Spy Hard

The Madness of Paolo Di Canio

Dustin Parker

Kenny Powers Is F—ing Out

A visit to the set of Eastbound & Down on the eve of its final season

Kenny Powers has selected a sacrificial lamb. From deep within the heart of a bloodthirsty crowd, he gestures at a beefy lady to his left. “Look at this,” he shouts, his eyes darting through the room for approval, his curly mullet cascading. “It’s not every day you meet the person personally responsible for fuckin’ making Twinkies go extinct!” A beat — then the crowd roars. It’s late August on a soundstage in Wilmington, North Carolina, where Eastbound & Down is shooting the last few episodes of its fourth and final season. And Kenny Fuckin’ Powers — the people’s champion; the man with the golden dick; Dr. Cock & Balls — is on one.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, we won’t tell you exactly why Powers is shredding this poor woman.1 But if you’ve followed the picaresque adventures of the former pitching phenom — flaming out of the major leagues and back into his small North Carolina hometown, crawling through the filthiest cockfighting rings of rural Mexico and the poppingest clubs of Myrtle Beach — you know that this is what he does. Short on human decency, long on raw ambition — Kenny Powers isn’t the American antihero we deserve, but the one we need right now.

The pressure’s on in Wilmington — the season premiere is a month away, and the final episode was written just two weeks ago — and the set is buzzing. Out front, by the fraying lunch-themed Dawson’s Creek mural,2 a cavalcade of golf carts zooms by. All around this dark and cavernous place are packs of dudes in cargo shorts and boots, peeling off strips of duct tape, dragging camera rigs, constructing DIY roofing. And off in the corner, Eastbound cocreator Jody Hill, calm and measured, tends to the first scene of the day.

It’s a dialogue-free bit featuring Steve Little as Stevie Janowski, Kenny’s slavish sidekick, on an operating table. In a row of director’s chairs emblazoned with Jolly Rogers — the swords swapped out for baseball bats — two production assistants are having a casual conversation about gruesome sports injuries. “So they ran over your face while skiing?” Jonathan Watson, the first assistant director, clutches a crumpled cup of coffee while wearily trying to quiet the set. And Hill is gleeful. “Stevie’s getting surgery!” he shouts before mimicking a spurting geyser of blood from his face.

A few minutes later, Danny McBride appears near the monitors wearing a ratty, green cutoff tee, chewing over the upcoming scene’s dialogue. When a makeup woman accidentally spills the contents of her purse, he snaps to: “Oh, let’s see here: Adderall, Vicodin, Percs …” Hill, dressed in khaki shorts, New Balances, and a Wake Forest crew neck, has joined McBride, and the two are revisiting footage featuring a man wearing a T-shirt, a gold chain, and nothing else. “Not enough penis!” cracks a female PA.

A horde of extras is being herded in for the next scene and shown to their seats. The lights are adjusted, flickering rapid-fire like busted Times Square neon. Meanwhile, McBride retires to the last row of the bleachers to fix his shoes. “Fucked up my heel, fuckin’ boating,” he explains, as a woman from wardrobe cuts him a shoe pad insert. “But at least the foot’s taking my mind off my coccyx. We’re getting destroyed on this shoot.” “Shall I cut you elsewhere, to distract you further?” the wardrobe woman suggests, jabbing her scissors in the air with a smirk. “Yes, let’s do that,” McBride deadpans. “Right on my hand.”

To be totally up front: Danny McBride is not Kenny Powers. In fact, both McBride and Hill possess a kind of genteel Southern manner that exists in opposition to their most famed creation. (At one point, Hill, calling me “brother,” apologizes for not having more time to talk. Seeing as he’s clearly busy directing an episode of this television show, this is a sweet, unnecessary gesture.) But the legend of Kenny Powers does precede him.

“I have stopped going to bars,” McBride says. “I have become a recluse. I blame it on my son but really it’s because I’m scared. I’ll just sit in my car and watch everyone else have fun, knowing that I can’t go in or I’ll end up taking pictures all night.”3 Then, as we small-talk about my trip to Wilmington from New York through D.C., McBride gives me the slightest bit of K.P. guff: “Fuckin’ Grantland couldn’t have flown you direct?” It’s a badge of honor.

