• By: Dan Donovan

Mike MacDonald: Canadian Comic Legend and a Damn Fine Fellow

In 1986, I tried out new talent night at Ottawa’s Yuk Yuks. That first time on stage I cracked it so club owner Howard (Howie) Wagman asked me to come out again. A week later, I did and I bombed — like really bombed in front of over 230 people. I was so humiliated and embarrassed that I thought I’d never go on stage again. Howie said: “Try it again. . . you’ll never be like Mike MacDonald if you just quit”.

Even back then, Mike was the high bar. He was the best, the man, the master, the standard by which everyone judged their own work and progress. I came a week later and nailed it and thus began my stand-up comedy calling. It would lead me to performing many openers and nights as an M.C. and later help me as I became a writer and comedy writer. . .  but mostly a writer with a sense of the bizarre, mixed with a little bit of anger and a lot of sarcasm.

Ottawa was a gold mine in comedy between 1986 and the mid 1990’s. On any given week Howard Wagman was guiding, advising and impacting the careers of dozens of Canadian comedians including  many Ottawa locals like Tom Green, Norm MacDonald, Jeremy Hotz, Luigi Saracino, Angelo Tsarouchas, Chris Finn and others. I always admired Chris Finn who I had waited tables with during university. (Chris went on to be the main writer for the award winning Rick Mercer Show (among others) and kills it to this day in stand-up). Chris was funny smart, sarcastic, dark and clever in his humour. Paradox, irony and contrariness were his friends. Back then, Chris was a regular performer at Ottawa’s Yuk Yuks and when I nervously expressed an interest in  trying it out myself he encouraged me to do it. But what he said next surprised me: “First, go see Mike MacDonald — he’s the funniest and most brilliant comedian in Canada and the States. His material slays. He’s smart, he’s not all dick jokes — that’s the easy stuff — he’s dry, observant and hilarious”.

I figured if Chris liked this guy, he must be the Elvis of comedy because Chris was on the rise and was so good that he was heading off to Toronto and beyond to do it full time. The next time Mike was performing at Yuk Yuks in Ottawa I went. The shows all sold out. I immediately loved the deadpan mockery and causticness of his material. He had a whole piece about his not so good relationship with his dad when he was in high school called “More late”.  It had the audience literally crying. It was brilliant. I met him after the show and told him I knew his brothers JP (Johnny Vegas) and Dave and that I’d served his folks at the Penguin on Elgin a couple of times. (His parents could always be seen dancing there on Saturday nights). Mike couldn’t have been more gracious. “You know my dad, well my mom is a saint . . . and my dad was at the show. . . my brother is a good singer. . . Dave is driving motocross. . . fuck he’s gonna kill himself.”  He uttered those words in such a funny way and made a motion with his face. . . and then said, “thanks for coming to the show”.  

I remember leaving that show wanting to try comedy and thinking, I have to write smart funny material like him. The biggest thing, however, was that he was this big comedy star who took some time to talk to me.  He was nice and he didn’t have to be — even comedians will tell you that a lot of comedians can be assholes off the stage. I would meet Mike several times over the next 25 years. He graciously agreed to be one of four panel guests for a pilot TV show I was hosting in 2001 called Correct Me If I’m Wrong. He could sense I was having some timing and other issues on the show and during a break he pulled me aside and said, “You’re doing  fine . . . don’t be nervous, just own it. Oh, and the other guy on the panel, he’s a dick and trying to make it tough on you . . . so f*ck him.”

God, I loved the guy. That did so much for my confidence.

Mike appeared in Ottawa Life Magazine's TOP 25 people in the Capital twice. Once with his brother Johnny Vegas and again in 2013 after his liver transplant. He went on to do many fundraisers for liver and mental health foundations (he was bi-polar). I was pretty darn excited to appear alongside him as  a judge, in the summer of 2014, for the Yuk Yuks annual summer talent competition. A couple of comedians were really bombing that night but at one point Mike turned to me and said, “I love these new guys . . .  and the girl, but you gotta know how to take rejection if you do this shit.” We both laughed but it wasn’t laughing at them, it was laughing with them and sharing a thing we both knew —comedy is tough and you need to take the really bad nights in stride.

Mike MacDonald was a comedian’s comedian. So many of his friends and colleagues in the business will be missing him today and in coming days. He told me back in 2014 that he really liked the Ottawa Life Magazine interview that former editor Harvey Chartrand did with him in 2013. So, to honour Mike. Here is that link and I hope everyone enjoys reading it again.

Mike was an Ottawa boy and would never forget his hometown or miss a chance to make someone laugh. I have many favourite Mike MacDonald bits but let me end with one of them:

I’ve lived in L.A. for a long time but I’m really happy to be back living in Canada. There are so many cultural differences between our countries. Like McDonalds. Do you know the difference between McDonalds in Canada and McDonalds in the United States? In Canada, the McDonalds have photos on the wall that say Employee of the month and in the United States they have photos on the wall that say Employee shot last month.”