As a comedian, Danny McBride has played drug dealers, robbers, and explosions experts. But for all of his experiences in anarchy, McBride and his writing partner Jody Hill have never found a setting as lawless as the middle school at the center of their series Eastbound & Down. With their new show Vice Principals airing on HBO, McBride and Hill are back in school and back in the depths of American dysfunction, as McBride plays Neal Gamby, a high school vice principal whose dreams of running the school are dashed when the position of principal is offered to an outside candidate, Belinda Brown (played by a soothing-until-she’s-not Kimberly Hebert Gregory). Brown’s appointment disrupts the long-standing rivalry between Gamby and his fellow vice principal Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), and the two agree to put aside their petty differences to unite on their petty similarities, teaming up to take down Belinda Brown. In their mad quest for power, Gamby and Russell set homes on fire, chase each other around the office, call kids names, harass fellow staff members, and somehow manage to hang on to their jobs. HBO has already given the green light for a sophomore season, so it looks like Gamby and Russell will continue their tirade for one more year.
Gamby and Russell’s antics on Vice Principals are obviously exaggerated for laughs, but all good satires have at least a grain of truth in them. And having grown up in public schools with my own connection to the motivations of school staff, I suspected Vice Principals wasn’t aiming too far off the mark. Fully expecting life to be stranger than fiction, I sat down with my parents — a pair of principals with decades of experience in education between them — to hear how the show measures up to the real responsibility of managing a school.
Susan Lozada: I’m currently a principal of an elementary building, and I spent two years as a vice principal of a high school.
Peter Bugbee: I’m a principal of a middle school, and I spent a year and a half as an assistant principal at a high school.
As principals, do you like the show Vice Principals?
Lozada: I’m not sure if I like it yet. It’s so mean!
Bugbee: And they curse a lot.
Lozada: A lot! A lot with kids!
Is the cursing out of character for a school? That’s not something that would happen in reality?
Bugbee: It’s an exaggeration of behavior, but if people behaved like that, they wouldn’t last on the job at all. I think in the first episode Gamby was in the faculty lounge trying to get faculty members to undermine the principal — that would never have happened.
Is cursing really that big of an issue in schools? It seemed to bother you on the show, too.
Bugbee: It’s disrespectful language. It disrespects the person who has to hear it and it could be seen as intemperance. And if you’re a principal, it makes it sound like you’re using a higher station as a way of showing who’s in charge. It’s bullying people.
Lozada: You have to be able to control your own behavior. When you're in the middle of a situation and something terrible is happening around you, people will pardon a curse word. But when it’s your everyday language around kids, there’s something wrong.
Do you ever come across people like Neal Gamby at schools?
Lozada: Competitive and trying to get the job? Absolutely. Especially when you have three or four assistant principals, it can get kind of cutthroat with people keeping tabs on who’s getting played. You try to be nice about it, but there’s not always much you can do with that kind of tension.
The show has faced some criticism about having two white vice principals antagonize a black woman as their boss. How has that been for you to watch?
Lozada: I can tell you, as a woman of color, I had problems with it. It’s uncomfortable. You know, when they mentioned her big butt at one point, I was pissed. I thought, who the hell are these two white guys? There are just some things that annoy me, like with the Asian mother-in-law. At first I liked Lee Russell better between the two characters, until ...
Bugbee: Until he spit into her tea.
Lozada: Ugh, it’s just disgusting.
Bugbee: But it’s comedy! He spits into her tea and that’s terrible, but then Belinda asks Russell to get her a cup of coffee, so you knew he would spit into her coffee even though you didn’t have to have it on camera. It’s a TV show, it’s not realistic. It’s a stupid comedy.
Lozada: I do like the crazy competitiveness between the two vice principals. They’re just funny.
Bugbee: I like that they’re really stupid. They have all that evidence and they burn down the house, so it’s funny that they’re as stupid as they are.
Can you share any stories about that kind of competitiveness happening in real life?
Bugbee: Well, if you read and look up stuff, there are crazy things that people have done, even just locally. I think somebody put razor blades under the door handle of someone’s car to cut their hand. That was in the newspaper maybe 15 or 20 years ago. There were two teachers who were rivals for the same job and the one hated the other and did things like that.
I wanted to ask you about the Amanda Snodgrass (played by Georgia King) character. She’s a young teacher at the school, and Neal Gamby has a crush on her. Growing up, there were so many teachers who married teachers, and principals who married staff. You two have been married for a while so you were out of the teacher dating pool, but how do those relationships play out in schools?
Bugbee: Well, we got married when we were soldiers. Soldiers marry soldiers and doctors marry doctors and lawyers marry lawyers. You have a similar walk of life sometimes, so that happens.
Lozada: You do get older guys creeping on younger teachers, you get that inappropriate kind of stuff, and you can tell the Georgia character was handling it well. But it happens all the time because it’s like any other walk of life. I just think Neal Gamby is like people with comb-overs. They think you’re not noticing what they’re doing, but we notice!
