Published on November 20th, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
Interview: The Kids in the Hall’s Kevin McDonald
We sit down with Kevin McDonald from the iconic Canadian sketch comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall, to talk life, improv, and The KITH.
I recently got a chance to chat with Kevin McDonald from the iconic Canadian sketch comedy troupe, The Kids in the Hall, for an article in Planet S Magazine. This was a big deal for me, as I’ve been a huge KITH fan since I was in high school. Brain Candy, while often derided, is one of my all time favourite comedies (and I do get a chance to ask Kevin about it). This is my second interview with a KITH member, as I interviewed Bruce McCulloch a while back. I’m a KITH trophy hunter. I’ve got two heads on my wall, three more to go.
Kevin was a really nice guy and a really energetic interview, often jumping to a new thought before finishing the last. He was funny and open, answering anything I threw at him and giving me insight into his life and career, both as a comedian, and as a KITH member.
Craig Silliphant: Thanks for calling, man, I really appreciate you taking the time.
Kevin McDonald: I appreciate you being interested.
Craig: So, just to start easy, like maybe if you could tell me a little bit about you know, where you grew up and your childhood?
Kevin: Well, I was born in Montreal and I lived there until I was like seven. Then my father the dental equipment salesmen was transferred to Burbank, California where we lived for a couple of years, and we lived right in Burbank across from the NBC studio and every morning when I went to school I remember they were filming Let’s Make a Deal and I’d always see people dressed up as cigarette packs and cucumbers. (laughs)
And Oh, they also back then they were filming Laugh-In, so they used to film, you may to be too young to know this sketch but Ruth Buzzi was dressed as the overstuffed lady and she would hit Arte Johnson with a purse and I used to see that.
Kevin: I know you remember that. My father also, this is interesting: he was immediately drafted. It was during the Vietnam War and he didn’t know that because he got a Green Card to work there he could be drafted, but because he had a trick knee during college football days he got out of it. But that was quite a shock at first.
Craig: Geez, yeah. Well that was lucky.
Kevin: And then we moved to Toronto. Sorry, (laughs) that’s my story.
Craig: So wait, how old were you when you moved to Toronto?
Kevin: I guess I ended up being like nine, like suburbs of Toronto. Then when I was like, 20, I moved downtown starting at community college. [And eventually met] Dave Foley.
Craig: How did you get into comedy?
Kevin: Well, I knew that I was funny.
Kevin: (laughs) But I also had an understanding about how I was funny. I knew that I wasn’t stand-up funny. I knew I was more acting funny.
So, what I did though, because I remember, all of my high school friends said you got to go to Yuk Yuks. Yuk Yuks was just exploding at this time and the stand-up explosion was happening and I thought that I wouldn’t be right for that. Now that I do stand-up I’ve proven myself right, by bombing a lot. (laughs).
So I went to college for acting, community college. I didn’t bother to…in Toronto, back then you had to, to get into University, you had to go to Grade 13. But I didn’t want to do that. I just went to college, but they kicked me out after three months for acting, because they said I was a one-legged actor, that I could only do comedy, which is fine with me. But the guy that told me that, the Dean of the college, he was actually a one-legged actor. 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. (laughs).
Craig: (laughs) Geez.
Kevin: So he was limping around. But anyway, as I was leaving the college that day my improv teacher ran after me and said that I was very good and that I should keep it up and he gave me the phone number to Second City Workshops and it was there that. Everybody was over 35. There were just two teenagers at first, it was me and not Dave Foley. It was me and Mike Myers.
Craig: Oh really?
Kevin: And we like, started trying to get a troupe together, but there wasn’t that much chemistry. Like, 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. And he was hired by Second City. 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. He was very funny in the scene that day and I was good in one so at the end of the workshop I asked him to join my troupe. I didn’t even have a troupe yet (laughs) and we sort of started one. And that was the beginning. And I thought oh, comedy acting, this makes sense, it’s sketch comedy. I loved SCTV, and of course I super loved Monty Python and like, Saturday Night Live and even, the Marx Brothers.
Craig: So, in the 80s, there was a lot of push to be involved in stand-up versus skit comedy to break into the industry. Most sitcoms came out of stand up comedians or their routines. Was that something you noticed or was that not really a thing?
Kevin: It was definitely a thing, but we didn’t really notice. Not that we didn’t care, it’s just that we had our paths.
