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Thursday October 17th 2019

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A Conversation with Kevin McDonald: Complete Q&A

By Jeremy Morrison

Kevin McDonald, co-founder of landmark Canadian sketch comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall, will be in Pensacola for a performance as well as a workshop, during which the comedian will work with local comedy writers and actors. Ahead of his local engagement, McDonald spent a few minutes speaking with Inweekly.

INWEEKLY: So, you’re going to be doing a workshop and a performance here, correct?
MCDONALD: Yes, I will be doing a workshop and performance. I’ll answer more. My answers will be longer, but I don’t know how to make that one longer. But, yes, I’ll repeat myself—yes, I’m gonna do a performance and a workshop.

INWEEKLY: So what does the workshop consist of?
MCDONALD: Oh, there, I can put some meat into this one.

INWEEKLY: Awesome.
MCDONALD: I’ll be teaching the old Kids in the Hall method, how we wrote sketches, not when we were on the TV show, when we wrote other things, but before that, when we were first starting we were a stage troupe, which is kind of how we got—blah, blah, blah—discovered. We performed for a few years together, and how we wrote—we couldn’t afford computers; they were a new thing back then in the mid-‘80s anyway, and everyone had lousy penmanship—so we wrote through improve, where people would come with ideas, we’d like the ideas, we’d talk about them for a bit and then we’d put them up on the sheet as it were, and we would write it through improvising and rehearsing a few times and then we just remembered it. And also, the freedom of that, that it’s not written down on paper, is that on stage you would be free to ad-lib jokes that then ruin the plot point you were getting to. And a lot of the first season, especially the first half of the first season of our TV show, is stuff that was written through improv. When we got to the TV show, we had to write it on that thing called computers because you have to have scripts. And I bring that workshop too sometimes, but this time— see, I’m giving you the longwinded answer. I’m almost done, I swear. This workshop, I would just be teaching— no, I promised you relaxing answers. This workshop, I would just be teaching how to write though improv.

INWEEKLY: Okay. How’s it different writing for—you know, y’all started out on stage and went to television. How is that different, the two mediums?
MCDONALD: Well, it’s funny, because if you look at the first season, you’ll see—as I said, especially the first half of the first season—a lot of the scenes are like small one-act plays. Where we dig in, it’s like kitchen sink dramas, only comedies, where we dig in and have a thing about where we have a funny fight with our parents or the “Asshole,” that takes place in a diner, looks like a small one-act play. And as the season progresses, especially in season two and season three, you see a lot of what we call cut-to comedy, where you say something funny and then you cut to the funny thing you’re saying, which is like as old as silent movies, and we learned to become more filmic. And Lorne Michaels was always saying that at the beginning—‘You need to watch a lot of movies, watch a lot of TV, you know. People don’t want to see stage things on TV all the time. Make it more filmic.’ As we wrote more and more, it naturally became that way.

INWEEKLY: So, when you, I mean—so, ya’ll have toured post-Kids in the Hall returned to Kids in the Hall and done tours on the stage. Do you augment it back for the stage, or does it stay the same material?
MCDONALD: A lot of the material is the material we’ve done for TV. Also, half of it is new material. On the 2008 tour, it was all new material. And I think our instincts when we’re on stage is we go back to our stage thinking, and it’s like small one-act plays again. That’s not true. There were a few filmic things that were sort of cut-to on TV kind of things. And if we do get a TV show, which we’re talking about, we could use some of those things. It’d be fun. There’s a thing called Time Machine—that would be a totally cut-to thing—where we just use stage lights. But I would say 75 percent, when we write new stuff now, we think stagey. So, we have both parts of our brain working, filmy and stagey.

INWEEKLY: So, back to the workshops, you’ve been doing these for a while, right?
MCDONALD: Yes, for like, I’ll tell you exactly, almost seven years because seven years ago, I moved to Winnipeg from Los Angeles because I fell in love with a woman. So, I must travel for work now, and that’s part of what I do. And now I await your question.

INWEEKLY: Why are you doing this? Why do you enjoy kind of imparting sketch comedy to other people?
MCDONALD: Well, half the reason would be, of course, to make a living when I’m not filming or writing or selling stuff. But I would never make a living out of something I didn’t enjoy, and for years, I always thought that I had all these millions of theories. And I thought, “Oh, you should teach people that.” And I started doing it, and I found out that I did enjoy it. It’s fun. Sometimes people come to me and say, “You can’t teach people how to be funny.” And I say, “You’re right, but I can teach people how to be funnier.” What I really enjoy is when I see funny people and I help—I’m only there for like a weekend, but I help them be, at least for that weekend, even funnier. And I enjoy watching because sometimes you see naturals, but even naturals when they’re young and starting out, could use technique and learn how to make it technical and more proficient that way.

