In the book Poking a Dead Frog, Adam McKay talks about the types of characters he and Will Ferrell have been most often drawn to over the last 20 years: “They have no skills whatsoever, yet they’re completely entitled. Will and I are endlessly fascinated by this cockiness; it’s all just completely unearned. It’s not connected to any reality whatsoever. It’s free-floating. They’re not getting anywhere. They’re stuck and impotent. I find this to be one of the most fascinating things about America right now.”
It makes sense then why the comedy duo was immediately drawn to Fred Simmons, the overconfident Tae Kwon Do instructor played by Danny McBride in 2006’s Foot Fist Way, a self-made movie by college friends and film majors McBride, Jody Hill, and Ben Best.
McKay and Ferrell wanted to help the trio get their next project into production, and three years later the world met Kenny Powers, the brash relief pitcher turned gym teacher who was the central focus of Eastbound & Down.
February marked the ten-year anniversary of Eastbound’s debut, and while Powers was certainly a version of that unearned, Ferrell-esque American bravado, they found an unexpected better half to Powers. Many actors auditioned for the role of Stevie Janowski, a fellow teacher who becomes enamored with Powers in the pilot episode, but they also weren’t sure what to make of the character quite yet, and nobody who came in had inspired them enough to move forward. Then Steve Little, a former main company member at the Groundlings whose most extensive television work at that point had been as a voice on the Cartoon Network’s Camp Lazlo, came in and defined the character in a big way. Little’s presence was so key that Stevie would turn into much more than the small, two-scene role the pilot afforded him. He grew into something that would become as vital to the success of Eastbound as Powers would be.
“It was just those two scenes,” says Little, who figured that if they knew Stevie was going to be this important to the show, he would have had to audition a third time. “Then when we shot the pilot and Danny said, ‘You’re our secret weapon.’” In fact, Little says that Hill told him that they actually forgot to put a wedding ring on him in the pilot and that Stevie was supposed to have been married. “If they had made that choice, then everything would have changed. They had some story lines, like I was going to be in a Christian rock band, but it turned out differently.”
McBride once referred to Stevie as “a filthy, disgusting Don Knotts.” Seeing the pair play off of each other for four seasons — with the benefit of being on HBO, where Stevie can say things like “My dick’s all pruney from being up in that sweet punnany,” and give us moments like him shooting off his prosthetic chin or having Ferrell play a car-dealership owner-slash-racist plantation owner who sexually assaults Stevie while he’s dressed as a geisha — made Eastbound a unique addition to TV history. It’s been five years since the series finale, and Eastbound still projects an air of confidence in the bold choices it made; it feels as dangerous a comedy today as it was from 2009–2013. To mark the anniversary, we asked Little to walk us through his five favorite episodes of Eastbound & Down and the memories that came with doing pretty much any insane thing that was asked of him.
“Chapter 6” (Season 1, Episode 6)
In its simplest terms, the premise for Eastbound and its pilot episode would seem clear: An overly abrasive and vulgar former World Series hero washes out of Major League Baseball and must go back to his hometown to take a job as a P.E. teacher. But over the course of its first season, and culminating in the finale with a cliffhanger of an ending, it became clear that Eastbound was anything but predictable. “This show is a show about a guy who is teaching high school, but then it just becomes not that at all,” says Little. By the end of season one, Little’s character Stevie, a fellow teacher at the school, is revealed to be a guy who would do anything to be Kenny’s friend, including quitting his job to join him on his journey back to the big leagues — which Kenny reneges on, leaving Stevie jobless. Still, this does not deter Stevie from showing his allegiance by running through the school hallways tripping fire alarms to draw everyone into the parking lot.
“I remember reading the script and it said, ‘Stevie runs down the hallway setting off the fire alarms, reminiscent of Jules and Jim running through the Louvre,’” says Little, referring to the 1962 Truffaut film. “I’d never seen Jules and Jim, but I do remember feeling when I was reading it that they want something iconic. That was inspiring to read. I love that scene of running through the hallways.”
“Chapter 8” (Season 2, Episode 2)
If you didn’t realize how critical to the series Stevie was by the end of season one, it was immediately apparent in season two: Powers has moved to Mexico, but Stevie has tracked him down and become further obsessed with him. That includes having sex with a prostitute who Kenny also had sex with just to know what it was like, a moment that gave Little considerable anxiety while shooting because it was his first-ever sex scene. “It was nerve-racking to see how that would go,” says Little. “I don’t know what the acting approach is when you’re pretending to have doggy-style sex with a prostitute.”
