I haven't seen Kevin McDonald perform stand-up live, but I’ve talked to him on the phone and I can't imagine there's much difference. The multi-talented comic – most known as a member of the seminal '80s Canadian sketch troupe The Kids In The Hall — was warm and affable during our phone interview, funny and self-deprecating. With performers on a press tour, it often feels like answers are rehearsed or over-thought, yet McDonald's were both exuberant and winding, his words spilling out in an over-caffeinated cascade of ideas and jokes. It turns out, McDonald has a lot to say, which is why it's perfect time for his new one-man show "Kevin McDonald ALIVE on 42nd Street" to premiere Off-Broadway.
Born in Montreal, McDonald grew up idolizing Albert Brooks, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen but later found his own comedic voice when he formed The Kids In The Hall with Dave Foley at Toronto's Second City. The group, which later included Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson, rose to prominence through a Lorne Michaels-produced TV series that ran in Canada and the US from 1989-1995. Since then, McDonald has kept busy, performing with The Kids In the Hall and in solo shows, doing voice-over work and appearing in guest spots on numerous TV shows.
His newest one-man show, inspired by his recent marriage and move to Winnipeg, runs at The Studio Theater in New York City August 25-31. Here are excerpts from our conversation edited for length and clarity.
NG: Can you tell me about your upcoming show "Kevin McDonald ALIVE on 42nd Street?"
KM: My new show is a collection of monologues. They're true, but of course, they're exaggerated. I write jokes that didn't really happen. There are crazy stories; some of them are a little dark. The stories that interest me the most are the ones that are dark and sad. You put them all together, it seems like I'm a dark, sad guy, but whatever they want to think is fine because people laugh a lot. It's all comedy. People actually would come to me after the show and say, 'That was great Kevin, but cheer up.' I thought about it and wrote a song that I end the show with called "The Happy Song." But of course, me being me, even the happy song is about being ironically happy.
I moved to Winnipeg from Los Angeles because I met a woman and we bought a house with her kids, my step-kids. I have a lot of funny stories about things that have gone wrong in Winnipeg. I'll tell an old story that happened to me on The Kids In the Hall and then I cut to the present and tell about living in Winnipeg.
NG: Besides writing the monologues, you also composed songs for the show?
KM: All the music is original. Here's the funny thing, I'm not a musician. I first got a guitar and a Beatles fake book when I was 32. So, I learned the chords and I can strum. I'm not very good, but all I wanted to do was learn to write songs. When the songs come to me, I first hum it and pick up the guitar and finish the song with the chorus and the bridge. The musician [I collaborate with] always thinks I'm a genius because the keys change. But it's not because I'm a genius, it's because I don't know what I'm doing and I don't know the rules. I want all your readers to know that I am not a genius. Brian Wilson was a genius; he knew what he was doing [laughs].
NG: You've performed for many years in sketch comedy, how is it different performing a solo show versus working with an ensemble?
KM: I love performing on stage with The Kids In The Hall and other people, but I was always afraid to do it myself. I was born to be part of a group. When I went to astrologer once, he told me that I was born in the sign of groups [laughs]. But to keep making a living, like six or seven years ago, I started performing by myself. As I kept writing, I got as comfortable writing for myself as I used to writing sketches. I used to think it was easier to write for film or a group. It's about having more tools to get your idea across. Like I need six people and a location like a hardware store that then cuts to a subway.
But when you're on stage by yourself, you're the narrator of the story and you could take the audience wherever. That's what I've learned about being myself on stage and being by myself on stage; you own the rules. You can do anything you want to get it across. Sometimes I do other characters. Each story becomes like a one-man version of a four-man sketch. It took me a while performing to figure that out because I'm so used to writing sketches.
NG: What advice do you have for people who want to pursue a career in comedy?
KM: Whether you do stand-up or sketches or comedy writing, do it all the time. I think that people's lucky break happens two or three times a year, this is my stupid theory, and you've got to be ready for it. Sometimes your lucky break is invisible unless you're ready. Like Lorne Michaels discovered us because Kids In The Hall performed from '84 to '85 and we got better and better and better. In the summer of '85, we rented a theater and did a Best Of show because we did new sketches every week for a year. We never repeated them. We got big reviews and we were a big thing for that week in Toronto. Lorne Michaels was coming back to "SNL" after being out of it for five years. He sent talent scouts to many cities including Toronto and that's how we get discovered. We were ready. Our lucky break wasn't invisible. So, do it all the time. It's what I call watching a puppy grow. You have a puppy and it's growing, but because you're with the puppy all the time, you don't know that it's growing until you go to Europe for three weeks and you come back and go, 'look at the puppy, it's so much bigger.' It was like that when I was performing, I didn't know I was getting better, but I did it all the time and people told me my writing was getting better. That was a long-winded answer, but I like my answer.
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Wein.