Photos supplied by Crush Improv
He’s the bearded woman driving a Chicken Lady through the countryside. He’s the irritated man in the bank line suddenly bemused by a flying pig. He’s Sir Simon Milligan, a man possessed by many “polite demons that would open a door for a lady carrying too many parcels – but demons, nonetheless!” He’s got things to do. They call him Jerry Sizzler or perhaps that’s Jean-Pierre, a respected French mime instructor. He’s the guy nobody likes at the back of bus, probably because he’s eating worms. He’ll borrow your video but don’t expect it back. Slipped his mind, you see. He’s all of the above and he’s pinching your face. He’s most certainly not really a gorilla. He’s Kevin McDonald, one of the founding members of Canada’s funniest export, sketch-comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall. Still sketchy after all these years, McDonald wants to show you how you can be, too.
Born in Montreal, McDonald would be one of many comedians who would break out of the thriving Toronto scene in the mid-1980s. However, the man who would go on to play so many memorable characters got his first big acting gig when he was a child, playing a tooth for one of his father’s dental clients. You have to start somewhere, right? Now, one might think this would have launched a long career of tinkering inside people’s mouths with shiny metal, but the kid in the molar outfit realized he was funny. He liked that.
McDonald wrote his first sketch in his mid-teens and started performing early, often attending Second City sketch workshops. He met Dave Foley there and the duo started performing around Toronto as The Kids in the Hall. Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney would join the troop in 1984 with Scott Thompson followed in 1985. Though a brief breakup up of the group would occur when McKinney and McCulloch were offered writing gigs for Saturday Night Live, they reformed in 1986 and have been performing together off and on ever since.
However, before Lorne Michaels, CBC TV, an exceptionally catchy theme song and a feature film, the Kids were mainly winging it every Monday night at Toronto’s Rivoli, performing a new show each time of fresh material. Two years ago, McDonald would return to his improvisational roots –minus the tooth costume– when he joined Ottawa’s Crush Improv troupe for a night of absurdity that some may still be recovering from. I was there that night. I only stopped laughing last Thursday and only because I stubbed my toe on a coffee table.
“He’s very silly –which we love,” says Crush co-founder Al Connors. “We love working with weirdos, and Kevin is certainly a weirdo in the best sense. He’s also super nice and easy to talk to.”
McDonald enjoyed working with the group so much that he got in touch with Crush about a return this year. They were more than happy to oblige. They will host another comedy night in Arts Court with McDonald on May 22 with a bit of a twist. The three part show will include a stand-up comedy performance by McDonald as well as new sketches written by students of a workshop he will be giving early in the day.
“Kevin runs through the process Kids in the Hall use to create sketches –which involves getting on your feet to improvise some short scenes. Then you write what worked, and try it again,” explains Connors. “What’s great about this particular workshop is that it all works toward creating material for a show that night. So, not only do you get to try your hand at sketch writing, but you get to try it out in front of an audience!”
The evening will end with the more traditional improve lunacy the troupe is used to where anything can happen. If Kevin McDonald is involved, that anything that can happen will most certainly be hilarious.
Tickets for the comedy night are on sale now at Crushimprov.com where you can also register for McDonald’s sketch writing workshop. VIP tickets also include a private, catered after-party at the nearby The Albion Rooms.
Ottawa Life talked with McDonald about his early career, his coming workshop, sketch writing with the other Kids and his transition to stand-up comedy. We were sure to not mention that Orson Wells film about that newspaper tycoon…with the sled and…you know…ummm…what was it called?
Ottawa Life: So, how does the son of a dental equipment salesman start getting involved in sketch comedy?
Kevin McDonald: In a way, my dad the dental salesman was a sketch comic. He had to put on shows in front of dealers; salesmen sold the equipment to dealers and dealers sold them to the dentists. He would sort of write sketches for these shows. Sometimes, he got me to perform in them. I once played a giant molar and my cousin played a giant drill. It wasn’t long before I realized that I loved this and realized that I was funny. Being funny was the only thing that I could do really well. So, I started writing sketches. It was just for fun – I was a teenager without a sketch troupe – but I loved Monty Python, SCTV and Saturday Night Live.
Do you recall the first sketch you ever wrote?
I wrote my first sketch at 16 and it was a parody of the movie, Psycho. It was called Psycho-sematic and it was just a guy in the shower by himself, screaming, thinking he’s feeling pain. I didn’t want to be a stand-up so, after I got kicked out of college, I joined Second City workshops when I was 19. Right away, I met other teenagers like Mike Myers and Dave Foley and I was well on my way in the sketch world. I was lucky to be in Toronto during such a good time for sketch comedy.
What was the process for The Kids in the Hall when it came down to writing the sketches? Did you each bring things to the table individually, write as a group or did you have members that sort of just deviated to writing with each other more?
When The Kids in the Hall were just a troupe, before the TV show, we wrote through improv. We did a show of completely new sketches every Monday night at a club called the Rivoli. On Thursdays and Fridays, we’d meet in groups of two to come up with premises for sketches. On Saturday, Sundas and Monday afternoons, we would meet, take our favourite premises and write them through improvising. We’d talk out the idea first and then act it over and over until we had a sketch. And then we’d move on to the next idea. When we had a TV show, we’d be at our computers and we would just write up the sketches in groups of two, three and one until we had a sketch. When we wrote Brain Candy we did it the hardest way possible, we wrote it while all in the room together. We couldn’t go on to the next page until we all agreed and we never agreed.