We seemed to find each other, the whole troupe. There were different members of the Kids in the Hall. There were like 13 different people at different times and then people kept quitting as they got good jobs. And the five of us sort of had that chemistry. There were other guys in the troupe that quit that may be funnier than any of us individually. (laughs)
Though Bruce did stand-up, um but I think he knew something more special was happening. Not that stand-up isn’t great, but something sort of special was happening with sketch comedy because there were a lot of great, weird comics. But there weren’t that many sketch troupes, 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.
Craig: Right. So in terms of what you’re doing here in town, like, you’re not on tour right? You’re just specifically coming in for the show?
Kevin: Yeah, yeah. I’m sort of on the like Bob Dylan never ending tour. Every month I go to a couple of places like I teach workshops and do a bit of a show.
Craig: And so are you doing something alone on stage while you’re here?
Kevin: Yes, I will be alone and I will also be partnered up with some local people doing improv [The Saskatoon Soaps], which is the first thing like I learned to do before we write for The Kids in the Hall. Like that’s how we met. You know and improv workshops, that’s how we learned how to write, you know we used improv workshops. Teaching people to write sketch through improv, which I think is the best way to begin. But I will also be doing stand-up during the show.
Craig: Right. So actually that kind of leads me oddly enough to my next question was. Do you prefer improv versus scripted comedy? I mean, of course they are different animals but what do you think of the differences between them?
Kevin: My favorite is definitely sketch comedy. That’s my favorite of the three I’m sort of involved in — sketch comedy, improv, and stand-up. My favorite 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.
Kevin: With stand-up, it’s always fun for me to do comedy, but it’s less fun than sketch comedy because you have to instigate and react to your own things and also, I’m not quite a jokes guy. When I play places like theatres…um or improv clubs or alternative clubs to do stand-up I usually do pretty well. In Saskatoon I think I’ll do pretty well. But when I play stand-up clubs, half of the shows I do well and half the shows I have trouble because, first of all, my act’s based on you have to know who I am, and like obviously I’m Kevin McDonald, Kids in the Hall, and that’s not the funny way I say it, but I act like I’m doing stand-up for the first time and I start babbling on purpose. For people in stand-up clubs like Calgary and Edmonton Yuk Yuks. I have trouble half the shows because a lot of people are under 30 and just kind of see the club and don’t know who the headliner is. So they just think I’m an older guy having trouble on stage instead of (laughs)…instead of pretending. And also I can’t write a joke if my life depended on it. I love to hear jokes but I guess I’m not good enough. So I get laughs in other ways. And the stupid thing, in Calgary I tried out a new half hour bit which you never do. The first show I did alright though but the second show was just tired 20-year-olds and at one point someone cried out, “For God’s sake, tell us jokes!”
Craig: It’s really strange to me that someone wouldn’t really be familiar with the Kids in the Hall but of course you know, I’m getting older myself. Do you find that you do run into that with younger audiences a lot?
Kevin: In stand-up clubs yes, but in Saskatoon I won’t. But yeah, like umm, people under 40 are like…I know this goes for any generation, whether it’s people under 35 or 34, they don’t know a lot that’s happened before them. I was a movie buff when I was a kid in the 70s. I knew everything about movies from the 30s, 40s, and 20s. And I tend to think people knew more about history back then but I’m kidding myself. Maybe it’s the same with every generation
Craig: But that’s crazy to me. I mean, I was in high school when Kids in the Hall were big, so I mean, like I was in the pocket for that. I was a little young for Monty Python when it first aired, but obviously you dig back and find those things.
Kevin: Yeah, Yeah. I think nowadays the new generation has to be really interested to dig back. Like I’m semi-interested to dig back. Like now with Wikipedia I dig back on anything I’m mildly interested in. Like during the Kids in the Hall tour we just did, when I was in a hotel writing for an hour I thought, ‘oh I really like The Birds.’ There was one guy that wrote really good songs for The Birds, Gene Clark. I wonder what happened to him? Then I find out that he had a bunch of solo albums that just bombed in the 70s. But when you listen to them they are amazing albums and should be classics, like classic folk. They are almost as good as Dylan.
Craig: Yup, I know Gene Clark. I was just listening to No Other a few weeks ago.
Kevin: [Clark] drank too much, then got out of it and wrote a great album and was doing ok, and Tom Petty recorded on this big album for him and recorded The Birds song that Gene Clark wrote I’ll Probably Feel a Whole Lot Better. Then all of a sudden Gene Clark got a cheque for a million dollars at 46 and went back and drank himself to death.
