This came during a period of experimentation at Second City; Adsit recalls the cast briefly trying to learn Commedia dell'arte, a centuries-old Italian theater style often involving powdered or painted faces. "I have a vivid memory of Adam sweating all of his clown white makeup off within the first 10 seconds of six hours of bombastic enthusiasm," Adsit says.
But the revue eventually created by the cast, 1995's "Pinata Full of Bees," was a game-changer as it dispensed with the old sketch-blackout-sketch rhythms for a more anarchic, energetic mashing together of scenes and often-pointed ideas. The show ended with audience members being encouraged to toss their Blockbuster video cards onto the stage so cast members could cut them in half to protest the chain's editing of movies.
"We just said, 'Let's be (expletive) strident. Let's say exactly what we believe and what our point of view is,'" McKay says. "To this day that's one of the great creative experiences I've ever had."
"Pinata" paved the way for McKay's transition to behind-the-scenes guy as he landed an audition for "Saturday Night Live" but, lacking the celebrity impressions and big characters favored by the show, he brought along scripts that got him hired as a writer. He wound up as head writer for three of his six years there.
Also joining the cast that first year were Koechner (another Second City/iO alum) and Walls plus a performer from Los Angeles' Groundlings sketch/improv company: Ferrell. "There was like a block of Chicago from Second City and from the iO who'd all been hired, and they all spoke this language that I had never heard before," Ferrell, 46, says in his Ron Burgundy garb on the "Anchorman 2" set. "So I kind of kept to myself until the first read-through of our first show, and that's where I was able to perform, and everyone was like, oh, that guy's much different when he performs than he is in person."
McKay recalls that he and Ferrell bonded when McKay wanted to write a parody of "VH1 Storytellers," and Ferrell wanted to play Neil Diamond so the two pounded out a sketch in about an hour and a half. "Then we put the sketch up, and it killed," McKay says.
Soon they were working as a team. "We both viewed the process the same way," Ferrell says. "Where most people would laboriously spend their whole night writing one sketch, we would just bang it out and maybe look at it later in the night."
Meanwhile, Ferrell owed a movie to Paramount Pictures, so he asked McKay whether he'd like to collaborate on a screenplay. They wound up writing a comedy called "August Blowout" that Ferrell describes as " 'Glengarry Glen Ross' meets a car dealership," and although that movie never got made, "it was one of those scripts that got circulated around town, and Adam got a lot of attention as a writer, and we got a lot of attention," Ferrell says. "We loved the process together, and we're like, 'Well, let's write another one.'"
The next one was "Anchorman," which also was turned down by everyone, including DreamWorks. McKay says he and Ferrell instead reworked another script to which Ferrell was attached.
"We were in my apartment in New York rewriting 'Elf,' and we were like, 'How did this happen?'" McKay recalls. "We were supposed to make 'Anchorman,' but instead we were rewriting a movie where a grown man is playing an elf. Like we didn't know how good 'Elf' was going to turn out to be."
Then came Todd Phillips' sleeper comedy "Old School" (2003), which featured Ferrell in a stand-out supporting role, and DreamWorks changed its tune on "Anchorman." "They said, 'Oh, we love it! We've got to do that movie,'" Ferrell recalls with a laugh.
"Anchorman" was a hit, though not a huge one ($85 million gross in North America), and it received good reviews but not great, yet it's one of those movies that hangs around in our culture and thrives on home video. You catch it on cable, and you find yourself laughing at things that maybe brought only a smile the first time.
Carell established himself as a leading man the following year in Apatow's directorial debut, "The 40 Year-Old Virgin"; Rudd enjoyed a run of high-profile roles; Koechner kept working, albeit with less visibility than his co-stars; and Ferrell was a bona fide A-lister who continued collaborating with McKay under their Gary Sanchez Productions banner, named after a fictional Paraguayan. The pair also launched the "Funny or Die" comedy video website in 2007 with a short called "The Landlord," which featured Ferrell getting reamed out by McKay's then-2-year-old daughter Pearl in the title role.
"The Landlord" has accumulated 81 million views, and McKay says Funny or Die now has 120 employees and a valuation of $250 million.
"It's like insane," McKay says.
All the while, he notes, Ferrell and he have continued to see eye to eye regarding what they want to say.
"Everything we do is about people trying to pretend they're No. 1, people trying to pretend they're in control, and they're actually not," McKay says. "And he's got a great ear for it. He just knows a (b.s.) phrase when he hears it. He could just pick up on when someone's just completely fronting and it's completely fake, and it endlessly makes us both laugh."
That's not the only thing they agree on.
"He and I have never had a creative argument, ever, which is crazy," McKay says. "We've had business arguments. We've had arguments over our company and 'Hey, should we do this or this?' Never once had a creative argument."
"They're in perfect sync," Apatow says. "Movies get weird when people disagree, when the main principals aren't on the same page. You don't have that at all here."