Which of the vice principals do you like more?
Bugbee: Neal Gamby is a buffoon, but the other one seems meaner.
Lozada: Do you like Neal Gamby?
Bugbee: I don’t like either one of them!
Lozada: OK, good.
Bugbee: I don’t have to like them to be entertained by them.
Do you think Belinda Brown notices what they’re doing?
Lozada: Yes. And if she’s done this before, she knows what happens with people vying for attention.
Bugbee: It’s funny when you move into a position like that: The first time you get brown-nosed, it’s like, what? And then you realize, Hey, that’s not genuine! They’re brown-nosing me!
Lozada: Yeah, it’s not about you as a person.
Bugbee: You have to get used to that, and then it’s OK.
How do you deal with people when they are as conniving as Gamby and Russell?
Lozada: You have to catch them. And usually somebody is willing to tell you, because everybody is looking for points.
Bugbee: Or people don’t like that kind of behavior, so they let you know because they want you to take care of it. Because it does keep the whole workforce down.
That’s what I thought about that first scene when he’s trying to convince the teachers to get Belinda Brown fired. Somebody definitely would have used this against him.
Bugbee: That’s why Election is the best movie for schools. When the custodian sees Matthew Broderick throw the food away and he misses the garbage can, you just know that’s going to come back to haunt him. And then in the end he’s standing in the principal’s office and it’s the custodian turning him in.
That’s what this show is missing. It’s always the petty thing that gets people caught.
Lozada: Right, and that everybody is keeping tabs on everybody.
Bugbee: Well, it’s only three episodes old, so you don’t know how much this is building up.
Is there anything that the show gets really right?
Bugbee: I like the cars.
Lozada: What? Peter …
Bugbee: No, because it says a lot about Gamby’s character! Because his car has the police light on it, and you know he’s probably out there shining the light at kids when he’s off-duty or some other nonsense.
Lozada: You know, it’s a caricature, but the characters are close enough to real people that you just cringe when you see them.
Bugbee: Yeah, like Bill Murray’s got his retirement ceremony, and Neal Gamby interrupts everyone to get up and yell at the kids.
I like how apathetic the kids are. You know, Gamby can’t even bribe the students to walk out.
Bugbee: You know what, that happened here in Lehigh Valley. There was an assistant principal who was very well-liked, and he didn’t get the principalship, but he was still acting as the interim principal. The kids wanted him to get the job, and in protest they walked out of the school when he didn’t. But that’s the building he was running ...
Lozada: He lost control.
Bugbee: It didn’t look good for him that kids felt like they could walk out of his building. They were walking out to protest the fact that he didn't get the job, but, you know, his job is to maintain the building.
The ultimate irony. What does a good principal do that these characters don’t?
Bugbee: Well, it’s so boring. You’re looking up data to see where you can make a better impact by using your money better ...
Lozada: And you have to communicate. You’re building relationships with kids and parents. There’s no talk on the show about the kids! Gamby and Russell are just running all over the place during the day. Where the hell are they going? They’re in the woods.
Does tenure make it possible for people to get away with scheming?
Bugbee: Tenure just means due process.
Lozada: You would have to follow steps to get rid of somebody to make sure your documentation was honored. That’s the only thing it means. But if the show is set in the South, I don’t know that the schools have that much protection.
Would you say that with everything they’ve done in the first couple of episodes, it would be possible to fire Gamby and Russell?
Bugbee: Yes. For burning down the principal’s house? Yes! They could be fired, but they would have to have a negative evaluation first.
Bugbee: No, honestly! You have to have a negative evaluation. You would have to do an observation and make the burned-down house a part of the observation.
Lozada: Any sort of criminal charges could get you fired. But I think the idea that their behavior is so detrimental to the students is enough to get them fired. Anyone looking at the way Gamby disciplines the kids would want to fire him.
What do you think the outcome of the show is going to be?
Lozada: Something’s going to have to happen to the principal so they can keep vying for the job as vice principals. Aren’t they the writers?
Yeah, Neal Gamby is played by Danny McBride, and he’s the head writer.
Lozada: So I figure something will happen beyond their control so they can’t be blamed for it, but they can still maintain their status quo and fight for whatever little bit of positioning they can get.
Bugbee: But you know, Teo, schools are bizarre. You were a student, you remember.
Well, yeah, of course. I mean, remember what happened at Nitschmann Middle School?
Bugbee: Oh yeah, oh my god, I forgot about that guy!
Lozada: The principal was cooking meth in his office.
He was cooking it or dealing it?
Bugbee: I don’t know!
Lozada: He was arrested while he was naked in his office watching pornography with sex toys all around him. He was smoking crack, and he had been selling drugs out of the office.
Crazy things do go down in schools. There’s no way around it.