Kevin McDonald on sketch-writing and the new Kids in the Hall tour
Kevin McDonald is an actor, improv artist and comedian best known for his work with Canada's Kids in the Hall sketch comedy troupe. He'll be at Denver's Voodoo Comedy Playhouse all weekend, a run that kicks off with a special edition of The Couch, Denver's only improvised therapy session, and includes a two-day workshop on sketch writing. In advance of his trip to Denver, Westword caught up with McDonald to discuss getting into standup, the new Kids in the Hall tour and bad sketch writing.
Westword: So you've been teaching these sketch-writing workshops all over the country?
Kevin McDonald: Several cities, several cities. For a couple years now.
What would you say are some of the most frequent bad habits among novice sketch-writers?
I would say that with sketch and improv, some of the bad habits are taught by us workshop teachers. I think that one of the most common mistakes I see is that people think of things they've been taught as absolutes. Things like the magic rule of threes. Or that in improv, you have to do "the game." I see people get stuck in their writing and improvising because they're trying to do the things they've been taught every time. I don't see them as absolutes, I see them as tools. It's more a blend of instinct and using what you've been taught for structure. But there should always be instinct. It's half inspiration -- getting excited about the idea and letting it take over and half work -- which is finishing the sketch after the inspiration runs out. If you keep working, the inspiration comes back.
Do you know the formats of the shows you're on?
They've told me a million times, but I forget.
One of them sounds pretty interesting. It's like an improv comedy therapy session. It's called The Couch.
What happens in The Couch again?
I think you're on the couch.
The couch itself might be, but on it says that you'll working out your issues, which could be spiritually very uncomfortable. You know, with all the prying personal questions.
Spiritual harassment. Do they improvise based on what I say?
Unless you guys work out something before, I believe everybody will be improvising. You can go a lot of different directions with that format, though. Did you start out from an improv background?
When I was nineteen, I knew that I wanted to be in comedy -- but I also knew that I wasn't a standup. I knew that the things I loved the best were sketches. Well, I guess I didn't know that quite at first, I just thought of it as comedy acting. I always wanted to be like Woody Allen; I always wanted to write what I acted. I went to college to study acting, but I was kicked out after three months. I failed three classes -- dance, costume design and something else I forget -- but before I was kicked out, my improv teacher told me that I was really good at improv, and that I should keep that up and study it. He gave me the phone number to Second City workshops and that was one of the best things that ever happened to me. At my very first class, the only two teenagers were me and a guy named Mike Meyers. He was a great right away, so he was discovered within the year. I was just raw potential at that point. The first class after he left, he was replaced with another teenage guy called Dave Foley. That was sort of the beginning.
I heard that you've been rehearsing with the other guys from Kids in the Hall for a tour. How's that been going?
That's been going great. I just flew back yesterday. We were in Texas at the Moontower Comedy Festival, then we were in Dallas. We're going to tour like standups do, where it's just a couple weekends out of the month. One weekend in June, we're doing Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago all one weekend.
What are the shows like now? Is it a standup/sketch hybrid?
It's all sketches, just like our show. It's mostly new sketches. Right now, we have a couple old ones in there, but we may change that. The old ones don't seem to be doing as well as the new ones.
That's a good problem to have. You don't want to be stuck in that fan-service mode, where you're just there to play the hits.
It's funny. They used to love it. Our first comeback tours in 2000-2002 were all old sketches and people went crazy. Last year we did all new stuff and people went crazy for that. I guess it's the opposite of an old rock band. With an old rock band, you want to hear the old hits. With an old comedy troupe, you're tired of the hits because it's comedy. How many times can you replay Steve Martin's album Let's Get Small, you know?
Yeah, that element of surprise diminishes. I also think that comedy nerdery has become more sophisticated. People want to peer behind the curtain a little more.
They love when we make mistakes. I think that subconsciously that sticks in our minds. Not that we make mistakes intentionally, but we can rest knowing that even if we mess up, we'll still get a laugh. I would love to just do a tight show all the way through though and see how that goes.
Keep reading for more from Kevin McDonald.
It's interesting that people have that Nascar impulse with improv. When did you branch out into doing standup? I saw the special that Dave Foley released last year. Were you thinking of doing anything along those lines?