Kevin: (laughs) But the past few months I’ve been obsessed with Gene Clark, getting all of his albums. Anyway that’s a long story short that you’re not going to put in the article but no one seems to be like that under 35. I begin my workshops sometimes and I ask them, ‘can anyone name all four Beatles?’ And most of them can’t.
Craig: Oh my god, now you’re just making me sad.
Craig: It’s weird that, and maybe this is why, but it’s weird that they are the first real generation to have that information at their fingertips.
Kevin: I know that’s the ironic thing, they can find anything in a second
Craig: Yeah that’s weird.
Kevin: They’re just not interested, it doesn’t matter. Umm, I may have a colt 45 but I’m a lousy shot. I’m against guns, that was a bad analogy.
Craig: (laughs) Umm, so speaking of doing research stuff, I’ve read that you’re actually a pretty shy person and it honestly doesn’t seem like that right now talking to you.
Craig: Is that true? How does that work in terms of you know, being a comedian and having to perform in front of people.
Kevin: Umm, I am pretty shy. 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. Depends on what kind of situation. If I was sharing a car ride with seven people and I didn’t know four or five then I’d be really shy. In high school, half the classes I was in thought I was the funniest guy in the world, the class clown and the other half, because sometime, like when I was in grade 11 I took some grade 12 classes, I felt so intimidated and shy they didn’t even know I existed.
Craig: Right, which is fair. People put people into boxes like shy or introvert or extravert, but in reality it’s much more situational.
Kevin: Yes and I’m absolutely both extremes.
Craig: You just released a comedy album?
Kevin: It’s called Kevin McDonald Making Faces. You can get it on iTunes.
Craig: Is that more sort of stand-up or is that more Bob Newhart style situation comedy?
Kevin: (laughs) It’s a mix, but most of it is stand-up. Then there’s two kind of long sketches and there’s a couple songs. It’s like if I ever do a podcast, I’d do a variety show like that.
Craig: You’re still living in Winnipeg, right?
Kevin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I met a woman that lived in Winnipeg.
Craig: Alright cool, and do you have kids?
Kevin: Well yes, her kids. I’m borrowing her kids (laughs). In fact there’s a 14 year old girl, Adalee. Today was take your kid to work day and I took Adalee to the recording studio.
Craig: (laughs) Nice. So, jumping around, I’d like to talk about politcial correctness. I think it’s something that, you know, can dog edge comedy sometimes. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. Kids in the Hall had some edgier characters like Cancer Boy and stuff like that. Do you think there’s a line between clever bawdy comedy and just shock laughs?
Kevin: The Kids in the Hall were sometimes called the grandfather of shock comedy. There were probably people that did it better than us, of sketch comedy anyway. We never thought that way. Some of us were square and could have been on Carol Burnett. Some of them could have been quite shocking. We never thought that way. 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. And I think that sort of umm came around a time of Tom Green and South Park, which I think are both really funny shows. South Park is like, brilliant.
Craig: South Park is a great example. It’s obviously very shocking and bawdy and it’s also so satirical and there’s always a point to it.
Kevin: And I hate to sound like a Hollywood executive but there’s a heart to it 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, like, 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, maybe I’m wrong, like I can sort of tell, oh they want to take the shocking idea first.
Craig: Right. So in terms of the Kids in the Hall, like obviously you guys are… I should mention that I interviewed Bruce, maybe it was like 6 or 8 months ago now…
Kevin: Oh right, when he did his one man show at the same theatre right?
Craig: Exactly yup, totally. So we sort of talked about the idea of that you guys started when you were pretty young, you sort of had some bumpy years there around the time Brain Candy was being released.
Kevin: Yeah (laughs).
Craig: But now you’re a little older, it’s in hindsight. You know as you get older, you know you start to realize what’s important to you how you should be as a person or a man or whatever
Craig: So, what do you think the relationship is now with guys in the group? Like you know, now that you’re a little older and not as necessarily, you know insecure or going to fall into certain patterns?
Kevin: Right, Right. I think we tread a better line. First of all when you get a TV show — we’d been together for like [five years] with the five of us. But all of a sudden you have a first year of a TV show and you’re fighting for your sketches because you think your TV show might be cancelled at any second. The friend thing, it just goes away right away, and we always had a history of being very critical to each other. I used to be like a suck but two things happened, they criticized me so much I got better about it and now I can take criticism and also, I found out that I was a prick.
