all the tools of any genre as long as you can make them work?
When we first sold Eastbound & Down, HBO wanted us to look for a cinematographer; part of the notes were like, “We need to find a cinematographer that can shoot comedy.” To us, what that meant was to not make it look as good; they don’t want it to be moody, they want it to be bright. I feel like that was a note that you got around that time from a lot of studios, too — that comedy needed to be shot a certain way in order to make it a comedy. We’ve just always wanted to do it our own way. Why not invest in the show, or the soundtrack, or the production design if it all ultimately makes the world more interesting? You never want to be put into a lane and start a story where there’s already certain expected limitations that are set upon you. I feel like the biggest limitation that you have to accept and deal with is financial when you come to tell a story. Making creative decisions around that, that’s another issue. But I definitely feel like it’s a good thing to push any of the sort of preconceived ideas of what a genre should be.
What was your initial idea for this season when you started writing? And what changed as a result of the COVID shutdown?
I did a pretty drastic rewrite on the script during COVID. We were two days into shooting before COVID shut us down. All we shot in the first two days was a scene that never made it into the season because the plotline changed. It was Eli and Junior in Memphis, driving down Beale Street. We shot that, and then the next day, we shut down. We had been working on that script and finished the whole season, and it was totally fine. But then after, I was just sitting at home, and I opened the scripts up and started looking at it again. Certain things became more clear of what I wanted to do, and I pulled out whole entire plot lines and characters and everything, and rejiggered it all through COVID. Some of the ideas will be stuff that we’ll end up probably putting into the third season.
It was just one of those things where we were given more time, so I took advantage of it and just got in there and tried to do what I could. But the rewrite wasn’t trying to tackle themes or something because of what was happening in the world. It was more just my inability to put my pen down. I was going to use as much time as I had to try to make it as good as I could make it.
Can you break down the writing of an episode for me? For Eastbound, you’ve talked about “writing one really long screenplay” instead of one episode at a time. I know Vice Principals was conceived as a movie and then broken into two seasons of a show. What are the mechanics behind Gemstones?
Writing it is very, very difficult. I have a really, really small [writers’] room, just because it all needs to feel cohesive. Even though we do go wild — tonally, the show can shift from episode to episode, depending on which director’s in there — there has to be a cohesiveness to the story that’s being built. So yeah, I break down the story like I would a screenplay, but over the entire season. Then I’ll kind of break up my writers on each episode, and then I’ll just jump from episode to episode with them. And we rewrite the hell out of it, because what will happen is, you’ll say, The beats of Jesse’s story, this happens in this episode, then this, then this, and then you start putting it down and you realize, You know what? Those things we spread over four episodes need to happen in one episode. So take all those beats, let’s put them into here, let’s give that real estate now to Judy. You’re constantly just writing, and there is no delineation of what is going to be in which episode. You’re just constantly pumping out this material and then constantly rewriting and moving things around, and then the more you write, you can start to see more themes emerge. It’s one of those deals where we never finish a script and then turn it in and it’s done. We usually have every script open up until we’re shooting it.
When I spoke with Edi Patterson, she described finding the improv moments in filming — smoking in the bathroom stall and kicking the door in “As to How They Might Destroy Him.” When you’re looking back on those improv moments, how do you make the choice of what to run with and keep?
Before Edi came in, I imagined that she was being a bad girl in high school and in the stall, smoking. I pitched it to her to see if she liked that, and she dug it. I love collaborating with her. A lot of the same stuff makes us laugh. Even that moment of the kick when she walked away, I pitched her, “What if you karate kick this door?” It was fun. I guess that’s part of it — it’s not a show where like, This is what you have to say, and because I pitched this thing, you have to do this. I’ll pitch things to Edi or Tim [Baltz] or [Adam] DeVine and man, they can do it if they want to, or they don’t have to. I like trusting the comedic sensibilities of people and just making that part of the experience. I feel like that’s what makes this show unique: when you give them range to do what they want to do, to do what’s funny. And then at the end of the day, it’s my job just to make sure that it’s all cohesive, and it all still works.
