A Conversation with Kevin McDonald
In this episode, we’ll hear from Kids in the Hall and Brain Candy comedy writer and performer Kevin McDonald on writing sketch comedy, performing standup and improv, and the process for generating fresh content with his iconic comedy troupe.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
comedy writer and performer, Kevin McDonald.
- Sometimes you get an idea and you get that chill,
and when you write a sketch, there's two amazing sensations.
The second best sensation is when the sketch goes well
that you've worked so hard on, but that's the second best.
The best, the first time you think of that idea.
[Narrator] In this episode, Kids in the Hall comedy writer
and performer, Kevin McDonald, discusses sketch comedy
and performing with his famed Canadian comedy troupe.
- Right before I met Dave Foley, I remember being 18
and not sure what I was going to do.
I had just been kicked out of a theater school
because I knew it was funny but,
but I knew I wasn't stand up comedy funny,
which I've been proving all week here doing stand up.
So I just started to write sketches.
I thought I would write sketches
and then I would send them to people.
I didn't know who.
And SCTV at that point was my favorite sketch show,
and overall it's Monty Python, but SCTV was happening then.
So I wrote parody, and I remember in the same afternoon
I wrote two sketches that are really similar,
but I wrote a parody of Psycho , the movie Psycho .
It was called Psychosomatic ,
and it was just me in the shower screaming.
That was funny.
Then the other sketch I wrote,
which is sort of the same kind of idea,
it was a parody of The Odd Couple called
The Odd Schizophrenic where I was both messy and tidy.
My mother always said, "Kevin, I know you want to be an actor,
"but I don't think that's your talent.
I think it's writing."
She always said that.
She would say things like this, my mother of truth,
she would say,
"I don't think you're good looking enough to be an actor."
She paid for it!
So I went to Second City and for the first year,
everybody was over 30,
they weren't that funny in my pompous opinion,
and there were two teenagers, and I thought we were the only
ones who were funny, and the other teenager was Mike Myers.
But he was like special funny.
He was like a wunderkind, is that the word?
He was special.
I was like a lumpy potato of potential.
As good as he ever became,
he was good already at 17.
He was like two years younger than me,
and you just knew that he was special.
By the end of the year, he got hired for Second City,
then the very first a workshop without Mike Myers,
another teenager came in.
He almost looked a bit like him, if Mike Meyers wore glasses,
and it was Dave Foley.
Dave, I didn't know him
and Allen Guttman was the workshop teacher,
and just by coincidence he paired us in groups of twos
and Dave and I were the two.
We had to do the mirror exercise where you mirror each other's
movements, and we hadn't even talked to each other,
but all of a sudden, I guess it's the word "chemistry".
Just seems like a hokey story, but we started doing funny
movements and then we started going down to the ground
and then we mirrored each other in the fetal position.
And then we started crawling outside of the Second City
onto the street, Lombard Street.
I remember Allen Guttman ran out and he went to the door
and like through the screen door you can hear him,
"Come on, get back here, get back,"
and we were laughing our heads off.
So we were the only funny ones in the workshop,
but we had like a chemistry kind of thing.
So I went to Dave after, I didn't know his name
and I went to him and I said,
"Do you want to join my comedy troupe?"
I didn't have a comedy troupe.
And he said, "Yes."
Then I phoned my friend, Luciano Casimiri, and said,
"We have to start a troupe and there's a guy who--
he's another Mike Myers, we can't let this one go,"
that was the original Kids in the Hall , Luciano Casimiri,
Dave Foley, and Kevin McDonald.
- So then you're, as you've pointed out,
incredibly young and your troupe then somehow in the
next few years gets the attention of
Lorne Michaels in a TV show.
You were all really young when you started the show too, so,
can you talk a little bit about how that process worked?
- I think our intent was to be different.
We were also like friends first, and we just happen to be funny,
but we were funny in a different way.
Dave Foley when he got drunk, he would say,
"We're like the Sex Pistols of comedy."
