Together, Danny McBride and Jody Hill have made some of the funniest pieces of comedy in recent memory. They first met at North Carolina School Of The Arts, which they attended alongside dorm pal David Gordon Green. After moving to Los Angeles, the pair started working together on projects like off-kilter martial arts movie The Foot Fist Way, which paved the way for HBO’s Eastbound & Down, in which McBride played Kenny Motherfuckin’ Powers, a minor league pitcher with badass attitude to spare.
Now, the pair have reteamed, again alongside HBO, for Vice Principals. Premiering this weekend on the premium cable network, Vice Principals finds McBride starring as Neal Gamby, a discipline-centric vice principal who’s competing with Walton Goggins’ Lee Russell to be their school’s all-powerful principal. Along the way, the pair both square off against each other and face down bureaucracy together, a dichotomy that makes Vice Principals both hilarious and extremely weird.
The A.V. Club talked to McBride and Hill about Vice Principals, actual vice principals, and the unique way that the series was made.
The A.V. Club: Why vice principals? As in, why did you decide that vice principals were what you wanted to talk about?
Danny McBride: I don’t know. It’s like me and Jody have this thing where—even once we created Eastbound [& Down] people would be like, “Why did you make him a relief pitcher?” We didn’t even know anything about baseball. And I don’t know.
When the idea came, it was just an idea. That’s just what it was. It was just two vice principals. That was how the idea came out. It’s a power struggle between two guys. It’s set in a high school. I’m not sure where it came from. It was just always the idea.
Jody Hill: Every time we do something, somebody will be like, “So he could have been, like, a rock star?” I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s probably better.”
AVC: What’s the difference in your minds between vice principals and principals?
DM: If you know anything about the educational system, vice principals are more boots-on-the-ground. They deal with all the discipline and curriculum stuff. And being principal, it’s a cushy job. They get to travel around and be the face of the school.
The vice principal is the unsung hero. They’re the ones who don’t get the credit they deserve. You could probably remember the name of your principal from high school, but I doubt you could remember the name of your vice principal from your high school.
AVC: I remember that he was a dick. Or at least we all thought he was a dick.
DM: Yeah, see? That’s right.
AVC: You’re right, though. He was a dick, but we all thought the principal was at least charismatic.
DM: He might have just had other shit going on.
AVC: The vice principal wore a lot of short-sleeved button-downs.
JH: It’s a good look.
AVC: Do you think that Neal cares about his job? Like, I’ve seen a couple episodes of the show…
DM: He definitely does.
AVC: Does he care about the kids, or does he just care about advancing?
DM: I think he does [care about the kids]. In Neal’s heart he does think that he’s the best thing for the school. And that’s what’s tragic about him, that he aligns himself in a pact with somebody to get what he thinks is right but that’s going to make him do a lot of things and compromise himself in a lot of ways.
AVC: It’s not really clear what Russell’s motivation is, at least in the episodes you gave to press.
DM: Russell is power.
JH: He’s more political.
DM: Yeah, he’s more political. You get more of this in the other episodes to come, but he’s not the breadwinner in his house and he doesn’t have the respect he thinks he deserves. He thinks the job will fix the other problems in his life, and so he’s out for that.
AVC: Do we get to see how Neal got to where he is? How his marriage fell apart or how he came to be a vice principal?
DM: We don’t do flashbacks or anything, but we figure with any good epic, you come in with the story in full swing. What the 18 episodes allow us to do is open this world up. You might be introduced to the situation through Neal and Lee, but then you’ll get to also see Belinda Brown’s side of things and why she’s there and what she’s up against, and what kind of person she really is. It was a fun way to play with an audience so that they never know who you should be rooting for. From episode to episode what your thoughts are on each of these characters and who you want to win changes.
AVC: This show has a two-season order with HBO, and you’ve already shot both seasons. Is that it?
DM: It’s done, yep. We sold it as one story. So it’s two seasons: a fall term of nine episodes, and a spring term of nine episodes. This whole story takes place over one school year. So we spent all of 2014 writing all 18 episodes, and then went in to shoot a nine-hour movie, is what we did.
AVC: You only made two episodes available to press [as of earlier this year] and it’s incredibly intense. The action just escalates exponentially every five minutes. Does that continue over the course of the series?
DM: You’ll have to watch.
It goes to some very crazy places, and in some dark spots. But it’s a character piece, and it hits more dramatic territory than what I think people will expect. With having the actors like Kimberly [Hebert Gregory] and Walton, they just are so strong and it goes to some unexpected places.
AVC: The show seems like it’s at least partially inspired by frustration. These guys are frustrated by their jobs and their lives, and there’s some humor to that. What’s funny to you guys about frustration, and why is that a theme that you build on?
DM: That’s a good question. [To Jody.] Are we frustrated?
JH: I don’t think so.
DM: [Still to Jody.] But we think guys who are, are hilarious.
JH: You know, we wrote the original screenplay when we were young. God, that was 10 years ago, or something. Maybe at the time that was something we were channeling. But I don’t know, does that ever go away?
I always think of Kenny Powers [from Eastbound & Down] and these guys as dreamers, ultimately. Maybe they’re frustrated their dreams are… whatever, but I feel like they’re all trying to achieve something greater than themselves.
AVC: But could those guys ever be happy? Can Neal be happy? If he becomes principal, will that be enough for him?
DM: I think that he can. I don’t think he has some damning flaw in him that would keep him from being happy. He’s somebody who has dealt with a failed marriage, and he just has a lot of baggage he needs to work his way through. And weirdly, this pact he makes with Lee Russell strangely helps with that.
AVC: You guys have shot consistently in the South, and you’ve made a couple projects about the South. Why did you decide to set this in South Carolina, and why is it important to you to shoot stuff in the South?
JH: We grew up in the South. I don’t want to say that everything I ever do or anything Danny does always has to be in the South, because I don’t think that’s true. But there is something about growing up there that—and I’m not the most Southern, redneck dude in the world, and Danny certainly isn’t—but there is something about never seeing that kind of stuff on film or TV. You just really don’t see that in many movies. When we were growing up especially, it was all just California. That’s all you would see on TV, just valley kids or whatever. So I think part of that is just that that’s where we come from, so that’s what we know.
DM: It’s a “write what you know” thing. In a show like this, if we set it in an area that we’re familiar with, when it comes time to have a scene in a certain place, we can pull from our own childhoods. We’re like, “I remember after soccer practice going to get pizza at a place. Let’s shoot a scene like that.” Whereas if we set it in New York or something, we’d just be like basing it around what we’d seen in other movies. We don’t have any real firsthand experience like that.
AVC: Why did you want to work with Walton? He’s great in this, as you guys know.
DM: He’s amazing. I’ve always been a fan of his work. And this show is a very tricky show. It’s comedic but there are dark elements and very strange dramatic elements. And I think who I was going to be paired with was important. We had to make sure that it’s not what audiences have seen before, where it’s some bro thing where it’s just a bromance between two meatheads. Casting Walt makes it a little bit more dangerous and a little more unexpected, and quite frankly, he just has the chops to pull off the things that we need Lee Russell to do during the course of the series.
JH: Walton’s one of these actors who can be dramatic in a traditional sense, but he’s also funny. He’s my favorite kind of actor in that he’s really interesting in no matter what he chooses and his performance defies genres. We never wanted to make a super genre show. You know what I mean? Walton is like Michael Peña or Shea Whigham or some of these guys we’ve worked with before. He just fits in that world.