That’s what I love about making television in general. I have no musical ability, so I’ve never been in a band, but I do feel like this is probably the closest I would come to feeling that. You hire people because they play the drums, or he’s playing bass, and you don’t want the lead singer telling everyone how to do it. You want everyone to come and make something that could not be made without them. As an art form, that’s what’s so exciting to me about it. When I look back at the different seasons of shows we’ve made, it’s with specific different people, and everyone brought their own vibe to it and it was a moment in time. We wouldn’t be able to go back and remake any of it. So many decisions were in the spur of the moment, or an inspiration that someone might have thought of because of the movie they happened to watch in the hotel room the night before. That’s what I like about it more than anything — just the ability to work with other people and collaborate.
Gemstones feels like a very generous show in that way. It’s difficult to label anybody a scene-stealer because everybody is stealing scenes all the time. I’m curious about how you maintain that as a writer and director.
I remember when I would watch studio comedies in the ’90s, there was this formula where there was only allowed to be one funny person in the movie. Or a lot of the comedy would center around one comedian who was really, really fucking funny, but then it’s just a bunch of people kind of standing around — either straight men to that comedian, or just sort of paper targets. I love when it’s not that. I’ve always gravitated toward ensemble comedies because I like picking who I think is funny, as a viewer. I don’t want to be told, This is the one person you’re laughing at.
When I was a kid, I devoured The Goonies; it was like my favorite movie of all time. It was hard to pick a character that I liked more than others because I liked them all. That made the movie feel layered, it made it feel fun, it made it feel rich. So with this show, that’s what I want to do as well. I want there to be discussions about which character people like the most. I feel like that means it’s working, because everyone’s been given ample real estate to establish themselves and to flex their comedic chops. People can choose what they like the most about it.
When we made Eastbound, that whole show just centered around Kenny Powers. I was in almost every single scene for that show except for a handful. So I think whether you liked that show or not was determined on whether you liked me as a comedian or not, which I think can limit what the audience is. Everyone gets tickled in different ways, and so I feel like embracing an ensemble and embracing these different performances and their different comedic sensibilities, it just allows for more people to show up and watch.
The Lissons meet their downfall in season finale “I Will Tell of All Your Deeds.” Was there ever a possibility of them stretching as characters into the third season?
You know, I didn’t want to. We used a lot of cliffhangers in the season, which I feel is fair. To get people excited to come back, that’s fair. But there’s always been something for me about cliffhangers at the end of a season that I’ve never really loved as an audience member. I’m so invested, and I want to see what the fuck’s gonna happen, and now I’ve got to wait a year. Who knows if I’ll still be invested in a year after I’ve seen a bunch of other stuff. With this show, I like the idea that every season is its own story with its own set of villains and side characters, and giving the people a full experience so that when it’s done, it’s done.
Maybe it goes back to when we were on Eastbound. We never knew whether we were really going to get picked up again or not. We didn’t know when we shot the pilot if we were going to shoot a season, and so we’ve always had this mindset of, Well, let’s make it feel like it’s complete in case the ending of this is not in our control. It’d be sad to kind of invest time into The Righteous Gemstones, then if it didn’t get picked up and we left this on a cliffhanger, and somehow it feels incomplete to future audiences, so they don’t give it a shot. I feel like there’s something cool about giving people closure; if they’re going to tune in for nine weeks to watch something, to give them an ending to it. It also challenges us as writers to make each season stand on its own, to set up a story and set up themes that are not coasting off of what happened last time but are having to invent themselves and be engaging enough to warrant more of the story being told.
Do you have a grand ending in mind?
I definitely have an idea of where it all goes, and that can be challenged as we bite off more of this story. One of the things that I like about the interlude episodes is that they fill in some of the blanks about what’s happening in this story, but they’re also together working to tell another story, which is: How did the Gemstones get here? What you’re seeing as time moves on from interlude to interlude is the choices that were made and the steps that were taken to end up in the position of where our characters are when we meet them at the beginning of the series.
