Meet Kevin McDonald

Kevin McDonald (yes, that KM from Kids In the Hall) needs no introduction for the comedy world.

Instead, let’s get right into the interview that we were lucky enough to land before his workshop in St. Louis, MO at the Improv Shop on April 16 & 17. >>>register for that here<<<

Questions are from interviewer, Logan Short:


Q: Kevin! Remember that taco place we all ate at when you were last in town? It’s closing and turning into another taco place. It’s supposed to be a better taco place.  That’s kind of what you teach, right: how to take something and make it better without losing the original something?

You just finished a tour with KITH. After so many years of writing and performing with these guys, why aren’t you able to write down your first idea, your first draft, and it be absolute gold? You’re Kids in the Hall!

1930873_28392334563_5984_nA: Yes, sketch comedy is always about making a better taco. “Perfecting the Taco” is a good name for a book about sketch writing. It’s all about taking your original idea and finding a way to turn it into a sketch without losing the original specialness of the premise that attracted you to the idea in the first place. It’s knowing how to protect your premise and getting the comedy to come out as you translate and transition your idea on it’s way to becoming an actual sketch.

Maybe one out of every 10 sketches, you can write a first draft that’s perfect. But it rarely works that way. Experience teaches you not to give up when you’re frustrated and it teaches you tricks to use whenever you get off track. But no matter how experienced you are, you will always have to work through a few drafts till you get it right.

The want of perfection will always make sure that you keep re-writing till you have it. Or are at least close to it.

Q: So sketch writing takes a lot of time, thought and work. I remember you talking about your voice-over work on cartoons (Invader ZIM, Lilo & Stitch, even Johnny Bravo). You talked about how physically tiring it can be to run those lines over and over to get them exactly right. That’s almost how it felt for your workshop. I laughed myself to tears that day, but it also felt like CrossFit for comedy.  

When you first started doing comedy, when did it hit you that if you wanted to be good, it would take a lot of work? What motivated you to put more time and energy into these silly concepts? I’m guessing it wasn’t Lorne Michaels saying, “I’ll put you on TV if you start working hard at comedy.”

A: I never consciously thought that I had to work hard to get the sketch good. That’s just the way it turns out. Sometimes on lucky 10506884_10153080126299564_1023816954266620921_odays, a sketch can come out easily to the page. But when it doesn’t, you have to keep working until it does. The world of sketch comedy is split between writers who kept working on the sketch when it didn’t come easy and between sketch writers who quit in frustration when it didn’t come easy. And they probably aren’t sketch writers any more. I personally fell in love with the process of writing and kind of enjoyed struggling through it till it worked. So it was easy to do all the work it required.

I consider myself a blue collar vaudevillian.

Q: You have this enormous body of work. And now you all are trying to do a TV show and I read that Lorne wants you to do a live show? What sort of material can we expect? How have your tastes and ideas changed over the years? What are the things that tickle you or piss you off enough to write about?

A: Yes, Lorne is trying to get us to do a TV show or even a special. And we’d all love to do that. We’d be so excited to do a short series on something like Netflix or Amazon like Mr. Show did. The trouble is, trying to figure out when we’re all free at the same time. But we’re trying! You could sort of expect the same themes of ideas and the same spirit behind the ideas. But, since we write about our lives, the location of the ideas will be different.

For example, as angry young men, we wrote a scene where we fantasize about beating up our dads. Now, most of us are dads. But we have the same irreverent sense of anger and humour about families – so we have a recent sketch called hateful baby – where a couple finds their baby hateful. Same spirit. Same anger but different situation.

Q: In terms of tackling big issues, KITH addressed LGBT issues long before the more inclusive culture we live in today. Fellow KITH member, Scott Thompson, has been quoted as saying, I think they all paid the price, actually…I should pay the price, but they shouldn’t have had to pay the price. Their careers took hits. I’m really grateful for that. I think it’s quite amazing. I’m going to start crying. I was very naive. I didn’t realize how homophobic the world was.”

Do you feel like you paid a price? What advice do you have for comics who want to say things that might piss off their family, friends or anybody else for that matter?