And it sounded like a bit pretentious,
but we were always...
I don't mean this as a compliment,
because this works both ways,
but it turns out that we're original thinkers,
so sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
We auditioned for Second City several times,
so later when Lorne Michaels discovered us,
but there were three left in Toronto,
they hired just because of that.
They would not hire us.
They were very honest.
What they said is, "You're too weird."
But we're Canadians,
so we thought they were just being nice.
We thought they meant, "You're not good enough,"
but as it turns out, we were weird.
The only blueprint for sketch comedy was Monty Python,
so we didn't go around saying this a lot,
maybe Dave and I did a bit,
but we always thought we'd get discovered.
We'd have a TV show,
it would run five years,
then we would do a movie.
It would be a gigantic hit.
Then we would do another movie every four or five years,
like Monty Python.
We do have a less successful like blueprint that we do
get together four or five years.
But not because of brain candy bombing, it's like,
it's usually for a tour.
I wrote before I knew The Kids in the Hall ,
but as soon as it was Dave Foley, Bruce McCullough,
Mark McKinney, and crazy Scott Thompson,
I was so intimidated by them as writers.
For the first year I sorta, when we were just a stage troupe,
before the TV show, I sorta just stopped writing.
It was too intimidating.
The way that Mike Myers intimidated me,
they're all like writing geniuses.
How we wrote in those days was we'd come up with ideas,
and then we would write it through improv.
So I got my say in through other people's ideas,
like writing, coming up with lines and stuff through improv,
but I was too afraid to tell my ideas.
I was starting to write in the last like year that
we were a stage troupe.
We didn't write through improv anymore.
They introduced us to this 80s thing called computers,
so I was in a cubicle and I could do
whatever I want all day.
The nervous part was bringing it into the read through,
but you get used to that after a while,
even though we're all very mean people, giving notes.
Still, you get used to it.
- Talk about that process of working with this new group of
folks you're working with.
I mean, I know you added on people or switched out people,
whatever, along the way--
- People would quit, new people would join.
Myself, Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch,
Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson.
The other really good ones got better jobs,
so it was us five losers that were left.
We almost quit working together,
then Mark McKinney said, "Why don't we try it one more time?"
It was simple as that.
So we had a club, there was a club in Queen Street West
in Toronto called the Rivoli,
and they were famous for Gothic rock bands
and waiters and waitresses who never smiled.
For some reason, we got that club.
So every Monday night from the summer of 84
to the summer of 85,
we did like a show of completely new sketches.
We started pretending that we had a TV show.
We did a scene called "Elvis Was My Landlord",
he's having a party, then the landlord says,
"Stop making so much noise,"
and Bruce kicks them out and then he turns to the audience
and he says,
"It wouldn't be that way if Elvis was my landlord.
Then I come on stage and I'm dressed as Elvis and I go,
"I'll just want to tell you to tie up your garbage bag
"before you put them down the chute.
"Makes my job that much easier.
Thank you very much."
- If Elvis were my landlord,
we'd say stuff in the halls like,
"42 tenants can't be wrong."
Gee, I could go to his house anytime and borrow
a cup of sideburns, if Elvis were the man.
How are you doing?
I just wanted to tell you to tie up your garbage bags
before you put them down the chute.
Makes my job that much easier.
Thank you very much.
- I remember Ray Conlogue, he said, we read the review.
We tried to be cool and not care about the reviews, but he said,
"The Kids in the Hall assume that their audience
is as smart as they are."
And we sort of went, "Yeah, we do, yeah.
"We assume there's smart.
"Yeah, we do that.
That's what we're trying to do."
And then this was the summer of 85,
Lorne Michaels had quit Saturday Night Live
five years previously, and it was right at the beginning
of that summer that he had announced that he
was coming back to Saturday Night Live,
so he was sending a talent scouts to comedy cities
all over North America.
Toronto was one of them, because that's where you got Dan Akroyd
and Gilda Radner and that's where he's from.
