Kevin McDonald on getting robbed in Hollywood, Seinfeld cameo and his Winnipeg Comedy Festival special
McDonald’s Winnipeg Comedy Festival special airs August 9th on CBC Television.
Kevin McDonald is one of Canada's comedy legends best known for being a member of the iconic comedy troupe and series The Kids in the Hall. He's appeared in some of the era-defining shows including Friends and Seinfeld, is responsible for the existence of the famed KITH sketches, "Headcrusher" and "Chicken Lady," and has done standup for a number of years.
Now you can check out McDonald as he hosts a night of comedy at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival in his special, "Square Pegs" — which airs August 9th at 8 p.m. (8:30NT) on CBC Television.
Here's what McDonald says about his comedy beginnings, career, seminal sketches, how he was robbed in Hollywood and more.
Kicked out of acting school
"When I was a kid, it started becoming obvious like around 11 that I was kind of funny," says Kevin McDonald. McDonald adds that he was also very shy but despite that, he still got in trouble in school for making jokes during classes — and by his teens he was convinced he was funny.
"And I had comedy heroes. It was the '70s and I know I'm not supposed to say his name but it's the truth, Woody Allen was a hero of mine. I sort of wanted to be him and Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, the old comics from the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball. Like, I wanted to be all of them, I wanted to write my own stuff."
"After high school — I knew I wasn't a standup. I liked sketch comedy, I liked Monty Python and SCTV and Saturday Night Live, especially the first few years of SNL — but I knew I didn't feel right about being a standup at the time. So I thought the thing I could do was go to college for acting."
McDonald enrolled in a three-year program at Humber College: "They didn't have the comedy school, it was just acting and they kicked me out after three months.
The guy who kicked me out said that I was a one legged actor, meaning that my one leg was comedy.- Kevin McDonald
"My performance teacher...ran after me as I was walking in the bus after I was kicked out. I was in a daze. He came out and he told me that I was good at improv and he gave me the phone number to Second City workshops. I didn't know there was such a thing and that's how, sort of, it all started."
A 'Square Peg' comic
McDonald's forte dwells in the storytelling realm. He says: "I'm very political at home when I'm watching CNN and reading newspapers and social things — Richard Pryor is my favourite comic but I can't be Richard Pryor. I sort of have to be silly and tell stories."
"Comics skew things in a different way which means that comics are odd people and if they weren't funny they would just be odd people so I think it's either crazy funny 'cause I look at things in a different way but sometimes in real life I'm in trouble. Like at the bank they don't care that I'm funny they just know that I don't understand what a mortgage is because I'm an odd person. So sometimes that kind of way of being a comic hurts you in real life."
Even in his Winnipeg Comedy Festival special, "Square Pegs," McDonald references people who don't fit in.
"I think any comic in the world could have been in that show because at least 75% of us are probably square pegs."
Famed Headcrusher and Chicken Lady
KITH is where McDonald was shining in his full imagination and creations of some of the funniest bits and TV characters. And even though one of the seminal KITH characters, "Headcrusher," was invented by Mark McKinney as a joke, McDonald is the reason it ended up in the show.
"He thought of the character, and I remember a few years later when we were writing a pilot, we sort of had a big argument and I had to convince him that it was good. And usually I can't convince Mark but I guess somewhere deep inside he realized that he had a good character and I talked him into writing it up and he wrote it up. It's our big character I would think."
"The second biggest character I would say is Chicken Lady and that was also accidentally because of me."
"I wrote a scene about a freak show where I was a freak, I was the nose bleeder but I've gone to self-help groups and so the scene is me at the freak show and there's 10-year-old kids complaining that they've paid their 10 cents and I'm not nose bleeding and I'm saying 'I'm aware of myself, I don't have to nose bleed, I know who I am now' and that goes on for a few pages. So in the original script I said, 'Go to the Chicken Lady, she's an emotional dependent, she'll lay you eggs at the drop of a hat.' All it was is I said chicken lady and when I read the script, 'cause we had the read through every Friday in those days, Bruce McCulloch said: 'We should cut to the chicken lady, the scene should then be the chicken lady being an emotional dependent laying tons and tons of eggs to please the kids.'"
"I thought that was a good note so when I rewrote it, I said: 'Cut to the Chicken Lady' and they said 'Who should be the chicken lady? Oh Mark would be a funny chicken lady.' And then all that week when we did that scene, Mark stayed in character the whole week which drove us crazy. And then he got the idea for the sketch where the chicken lady was sort of horny and then he wrote that sketch and I guess the rest is Chicken Lady history."
"So yea [Kids in the Hall's] two biggest characters are sort of because of me."
Of all the characters coming up in the new Amazon's KITH, McDonald says he is most excited about the new ones that he and the rest of KITH members have written.
"The only really big character that's coming back for sure is Scott's character Buddy Cole, The Martini Guy. Bruce is doing The Eradicator and I'm doing the King of Empty Promises."
He says there'll be something for the old and the new audiences: "If we were a rock band, we'd be like Neil Young. We'd like to play the new songs that people haven't heard of, 'cause we're excited about them."