INWEEKLY: What first attracted you to the sketch comedy format?
MCDONALD: What attracted me to comedy?

INWEEKLY: What attracted you to sketch comedy, but yeah, comedy in general I guess?
MCDONALD: First, comedy—it was something I could do. I realized when I was a kid, I was funny through timing. I’m not great at thinking of jokes. I can think of sort of funny things to say, but it helps greatly by how I say them, knowing when to pause and stuff. And sketch comedy became sort of—well, I knew I wasn’t funny in a stand-up comedy kind of way. I know that I really have trouble writing jokes, and to stand up and tell jokes didn’t seem something I was good at, though I did enjoy watching. And watching my heroes, well, like Richard Pryor movies or Gene Wilder and Woody Allen and Albert Brooks and many others, I could see that that’s how I wanted to be funny, like with a script, talking to someone else, having them say something, pausing, having horror register on my face, cause I’m playing a coward or something, and then saying something funny, and the physical action that goes with that, that just seemed obvious to me that’s the way you were funny. And how you get there is through sketch comedy. Saturday Night Live was just starting, I’m watching the Monty Python repeats as a kid and it seemed not only was that fun, but it seemed like something I could do. And I was in Toronto, and I had my plan. So, I would go to Second City, get discovered, be hired by Main Stage, Saturday Night Live would discover me, do it for four years and then start movies. That was, like, my plan, which I failed.

INWEEKLY: Yeah, yeah, that I can see.
MCDONALD: But I met Dave Foley at Second City, so plan B was pretty good too, what happened.

INWEEKLY: Where do you see Kids in the Hall fitting in the overall sketch comedy universe?
MCDONALD: Well, I don’t think we’re with the giants, the giants being Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. Because I’m a Canadian, I have to say SCTV and whatever else came after that. I would say Chappelle’s Show’s a giant. I don’t think we’re with the giants, but I think we’re close to the giants, and we paved the way for other sketch comics that will become giants. I think we were sort of important. Because in the ‘70s, you had sort of anti-comedy, where Monty Python and Saturday Night Live sort of made fun of the form of sketch comedy. We sort of do the same, we came later, so that was done—we do the typical form, like we had beginnings, middles and ends to our sketches, but it was our content that we screwed around with, the things we talked about—kids telling their mother they’re gay, but not in a parody kind of way, in a real way, but also, like, funny and stuff like that. I think we had a little importance—well, this is what I always say about our placement in sketch comedy. We didn’t sell a million albums. More like the Pixies, we didn’t sell a million albums, but we paved the way for, like, Tom Green and South Park, like Pixies paved the way for Nirvana.

INWEEKLY: Yeah. You mentioned, you know, someone telling their parents they’re gay. Were y’all aiming to address any social issues or otherwise with your comedy?
MCDONALD: No, we just wanted to be funny. But as an accident, Scott Thompson, who was gay and was brave, he was sort of the first guy on TV that sort of, like, admitted it. I think he’s the first guy on TV. I’m not sure. It could have been someone else. Terri Sweeney, from Saturday Night Live, was obviously gay. I don’t know if he came out and said it. Maybe he did. And we were all going through our own problems, and we all had our own demons, and it came out through our writing. It wasn’t our plan to address social issues because we’re not political comedians. We’re not even social comedians. But I guess you learn a little bit about how screwed up people are when you see us because we were screwed up, but we were just not screwed up enough and funny enough that we made it entertaining.

INWEEKLY: You personally mine some, you know, pretty dark territory insofar as—
MCDONALD: Yeah, like my drunk dad.

INWEEKLY: Yeah.
MCDONALD: That’s a good example. Like, I wrote and I still write—that’s a farm I keep farming, even nowadays, when I write my comedy monologues I do in my podcast. Yeah, that just came out because I’m funny, so whatever I think a lot about, I’m going to write. And even if it’s dark and sad to other people, because I’m funny, it’s going to come out funny. So, when I tell my drunk dad stories—other people telling the same stories, it would just be sad and, “Oh, my God,” but me telling them, there’s the, “Oh, it’s sad and, oh, my God,” but there’s also, “It’s funny,” which I think make the stories stick with people more.

INWEEKLY: Do you find it therapeutic or, you know, cathartic or whatever, turning something painful—
MCDONALD: It is therapeutic, but it’s not the same as going to a therapist. It hasn’t made me get over it. Like, I did a whole one-man show 10 years ago that was all comedy but about my drunk dad. And it still comes up now in my—I’m doing a one-man show in New York off Broadway in a month for a week, and a lot of it’s about that. It’s therapeutic and it feels good to get it off your chest but doesn’t make you able to handle it better. Or at least me.

