The man who plays Kenny Powers on HBO’s rude low-country comedy Eastbound & Down, now in its third and probably final season, is often mistaken for Kenny Powers. Which means he’s mistaken for a foulmouthed, racist, sexist ex–Major League relief pitcher who makes John Rocker look like Noam Chomsky, a man with “an arm like a fucking rocket” and a mullet like an Abrams tank turret whose entire belief system consists of the conviction that his life deserves “the pageantry of a goddamned Alabama concert.”
“It’s cool that people identify me with the character,” says Danny McBride, the show’s star and co-creator, who is, in person, extremely sociable and not in the least Powers-esque. “Talk to me ten years from now, when people are still screaming ‘You’re fuckin out!’ ”—Kenny’s on-the-mound catchphrase—“when I’m on the street, and maybe I’ll have a different take. I’m not very similar to Kenny.” For starters, McBride can’t throw a baseball; also, unlike his onscreen persona, he’s not a ’roid-ravaged burnout. But he and the Frankencracker he’s created have one thing in common: They’re happy to be back in the motherfuckin’ South.
Audiences know McBride best as a pledge in the Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow comedy fraternities, turning up in everything from Pineapple Express to Land of the Lost. But Kenny is his masterpiece, and his DNA flavors every McBridean role. The Powers family tree originates in The Foot Fist Way, a shoestring comedy McBride co-wrote with longtime collaborators actor-writer Ben Best and director Jody Hill. Foot Fist starred McBride, who, despite a lack of acting training, quit his job as a cameraman for VH1 to play the part: a small-town Tae Kwon Do teacher with delusions of badassery. “We were drawn to Danny’s ability to play a self-centered narcissist with vulnerability,” says Funny or Die chieftain Chris Henchy, executive producer of Eastbound. “His character is very relevant to what’s happening in this country: He lived the high life, and now he has a hangover.”
At first, Hangover America didn’t want to truck with Kenny Powers: Eastbound & Down’s early ratings were respectable only by the standards of pomade infomercials. The second season, which featured Kenny on a spiritual quest in Mexico, brought an uptick. Season three will see the end of the series’s planned arc, bringing Kenny to a minor-league team in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where tackiness and redneckery are always in full flower. This is Kenny’s natural environment. So natural, in fact, that they bought most of Powers’s wardrobe at beachwear outlets along the highway. “We think of Kenny Powers as sort of a weird southern James Bond,” says McBride. And the modern South needs its Bond: “People in L.A. still don’t get the South.” To hell with Spanish moss and cotton fields, Hill concurs, he’d rather mythologize “the dude you’d see at a Chili’s on a Friday night.”
Enter McBride. “The characters I play are completely out of touch with what’s socially acceptable.” He laughs. “It’d be a stretch just to play a guy who lives on planet Earth.” Hill thinks Kenny could come back in ten, twenty years and have something to say. But for now, McBride wants to tap another vein, perhaps something more serious. (A new drama project called The Clown may do just that.) Whether it’s comedy or drama or something discomfitingly in between, “the stuff I’m uncomfortable to watch with my parents is what I like.” And if you can’t hang with that, you might not be a redneck—at least, not one of the postmodern Powers caliber.