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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Still Kidding

Craig Silliphant
Published Thursday November 12, 05:35 pm
Kevin McDonald keeps the KITH torch burning bright

Saturday 20
Broadway Theatre

Kevin McDonald tells me that sometimes when doing stand-up, he runs into younger people who have never heard of the iconic Canadian sketch-comedy troupe he had such a large part in making famous — that troupe being The Kids in the Hall, of course.

To me, that seems crazy. Monty Python came before my time, but damned if I don’t know all the words to their movies and Flying Circus sketches. And in Canada (and with their huge cult following in the U.S.), The Kids in the Hall were generally considered to be just as relevant, weirdly imaginative and funny as the classic British troupe.

To those of us who loved them, they were nothing short of the best thing this country has ever produced. So how can anyone who likes comedy in this country, regardless of age, not know exactly who they are?

“I was a movie buff when I was a kid in the ‘70s, [and] I knew everything about movies in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘20s,” says McDonald. “I tend to think people knew more about history back then, but maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe it’s the same with every generation… but I begin my workshops sometimes [addressing people under 35], and I ask them, can anyone name all four Beatles? Most of them can’t.”

McDonald seems like a sweet-natured, friendly guy, but at the same time a vibrating ball of energy. Apparently he’s also a pretty shy person: All kinds of personalities are attracted to comedy, but performing in front of people must be even more nerve-wracking for more introverted types.

“I am pretty shy,” he says, “but people aren’t black and white. In different situations I’m shy. Entering a party, if I’m not the first person I’m really shy. Meeting someone I’m really shy. Doing interviews I’m not shy: You know, I talk about myself and that sort of makes it easier. If I was doing the interview, if I was interviewing someone, then I’d be shy. Performing on stage, I’m not shy because you kind of get lost in the persona that you create, that you pretend is you, and there’s sort of a mask there to hide behind.”

McDonald was born in Montréal, where his father worked as a dental equipment salesman. Seven-year-old Kevin got a strange taste of showbiz — from the outside looking in — when his family moved to Burbank, California: They lived right across the street from the NBC Studios.

“Every morning when I went to school,” he says, “I remember they were filming Let’s Make a Deal and I’d always see people dressed up as cigarette packs and cucumbers. And oh, back then they were filming Laugh-In, so they used to film — you may be too young to know this sketch — but Ruth Buzzi was dressed as the [old] lady and she would hit Arte Johnson with a purse, and I used to see that.”

Eventually the McDonalds moved back to Ontario, and after grade 12 he went to a community college to study acting — but they turfed him after three months, telling him that he was a “one-legged actor,” meaning that he only had the range to do comedy.

“But the guy that told me that, the Dean of the college, he was actually a one-legged actor,” riffs McDonald. “He had lost a leg a few years earlier during a freak accident during a production of Pippin when the lighting grid fell on his leg. So he was limping around.”

While he wasn’t destined to become the next Brando, McDonald’s improv teacher saw the talent in him and gave him the phone number for Second City Workshops in Toronto, the infamous sketch-comedy institution. When he got there, he noticed quickly that everyone else was over 35, except he and another teenager — some guy named Mike Myers.

“We started trying to get a troupe together,” says McDonald. “There wasn’t that much chemistry, but he was a genius right away. I was just like a pudgy potato of potential, I think, but he was great right away and he was so like, driven. He was the first teenager ever hired by Second City. So I was still in the workshops and the first class without him another teenager walks in, and it’s Dave Foley and we were assigned to do the mirror exercise. And we sort of made each other laugh and fall in comedy-love with each other.”

And, blammo — Canadian television and comedy history proceeded from there. Foley and McDonald formed a proto-troupe of sorts to explore sketch comedy and comedy acting. They loved the work of acts and shows like SCTV, Monty Python, Saturday Night Live and The Marx Brothers. After cycling through more than 10 potential members, McDonald and Foley eventually finalized the line up of KITH with Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch and Scott Thompson. The show itself ran from ’89 to ’95, produced by SNL honcho Lorne Michaels. (It also did later runs in America on HBO, pushing them into America’s pop culture consciousness.)

The Kids in the Hall was a voice to be reckoned with, quickly becoming known for some blisteringly clever and off-the-wall skits, with bizarre and hilarious characters and comedy that often skirted the edges of good taste — or jumped right off them.

“Yeah, the Kids in the Hall were always sort of... I think sometimes [we were] called the grandfathers of shock comedy,” says McDonald. “But we never thought that way. Some of [the skits] were square and could have been on Carol Burnett…[So] when people would tell us it was shocking, we were quite surprised all the time. ‘What do you mean? It’s just a funny idea.’”

We talk about the idea of shock comedy, and agree that you can go deep into vulgar or tasteless territory, but the joke has to be there first — if not, the whole scene is cheap and witless. McDonald cites South Park as a great example of a show that barfs all over the boundaries, but also has a smart, satirical side to it.

“And I hate to sound like a Hollywood executive,” he says, “but there’s a heart to [South Park] too. People don’t ever think about that, they just think about the shockiness, but you do sort of care about the kids, which makes it better to shock, right? When Kenny keeps dying, I care about that kid that keeps dying. That makes it better. Like some comedians just go for shocking at first and that doesn’t interest me. Even if it’s a little bit funny, it doesn’t interest me, because I can sort of tell… ‘Oh, they want to take the shocking idea first.’”

While McDonald’s in town he’ll be doing a workshop on teaching people to write sketch comedy through improv — which, he says, is “the best way to begin.” And on Nov. 20th at The Broadway Theatre, he’ll be flexing his own improv skills, performing on stage with The Saskatoon Soaps. He’ll also appear alone, doing a stand-up routine for the crowd.

“My favourite is definitely sketch comedy,” he says when I ask him about his feelings about comedy. “That’s my favourite of the three I’m sort of involved in — sketch comedy, improv and stand-up. My favourite is sketch comedy: You get to create little plays, little movies, and it’s sort of the easiest way for me to be funny, reacting to things. Not that stand-up isn’t great, but something sort of special was happening with sketch comedy [when Kids in the Hall started], because there were a lot of great, weird comics.”

When McDonald came up, the route to fame and your own TV show was more firmly placed in stand-up as opposed to sketch or improv. But while McDonald is too modest to take credit, there’s no doubt that it was groups like The Kids in the Hall that paved the way for more comedians to do skit-based comedy.

“There weren’t that many sketch troupes,” he says, “especially back in the ‘80s. Now there’s more. I’d like to think it’s because… not because of us, but that we were a part of that movement, that helped the fact that there are so many sketch troupes. You know, we were sort of alone except for the Second City troupes and a few other that copied Second City, where they even auditioned some people. And they had a piano on stage and it was pretty square, we thought. We were just like five friends that wanted to do comedy. There was never like, an audition or anything.” 

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