INWEEKLY: So, you’ve done a lot of stuff post-Kids in the Hall, you know, film, tv, voice acting.
MCDONALD: Yeah.

INWEEKLY: But you stay connected to the sketch comedy world. Why is that?
MCDONALD: Yeah, well, part of it is, I have a good career and I’m very happy, but I didn’t get the career that I quite wanted. I wanted to be like Woody Allen and write, direct and star in my own movies. So, that’s part of it. But another part of it, it’s like Al Pacino in “Godfather III,” “Well, they keep calling me back,” and the “they” that keeps calling me back is myself. It’s just something that I’m good at and that I do and will always be part of me. I’m dying to write longer form, which I am. I sold a few, I got paid for it, but they never got shot. I’m trying again now. There’s a pilot that hopefully will. Anyway, my point is that even when I do get successful, if I do get successful—I’m getting old, but even if I do get successful at the longer form things, I think I still have a notebook for sketches. And right now, I’m doing sketches on my podcast, but even if that stops, I will always have a notebook full of new sketch ideas. It just doesn’t leave me.

INWEEKLY: Well, let me just say, I think a lot of people would probably consider you successful.
MCDONALD: Yeah, yeah, no, no. I’m not trying to say I’m not. I definitely am, just not in the way that I thought I’d be.

INWEEKLY: Sure. Maybe everybody feels that to a certain extent.
MCDONALD: Yeah, yeah. Even Jim Carey said that once at the height of his success.

INWEEKLY: Did he?
MCDONALD: Yeah.

INWEEKLY: So, the landscape for a lot of things, but for comedy, it’s different now than it was when you were in Kids in the Hall.
MCDONALD: Yeah.

INWEEKLY: What would someone even be shooting for these days? Would it be a television show, or is that not even relevant?
MCDONALD: No, I think it’s relevant. Like, 10 years ago, it was totally different. And now, it’s totally different than it was 10 years ago. Ten years ago, your sketch troupe would shoot YouTube videos with the hope of getting a TV show. And then some did, like Human Giant and The Whitest Kids You Know, both troupes I like very much. I know them now because I’m the old uncle of sketch comedy, but even that’s changed. But there’s so many sketch comedy shows. I think that’s still the goal. There’s a couple of new shows in Canada starting this fall, and until very recently, there were a million sketch comedy shows on the stage. Maybe with Key and Peele gone, and Amy—what’s her last name? I forget names.

INWEEKLY: Schumer.
MCDONALD: Yes. But there’s less. But I think it’s just a temporary dip. I’m working with a sketch troupe now, and their goal is to get on TV. I think they’re really funny. I’m trying to speed it along quicker than how the Kids in the Hall got discovered. Maybe I’m ruining it. But if you’re a sketch troupe—but because it’s hard to get a TV show, what happens is what I call conquer-and-divide. A sketch troupe does really well, they play stage a lot of times, they get a TV deal, they don’t get a TV show, but people see how great they are, two of them become writers, one of them becomes a star in TV, like Aziz, and then the fourth one quits and makes a fortune creating apps.

INWEEKLY: Hmm. Sounds like a decent plan.
MCDONALD: Pardon?

INWEEKLY: I said, it sounds like a decent plan.
MCDONALD: Yeah, yeah. Conquer and Divide, that’s usually what happens.

INWEEKLY: So, what’s the kind of bottom-line takeaway you send people away from these workshops with?
MCDONALD: Umm, well, what my goal is—and I tell them this at the beginning—is that they get so excited about the process. And I tell them that the secret is not even going to a stupid workshop learning someone else’s rules. It’s going to a stupid workshop, learning someone else’s stupid rules and then getting so excited by that that you keep writing all the time, you’re always doing it and then you’re performing all the time because you’re so excited you’ve got a sketch troupe. So you’re writing and performing all the time, and then the rules you learned in my stupid workshop go away. Slowly, they melt away, and you develop your own rules, and that’s sort of when you find your voice and your more interesting work comes. So, to sum that up very quickly, I hope that what happens—and of course, it doesn’t happen a lot. But if it happens, if one person every two or three workshops, is that someone who was on the fence about being a sketch comic gets so excited they become one. Or someone who was a sketch comic and it wasn’t going well gets so excited they don’t give up. That’s the best I think I can get from them.

INWEEKLY: OK. And then, I guess lastly, unless you have stuff to throw in here—
MCDONALD: I don’t. This is a good interview. I’ve thrown everything in. I have nothing left to throw.

INWEEKLY: Cool. Well, let me get you to throw one more thing.
MCDONALD: Yes. I mean after this question.

