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Interviews

Interview: Kevin McDonald Talks “The Kids in the Hall”, Rock Operas, & Advice for Young Actors

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

A legend in the comedy industry, actor, writer, teacher, podcast host, and now rock opera producer and performer, Kevin McDonald is no stranger to a good laugh.

Best known as a founding member of famous Canadian sketch comedy troupe, The Kids in the Hall, McDonald’s talent was first recognized by Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, who helped kickstart the group’s TV debut and rise to stardom. Now, after over thirty years of bringing smiles to faces across the globe, McDonald has amassed a growing list of credits, appearing in a variety of cult-favorite films and TV programs ranging from Lilo and Stitch and Invader Zim, to Seinfeld and Friends.

However, for the multi-talented comedian, this only scratches the surface of the mass of projects he currently has in the works. Taking the opportunity to travel and teach comedy during the day and perform at night, McDonald has managed to find the time to take on an abundance of different positions in the entertainment world. And whether it be writing a pilot for the producer of Schitt’s Creek, hosting the Kevin McDonald Show podcast, or producing and performing his very own rock opera in Toronto tonight, we were excited to catch up with Kevin and get the inside scoop on everything from his latest work and a possible Kids in the Hall reboot, to the highlight of his comedy career and more!

On December 13th, you sang and performed your very own comic rock opera at The Rivoli in Toronto. How did the idea for the production originally come about?

It sort of came from my podcast, the Kevin McDonald Show, which I do six or seven times a year. I actually have a new one coming up with Thomas Middleditch! It’s like a big variety show where I have various guests and do sketches, songs, stories, and interviews.

I had a special episode where I wrote a rock opera. I was in Seattle and usually I tell a five-minute story. It’s normally a Kids in the Hall story or one about my drunk dad because they’re hilarious! I had a good Kids in the Hall one, but I thought it was too epic. I’ve always been obsessed by rock operas and I know guitar well enough to write bad songs! (laughs) I also love Jesus Christ Superstar. So, I thought I’d take the story and write a forty-five-minute rock opera out of it. And that was the whole podcast!

Now wait for it…I’m going to name drop! (laughs) I was lucky enough because I’m sort of friends with Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie. He came in, and because it was a true story, he played Dave Foley and I played Kevin McDonald. It went really well! I’ve done it a few times and I thought I’d love to have it at the Rivoli in Toronto. It’s the place where Kids in the Hall started.

That’s fantastic! I know someone who’s a huge Death Cab for Cutie fan, so I’ll have to check out the podcast!

Yeah! (laughs) I don’t sing very well, but Ben’s really great!

I was curious to ask you, as someone with a background in comedy versus music, what is your process for writing and creating these songs?

(laughs) See, every comedian wants to be a musician and every musician wants to be a comedian! We, [The Kids in the Hall] were friends with the Black Crowes in the nineties. Apparently, the three of them started out in high school as a comedy troupe. (jokes) We all wanted to be musicians like them, we just can’t really do it that well!

I’ve always loved music though. I got my first guitar at thirty-two-years-old! I picked up a Beatles fake book and started writing songs by taking the chords of their music and flipping them around. I always challenge myself to have a different song for every podcast. (jokes) I say “song”, because I’m not really a musician and can’t really write one! It’s much easier for me to be prolific and write more, because I have a lower standard than a musician. For example, I can’t write a riff. I’ll have real singers in Toronto, and my friend Alan [Piggins], who’s a great guitarist, will play the part of Dave.

I know when I rehearse, there’ll be two or three people. Before they sing their song, they’ll turn to me and say, “Kevin can you help me out? I don’t really hear a melody in this song.” And then, I’ll sort of have to help them. See, it’s really easy to write a rock opera if you have low standards! (laughs) You go, “ok, that’s good, let’s go to the next one. That’s done, let’s go to the next one, and the next one!” I actually wrote it in a month!