Then on our last show, the Sunday afternoon matinee,
Evan Fasson, who is the Canadian guy who was the
President of Late Night NBC, and he was like only 30,
then he became the president of CBC a few years later.
Lorne sent him to see us because of the good review.
Actually, it was Evan Fasson's idea,
and he saw the whole show.
The next morning I got a lot of excited phone calls,
then we had a conference call with Lorne Michaels.
- It's funny watching those Kids In The Hall episodes now,
especially that first season, you all were so, so very young,
and it seemed like, especially that first season,
that you were writing a lot of material
that was really playing into that.
One scene of, you know, especially in the pilot episode,
one scene I'm going to particularly point out was
one of the first sketches where there...
I think it's called "Guys On A Break".
- The very first sketch in the pilot episode was-
- With the trash can.
- Like, was it Bruce?
He's in his bedroom and he's being woken up and he's,
"Hey, you millionaires, get out of that garbage."
- So then here's another one that also fed into that.
The Reg sketch.
- Remember his hair?
- Oh yeah.
- It was always perfect.
- Yet, you never saw him with a comb.
- I can't believe he's dead.
- To Reg.
[all] To Reg.
- Hey, you know, guys,
it seems like only yesterday we were
just a bunch of kids hanging out and getting Slurpees.
Next thing you know, we all got jobs.
- Or girlfriends.
Next thing you know, they're moving in with you.
- Next thing you know, you're all buying piano wire...
good strong piano wire and
sneaking up on old Reg while he reads.
- Jobs become careers.
- Girlfriends become wives.
- And Reg becomes a lifeless corpse in your arms.
- I would say if anyone would ever ask us to put a sketch
in a time capsule, nobody will,
I don't think there are such things as time capsules.
I would pick that sketch because it sort of defines us in a way.
- You guys seem to have this utter innocence
in your performance,
especially in that first season,
but almost every episode has a very dark turn to it.
- I think we're just dark naturally.
We all had horrible childhoods, like many comedians,
but we seem to embrace it more.
And Bruce McCullough, he was the first one to write dark stuff,
and he seemed to open the door for us first to think,
"Oh, dark stuff is good."
There's one sketch he wrote when we were a stage troupe,
and Reg was his idea that we all wrote together.
Reg was his idea.
He was the king of dark comedy.
The thing with dark comedy though, I think if you go
around saying, "What dark sketch are we going to write?"
I think you're screwed.
If you go for darkness,
I think you've got to write what you write.
You've got to write what you write naturally.
Later people would tell us, "That was really dark,"
how Scott's character died in the sketch of aids,
but even though he's dead, he keeps saying cancer.
That's really dark.
And we said, "Oh, yeah, I guess you can see it that way."
- One of your episodes in season one, you also did a sketch
that was writing a sketch, writing a comedy sketch.
- But from your real perspective here, like from your
What is the sort of genetic makeup of a great sketch,
one that would actually have made it onto the show?
- I did go to Humber for three months to study theater
because I didn't know what to do first,
and the one thing I remember was the very first thing that the-
I don't know if he's called a dean in Canada,
but I'll call him the dean, of the acting program,
the very first class 9:00 AM,
the very first one, he had a blackboard.
Jerry Smith was his name, and he wrote,
"In our business, it's all about this."
In our business, I hate that kind of talk,
but after that it got cool.
"It's all about this," and he wrote the word idea,
and he circled it a thousand times
and that really excited me.
Then later in a sketch troupe, I-- that's what it's all about,
When we get an idea of, you know, sometimes you get an idea
and you don't know and you have to work on it,
but sometimes you get an idea and you get that chill.
When you write a sketch, there's two amazing sensations.
The second best sensation is when the sketch goes well
that you've worked so hard on, but that's the second best.
The best, the first time you think of that idea.
The very first time that I thought of the idea,
Buddy Holly before he died,
he was a real mean guy to everybody on the plane
and deserve to die.
I remember like getting that like, that thrill.