No, mine isn't good enough for a special at all. I moved from Los Angeles to Winnipeg because I met a woman that I liked and now we're living together. It's harder to get TV work out there, so that's why I started doing these workshops and standup shows. I'm still not comfortable with the standup thing. It's like anti-standup. I'm not doing a character, I'm me, but I'm open about being new to standup and having trouble doing it.
So not your standard set-up, punchline format?
No, I guess it's more conceptual. As a result, when I play standup clubs, sometimes it kills and sometimes it doesn't. In real comedy clubs, people come to see real comics; half the people there have no idea who I am. In improv clubs and alternative clubs, it usually goes very well.
There's a whole generation of people who grew up watching Kids in the Hall reruns on Comedy Central whose sense of humor you probably had a hand in shaping.
I got a big laugh the other night! In the second scene of the show, I do a song where I explain the Kids in the Hall. In the intro to the song, I say that I want to explain the history of the troupe because I know some of you were dragged here by your 41-year-old boyfriend. And they just broke out laughing because it's true! Then I say he watched us too much in college while getting high, and that gets an even bigger laugh. It's one of those truth laughs.
A few months ago, I actually binge-watched a bunch of old episodes because I saw that they were getting taken off of Netflix. They've stood the test of time and held up in a way that old SNL sketches don't, necessarily.
Yeah, we don't do Weekend Update. We don't really do things that are timely. The stuff we do is more timeless; we do jokes about or girlfriends, or in Scott's case, our boyfriends, or our parents. Just normal sketches. We do a normal sketch about a guy at the office asking for a raise. We do it weirdly, though.
You seem to have a real affinity for playing indignant businessmen.
Lorne Michaels always used to say that our idea of businessmen was like a cartoon from the '50s. Or like animals, like in the "The Geralds" sketch, when the guys come in, exchange briefcases and sniff each other's bums. That's sort of the way we see businessmen. For some unfair reason. Lorne always thought it was ridiculous, but hey, no one else was doing it.
Are you guys all Monty Python nerds?
Scott isn't so much, but he does appreciate them. Bruce says he isn't, but I feel that he is lying. But Mark, David and I were super into Monty Python as kids. Just super, super nerds. They're the kings, they started the sort of hip comedy that evolved into SCTV, SNL and eventually us. You could see that in our early writing -- not so much the TV show, but the stage shows before that. Bruce's writing is more influenced by late '70s Steve Martin.
That makes sense, especially in some of his one-man bits. It seemed like he did more of those than the other Kids.
This is just my opinion, but I think everybody would have to agree --I mean, we're all equal writers, we all write our own stuff and there's no Lennon or McCartney of the group, but I'd have to say that Bruce is the best writer. His writing, his ideas are what sort of sets us apart. I think the thing that people get obsessed with more than anything are the ideas that we come up with. Ideas like the "Dr. Seuss Bible." I don't know if you Americans saw it -- I don't think HBO showed it when we first came on -- but we tell the story of the crucifixion in Dr. Seuss verse and costumes. Scott's playing Jesus and being crucified but we're rhyming. I think those kind of ideas defined us more than anything.
You guys were at the beginning of a sketch-comedy renaissance. It seems like we're starting a new one now.
Yeah, Key and Peele are great. I loved Tim & Eric. Going way back, I loved Chapelle's Show. I noticed though, one thing that sets us apart from all the other sketch shows -- not that it makes us better -- but we're the only real troupe. Even Monty Python was put together by producers. We're the only guys who were friends first and formed a troupe and started a show together. A lot of guys start out that way, but they usually don't go all the way; they usually get conquered and divided because someone will get hired as a writer or an actor somewhere else. We were lucky that no one wanted to conquer and divide us. Second City never wanted to hire us. They always thought we were too weird. So we stayed together -- five weird friends.
Kevin McDonald will be in a special edition of The Couch at 9 p.m. on Friday, May 2, at Voodoo Comedy Playhouse; he'll perform his own Improvised sketch show there at 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 3. Tickets for each of these shows cost $15 in advance and $20 at the door. McDonald will also tead a two-day sketch-writing workshop that runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on May 3 and May 4; the fee for that is $300. Find more information here.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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