Another thing I really love, which is sort of like a rock opera in a way, is side two of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. That’s back when albums had sides and it was revolutionary how every song melted into the next. My rock opera is kind of like that too…a million little tiny songs. I don’t know if a musician would call them “songs”, but I don’t know any other name for it. (laughs)

My rock opera is a comedy and a true story. It does get a little dark, but because the music is sweet, no-one’s attacked me yet. I think because it’s a true story, they forgive me!

The Rivoli was where you and the rest of the Kids in the Hall troupe performed every week back in the day, before getting recognized and starting the TV show. Do you have a favorite memory performing in that particular theatre?

Oh yes, there’s so many memories! There’s one where it looked like The Kids in the Hall, there were thirteen of us at one point, were going to end up being a group of four; Mark, Scott, Bruce, and myself. We tried to get Mike Meyers in the troupe but Mark and Bruce thought he was too much like Dave and I. Besides, Mike had his own plans and I don’t think he would have joined. He was too good!

Then, Scott Thompson kept wanting to join. Mark thought he’d be good and Bruce didn’t seem to care. Dave and I were against him because he was an actor. He went to York University in Toronto for acting. He almost graduated too, until they kicked him out for being too punky! But he was a real actor. We didn’t want him in the troupe, but he came to the shows anyway and hung around until we gave him small parts. He’d always say to Dave and I, “you don’t want me in the troupe because I’m gay”. And we said, “no, no, it’s because you’re an actor!” We were prejudiced against actors.

Finally, one show we gave him a few scenes and he did an improv with me. Usually, we try and do a four or five minute improv, but it lasted around fifteen minutes. It was sort of a bromance! We walked all around the club, and it’s one of the highlights not only at the Rivoli, but of my comedy life.

In those days at The Rivoli, our theme song was The Who’s song, “The Kids Are Alright”. So afterwards, when Scott was about to leave, Dave and I ran after him and sang, “Scott is alright”. That meant that he was in the troupe and he started crying. That’s a good memory.

I’ve read a lot of funny story involving Scott, so as soon as you mentioned him, I knew it was going to be a wild one!

Yeah! (laughs) I remember when the original Kids in the Hall were Dave, myself, and guy named Luciano Casimiri, who’s brilliant. We were walking down Yonge Street and we passed a gay bar. It was like a cowboy movie.

The doors opened and four big bouncers had grabbed a guy. One of them had one arm, another guy had the other, one guy had a leg, and another bouncer had the other. They were counting and they threw him out on the street. And, that was Scott Thompson! Luciano knew him, so he said, “Scott, this is Kevin”. But Scott had just been kicked out, and he was really mad, but in a funny way. I can’t say what he said, but he was always funny! He’d been thrown out of a gay bar for being too punk!

Well, it sounds like you guys always had a blast!

Yes! (laughs) It was always around Scott Thompson’s antics!

Is there a Kids in the Hall sketch that sticks out to you as a favorite, or one that you’ve always wanted to perform, but never got the chance?

Oh, there were tons! At one point, Norm Hiscock was sort of in the troupe. He left, but when we had the TV show, we got him to be a writer with us. Norm and I created a sketch, but it wasn’t picked. Maybe it wasn’t that funny, but we kept bringing it in! It was about two guys who go to work who are really hung over because they had a wild night at a bar. They don’t remember what happened because they’re really hungover. As they tell the story, they flashback and they realize that they were so drunk, they licked each other’s asses! We thought that was hilarious! (laughs)

I think it’s kind of funny especially back then, when we were in the groove. I believe I know how it would have worked, but the others didn’t like it. If we were to get another TV show, I wouldn’t bring that back because we’d be out of the groove and it would just be stupid now. But back then, it would have worked! We wrote it for me and Dave. And the ending, we both remembered the camera would be on the two of us, and we’d go, “oh my God, I licked Tom’s ass, oh my God, I licked his ass!” It would fade out with us saying that.

It would be exciting to get the troupe back together! I heard there’s word about a documentary and a possible return to TV for 2020. Where are you at with this process?