Do you feel you work better writing alone or with others to feed off of?
I feel personally that I am better writing alone but with a group close by. Whenever I was writing alone and I got stuck on something, it was amazing to have a group of comedy geniuses in the same building. I would ask for help and a great idea would always pop up – then I’d go back to my little room and keep writing.
Can you share a particular comedic memory of your Kids days at it relates to the writing of a sketch?
During The Kids in the Hall TV show days, my favourite part of the process would be the writing time. We would write for a month then prep and shoot the filmed sketches for another month and then rehearse and shoot the live audience sketches for a third month. Then we would start writing and begin the three month process again. It was a golden time where the ideas seemed to be flowing out of us. We all loved writing. We would write at our office from Monday to Friday.
However, I remember one Saturday, when both our girlfriends were busy, Dave and I went to the office to write. We were going to write the “Sizzler Sisters” sketch but when we got there, lo and behold, Bruce was there also writing on a Saturday. He talked about how Dave and I should write a sketch with our two Cour de Bois characters, the frontiersmen who hunted and sang “Chante Allouette”. Dave and I used to put these characters in improvs. Then Dave came up with an idea to put those two characters in modern times and have them hunt for suits of business men. So I ended up being in one office, writing the “Sizzler Sisters” sketch and Dave and Bruce were in another, writing the Cour de Bois scene. Then, when it was over, I started walking home and a young drug dealer tried to sell me hash. I said no and then he recognized me. As I walked away, I thought it would be funny if I called the cops on him – especially after he recognized me from TV. I ran back to the office and wrote “Drugs Are Bad” based on that incident. So three well known Kids in the Hall sketches were written on that Saturday. Oh, to be young and obsessed again.
I had to pleasure of finally seeing the Kids live on a recent tour. How do you find returning to those old sketches? Do you think, hummm, this could use updating or is it generally easy picking up exactly as they had been performed before?
Every time we do an old sketch of ours it’s like we’re back in the ‘80’s writing it for the first time. We half go by memory but we also think of new jokes that were better than the old jokes. We don’t think in terms of updating the old material –we just know that sketches are never finished even if they are filmed. You can always re-write and improve a sketch. During a tour, after the show, we are always on the tour bus thinking of better jokes for some sketches; even on the second last night of the tour!
I first saw you perform with Crush Improv during their My Summer Crush event two years ago. How did you find working with the group?
I had a lot of fun work with the Crush Improv team. They are so enthusiastic and have no shortage of ideas. I feel safe with them and know if I can’t come up with a funny idea that they will, which is the best thing you can say about improvisers.
As a sketch writer, how easy or difficult do you find not having a script to follow in the instance of that wholly improvised show with Crush?
I’m a sketch writer but I started as an improvisor and am completely comfortable with making things up as you go along, especially with Crush. I like both things. I like having a script to dig into and I like making things up. I’ve done it a lot recently and I enjoy taking my time, taking the improv one step at a time and seeing what we end up with.
How did you develop the stand-up portion of the show, something neither sketch nor improv?
I developed my stand-up a few years ago when The Kids in the Hall cancelled a tour. Scott Thompson and I had the same manager at the time and he suggested that the two of us go on a tour anyway, a stand-up tour. I had always been afraid of stand-up. I feel I’m more comfortable doing comedy through acting, talking to someone and reacting to what they’re saying, but I accepted the challenge. I wrote a routine loosely in point form so I had a basis for what I was going to say but had room to improvise in between the ideas I had. My biggest problem in stand-up is that I can’t write jokes. So I have to find sneaky ways to get laughs, like pauses and faces and stories. My routine isn’t so much stand-up as it is a guy doing a sketch show of someone pretending to be a stand-up.
What made you want to start teaching sketch writing?
I’ve bored people for years at parties with my theories of how to make comedy sketches and what a comedy sketch is. I moved to Winnipeg from LA a few years ago because I fell in love with a woman there. There was also a writers strike at the time and so I needed to make my own work. Bit by bit I came up with a way to take these boring stories of mine and put them in a class. I found that the biggest thing I could contribute is the method of how The Kids in the Hall wrote sketches through improv.
What is a word or two of advice you like to give new sketch writers?
My biggest advice to sketch writers is to just keep writing. I can start you off by teaching you a method. But it’s just one method of many. You can take that that method, use it and write lots of sketches with it. After a while, you will realize that you now have your own method, one that you developed naturally over time. The more you write, the more you find your own voice and the better you get. It’s a silent kind of improvement. You don’t know you’re getting better, but you are. It’s like watching a puppy grow. You don’t know the puppy is getting bigger until you go away for a week and come back. Write as many sketches as you can. Soon you will be your own writer who doesn’t need a workshop.
Also, have your sketches performed as much as possible. You will only learn to improve your sketch writing by seeing your sketches up on their feet and seeing what people laugh at and what they don’t laugh at; what works as story and what doesn’t work. Write all the time. Perform all the time.