"Oh, that's a good idea."
And every time I get an idea, and I'm wrong all the time.
I always think, "This is my hit single.
This is my Stairway to Heaven."
I get really excited and I write it down.
But the second sensation that happens after the
first sensation is always disappointing.
Once you write it on paper, it is always flat,
because in your head,
it's the most exciting thing in the world.
You can do anything with it.
You can go anywhere with it.
Then when you write it down, it's like death.
It's always disappointing.
Then you learn craftsmanship, especially if you've been on
TV show for five years, and you learn how to pump as much life
into it as you can so you get back to the first time
you had that exciting idea.
- Can you talk about like how something would become
a recurring one and how you knew that that was really
a successful one, and at the germ of the idea, you know,
what were you thinking to...
were you looking at it as a longterm sketch?
- First of all, I want to go back to Allen Guttman,
the workshop teacher.
He said another thing that sort of influenced the
Kids in the Hall .
Dave and I were in the class, he said,
"When you find a comedy partner,
the best way to come up with ideas as spritzing."
We didn't know what spritzing meant, and spritzing is like
Vaudevillian speak for just hanging out with somebody
and coming up with ideas.
For example, Dave, Scott, and I were walking down the street
when we were just a stage troupe before the TV show,
and Scott told a horrible dark story that I can't tell on
television about his life.
He said, "I guess I have demons."
Then Dave told an even darker story that I really
can't tell on television.
He said, "I guess I have demons."
They looked at me cause I'm like a light Jello pudding to them.
They said, yeah, sarcastically, like, "You have demons.
And I said, "Yes.
"Polite demons that would open a door for lady carrying
too many parcels, but demons nonetheless."
- Yes, I'm a man possessed by many demons.
Polite demons that would open a door for a lady
carrying too many parcels, but demons nonetheless.
Yes, I've walked along the path of evil many times.
It's a twisting curving path that actually leads to a
charming block garden, but beyond that evil.
And now I would like to bring on one who could be
the spawn of Satan himself,
Good evening, Hecubus.
Are you ready?
- I am ready to serve you, master, and Satan.
- Then they laughed and then we started writing up
Simon and Hecubus, so spritzing is very important.
Now, running characters that during the Kids in the Hall
TV show days.
Our rule was that running characters sketches could only
go in if they were as good as any other sketch that week.
"King of Empty Promises",
for those of you who don't know which one that is
but may know it, it's where I promise to do things
and they say, "Will, you do it?"
And I go, "Will do."
And when I don't do them they go,
"But you said you were going to do that."
"Slipped my mind."
Yeah, I came in the office one day and I said,
"Norm, I don't have any ideas.
What are we going to write today?"
And Norm said, "Kevin, why don't we write about that horrible
thing that you do to people?"
"What horrible thing?"
Said, "Well, you always promise, like Chris Cooper our editor,
"you said you were going to make a tape of the Paul Simon album
"for him and you never do.
Let's do that."
And it's true.
My only defense is that I'm a child of an alcoholic
and I want to please people,
so I promise them things and I mean it at the time,
but then an hour later I forget and I don't care anymore.
- So, did you bring my videos?
- Slipped my mind.
- Should I even ask about The Godfather ?
- Don't bother.
- This is starting to cost me money, you know.
I mean, soon the video store's going to be on my [bleep],
and rightly so, because when you rent a video,
you enter into a sacred trust.
- I'll tell you what.
Let's have dinner tonight.
Pesto's at 8:00 PM.
I'll bring the video.
I'll bring The Godfather .
You know the Paul Simon album you've been wanting me to tape?
- I'll tape it and bring that too.
And, dinner's on me.
- You don't have to bother with all that.
Just bring me the video.
- No, I want to.
I'm just sick about the whole thing.
- You've now written these things, you've worked them,
you've rehearsed them with each other?
Right? - Right.
- How much, when you actually get into the performance mode
and you're getting ready to do the show or doing the show,
how much ends up being improv added to that?