INWEEKLY: Yes. So, you kind of have a pretty good vantage point to get a good read on what’s going on in sketch comedy land out there, doing your tours and your workshops.
MCDONALD: Yeah.

INWEEKLY: What’s going on? You kind of hear that sketch comedy is experiencing a renaissance. Is it? Or has it always consistently been a healthy scene out there if you, you know, care to pay attention?
MCDONALD: I think when the Kids in the Hall started, there was no scene, in Toronto anyway, which is the big Canadian city. It’s sort of like our New York. There was Second City and then there were two or three troupes that tried it for a few years, weren’t very good. They all had a piano player, which is stupid. And then we were good. We’re not the five funniest guys in the world. Next to Monty Python, we’re the five funniest guys in the world that worked together. And then something special happened, and then a scene happened. So, in Toronto, there’s been a scene. And we’re certainly not responsible for this, but shows like us and then Mr. Show and Chappelle’s Show, it kept the flame going for sketch comedy. And I think there is, in every major comedy city now, it isn’t just about stand-up. It’s about sketch comedy, and I think there is something exciting happening. But the one thing I see, the problem everyone has now—I’m not a mean old guy who complains about this. It’s just what’s happening, and it helps the world, but it doesn’t help sketch comedy—is the political correctness. People are sort of torn, and I see them make everything less funny. And I don’t tell them not to. I tell them I want them to go ahead and be comfortable. I just know that I was lucky—well, lucky, or we were evil. In the ‘90s, we had an HBO show, and they told us to write whatever we wanted. They wanted us to be edgy. In fact, HBO’s motto back then was, ‘It’s not television; it’s HBO,’ so they wanted stuff like that. And we were kind of selfish, and maybe we hurt some people, offended some people by being funny. And now, I see it’s harder for them, young sketch comics, because sometimes they can’t do the funniest they can do because it’s offensive. I’m not saying they should offend anyone. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying that now, we’re smart enough to know that can offend somebody, so it’s a little harder for them now.

INWEEKLY: Do you think that’s restricting?
MCDONALD: That’s what I mean, it’s restricting. But I’m not against it. I think in the ‘70s and ‘80s—so yeah, starting in the ‘70s with Richard Pryor and George Carlin, then Saturday Night Live, and it kept going in the ‘80s, it peaked in the ‘90s with HBO. It was too much one way. We would do anything we wanted for a laugh, and it was too much that way. So now, of course, the natural way the world works, the natural reaction, it may be too much the other way. But it’s a good thing that it’s happening, and by the time my grandchildren—not that I have any children-children. But by the time my grandchildren, or my friends’ grandchildren, are older, I believe it’ll be the way it is. So, “Yes, you can do that because there’s a point to it and it’s funny and you’re making fun of that character, so it’s not offensive,” and on the other hand, they’ll say, “Well, that is just offensive and not funny.” It’ll be the way it should be, where they’ll judge each thing, joke by joke or sketch by sketch.

INWEEKLY: Huh. Don’t you think that’s kind of—I mean, at least for so long, it was considered maybe comedy’s responsibility to push the boundaries as far as possible?
MCDONALD: Yeah, eh, as far as possible—it’s just that they’re changing the limits of what “as far as possible” is.

INWEEKLY: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that’s interesting.
MCDONALD: Yeah.

INWEEKLY: You said you felt fortunate that you kind of hit it before that?
MCDONALD: Yeah, fortunate—yeah, I mean, because I think we did more good than offended people. There were a few ideas—I’m not going to tell them—that our producer said were too offensive, that we didn’t do. The only thing I worry about—I don’t know how young you are. But “All in the Family” in the ‘70s, which was about a bigot, that show wouldn’t be around nowadays, because he said bigoted, racist things, but it was clear that the writers of the show were showing that this is wrong and you shouldn’t be that way and making fun of a guy like that.

INWEEKLY: Right.
MCDONALD: And it was sort of social satire. So, I think at the moment, social satire, at least when it comes to something like an Archie Bunker character, may be dead. And I’m sad for that. But I do believe it’ll come around and both sides will see reason, “Oh, yeah, that is too offensive, without a point,” and the other people will say, “Oh, yeah, that’s offensive, but it’s making a great point and it’s hilarious and it sort of in a way helps the world.” That’s what I’m hoping for.

INWEEKLY: Is that the measurement or the gauge, if it makes a good point it’s OK?
MCDONALD: Well, the biggest thing a comic wants is to get a big laugh. But the most important laughs are if it makes a point. But I can’t sit down and write and think about that, because then, “I gotta make a point!” Because then I won’t be funny or make a point. I gotta write what comes naturally. And if it’s funny, that’s the most important thing. But if it’s funny and sort of says something about the world, that’s amazing.