On Jody Hill’s Unlikable Protagonists & Deadpan Humor
In January 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival, the world was introduced to Jody Hill and Danny McBride by way of The Foot Fist Way. Billed as a comedy, the movie starred McBride as a down-on-his-luck Taekwondo instructor from North Carolina. The film quickly establishes itself to the viewer as a grossly sophomoric bit of business, with plenty of crass dinner
In January 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival, the world was introduced to Jody Hill and Danny McBride by way of The Foot Fist Way. Billed as a comedy, the movie starred McBride as a down-on-his-luck Taekwondo instructor from North Carolina. The film quickly establishes itself to the viewer as a grossly sophomoric bit of business, with plenty of crass dinner table conversations and shallow behavior throughout.
But instead of resulting in an overly grating or willfully detestable feature production, The Foot Fist Way manages to intrigue audiences. Hill and McBride are uniquely comfortable with focusing on unlikable protagonists. Due to a carefully established tone and use of deadpan inherent to their writing over the years, the two film school friends quickly established themselves as unmistakable comedy talents.
While their work has never been quintessentially mainstream, their sneering anti-heroes have since become bizarrely compelling American archetypes that one can’t help but root for.
From the very beginning of Hill‘s directorial debut, McBride actively seeks to find new ways to repel the viewer. As Taekwondo instructor Fred Simmons, McBride is at once a deeply angry and lazy misogynist whose anger towards those around him erupts with a remarkable, blustering impotence. The Foot Fist Way revels in his minor indiscretions, and never shies away from the fact that it is impossible to view Simmons as the unilateral hero of his story, or anyone else’s.
Throughout Hill‘s filmography, which includes the Seth Rogen mall cop comedy Observe and Report from 2009, as well as two original series for television produced by HBO in the form of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, starting in 2oo9 and 2016 respectively, unlikable protagonists have proliferated.
Standing front and center in two out of those three features is Danny McBride. Unlike Rogen‘s inherently charming, oafish demeanor, McBride revels in playing the bad guy, even as his characters consistently misread how other people see them.
In The Foot Fist Way, Fred Simmons’ plight towards greatness is one afflicted by hubris and a lack of education. Quick to cite his own physical mastery over a world wherein he is ironically at the bottom of the totem pole, Simmons acts like a pauper operating under the delusion that he is in fact the king. But the province over which he holds authority is as confined as his own narrow-minded worldview.
Frequently finding himself in a position of diminutive supplication or impish superiority, Simmons lashes out at everyone around him. Whether he is struggling to impress his own personal heroes or grossly abusing those whom he believes to hold some power over, Simmons operates within Hill‘s script as an unrepentant bully.
Meanwhile, McBride plays these interactions off with unrestrained malice. Yet underneath each act of casual cruelty lies some form of fundamental human distress and existential anguish.
In each interaction with another character throughout The Foot Fist Way, McBride feels like a real person. No matter how obnoxious Fred Simmons is, McBride is able to play him off as a sympathetic asshole unable to get out of the way of his own anger and hurt.
The way in which Hill is consistently able to do this is through a finely established sense of dramatic tone matched by an impeccable use of deadpan to underscore the scripted comedy beats.
The Foot Fist Way, as is the case with much of Hill‘s oeuvre, makes its mark with tone. Rather than explicitly acknowledging when something is meant to be funny or not, Hill directs his films as if they were straight dramas. Like writer and director Jared Hess‘ own unique Sundance darling Napoleon Dynamite from 2004, Hill‘s scenes of hilarity are often so subtle that you might not laugh at them on first viewing.
Hill doesn’t beat the viewer over the head with constant gags and broad set pieces of the sort you might find in a Judd Apatow production. Instead, he employs some of the dramatic sense of staging more frequently applied by Oscar-winning directors like Martin Scorsese. As a result, The Foot Fist Way can be taken in as a straight drama, underpinned by McBride‘s perfectly performed bits of sardonic clowning.
Thanks to an established dramatic tone, the viewer is allowed to explore deeper facets of the psychosis behind the Fred Simmons character. Instead of appearing as a one-note villain, McBride is able to coax the viewer into holding out some sympathy for his comic alter ego. Despite stomping around the picture in a perpetual tantrum, the viewer is forced to engage with McBride on a dramatic level first and foremost.
This even-keeled approach to comedy writing is at first counter-intuitive, which is why it can be hard to watch The Foot Fist Way, or any one of Hill‘s other comedy productions, on first viewing. Following in the tradition established by Fred Simmons, McBride plays Kenny Powers from Eastbound & Down as a comparably overpowering source of masculine avarice.
In each subsequent Hill production, the characters that McBride plays are unlikable to begin with because of the tone by which they are dramatically established and performatively delivered to the viewer.
McBride revels in a certain aura of false alpha male ferocity in Hill’s directorial efforts. Accordingly, his characters’ misconstrued appropriation of patriarchal authority and their attendant actions can be held up to ridicule. Whenever McBride enters the room in any individual scene in The Foot Fist Way, his anachronistic bravado makes him into a fool. But McBride plays every stupid move with all of the false swagger inherent to Fred Simmons, serving as an impeccably disguised deadpan that masks the surrounding drama with the guise of genial familiarity.
Matching the overall manner of such hit NBC sitcoms as The Office and its immediate successor Parks and Recreation, Hill employs deadpan throughout The Foot Fist Way as the primary means for comedy to ensue. But where NBC always aired on the lighter side of flatly delivered moments of character-based humor, Hill and McBride never shy away from more potentially alienating moments of antisocial behavior.
Michael Scott is a prickly business manager with an underlying loneliness and a heart of gold. Fred Simmons is an outwardly conservative freelancer whose subconscious narcissism makes him into an immediately disagreeable character.
Yet, like The Office, The Foot Fist Way manages to circumvent its many noxious characters through deadpan comedy performances. At the head of the pack is McBride, whose insatiable sleaze operates like an intriguing deterrent to emotional connection. Barring any humanitarian empathy, Fred Simmons becomes funny once the viewer has thoroughly taken in the overriding tone of the entire production, and come to terms with the alternative brand subtlety to McBride as a comedic actor.
Deadpan is perhaps the realm to which Hill and McBride hold primary residence as contemporary comedy filmmakers. Such a sentiment can be further attested to by their most recent HBO production Vice Principals, which sees two dueling egomaniacs vying for the position of principal over a regional South Carolina high school.
As was the case for The Foot Fist Way, each and every subsequent production that Hill and McBride have worked on together has utilized deadpan as an effective tool against a more literal interpretation of unlikable characters, resulting in a body of work comprising some of the most subversive comedies of the past quarter century.
Hill and McBride have become feral bulls in a contemporary studio comedy landscape dominated by household pets. Where others might wish to placate currently trendy social agendas or popular conceptions of familial intimacy and friendship, Hill is more at home with largely unknown casts of actors playing far more realistic looking and antagonistic characters.
Starting with The Foot Fist Way, Hill‘s productions have been populated by ostensible monsters and weirdos who might be held under higher scrutiny if they weren’t the center of their own politically incorrect comedy universes.
The Foot Fist Way might not be a feature length motion picture that will suit everyone’s tastes, but in its careful presentation of unlikable protagonists seasoned with dashes of dark dramatic tones and deadpan performances, the final product can be an appetizing movie dish. Hill is an acquired taste, but if one gives themselves over freely to his outlandish antiheroes, there is a lot to love and laugh about.
Have you seen the The Foot Fist Way? Let us know in the comments what you think about the film and about Jody Hill as a comedy director.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.