A double version of Welcome to Hollywood
After The Kids in the Hall, McDonald moved on to appear in shows which defined the 1990s such as Friends, Seinfeld, That '70s Show and many more.
"I had just moved to Los Angeles after The Kids in the Hall but I had to audition for TV shows and I got Friends."
It was a bittersweet moment for McDonald. He says that when he was wrapping shooting Friends — which was on a Friday — he came home only to find out he was robbed. That was also the one day he didn't bring his wallet with him which he says he's never done before and that was stolen too.
"My cat was still there, hiding under the bed. It was a double version of Welcome to Hollywood: 'Welcome to Hollywood, you got a guest spot in a big show. Oh and also they break into your apartment a lot in Hollywood.'"
"And then Seinfeld happened and it was very fun. Jerry Seinfeld was very nice. It was amazing 'cause he did everything. He told his directors what to do, he told the writers what to do, he told the actors what to do and everything he said seemed correct. But at that point Dave Foley was the biggest "Kid in the Hall" because he was on news radio so all week he accidentally kept calling me Dave."
With That '70s Show, McDonald adds that all the young cast were fans of The Kids in the Hall — except Ashton Kutcher, who was not aware of it. "But he was very very nice… When the others kept complimenting me, he was like, 'Oh were you in a band?' Like he kept thinking [KITH] was a band."
Creative process for sketch vs. standup
McDonald is well known for his sketch comedy and acting but in recent years he's also dabbled in solo standup work.
"I've been doing standup for the past seven or eight years. It took me a while to figure out how to get a process for that because at first to me I just didn't fit in the standup. And it worked, the audience knew who I was so it mostly worked."
"I sort of played a guy named Kevin McDonald who was in a sketch troupe and the premise was that I was trying standup for the first time. And so I had trouble on purpose, or sort of conceptual. And if you knew who I was, like when I played improv theaters, my audience came out and it got tons of laughs and it worked but when I played standup clubs, people who go to standup clubs they don't know who the headliner is sometimes. They just thought I was an old guy bombing. 'Cause I was pretending to bomb."
McDonald later did a podcast which was a variety show where he wrote a monologue, a song and a sketch for each show. He says that monologues became funny exaggerated versions of true stories that happened in his life which have sort of become his standup act over the past few years and he is much more comfortable with doing exaggerated stories on stage.
He explains his process which seems simple yet effective: "I remember a story and I close my eyes and I concentrate. Then I think about what's funny on it and I keep writing and rewriting day after day and the more I get comfortable with it, the more jokes come to me."
Once he has the jokes he goes out to perform them and says every show is like a workshop, even the bigger stage. "I'm not experimenting, I think I have my act but sometimes you just think of something good on it. Mostly I don't do things word for word and I'll change things up, I'll change the rhythm. Some rhythms it only works one way so I stick to that rhythm but there's a few things I'll try to dig into to have fun."
"I like writing sketches better. That's what I'm more natural at. It comes much more natural to me."
I think I'm funnier when I'm talking to people in a sketch than when I am on stage by myself.- Kevin McDonald
The KITH star says he writes fewer monologues in the sketches versus standup and that writing sketches is slightly different: "I like to think of conceptual ideas and then filling it out with, 'OK my character is this, this character is that, my character is like this. How will they react in this stupid situation?' and it's easier to write."
"I guess my process is I think of the idea, I write a beat sheet, a sheet full of beats for it, I make sure I work on three or four sketches a day so I work on each sketch a half hour a day. And then it just gets more and more developed and sooner or later I understand where the sketch is going and how to make it funny."
McDonald says that stage and sketch performances are also very different but both can be nerve-wracking. "In the sketches many things can go wrong but at least you're not alone. By myself I get super nervous."
For the past seven or eight years he's been finding improv theatres all over North America, teaching sketch comedy during the day and performing at night doing 20 minutes of standup and improvising with the actors that he teaches. Sometimes he even does sketches that he's written with them and says some of the young actors he's taught would feel relief because: "Kevin from The Kids in the Hall gets nervous too."
By now he's done so much of it that in the last three or four years he says he stopped getting cripplingly nervous: "I just get a little bit excited. But right up to my early 50s I got super-nervous."
He says he still needs to be a little bit nervous or excited to go on stage, "or I'll just be boring."
"I always loved working close to my home, close to my bed so it was great that I was working in Winnipeg — family came, that was fun."
But when asked about what the audience can expect, McDonald was modest: "First of all, no matter how bad my set was, everybody else killed. All the other comics are great so if you see my opening set and you're not happy, don't turn the station because everybody else was great!"
Tune in to CBC Television on August 9th at 8 p.m. (8:30NT) to watch Kevin McDonald's Winnipeg Comedy Festival special, "Square Pegs," — featuring some of comedy's most outrageous outliers: Nick Nemeroff, Ana-Marija Stojic, Charles Haycock, Yumi Nagashima, Anesti Danelis and Todd Graham.