At first, second, and even third glance, there are many similarities between Vice Principals, Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s raucous new HBO comedy, and Eastbound and Down, their first series for the premium cable giant. But Hill would advise viewers — both fans of Eastbound and potential newcomers — to look a little bit closer at their new series, which features McBride and Walton Goggins as two ne’er-do-well vice principals vying to overthrow the newly installed principal (Kimberly Hebert Gregory).
“On the surface, I think when you see the trailers, you certainly see Danny McBride, in some costume, saying fucked up things. And I love that, I love that we get to make these irreverent shows and Danny plays a great pissed off dude, better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Hill told Inverse this week. “But I also think that when you get into the first few episodes, you’re going to find his character is maybe only on the surface like Kenny. Neal Gamby cares about this school and his job more than he cares about himself. Kenny Powers didnt feel about anything but himself.”
The show, which premieres Sunday night on HBO at 10:30 p.m., is an exercise in taking anti-heroes to the edge, challenging the viewer to sympathize with bozo lead characters who harass, punish, and generally make everyone around them a bit miserable, or at least deeply uncomfortable. And as with Eastbound and Down, it largely works, with laughs as big as its conniving protagonists. Hill spoke with Inverse about writing the show, pushing the boundaries, some old Eastbound business, and more.
They set the principal’s house on fire in the second episode, which is next level.
We went big early on that one!
How do you top that? Did you think about holding back on something that big, knowing that you have a two season commitment with HBO?
We go to a lot of places in this show, real fucked up and dark and funny. That was just something that was a scene in the original screenplay, which is how this started out; Danny wrote it back in 2006. It was always early, and we always loved it, because most of the time when you do something like this, that might be the last scene, and then everybody gets busted or something like that. We were like no, let’s just set the bar here, let’s get it going. It’s really fun that that’s just how they get into it, [with a lot more to come].
The general pattern of the show is a sequence of scenes in which Neal goes to the very edge of acting like a dick, and then a scene of him being sad, or a dad. Is there some kind of formula for keeping the audience on the character’s side?
We basically write our show like a drama, and we give these characters goals and that kind of thing, just like you would in any movie or TV show. People are always wondering how we can get away with all these asshole characters. Even though a person might say or do ridiculous things, if you take their dreams and goals — the kind of thing every human has inside of them — and treat them seriously, and they’re serious about them, you can get away with a lot of things. Because somehow, we understand the person. If they care about something, and you see them suffer for their dreams, then you’re OK.
Walton’s character, Lee Russell, is way less sympathetic, because you dont think he cares about people or the school. He cares about impressing his wife, but that’s about it.
You’re going to see different layers to Lee Russell as the show goes on. That’s one thing that’s really cool. A lot of people are going to see Danny saying bad words, and they’re going to see these two guys beating up on this African-American woman. Different people are going to think certain things about that. But as you watch the show, and see the twists and turns, I think people are going to appreciate it on a deeper level than just the surface first impression.
Walton plays Lee Russell with a certain flair and femininity, and I was honestly surprised when the show introduces his wife and mother-in-law.
In Hollywood, the way people from the south are portrayed are either kind of like tobacco workers living in the fields, or hillbillies and rednecks and stuff. But we’d see people like Lee Russell all the time, fancy people with that voice and clothes. We’d laugh about that character, and Walton, when he came in and did that whole deal, he was the first guy that really nailed what we were going for. He’s from the south and is also a crazy good artist, so when he did that voice and had the cruelty behind it — and that’s the key to the whole thing — I felt like I was in on a big secret.
He just dumps on the principal as she walks to the school, says that he bets she smells like fried buttholes—
I used to work with a boss who, we’d all be laughing in a room, there’d be four of us or something, and one person would walk out, and then my boss would just trash that person. Lee Russell is that kind of person.
To have these two white guys dumping on this black woman, am I complicit as an audience member for laughing at that?
I don’t think so. I don’t think you’re any more wrong laughing at it than you would be for being sad if these people got hurt or something. I don’t think there should be any rules when it comes to that kind of stuff.
The show gets away with it because they’re such shitty people, so even though we’re on their side, were cringing through it.
The way I see it is, when you watch Five Easy Pieces, you don’t really think, is Jack Nicholson a good guy or a bad guy? He’s not a great guy in that movie. You don’t watch it and think, is it right or wrong? But I do feel like that comes up a lot in comedies. A lot of those movies in the ‘70s are super un-PC, all that stuff. Comedy as a genre has become a thing where there are rules inside of it, and Danny and me, we try to avoid that kind of thinking as much as possible.
Speaking of awful people, have you been in contact with John Rocker at all since the end of Eastbound?*
No, and honestly, I didn’t even know who he was before the show came out. There are a couple of players Kenny was compared to; Jose Canseco was another one. I don’t know much about sports, so we just kind of made up that character.
Rocker had said that he imagined it was based on him, so that’s interesting.
The idea of an athlete who fucking spends all his money and takes steroids and is totally cocky — it’s one of those things, it’s in our face all the time. We didn’t really have to base it on anybody. I’m sure they all think it’s based on them.
It’s a strange pride to take in thinking it’s based on you.
Dude, exactly. If you watch this show and think it’s cool to be Kenny Powers … Man, a lot of people hate the show, but a lot of people love it. Of the ones who love it, the ones that get it, they’re awesome, and that’s most of them. But there are a lot of people who just think they are Kenny Powers, or think that when Kenny Powers does the most fucked up stuff, he’s right on the money. Those people are kind of weird.
Vice Principals is going to go two seasons and tells a complete story, but wasnt Eastbound supposed to go three, and then ended up going four?
We did intend to have three, and what happened was, when we were setting up with the third season, we couldn’t get Katy Mixon because she was on Mike and Molly and under contract, so we took the storyline for three and made it basically without her. We did a Kramer vs Kramer thing, and then for season four, we came up with the TV show, and then used the love story for season three and put that into four. That was because she was always Kenny’s redemption, the one thing he really needed, and without her, we couldn’t wrap up the story. So we kind of had to change our plan a little bit to stay true to the spirit.
So you don’t think you’ll extend this?
We already shot, already finished it.
So if HBO offered you a dump truck of money for more, you wouldn’t do it?
Never say never, but I don’t think this goes beyond that.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.