Eastbound and Down

If you’re confused as to what we’re doing here, you’re not alone. Hill and McBride always envisioned the saga of Eastbound & Down as a three-season arc, and last season’s final episode was widely assumed to be the series finale. But HBO asked them back, and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: They could have Katy Mixon back.

Mixon, who plays Kenny’s embattled love interest/muse April Buchanon,4 is a regular on the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly. Deep into the writing of the third season, McBride and Hill found out her Molly commitments would keep Mixon away from Eastbound for all but two episodes. The plan had been to have Kenny struggle with domesticity. But with Mixon out of the picture, they had to pivot, and came up with what Hill calls the Kramer vs. Kramer scenario: April drops off Kenny’s baby, then splits, leaving him to figure out this parenting nonsense alone.

It worked out beautifully: Kenny, in one last (sole?) act of heroism, gives baseball two middle fingers, fakes his own death, and embraces April and his family as his one true destiny. Then, after some offseason horse trading between CBS and HBO, Eastbound had Mixon back. “I think they loaned out Ted Danson? Something like that? Maybe don’t quote me,” Hill says. “We looked at each other and said, ‘This is our chance to finish it off the way we intended.'”

When Season 4 kicks off, Kenny Powers has achieved the small-town American ideal. He’s got a steady job, a nice house in the suburbs, and an adoring family. And he fuckin’ despises it. When the sirens of fame and largesse come calling again, in the ungainly form of a sports-talk TV gig, the old ugly beast arises and Kenny makes one last run at stardom. “If last season was about Kenny making his choice,” McBride says. “This season is about Kenny making peace with his choice.”

Well, it will be if it’s ever completed. Shooting chronologically — for the first time — was one of Hill and McBride’s stipulations for this season, but it’s making the production a bit of a high-wire act. “We’ve never had to deliver so close to the show,” McBride says. “We have so much shit left to do.” He has nightmares about coming to set and “not having it.” He switches to a hushed, proper voice, pretending to direct the episode: “Um, well — we’ll just do something where Kenny’s mad?”

Wilmington is a quaint, cobblestoned coastal town that also has its fair share of face tats. The film industry is big business here; teen soap One Tree Hill was its longest-running breadwinner. Word on the Eastbound set, though, is that the crew from the WB drama were kind of dicks, and even made a makeup girl cry and quit on her first day. On the drive to the set, a member of the crew weighs in on Lindsay Lohan, who has a guest spot on Eastbound this season. Apparently, she showed up to set wearing a see-through shirt and no bra, and was audibly surprised by the lack of paparazzi in Wilmington. All things considered, the crew member found Julianne Hough, who was shooting Safe Haven here the summer before last, far more palatable.

Back on set, Kenny Powers is deep into one of his epic confessional jags, a simultaneously self-lacerating and self-aggrandizing thing of beauty. “I screwed a lot of pooches, I fucked a lot of folks,” he says, to general confusion and fear. “And for now, Kenny Powers, vicious dragon that he is, will rest until the next foolish night.” They run it again, McBride trying to find the right pitch between outlandish and emotional. “Until the next unlucky night the dragon decides to stir.” And again, alternating between hushed and spitting: “Evil dragon … back in his lair … “

Earlier, Steve Little was lurking on the set, eating a sandwich, still in his hospital gown. Now he’s returned in his iconic uniform: sensible slacks and a drab short-sleeve button-down shirt.5 “He’s got this Don Knotts quality,” McBride says of Little. “I could look at him do anything and he makes me laugh.” Seeing him now, an errant open button revealing a tender patch of white belly, I see what McBride means.

Little figured out Janowski’s relationship to Kenny Powers with the help of an ex-girlfriend who grew up in a small town and had once equated encountering a celebrity to seeing a unicorn. “I even tried to improvise that a couple of times,” Little says. “Calling Kenny Powers a unicorn. It never made it in.” Would Janowski take a bullet for Kenny? “I give a toast this season where I call him the love of my life, with my wife [Maria, played by Elizabeth De Razzo] standing there,” Little says. “So, yeah, probably.”

He credits the production design team with helping him nail Stevie. “They’d set up his apartment with all these dumb knickknacks,” he says. “A bunch of magnets and paperweights. I mean, this was a man who’d never been anywhere. Who’d only taken a bunch of day trips.” Eastbound also has that kind of vibe, Little says, where anything can inform the riffs. Like the props guy, who’d previously worked with the famously controlling Christopher Nolan on Inception and was now picking out sex toys: “He’s like, ‘I think this dildo’s the funniest.'”

