With apologies to certain beer ads on TV, Mark McKinnon may actually be The Most Interesting Man in the World. He's pretty much done it all from music to politics to TV and, now, he's breaking new ground with a TV show called The Circus. On a recent episode, McKinnon was shown relaxing with a glass of Bulleit Bourbon, so Bourbon and Barns couldn't resist the opportunity to catch up with McKinnon about his career and his love of Bourbon. (The Circus airs Sunday nights on Showtime at 8 p.m. ET/PT. Learn more about the show at http://www.sho.com/the-circus-inside-the-greatest-political-show-on-earth).
Bourbon and Barns: Your life reads like a Hollywood script. You grew up in Colorado, left for Nashville to pursue music, wrote songs alongside Kris Kristofferson, won the Kerrville New Folk music award (later won by legends Robert Earl Keen and Steve Earle), attended the University of Texas, started working on political campaigns in Texas, became the chief media advisor on five presidential campaigns, consulted on tv shows like the Newsroom and House of Cards, and began producing the hit show The Circus on Showtime. . . Oh, and you completed two Ironman Triathlons. What am I leaving out?
Mark McKinnon: You left out the best part. I married a woman I fell in love with the moment I saw her walking down the stairs at East School in Denver. She was wearing bell bottoms with horizontal stripes. Been with her longer than I’ve had a driver’s license. Two amazing kids. Two spectacular grandchildren. One hall-of-fame dog. And an ancient cat.
BB: The Circus is like a political documentary told in real-time with each 30-minute episode describing the drama and intrigue of Washington, D.C. week by week. How did you come up with the idea for the show?
MM: I came up with the idea for the show 15 years ago. It took that long to nail down a deal in Hollywood. But that’s a much longer story. I just had a thought for years that campaigns were fascinating ecosystems of characters and drama that the public never sees. And that if we could capture it, and roll it up in real time (not a year after the campaign ends), it could make for some really interesting and entertaining television. Little did we know we would end up with “The Circus” that unfolded.
BB: You have a great rapport with the two journalists on the show, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. How long have y'all all known each other?
MM: I’d known Mark and John for years because they covered campaigns that I had worked on. And since I was the media guy, I interacted with them a lot. And when it began to look like this project might take off, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. That I needed a lot of help. And that to do it right and make it great, I would need the very best in the business. And that’s what they are. They are best known for writing the book “Game Change” about the 2008 election (which became an Emmy-award winning movie), and they work harder than anyone I know. They just have enormous credibility and they know everyone in the political universe, which is important to the show because we get great access.
BB: I would imagine it is difficult to create a show from scratch each week based on current events. What is your process for creating each episode and telling a new story each week?
MM: Not only is it hard, most television executives thought it was impossible. Which is why it took so long to get green lighted. They loved the idea, they just thought the notion of creating, producing, shooting, editing and putting a full-blown show in a week was crazy. Most execs see finished shows weeks if not months ahead of time. Showtime sees the finished show Sunday mornings, and it airs Sunday nights.
So it’s crushingly hard and requires 60 editors, producers, camera and sound personnel. We start every Sunday night with a conference call brainstorming about what is likely to happen the next week, and we try to develop a thematic backbone. Which is tricky. Because we have no control over the news and events. Sometimes they are entirely unpredictable. So we always have to remain incredibly flexible and often turn on a dime in the middle of the week.
But it’s all real time. We shoot around the clock. And feed back media to NYC constantly. And material is edited immediately. We start to look at initial cuts on Thursday. Then we do final editing Saturday and all stay up all night until Sunday morning when we finish. But as an example, we made changes to last week’s episode at 4 pm on Sunday, and the show aired at 8 pm. It’s a hire-wire act every week.
BB: Were you surprised by the popularity of the show?
MM: The whole adventure has exceeded my expectation in every way. The final episode of the campaign was the most watched unscripted show in the history of the network. And what is really surprising to me, is that The Circus may work even better out of Washington as we cover the Trump presidency.
BB: On Sunday's episode, you were seen relaxing with a glass of Bulleit Bourbon. Are you a big fan of Bourbon?
MM: I love Bourbon. I had my first bad drunk with Scotch. So never touch the stuff.
BB: Is Bulleit your preferred brand? What other brands do you like?
MM: Bulleit is definitely my preferred top-shelf brand. But I also like a bit of sweetness to my Bourbon, so I’m a big fan of Maker’s Mark. Buy it in bulk.
BB: Do you like cocktails or are you a neat or on-the-rocks drinker?
MM: If it’s the good stuff like Bulliet, I always drink it neat. But I’m a huge fan of Manhattans. And that’s where the Maker’s Mark comes in.
BB: Bulleit is known as a high-rye Bourbon because of its high rye content and spicy flavor profile. Do you think that describes your personality at all?
MM: Rye and Spicy. Would go good on my tombstone.
BB: What's the most interesting conversation that you ever had over a glass of Bourbon?
MM: The most interesting conversations I ever have are with my good friend and life coach, Biff America (aka Jeffrey Bergeron), in Breckenridge, Colorado, which is where I live these days. Jeffrey is the wittiest wisest guy on the planet, and happens to always have a stash of working man’s Bourbon to stimulate some good gossip. So we sit around on his lawn chairs as the sun sets over the mountains and sip Old Grand Dad or Jim Beam, or if he’s feeling generous, he breaks out the Jameson small cask or Pendleton.
BB: You've accomplished so much already, is there anything else you want to do in life? What's next for you?
MM: Honestly, I’ve checked everything on the bucket list. If I die tomorrow, I’ll have zero regrets. But I am looking forward to more time with my sidekick and grand kids. And more naps. Always more naps.