I like that idea of telling a story in two different timelines, and that also just taps into religion. So much of religion is just generation upon generation passing down the rules to the next generation of how you’re supposed to do it and what you’re supposed to think. For us, it kind of made sense to tell a generational story in which decisions back in the day affect things in the present and affect people’s mindsets and what they think.
The second season emphasizes that the Gemstones do genuinely believe in their faith. Each of the Gemstone children gets a moment of prayer when Eli is attacked. How much does the series’s depiction of belief come from a place of sincerity?
I grew up going to church. I grew up in a pretty religious household, and I’ve seen people in my family that religion has worked for and has changed their lives and made things better, and I’ve seen people in my family where it didn’t work for them. Religion is such a personal thing. Who am I to say what somebody should believe in, or what gets them through tough times? It seems sort of obnoxious to think that. So for me, I was more interested in the fact that they do believe, and so why are they behaving this way? If the Gemstones didn’t believe, I feel like it’s a less interesting show. Then they’re just conmen.
We kind of played around a little with that when we sold Eastbound. We were just making Kenny Powers into a big buffoon — he was a joke, and our initial pitch was that he played in the majors and sucked, and that was that. Then there was one day when I started trying to crack the first season, where I started to be like, What if he was good? What if the story is really about someone who squandered their abilities, as opposed to someone who has never been good? Then it suddenly made Kenny Powers a little more interesting, because he was more tragic. He could have chosen another path and he didn’t; he fell prey to his ego. So I feel like making the Gemstones earnest in their belief makes the story more compelling. It makes it a little more layered.
The finale has this cross-cut montage where the Gemstones are in church performing their version of “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” and Eli is putting out this hit on the Lissons. The whole sequence reminded me of the end of The Godfather: a beautiful religious moment about family coupled with this tremendous act of violence. Was Francis Ford Coppola an inspiration?
Yeah, for sure. When we set this show up, part of my pitch was that I wanted to tell a Mafia story, but it was in this world of this megachurch. I do like the idea that the Gemstones are a form of organized crime in some kind of crazy way. That’s definitely a nod to one of the greatest Mafia stories told, for sure.
There are some other standout scenes this season that I’m hoping you can give me some context on: the group vomit scene and the Miami Vice-style motorcycle chase with Skyler Gisondo’s Gideon in “And Infants Shall Rule Over Them,” and the toilet-baby scene in the finale.
I read interviews at the beginning of the season where you alluded to the toilet-baby scene and said we weren’t ready for it, and even though it’s now aired, I still don’t know if we’re ready for it.
I don’t know either. I’ll start with the toilet baby, because it’s one of my favorites. When we wrote that, it was making us laugh, and [co-executive producer and writer] John Carcieri, he’s the one who came up with the idea for that. When I read it, it was making me laugh my ass off, but it was like, Certainly we can’t do this. This is too fucking gross. But then the more we started talking about it, we started just both selfishly saying, “We want to watch Walton do this, so we have to keep it in.” [Laughs.]
That’s the beauty of Walton Goggins: He’s so incredibly funny, but also, he’s so incredibly good and so earnest that it did become, Let’s see what he does with this. I do think that he wrings genuine emotion out of something so absurd as that scene. When you see the look in his eyes, it moves me. It does. That’s part of what’s been fun about the show as a writer: putting these really talented comedic actors into situations because you just want to see what they’re going to do with it, how they’ll make a meal out of it. And that was definitely one of those big swings.
Gideon on the motorcycles, I don’t know. Maybe it was fulfilling us growing up in the ’80s, watching Cinemax and Cannon Films and these B-movie bad guys. And even the fact that it turns out that they’re all teenagers from an orphanage, it’s like these kids have watched these fucking movies and they’re emulating that. It felt like we could get away with it if it was rooted in that. I just feel like Gideon is such an interesting character. The idea that his background is stunts, it just felt like, Well, it would be kind of cool if this thing that his dad admonishes him for actually is useful. It’s silly and crazy, but we had never done a motorcycle chase before, so we wanted to push ourselves.