After Kenny shoots Stevie in the leg because he mistakes him for a burglar — somehow maybe not the worst thing that Kenny has ever done to him — they spend most of the episode together. Stevie one-liners like “I didn’t know you hoes took credit cards until recently” and “You can see straight into the butthole and right into the pussy” stand out. Little notes that he’s often asked by people about how much is improvised. “It’s a mix,” he confirms. “I think that first one, ‘I didn’t know you hoes took credit cards,’ I think that Jody told me to say that. Then I think it might have been Jody or me who suggested the ‘butthole’ line.” He adds that the show would still be great with just the scripts themselves, but improv helped elevate it even more — especially considering the fact that he was improvising with the person who made the show. “I think that’s a key of improv maybe, to have the creator be in the scene.”
“Chapter 15” (Season 3, Episode 2)
McBride, Hill, and Best could not have known this when they were making the series because they had never planned on having a season four, but “Chapter 15” ends up serving as a wonderful midpoint to the 29-episode Eastbound. In a show famous for its moments of harmonious insanity, this episode ends with Kenny and Stevie, who is dressed as a geisha, running from cannonballs being fired by Will Ferrell’s Ashley Schaeffer at an 1800s-style plantation while Korean car salesmen watch in horror and drink Fanta. Schaeffer is attempting to murder Kenny and Stevie, and he’s already killed one person to show he’s serious. But the person who played that murder victim was in fact not an actor and apparently wasn’t afraid to tell Ferrell to slow down.
“In one of the early scenes, there’s two guys at the Kia dealership, Joey [Brinkley] and Jeff Seibenick, who was the editor, and they’re teasing me as I’m waxing the tires,” says Little. Seibenick was one of Eastbound’s lead editors and had been given a role, but had just quit smoking, which added to his nerves, says Little — so they switched and gave his lines to Brinkley, who was the husband of David Gordon Green’s nanny. “He was a real southern dude, shooting guns and stuff. David liked Joey so much that he put him in the scene with all the Korean car salesman.” Little says that despite his lack of experience, Brinkley was pretty bold on set. “Joey a couple times told Will Ferrell to wait and not step on his lines. So you’ve got this guy who has never acted before, he has no lines then has some lines, the next day he’s acting with Will Ferrell. And then at brunch the next day, Danny and David decided that he needs to die from the cannonball to raise the stakes for Stevie and Kenny. A nonactor. You would think that anybody would let Will Ferrell go and do your thing, but Joey wasn’t like that.” (In a deleted scene, you can see Brinkley tell a story about duck hunting to Ferrell and the Korean car salesmen at dinner.)
“Chapter 20” (Season 3, Episode 7)
Building toward the end of season three, tensions are heightened when Stevie’s wife, Maria, leaves him after he cheats on her, which prompts him to go to the extreme length of shaving off all the hair on his head as a way to punish himself. But Hill was considering an even bigger conclusion to that scene. “From what I remember, Jody asked if I’d do a nude scene where they wanted me to come out after shaving my head,” says Little, “and I’m completely naked and completely shaved and I make myself a drink or something. Jody wanted me to say ‘What’s going on?’ to Kenny and then vomit on my dick. And then Kenny Powers says, ‘Nothing, just watching you vomit on your dick.’ But I didn’t do that.”
In “Chapter 20,” Stevie decides to wear a wig and fake eyebrows while attempting to win back Maria, but the wig is ripped off of his head and he freaks out, a moment inspired by the cult classic Canadian kids’ movie The Peanut Butter Solution, says Little. “I remember shooting that scene, and we were worried about the light and trying to go fast and just putting marshmallow goo on my head to make sure that it registers on camera. Looking back, it’s just such an absurd moment: that we have to make sure there’s enough marshmallow on this man’s head, that the audience knows why this man’s screaming. And why did Stevie use so much wig glue anyway?”
“Chapter 29” (Season 4, Episode 8)
As far as series finales go, Eastbound & Down did what it was always best at: showing fantastical, heightened versions of TV, which in this case meant borrowing from the Six Feet Under method of flash-forwarding ahead to its characters’ lives. Kenny and April get married and have two kids; the kids grow up and are portrayed by Lindsay Lohan and Alexander Skarsgård. April is shot in the chest and murdered by muggers; Kenny shoots them both dead. Kenny rides a hoverbike into an African village, where he marries a woman and has a bunch of kids and then dies of a heart attack. An older, futuristic Stevie, alongside Lohan and Skarsgård, go there for his Viking funeral. But the show found a way to have its fun while staying grounded in reality, revealing that Kenny is just writing the ending to his screenplay..
“I picked this episode because it’s so insane and such a bold leap,” Little says. “I auditioned for this part where there’s two scenes on the show, and here I am five years later and I’m wearing this space outfit, with those LeVar Burton glasses across my eyes, with Lindsay Lohan and Alexander Skarsgård. Just looking at that journey, it’s really kind of insane.”