A: I don’t honestly feel that I paid the price for the topics of some of our humour. Not personally. Maybe the troupe could have tried for a more mainstream popularity by not tackling some of the subjects that we did. But then we wouldn’t have been the Kids in the Hall. And we wouldn’t be having this conversation. As Popeye says “I am what I am”. And it would have been impossible for us to try to be more mainstream – not that it is a bad thing – we just don’t, as a group, have the talent for that direction of comedy. We would have failed.

My advice is to young comics is find your voice and honour it. Find out what is funny to you and the audience. Once you and the audience are both enjoying your material – you are in a very sweet spot. And once you find your voice, never back away from it. Being true to your own sense of humour is the only way to achieve success. And if it upsets people but you know it’s funny and true to something that you honestly believe, you will be ok.

1483777_10153233475104564_3848435864392632077_oQ: You’re a straight white male. I’m a straight white male. Sometimes it’s hard for me to feel like I can contribute to a conversation on race, gender equality, etc. when I feel like I have the least amount of perspective on it. How did you all work with Scott on those sketches?

A: As a writer, I don’t like to stray onto topics that I don’t know about very well and that have a chance of hurting people.

That’s not my place.

But with Scott’s idea, I totally trusted his passion for the subject. And even if i didn’t agree with his theme, I always found his point of view fascinating and went with it. My only contributions would be ideas for comedy, story structure and my performance. And sometimes it felt like we were doing something important with his sketches.

Q: Have you ever worked with a group at a workshop that has not gotten along, or they can’t seem to agree on ideas? How do you resolve that or by the power of improv does everybody generally coalesce?

A: I think I’ve done about 150 workshops now and only about 3 times has a particular group not gotten along. I usually come to that group, remind them that it’s fun what we’re doing – that the fate of the world does not depend on the decision that we make for the direction of a sketch.

Then I sit with them and we work it out. I listen to the original idea and I lead them to a solution that honours the intent of that original idea. And once we’re all together, working on and supporting an idea, the group usually morphs into a team – where the only important thing is this idea – and how to turn the idea into a sketch.

And without telling them this, I try to get them to realize that sketch comedy is a team sport and sometimes egos can get hurt.1930873_28393039563_9932_n

Q: What do you learn from working with smaller theatres and performing with local troupes?

A: The thing I’ve learned the most is how much I love improv. I used to be afraid of it when I started out. “Oh my God, I have to make stuff up? And that stuff has to make an audience laugh?” So much pressure!

But doing it now with so many excellent improvisers around North America, I’ve learned that starting with nothing, digging in and creating something… out of nothing – is my favourite kind of comedy to do.

As long as you don’t panic, don’t worry that there’s no laugh for a few moments – and trust that you will make something out of 11391415_10153316793479564_7214514238721525052_nwhatever is happening, it will turn out fine. And when it does turn out fine, it’s a great feeling.

Q: I’m going to seem a bit sycophantic here, but it’s because I love you. How do you manage to stay so humble, so kind, and so patient when working with a bunch of weirdos trying to master comedy when you are, whether you like it or not, a comedy legend?

A: Because I am also a weirdo who always just wants to make comedy. My students and I are in a special group, together. We are one. We are equals and are meant to work together. They may not know it but I do. Just like if I was 6 ft. 8 and I walked into a party and saw another 6 ft. 8 guy. We would nod at each other. We’d be in a group together, understanding the advantages and disadvantages of our height perk.

That’s like me and all my students. We are weirdo comics, together.


 

Thank you so much to Kevin McDonald, Logan Short and The Improv Shop for developing this interview together.

If you’re interested, you can still register for Kevin McDonald’s workshop in St. Louis, MO on Saturday and Sunday, April 16 & 17 (Spots are limited). The workshop will follow with a showcase on Sunday evening at the Improv Shop.

If you can’t make the workshop, come see the show on Sunday April 17th at 8 pm and see the weirdo comedy his students and Kevin McDonald can come up with.

For more great interviews with Sketchpad Comedy check out Ben Kronberg, Nick Vatterott or Jo Firestone.

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Images c/o Kids In The Hall – Facebook

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