You know, the vomit scene was just one of those deals where it’s so sad and heavy to think about Eli dying, and these kids have already experienced — [Pauses.] These kids. These grown people! We always call them “the kids,” but they’re all, like, in their 40s. Even when we write in the script, we’re like, “The children enter,” but you’re like, Who are the children? Oh, Jesse, Kelvin, Judy, and Amber. [Laughs.] But it was just a way of undercutting it, trying to make a real moment and then just go completely absurd with it.
For all of the things we’ve pulled off, that was weirdly a total nightmare shooting that. It should have been so easy, but the rigs that they had set up for all of us, none of them were working. The puke trajectory was going too far off, so we were literally there for probably four and a half, five hours, just retching and doing all this fake vomiting. It was so disgusting. And of course by the end of the night of filming, we just started projectile vomiting on each other so we could kind of force David to move on from the scene.
There were so many father-son storylines this season. There’s always been Eli and Jesse, and Jesse and Gideon, but then you also have Glendon and Junior, you have Uncle Baby Billy and Harmon, you have Eric André’s Lyle Lisson and his father, played by John Amos. You talked earlier about generational storytelling. Was the question here whether children always get messed up by their parents?
It was. The Bible is probably one of the biggest father-son stories ever, the New Testament. I think that’s intrinsic to the story we were telling this season. It’s all about purpose and where you find that purpose. Some people look to father figures. If you’re a man, traditionally you’re supposed to look to your “old man” for guidance. The idea of blindly doing that can lead you down a dark path. I’m a dad. I have two kids, a son and a daughter. It just makes me think about what stuff I want to pass onto them, and how I don’t want to ever hinder them or hinder their growth. What I’ve discovered or what I’ve thought about might not work for them. So I feel like that is a little bit of what we’re exploring: all these different choices these characters are making, what they want to pass on, what they don’t want to pass on, what they feel like they should do, what they don’t feel like they should do. We have all these ideas of what life is supposed to be like, and most of those ideas come from the people that came before us, whether it’s your parents or an influential teacher or the Bible.
Can you talk about the casting of Macaulay Culkin as Harmon, and Amos as the Lisson patriarch? Both of them are such established pop-culture figures, and I’m curious how they got brought into the Gemstones universe.
That’s the beauty of the first season already being out. I don’t even know if Macaulay had seen the first season or not, but it was an idea that we had come up with. We didn’t cast him until probably about a month before we shot him. We were really like, When you see this person for the first time, is it good for it to be someone who’s famous, or would it be better for it to be someone who’s unknown? When Macaulay got floated, there was just something where all of us — [Sighs.] It would be perfect. I can’t even put into words why it makes so much sense, but it just works on a lot of levels.
We just called him up, and luckily for us, he was down. He is just one of those people who, if you were a kid in the ’90s, you grew up with that kid. It was amazing on set to see him, and to see that he’s turned out cool and that he’s got a family. There was something really special about him being there, and you felt that with the whole crew — everybody was excited that he was there.
The same for John Amos. We were trying to play around with who should be Lyle’s dad, who has that gravitas. I wanted you to imagine that there could be another story about the Lissons that’s equal to what the Gemstones story is, and that we just didn’t get to see it. Having someone like John Amos — someone who has a history, and he’s recognizable and he’s good and he could carry a show on his own as well — I felt like it made that world feel like it was more lived-in. You were getting a peek into, Oh God, what’s The Righteous Lissons? What was that like? I wanted it to feel like if Jesse had a little less love for his father, it’s the path that they could have taken.
So much of the series’s humor just comes from how Jesse and the rest of the family say things. How do you craft your line deliveries? I’ve been laughing about the season finale’s “Hi, hello, would you all please come with me? I just killed someone” for weeks.