I was thinking passive-aggressive at the time. And you know I could be the cruelest (laughs). People quit the troupe for a second, you know, ten minutes and they would come back into the room because the thing was too special to allow upset feelings. But nowadays, we’re closer to the end than the beginning and we’re a little more forgiving of each other. We still criticize, we just do it better. You know instead of getting personal, because we knew each other so well we could be really personal and cruel. We kind of just go, oh you know that joke doesn’t work for this scene because of this. And the other guy, we usually go, “yeah you’re right,” and it’s better.
This is not what I’m saying, but sort of for example, a vague idea for what I’m saying… a few weeks ago we were in LA doing the Jack Black festival, Festival Supreme, which was a lot of fun. And an hour before the show we were supposed to do a photo session, they asked us to do a photo session and the first time Dave didn’t come. He was with his ex-wife, they were having a fun time. It was a big festival. There were a lot of great acts going on. Then we texted him, we set him for 20 minutes and he didn’t show up again and then Bruce came to me and we said, should we talk to Dave about this? We realized, in 10 years we’re going to be 60 — I don’t think we should talk to him about this.
Craig: So I mentioned Brain Candy…again I talked to Bruce a little bit about this too. I know it was a difficult time for you guys, and it was a difficult movie to make and I know it probably didn’t have the legs you would maybe hope it would have at the time. But I have to say, I don’t know if this is popular opinion or not, but even when it came out and to this day, I fucking love that movie.
Kevin: (laughs) Thank you.
Craig: It’s amazing. So how do you feel about that movie now? Do you still have bad feelings about it or can you separate yourself from it?
Kevin: Oh, absolutely. I like the movie a lot.
Craig: Maybe you did then?
Kevin: I liked the movie back then. It’s funny, the first cut that we saw our Director and Troupe’s best friend, Kelly Makin, the fifth Beatle if you will. Not that anyone knows the Beatles.
Kevin: (laughs) When he edited it together he said we’re not going with this cut. It’s only fair, you guys wrote the scripts so I just wanted to show you the cut that’s exactly the scripts. It was 2 hours and 45 minutes. And I remember thinking for the first half of the movie, I honestly thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen in my life. This is like Godfather good.’ And then half an hour later, I go, “Oh this is such a horrible bomb,” and then we cut it.
The weird thing, I mean all the horrible things happened to us, wives left us, there were suicides in our family. Dave and I split up. Dave quit the troupe and was forced back in because he had signed the contract the day before the quit the Troupe. That was really hard on Dave and I, because him and I had a fight before he quit. Beyond that, that made it horrible enough but the movie was hard. I always say this about Brain Candy, I love it. I have a little trouble with the ending but I love it.
We were so ambitious it should have been our third movie. Again to talk Beatles, you could do your Meet the Beatles and then and then your Rubber Soul and then your Sgt. Pepper. We switched, I think we started with our Sgt. Pepper, or at least our Revolver (laughs). God bless us that we tried to do something ambitious. You know, we should have probably started with something like a gag fest. We were raw movie fans and we wanted to do a movie with a story, not in a pretentious way. That’s what we thought a movie was, you know we had done the TV show with sketches and Lorne Michaels kept saying, “When’s Chicken Lady going to enter the script?” And well, we weren’t being pretentious. If we wrote a scene where the Chicken Lady made sense, she would have gone in there, but we didn’t.
Craig: That’s what works, I think. That’s what makes a great movie. For example, the character that Scott Thompson plays, the older woman. My wife and I joke about the scene all the time. It’s Christmas Day or Thanksgiving or something and she’s at home and Bruce’s family comes in and does a quick tour of the house. “Alright thanks Ma, see you later.” They’re in there for a couple of minutes of disrespect, but that’s her happiest memory. You get such a glimpse of how lonely this woman is and then you care about her for the rest of the movie.
Kevin: I know!
Craig: And the whole thing is like that you know?
Kevin: In a sketch kind of way.
Kevin: They give her a harmonica — that’s her big gift (laughs). It’s funny we had a little debate about that, some of us were worried that as funny as that was, that this is the writing process before we get to shoot it. Was it a joke in a joke? Should it actually be a happy memory so the audience wouldn’t be confused? Then we decided, the way we wrote it, they’ll get it.
Craig: Yeah, no for sure. It totally makes sense and it’s hilarious. I mean it’s sad obviously but that’s what’s funny about it too.
Kevin: Yeah. But who in their right mind would make that their first movie? For all out comedy, who for their first movie writes a comedy about sadness? Idiots. (laughs)