Yes, there’s a chance! We’re sort of in talks. Hopefully, the documentary will happen as well, because we have the book [One Dumb Guy] out already. The author, Paul Myers, may be helping me. Mark McKinney’s brother, Nick, is also a big documentary filmmaker. I think they’ve almost got the deal, and are just waiting on us. So it seems like a few things are about to happen.

We always do a tour every four or five years, so we never really split up. We’re always the troupe, and we’ll never quit until the last one of us dies, well…until the second to the last one of us dies. The last one won’t be in a troupe! (laughs)

In addition to Kids in the Hall, you’ve had a busy year with everything from the new Invader Zim movie to the Alive on 42nd Street one-man show this August. How do you find balance between all the different projects you have going on?

(laughs) It’s crazy because, there are so many more projects that no-one knows about because they never get done! I’m working on nine or ten things at the same time. They kind of meld into each other. I just wrote a musical play that I like, and added four new songs to my rock opera for the next time. I’m also writing a TV show with Norm for the producer of Schitt’s Creek. We’re excited about that. Then, I’m writing my own movie which is semi-autobiographical. And on top of that, I just got on the airplane, saw a documentary about Edgar Allan Poe, and had an idea about another movie! He had a crazy guy as a rival.

So, I always have a lot of projects going on and I’m lucky if the world sees one or two of them! (laughs) I’ll perform or teach in different cities. Then I come home. Usually during the weekdays, I’m always writing.

This time however, I’m flying to Toronto for the Rivoli shows. But before then, I’m doing two days of interviews. This’ll be my favorite one though, I swear! After this, I have the show on Friday. It’s wild, but I like it. My favorite thing to do is write!

Do you think you approach comedy in a different way now that you’ve not only had years of experience in the industry, but in a variety of different areas from writing and acting to podcasting?

I try not to be influenced by the things that I’ve done in-between the Kids in the Hall, especially the solo stuff because I feel a lot of it wasn’t very good. I know a lot of friends who I thought were geniuses in the nineties and are really successful writers. But now they’re professional! (laughs)

There’s something slick about being a professional that I don’t like. I like to be rough. Not that I’m better than them, I just like that rough style better. If I work with a writer, they’ll say, “what’s the emotion?” But I don’t care! (laughs) If we write something really funny and really good story and the emotion comes out that way, that’s what I like. But, to sit down and think about the emotion of the lead character, it kills me. That’s not the way I enjoy writing.

I agree, the crowd seems to really respond to a natural approach. You get a lot of laughs!

Yeah! I think they can sort of tell!

You mentioned earlier that you enjoy traveling, teaching comedy, and holding writing classes. Is there any advice that you give to students looking to make it in the TV or film world?

Oh yes! I give plenty of advice. People always say to me, you can’t teach someone to be funny. And I always say, “I can teach them to be funnier!” I think the best kind of comic, and you used this word earlier, is a natural comic. They can learn to get better!

Like Wayne Gretzky for example. Canadians love him. He was a natural, great hockey player as a kid but he practiced hours and hours more than other kids, so he got even better. I always compare the word to the TV show, Friends. Lisa Kudrow was a natural. In my opinion however, as great as she was, I don’t think Jennifer Aniston was. But nobody can tell unless you’re an idiot like me who thinks about things like that! (laughs) Because she works so hard, she comes away with the same kind of timing. I may be kidding myself, but I think I can tell the difference between someone who worked hard to achieve that kind of timing and someone who does that naturally which I feel Lisa Kudrow does.

Speaking of television, I know you and The Kids in the Hall troupe broke into the comedy scene before platforms such as YouTube came about. What is your opinion on all of the different types of outlets for comedy nowadays?