At one point, as Little lumbers up the bleachers to watch the scene and snap a few iPhone pics, McBride alerts him to an upcoming change.

Danny: “You’re not punching Abel anymore. You’re punching Isaac.”

Steve: “Abel is Isaac now?”

Danny: “No, Abel is Abel. But he has a son now. Isaac.”

Steve: “Oh, he’s got a son now?”

Danny: “Yep.”

Steve: “And I punch the kid?”

Danny: “You punch the kid.”

Steve: “OK.”

Over and over, with a combination of stupefaction and awe, I’d been told that Little will never, ever say no. He’s game for anything on set. It’s all part of the strange allure of the incomparable Stevie Janowski. “I was watching some playback once,” Little recalls, “and thinking, This goofy fat dude? Prancing around? How is this man on TV?

Eastbound and Down

A few weeks after the shoot, I meet Jody Hill at a peaceful Los Angeles bungalow on a grassy lane just off Hollywood Boulevard. It’s the production office of Rough House Pictures, the firm Hill cofounded with McBride and the director David Gordon Green, the junior partner on Eastbound.6 All three met at tiny North Carolina School of the Arts; fortuitously, they were all housed on the same freshman dorm room floor.

The last few episodes are being edited here, and down the hall you can hear McBride providing instructions: “Leaving the pitch up in the zone, that seems very confusing.” Elsewhere, in the bungalow decorated with memorabilia, polite young men peck at laptops. A photo of the effete Green made up as a tattooed thug for Hill’s Observe and Report; a copy of Kenny Powers’s best-selling audio book, You’re Fucking Out, I’m Fucking In; the theater poster for The Foot Fist Way, the movie that started it all for Hill and McBride.

It was 2006 and the two were staggering in L.A. They’d first worked as PAs on Battle Dome, an American Gladiators rip-off, before bouncing around. McBride waited tables at a place called the Crocodile Cafe. Hill tended to pups at a doggy day care. They gave up a couple times, at one point packing up a van and driving cross-country back to North Carolina together. McBride cut his foot moving out and had it propped up on the dashboard the whole ride home. “He was freaking out,” Hill remembers. “He thought he was gonna go down like John Wilkes Booth or something.” There was heartbreak, too. Early on, McBride and Hill were both brutally dumped by long-term girlfriends in quick succession. “For the first four or five years, L.A. handed us our ass,” Hill says. But they always came back for more.

Stability for Hill came with soul-crushing editing gigs on reality TV, from The Mole to Real World/Road Rules Challenge, working through a hundred hours of raw footage a week, learning the hard way how to carve out a narrative. It also brought money — he managed to save up $25,000 doing these gigs — and, finally, a breaking point. “I was depressed,” Hill says. “I didn’t think I’d ever make a movie. Which sounds dumb when you’re 27. But that’s how I felt.”

Hill grew up worshiping Goodfellas, never thinking much about comedy. But when he pitched Ben Best, another old buddy from NCSA, on three ideas, the funny one drew Best in.7 “It was, ‘Danny plays a tae kwon do instructor,'” Hill says. “That was about it.”8 As a skinny teenager wanting to learn how to fight, Hill became obsessed with tae kwon do, even starting a club that would blossom into a school after he left town. For the shooting of Foot Fist Way, he temporarily commandeered the school again, recruiting the young students for the cast. For a crew, he recruited friends and NCSA students on summer break, bunking them up six to a room in his father’s rental property. A $70,000 budget was scraped together off every penny Hill owned, plus every credit card he could max out. And so the crew headed home to North Carolina again, this time with a mission.

At the time, McBride’s only credited role was a small bit as Bust-Ass in Green’s second feature, All the Real Girls.9 But Hill, who’d spent years watching Danny slay their friends, was convinced he could pull it off. On set, Hill was quickly proven right. “It didn’t make it into the film, but there’s a scene where a kid pees his pants,” Hill recalls, “and Danny’s talking about how he must feel shame. The crew was laughing, people were messing up takes. That was when I thought, Oh, we got something.”