- That was the weird thing, because when we were a stage
troupe we were writing through improv,
so there were no scripts written down,
then there were a lot of ad libs.
A lot of things that became famous jokes from the scenes
were ad libbed during live performances.
So that's our Second City training.
That's sort of what you learn to do,
and it's exciting,
and it's sort of the fun part of the job.
In TV, all the ad libbing has been done in rehearsal,
because you mess up camera blocking.
So the first season was full of like ad libs and mistakes
that you'd hear our director Jim Blanchard yell "Cut,"
and we had to start the scene again.
"If you're going to put that in,
just let me know where you'll be when..."
Then so we learned to restrain ourselves for that.
But Dave Foley in 1985, now that I'm being talkative,
we hated improv.
We loved doing it, but there's something we hated about it.
I remember him saying, "Improv is the new mime,"
meaning that we didn't like it.
But we love it.
- You were a mime, weren't you?
You were amime as Jerry.
- That rings a bell.
Here's a boring story How we thought of that sketch.
We were doing a Kathy sketch, the two Kathy's,
and Bruce's Kathy was dreaming that she was a beauty queen,
so we were all playing women in the beauty contest
and the makeup put on wigs on Dave and I,
then Scott's screamed, "My makeup is horrible."
Then there was an emergency and all the women had
to leave for an hour to calm Scott down,
so Dave and I were in a dress and wigs but no makeup
and we started acting like two clearly insane people.
"We're clearly insane people.
We're not really women.
I'm Jerry Sizzler.
This is my sister Jerry Sizzler."
And we laughed our heads off and we wrote down notes,
and by the time they were ready to film us,
we had the sketch written.
Spritzing, Alan Guttman, 1981.
[wife] What's going on out there?
- Nothing, Hon.
Just an old army buddy's dropped by.
You go back to sleep, dear.
Look, you've got to keep your voice down.
- But Jerry. - My name isn't Jerry.
It's Lister, and your name is Jerry either,
it's John Pierre.
- Don't be silly, Jerry.
That's a French name.
- Yes, and before you became chemically unbalanced,
you were respected French mime instructor.
- Jerry, you are clearly insane.
- No, I am clearly not insane.
You are the clearly insane one.
- Jerry, I'm not clearly insane.
I'm your sister, dammit.
I'm your sister.
Now, quick, put these on before you catch your death.
- Here's the trick of writing.
This is a show about writing, right?
Here's the trick of writing.
We're always trying to find out what it's about.
Even if you're doing your TV show and you're still
working on it, during the tour, The Kids in the Hall ,
we're always on the bus after
always trying to figure out a sketch.
I remember we did it in our last tour after our last date.
We came up with something that was, "Oh, that's great.
This is how we do that sketch," but it was over.
It was over.
You're always trying to figure out what it's about,
and sometimes the editing is like the final draft in writing.
Sometimes you figure it out in editing.
But you young writers out there,
you're always trying to figure out what it's about.
It's never over.
- So it also sounds like your...
that one of the elements to writing great sketch comedy
though is knowing the people
you're working with so very well-
- Chemistry and friendship.
Dave and I had this chemistry thing where we onstage
and in real life, and I'm not like this with anyone.
I have chemistry with the other Kids in the Hall , but Dave,
like it happened that day when we both knew we were
going to go down on the floor and crawl outside.
We can't, this sounds phony, but we can sort of read each other's
minds, because there's this thing in improv that used to be
called blocking, I don't know what the kids call it nowadays,
where you're supposed to say yes and, you're not ever supposed to
say no because that sort of stops the momentum of the scene.
But, if you're with us, like someone that you have close
chemistry with, Dave will say something and I know that
if I say yes I'll be blocking his idea.
I know where he's going, and I know he wants me to say no
because he has an idea...
I just know that and he knows that with me.
That's, you either have it or you don't.
It's like falling in love.
[Narrator] You've been watching a conversation with
Kevin McDonald on, On Story.
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