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Danny McBride is HBO’s newest lovable loser

In the new HBO comedy series “Eastbound & Down,” Danny McBride plays Kenny Powers, a closer whose career as a star reliever rapidly implodes, leaving him a substitute teacher back in his North Carolina hometown.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the current climate of Major League Baseball, there’s something particularly fitting about a story of an elite ballplayer who falls from fame and fortune thanks to his own steroid-fueled self-destruction.

In the new HBO comedy series “Eastbound & Down,” Danny McBride plays Kenny Powers, a closer whose career as a star reliever rapidly implodes, leaving him a substitute teacher back in his North Carolina hometown. It would be a fall from grace, if he ever possessed anything like grace.

Powers is arrogant, offensive, crude and filled with ’roids rage. Most people forgive him, though, because of his celebrity.

His career arc will immediately remind baseball fans of Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker, and his mullet will bring to mind the lanky ace Randy Johnson. But McBride and his co-writers (and longtime buddies) Jody Hill and Ben Best aren’t great baseball fans and had no particular player in mind when they fashioned Powers.

“There’s so many stories about nice guys,” McBride says over breakfast. “There’s a million underdog sports stories. That’s kind of the trick with us. We like starting with a character that you’re disgusted by and hate, but somehow you can’t take your eyes off watching his story and seeing where it goes.”

Hill said the show is more like 1970s anti-hero films “on a lowbrow Southern scale” than current comedies, which he thinks make too many concessions for the sake of “relatability.”

“Eastbound & Down” is the biggest project yet to put McBride front-and-center. The shaggily bearded, curly haired 32-year-old actor is seen as an up-and-coming talent of the Will Ferrell school of character-driven comedy.

After starring as a Taekwondo instructor in “The Foot Fist Way,” a low-budget comedy co-written by Best and Hill, McBride attracted the attention of Ferrell and director Adam McKay, and their production company picked up the film.

The movie had a small release last year, and McBride got good notices in two summer comedy hits: “Tropic Thunder” and “Pineapple Express.” The latter was directed by David Gordon Green, who gave McBride his first movie role in 2003’s “All the Real Girls.” (This summer, McBride will star with Ferrell in “Land of the Lost.”)

A new genre: ‘Hickspolitation’“Eastbound & Down” brings them all together. It’s produced by Ferrell and McKay (Ferrell also plays a used car salesman), and directed by Green. Shot in Wilmington, N.C., it’s the fullest expression yet of McBride’s comedy and his specialty: twisted, unlikeable characters.

“I’m like the dude who, when someone falls down a hill, I think it’s hilarious even though they might be hurt,” says McBride, whose hearty guffaw frequently punctuates his conversation. “In all those ‘80s movies, all those John Hughes movies, I always thought the bad guys were the funniest guys.

“Even in things like ‘Karate Kid,’ you know, the Cobra Kais. I love every time those guys came on screen. I thought they were ... hilarious.”

“Danny has this ability — he could say he’s going to rape your mother and it comes off as charming in a weird way,” Hill said in an interview from Los Angeles.

Powers was created thanks to the meditative powers of a baby swimming pool. McBride, Hill and Best (who, along with Green, met while studying filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts) came up with the idea of the show while lounging in Best’s backyard.

“We were literally just these fat dudes sitting in this baby pool drinking beer,” McBride says, recalling the brainstorming session that birthed Powers.

Part of what makes McBride’s comedic voice fresh isn’t just its unapologetic darkness, but its locality. McBride and company revel in their Southernness, but not in the way that comedians such as Jeff Foxworthy do. He calls such comedy “one-note humor” that generalizes the South.

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“I don’t think it’s anything we set out intentionally to capture, but I think it’s just because that’s where we come from,” McBride says. Joking, he adds, “This is a genre that we’re trying to make called ‘Hicksploitation.’”

The parallel between Powers and McBride — who was briefly a substitute teacher — might suggest a similarity, but McBride is far more polite and goodhearted. His sense of humor, though, clearly comes through during an interview. For one, he can’t get over a $60 shot of tequila from the night before, for which he says he “definitely lost some cool points.”

McBride hopes to make a movie called “Your Highness” with Green directing. He says it’s their version of 1980s action movies like “Conan the Barbarian” or “The Beastmaster.”

Says McBride, “We like those guys, those fallen heroes.”