Only later did the full weight of the endeavor hit him. “I’m driving down the road to submit the film to Sundance, and I’m all ‘I made a movie — fuck yeah!’ I get there: It’s packed with everybody and their brother.” He dropped the disc in the submission box, then took another reality editing job. The show, about 14-year-old rich equestrian girls, was a new low. “That’s when I realized how much debt I was in,” he says. “I was just paying off the interest on my credit cards. I thought, I’m gonna have to work for 10 years to pay off this film.”

And then, two months later, the call came. Foot Fist Way made it into Sundance. “I quit. Again,” Hill says, smiling. “And whatever debt I’d paid off on my cards, I just started living off that again.”

The movie wouldn’t make it into theaters for a couple of years, but the Hollywood comedy mafia quickly came calling: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay wanted the next project from the Foot Fist Way crew. The guys knew they wanted to do a TV show, something they could work on together for a long time. They hit upon the idea of a fallen hero, forced to return home and pick up the pieces of his broken life. They made him a ballplayer. There was one issue: They didn’t know shit about baseball.

They plucked bits and pieces from the pop culture of the time. Paris Hilton had a sex tape, so Kenny Powers got a sex tape too. They handed the pilot script to McKay, who went through it with a red pen, slashing out all the sports jargon faux pas. But they knew the archetype, and, immersed in redneck culture and American iconography, they knew their character.

“When my ass was 19 years old,” Kenny Powers tells us by way of introduction in the pilot, “I changed the face of professional baseball.” Boom: strikeout, World Series win. “You’re fucking out!” Then, the fame and money induced downfall. In a virtuosically offensive montage (“Kenny, how do you like New York?” “You mean Jew York?”),10 he tumbles all the way down to substitute phys ed teacher in Shelby, North Carolina.

McBride pulled from his own brief stint as a sub in North Carolina during one escape from L.A. It was first-day introductions, and, deeply insecure about his lot in life, he found himself explaining to the kids that this was but a pit stop on his climb to Hollywood superstardom. Transplanted to the feral grandiosity of Kenny Powers, that delusional ambition became a defining, twisted character trait.

“We did so many drafts of that pilot,” Hill remembers. “And the end, forever, was Kenny accepting the job at the middle school. And then he throws in that line: ‘Until I get called up to the majors.’ We just thought it was stupid.” A year and a half passed between writing the pilot and shooting it, a delay due in part to the 2008 writer’s strike, which was a blessing. That time off let them see that getting back to the majors was the centerpiece. “It sounds weird, but we almost didn’t realize it,” Hill says. “[Kenny] can be an asshole, but the fact he wants to be called up is enough to carry you for three seasons.”

For McBride, the character truly clicked when Kenny threw on his all-black nighttime outfit for the first time. “Whenever he slicks back his hair,” McBride says, “that’s when he’s called into kicking ass. And a lot of the comedy started coming from the idea that he sees himself as this humongous hero when he has none of the qualities of any of that shit. We’d come into something dramatic and try to figure out, ‘What movie does Kenny think he’s in right now?'”

Initially deemed too much of a redneck cliché, the mullet almost never happened. Now it’s a trademark. And also a fake — the hairpiece clips on these days. In the first season, McBride was still getting extensions, and when they’d go to the beach during shooting breaks, Hill recalls, “[We'd see] Danny come out of the fuckin’ ocean with his mullet dripping. It sucked so bad!”

At first HBO was flummoxed by Hill and McBride’s creation. The network was expecting something like Curb Your Enthusiasm in the dugout. Executives wanted McBride and Hill to tone down Kenny’s extremes, soften his persona. Executives at HBO, not grasping Hill’s cinematic aspirations, argued against shooting on expensive and increasingly outmoded 35 millimeter Anamorphic film. Eastbound press screeners were unceremoniously bundled with Taking Chance, the Kevin Bacon Iraq war drama.

But while the live numbers were soft, the ratings during the offseason were gangbusters: 34 percent of viewership came from On-Demand, an all-time HBO record. Quickly and quietly, the Cult of Kenny Powers was born. Reporting on the phenomenon, Deadspin pointed out that all across this great nation men and women have been “possesse[d] to make a personalized jersey of a character after seeing six episodes of an HBO comedy.” McBride remembers seeing the bootleg T-shirts, especially in the South, and thinking, When I was a kid they’d have knockoff Simpsons shirts! This is the same kind of shit!