It’s just the natural thing that makes me laugh: improper grammar, just stumbling words out. That’s one of the things I like about living in Charleston, South Carolina, and as a writer — I just like listening to the way people talk for real. There’s a natural cadence and clumsiness to speaking, and sometimes writers in a writers’ room can be too eloquent, and they can make things seem too clever. That’s just one of the things that we do in our dialogue: wording things improperly or making these characters talk like the way people talk. It’s not always the perfect zinger, or it might be the little metaphor that doesn’t totally align. I feel like some of it is just sort of fumbling through it, and making it feel like, Wait, what the fuck did he just say? What was that? It’s a very specific thing that for David and Jody and I; it’s always sort of made us laugh. Sometimes it will be written and sometimes it won’t, and we’ll just sort of improv it or stumble through it to make it sound a little more odd.
Everybody asked you this when the season premiered, so I’m going to ask you, too: Have you watched Succession yet?
I haven’t watched it yet. [Laughs.]
I ask this because The Righteous Gemstones, Yellowstone, and Succession are all analyzing the American Dream through the disconnect between generations. Where do you think The Righteous Gemstones fits into that conversation of American stories?
I wrote this back in 2017, so Succession wasn’t even on. I remember when I did it, and then I saw the ad for Succession, I was like, Oh, that shit looks just like what we’re doing with Gemstones! [Laughs.] I think we use some of the same paint, but I don’t think the house looks the same when it’s done.
For us, my inspiration was riffing on these hourlong dramas that would be on TV when I was a kid, like Dynasty and Dallas and Falcon Crest. I wanted to make an ensemble, and the idea of a family ensemble just felt like it was right. But maybe it is that thing where there are so many questions about the perils of capitalism and where it’s gotten us, so the idea of exploring generational wealth feels like it’s a way to tackle something that people are curious about right now. I do feel like the Gemstones started out in the right place, and then somewhere along the way, the hunger for growth and the hunger for more and more superseded what their own moral compass is.
Are the Gemstones heroes, or are they villains?
I think that all of us are capable of being heroes and villains. When I wrote the pilot of the show, my initial take on it was that there was a small-time pastor — that was who I was going to play — that was being blackmailed by a bigger church that wanted to scoop up and gobble up his church, and he was going to have to go up against them. I wrote a few drafts of this, and I didn’t know how to write the preacher. He felt so boring to me, and it wasn’t something that I wanted to play. Then as I was looking at it one day, I was like, Man, who’s interesting is the fucking family that would blackmail a minister to take his church. Then I shifted gears and threw out that character, and then that character kind of became Johnny Seasons [Dermot Mulroney] in the first season, and then I focused on the Gemstones.
I think the inspiration for the series as it is now definitely came from exploring the villain in the traditional story. It just felt more rich to me, and the show kind of came alive. Imagine someone who is of faith who would try to take someone else out in order to have what they have. It feels like it goes against everything they believe, but what would they have to think? That was the rationale that started to motivate a lot of the Gemstones’s choices.
I have three final questions. One, do you have a favorite Ken Burns documentary, because Jesse brings up Ken Burns in the episode “For He Is a Liar and the Father of Lies”?
Two, something that Edi Patterson and I had talked about was how graceful you are on this show: the layback hanging off the golf cart, the dance moves. Can we get you in Magic Mike 3 to reunite with Channing Tatum?
I could be the DJ!
And three, is there anything you can share about the third season of Gemstones? I know you mentioned you’re using some elements from the initial season-two draft. What can we look forward to?
Let’s start with the second one. Yes, I’m definitely interested in being in Magic Mike 3. Give Channing a call, see what he’s up to. We’ve shared screen time together before, so maybe it’ll be the reunion everyone’s waiting for.
We’ve already started writing the third season. We’ve been writing since the end of last year, so we’re writing that now. And wait, what was the other question?
Do you have a favorite Ken Burns documentary?
Oh, a favorite Ken Burns doc! I’ve liked a lot of his stuff. The Country Music doc, I thought that was awesome. I definitely dug that. I grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, so you were forced to watch the Ken Burns Civil War doc, always, in school. I was exposed to a lot of that.
What would Jesse’s favorite be? Does Jesse watch documentaries?
Jesse doesn’t fuck with documentaries. He has no interest in seeing what the truth is.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.