It’s funny because what’s new to me, is fifteen years old now! (laughs) When Kids in the Hall started more than thirty years ago, we couldn’t film anything. We always wanted to do movies or TV shows. We never thought we’d get discovered, so we just did stage stuff. As a result, by the time we got a TV show, we didn’t know what we were doing! (laughs)

We had five seasons but it took us until the end of the first season to learn how to write differently for TV. We had acting chops though. Because we’d started so young, we’d already performed for on stage for years. Then, in the mid 2000’s, YouTube came about, and I thought there were a lot of new troupes that knew everything about filming. They knew how to cut to get a laugh. But then, when they got to TV shows, I could see they didn’t have the acting chops. So, it was the opposite of us. But, now, that’s old. To me, everyone nowadays is great. They do stage and film their sketches. Troupes have gotten shows from YouTube. Like Broad City, for example. They did their podcast and were on UCB [Upright Citizen’s Brigade] stage. By the time they got their TV show, they had film and their acting chops. It seems everyone’s better today!

Are there any current comedians who you follow or admire?

Yeah, there are lots! I love it when people ask me that! Is Seth Rogen current? I like everyone. Help me out!

Well, some of the Saturday Night Live clips are funny. I don’t know if this counts, but I’m also a big fan of Carpool Karaoke.

You know what, I’ve never seen it so you’re safe! (laughs)

I recommend it, especially if you’re a music fan! Are there any projects that you’re currently working on or are excited for in the coming year?

There’s the TV show I’m working on with Norm for the producer of Schitt’s Creek. I’m enjoying that. The new Kids in the Hall is also in the works, which is the most exciting. Hopefully that gets done and becomes a reality!

And here’s something else that I didn’t write, but am enthusiastic about…I’m doing Shakespeare in the Park in Florida! It’s Twelfth Night and I’m playing Malvolio. Rehearsals don’t start until April 11th. I remember because it’s terrifying me! (laughs) I’ve been memorizing for two months and I can’t remember anything! It’s like memorizing gibberish. Nothing stays in my mind, so I have a feeling I’ll be fired before it starts. (laughs)

Don’t worry, I remember doing a rendition of Hamlet when I was younger and it gets easier!

No, it gets harder! (laughs) When I was young, I did a soliloquy from Hamlet in high school. I remember it was easy for me to memorize it. (jokes) But now, with my old fading brain, it’s so hard. The new production is outside and supposedly every hour a train goes by. People can’t hear you for ten minutes! I’m looking forward to it though!

Best of luck with rehearsals! To wrap things up, I have a couple fun fill-in-the-blank questions. Would you like to give it a go?

Yes!

My favorite winter activity is…

Walking my dog in the snow, because that’s the only thing I really do. I’m in Winnipeg which is the coldest city. It’s too cold to ski and sled. I love walking the dog around but it’s usually so cold, I get an asthma attack. My family would say I’m lying, but I really do like it, I swear! Usually when we come back from the walk, my dog and I usually have an idea for a sketch. (laughs)

If I wasn’t a comedian, I’d probably be a…

Professor of history. I know Tony Soprano likes history! In The Sopranos he was asked that once. If I wasn’t a mafioso killer, I’d be a history professor! Also, sort of showbiz related, is journalism. That was actually my plan B before The Kids in the Hall took off. I was going to be a film critic because I love movies so much and thought that would have been fun to do.

One of my best friends back in the early eighties became a very famous film critic in Canada. I remember when we were teenagers, we saw Raging Bull together. We still talk about it. The day we saw the Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull changed our lives.

Wow! Your options are open.

Yes! (laughs) Or, I could be a dog walker in the winter!

The coolest souvenir I’ve picked up while traveling has been…

I was travelling for work and was in Philadelphia for a show. I was doing forty-five minutes of stand-up and performing a couple of songs, but I lost my pick. I’m not a musician and I can’t play without one! No-one else had a pick either. But, when I walked around ten minutes before the show, I actually found a guitar pick! When I showed it to someone later, he said, “I know that pick. That belongs to the bass player for Dr. Dog, a local band. It’s his”. They’re kind of a famous cult band. So, that was cool!

Last one for you! On my days off, I love to…

Write comedy!

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