In the first season, HBO nixed plot lines. According to Little, “there was supposed to be a white supremacist gang rape or something.” But with these signs of success, the network came around. So much so that by the third season, during a brilliantly bizarre dinner party at car dealer Ashley Schaeffer’s plantation, Eastbound was murdering innocent men with cannon fire.11

Eastbound and Down

McBride and Hill write the show in L.A., with a small writers’ room obsessing over the details. On set they shoot one version as written, then open up the improv floodgates. “At the end of the day,” McBride says, “I can just say whatever I want.” They talk about Eastbound not as a TV show, but an episodic movie: one four-hour dark comedy per season, the kind no studio would ever green-light. (The second-season Mexico excursion was designed in part to combat the sitcom-style “PE teacher gets into antics every week” rut.) They try to avoid the traditional narrative beats.

But there is a through line: At some point of every season, Kenny is pushed far beyond the limits of acceptable human behavior. Ike Barinholtz, who turned in a magnificent Ivan Drago homage as a Russian minor league reliever in the third season, offers an analogy. “Hitler in the bunker, he was so isolated from reality. His generals would be like, ‘Sir, we lost Poland,’ and he’d be like, ‘No, no, no, we have Poland, and we’re about to take over America.’ Kenny has the same megalomania. And you just don’t ever see that from lead characters.” And so the big question is always the same: How do you root for someone who’s such a dick?

“The hardest scenes to write are the ones with Kenny and April,” McBride says. “You think, if I did this to my wife there’s no way in hell she’d stick around. But I don’t know … there’s something working there. We realized it this year. We’re not gonna stress over the April scenes. The chemistry is gonna be there.”

That relationship is Eastbound‘s underlying sweetness. As generally repugnant as Kenny is, he’s motivated and redeemed by his love for April. “We see Kenny through her eyes,” Mixon says. “She’s his anchor. And she just gets him. Like none other.” In the second season, the moment before Kenny reclaims glory on the mound in Mexico, he whispers two words to himself: “April’s tits.”

It’s time for Kenny Powers to bash more innocent people for our entertainment. Trotting out in front of the cameras, McBride has left behind a few sheets in his director’s chair. I sneak a look. They’re pieces of lined notebook paper filled with fat jokes. “Sara Lee just had her best fiscal quarter in years, thanks to this woman.” “Ever heard of a salad bar? Eat some lettuce, bitch.” But our new target is a man unlucky enough to have been born with a large pair of front choppers.

Back in the crowd, Kenny draws our attention with the cameras rolling.

“Look at this handsome bucktooth gentleman right here,” he announces. “Those teeth real?”

The man nods, reluctantly.

“Good. ‘Cause I’d hate to hear you paid for those motherfuckers!”

Uproarious laughter.

“Looking like a goddamn mouth full of Chiclets!” Howls. “Like some straight-up dominoes!”

And now the crowd, egged on by Hill behind the camera, has begun pouring on the adulation: “Kenny! Kenny!”

McBride’s body is still, his eyes shifting, his gaze uneasy and scaled down. Even at his most deluded, most power-hungry, most dastardly, Kenny Powers is never far from that deep pit at the base of his stomach.

With so much work to do, McBride’s too busy to get nostalgic at the finish line. “We’ll be in post for a few months on this,” he says. “Then I might wait until spring to start working on the next thing” — a high school show for which McBride and Hill are again teaming up with HBO. In the meantime, “I’ll just chill and fuckin’ teach my son cuss words.”

Little’s more game to look back. “It seems so small now compared to all the adventures they’ve had, all the places they’ve gone,” he says of the first season. “I’m gonna sound like [Stevie] now, but Kenny Powers — he’s such a great character. Boy, it’d be hard not to see him around.”

The canon of post–Tony Soprano TV antiheroes is well established with your Walter Whites and your Don Drapers. Now, with Eastbound & Down sailing into the sunset, there is Kenny Powers. He was a crass, craven, and mean-spirited buffoon — and he was our buffoon. As he fumbled, fought, and fucked — his flabby arms protruding out of cutoffs, jorts hanging just so — he carried the mantle of the Ugly American. But this was neither a tribute nor a judgment. It was a love letter to this particular American way.

Because above all else, he was a dreamer. “Just that little nugget of hope,” Hill says. “That’s what makes Kenny Powers Kenny Powers.”

Filed Under: Kenny Powers, Characters

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Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad