Back in the Hall: Kevin McDonald
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Back in the Hall: Kevin McDonald

Well before Broken Social Scene, Toronto birthed its most formidable indie collective: The Kids in the Hall. A staple of Hogtown’s emerging alt-comedy scene of the ’80s and CBC and Comedy Network airwaves in the ’90s, the Kids are back with Death Comes to Town, an eight-part mini-series airing on the CBC. To mark the Kids’ triumphant return to Canadian TV, Torontoist is interviewing a different member of the troupe more-or-less every other week while Death airs.

Illustration by Brett Lamb/Torontoist.

Comedy’s built on the double act. Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, Kirk and Spock, Tim and Eric, Hodgman and Long, and countless others have milked the comedic potential of the straight-man/stooge dynamic. Up here in Canada we’ve got plenty of solid examples (Wayne and Shuster, the Mackenzie Brothers, Red Green and that squawky dweeb that stands next to him), but none finer than Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald.

Meeting each other in a Second City, Foley and McDonald struck up an immediate rapport, and became—at least for anyone who keeps track of these kinds of things—one of the most prolific duos in Canadian comedy history, writing and performing countless sketches together. Known as much for his Brillo-pad hairdo and high-strung hysterics, McDonald has played some of the Kids in the Hall’s most memorable characters.
As Sir Simon Milligan, host of cable-access program The Pit of Ultimate Darkness and Gen X’s answer to Count Floyd, McDonald channelled the experience of every wannabe occultist attempting to dress up adolescent awkwardness in a charcoal cravat and black nail polish. He was also forthcoming about his family life, playing his father’s alcoholism for laughs and channeling his strained father-son relationship into some of the best deadbeat dads in the history of The Kids in the Hall series, and his recent one-man show, “Hammy and the Kids.”

And just as Dave Foley has managed to parlay his Kids in the Hall straight-man persona into a successful sitcom and long-running stint on Celebrity Poker Showdown, McDonald has had no problem plying his brand of irascible kookiness. Popping up in sitcoms like Seinfeld and That 70’s Show, movies like Sky High (alongside Foley), and making fine use of shrill, urgent timbre in cartoons like Johnny Bravo, Invader Zim, and Disney’s Lilo & Stitch franchise (playing, in a nice nod to The Kids in the Hall, a cross-dressing alien).
But of course, McDonald is at his best when working with the other Kids, and their current CBC mini-series Death Comes to Town proves why. Appearing as (among others) Marnie, a scatterbrained pizza delivery lady; pathetic public defender Sam Murray; and too-cool news team cameraman Shaye, McDonald once again proves himself an incomparable oddball.
Torontoist: So it was you and Dave that founded the Kids in the Hall?
Kevin McDonald: Dave and I started a troupe, and then Bruce and Mark founded a troupe six months later in Calgary. But we called our troupe “The Kids in the Hall.” So I guess we founded it. Dave and I met at a Second City workshop doing the mirror exercise. I didn’t know his name or anything, but I knew he was funny, so I asked him to join my comedy troupe. And he said “yes,” for some strange reason. And we were chumming around with Luciano Casimiri, who’s now a pretty big writer in Canada. So me, Dave, and Luciana Casimiri founded The Kids in the Hall.
Did you guys fit in at all with the Second City culture?
No. We did not fit in at all. We were round pegs into a square…something. I don’t know the saying.
Square pegs in round holes?
I was a square and something was round and we didn’t fit in with the Second City culture. We eventually made it into the Second City, but only after the Kids in the Hall made it, when Bruce and Mark went to write for Saturday Night Live. Because we were sort of a bigger thing in Toronto they asked us. But otherwise we were too weird for them.
Looking back at your early sketches, and the TV series, are there any characters or sketches you find particularly memorable?
I really liked playing the “will do” guy, the guy who makes all the empty promises.
The King of Empty Promises?
King of Empty Promises, yes. That was pretty much the way that I was from 1981 to 1994. But no longer. The Kids taught me not to be that anymore.

So you would promise to make copies of Paul Simon tapes and then not do it?
Yes. That’s true. My editor wanted to hear a Paul Simon CD and I went, “Oh, I’ll make a tape for you!” and he said “Really, you’ll do that for me?” and I said “Oh yeah! Will do!” And then a few months later he asked me about the Paul Simon tape and I said “Oh yeah, slipped my mind! But I’ll do it!” My writing partner, Norm Hiscock, said we could write a sketch on that. And that’s how the King of Empty promises was born.
There’s also a long-running theme that you’re the one that the other Kids in the Hall pick on. Is there any truth to that?
No, not really. It’s something I made up. I had this idea that I was the least popular of the Kids in the Hall. And being neurotic, which is the way I was from 1977 to 1988, I thought it would be funny. Whenever we got fan mail the first year, Dave would get fan mail saying “Dave, you’re really cute and I’d like to marry you.” And Bruce would get fan mail from goth girls saying, “Oh you’re really dark and sexy, I’d like to marry you.” I got fan mail that said, “Kevin you seem pretty nice. Can you tell Dave he’s cute and that I’d like to marry him?” During the years that idea kind of grew, so I wrote a few more sketches.
It culminates with that “Le Poupee” sketch, where you’re so unpopular that you’re popular in France.
Yeah, and that was an idea of Paul Bellini, Scott’s partner’s. He thought of the idea and I thought it was funny, the idea that I’m big in France. Like Jerry Lewis.

Given that the Kids have been touring a bit in the 2000s doing live sketch shows, why’d you decide to get back into TV?
We toured in 2008 with all new material. On our tour bus we all got excited in our egomaniacal ways, because the sketches were going over so well every night. We were always the most excited about writing something new. It actually was a movie idea first. Bruce came up with the idea, and we started scripting it, and the idea grew and grew and we decided to do a mini-series. The idea of doing a mini-series is very Kids in the Hall, because nobody does a mini-series anymore. It’s a dinosaur. Obsolete. So the fact that we put so much energy into something that doesn’t exist is very much a Kids in the Hall thing.
Was there any worry about getting back into this, after all the tensions that surrounded the making of the Brain Candy movie?
The plan was…see, there’s only one real sketch troupe, and that’s Monty Python. We’d always followed their blueprint. So we were stage for a while and then we did a TV show for five years, and then the idea was that we’d be successful and we’d do a movie every three or four years. The snag in the plan, the snafu, was that Brain Candy bombed. We never said we’d split up, but that made it easier for us to not see each other for three or four years. But we had an energetic, go-getter manager that said, “You know what? Your show’s doing pretty well in repeats in both the States and Canada, I bet you can get a tour going.” We never had a plan. It just kind of happened with the last tour, when we were tired of doing greatest hits and we decided to do all new stuff.
Has the level of competitiveness relaxed a bit?
I’ve always seen it as healthy competition. With writing, during the first few years [of the show], we had read-throughs every Friday. And if Bruce would write a sketch that was really amazing, I’d get excited, and jealous, and happy, and I’d go home and write a sketch for the next week to beat that. It was not insane, bitter competition, but healthy competition that drove the troupe to greater…heights I guess? It really was an engine of the troupe, and it got us as far as we did.
So it was productive one-upmanship?
It’s healthy one-upmanship. If one of us wrote a sketch that we loved, we’d laugh our heads off, and say “Good sketch!” and then we’d go back to our cubicles and try to write an even better one. If he had bitterness it had nothing to do with the work, it was all personality things. Another engine of the troupe is that there was always someone above us, a producer or someone we’d have trouble with. So the five of us could band together and complain about that person. We were always very much a team.
How did you handle the writing process for Death Comes to Town?
With Death Comes to Town, we wanted to do a different writing process than Brain Candy, because Brain Candy was hell on earth. With the sketch show, we wrote alone, or in teams of twos and threes, and there would be notes to improve it, but it would basically be your own stuff. We didn’t know how to do that with a movie, so we were all together in a room at the same time. And we couldn’t work on the next page until we all agreed, and that was very rare.
On Death Comes to Town, Bruce had the idea, so he and I wrote an outline. We talked to the troupe, and they gave their notes, and Bruce and I took it away, then Scott at first volunteered to write, and we filled out the outline. Then Scott got busy. Mark and Dave were always busy, and Bruce and I basically wrote—with Bruce heading the way—the episodes in a few months. Then there were a couple weeks in Toronto where all five of us read everything, got their input in and gave their notes.
How about developing characters? In the first two episodes you play Marnie and Shaye. Did you write those characters for yourself?
Well, no. Those two especially not. We always assumed that Scott was going to be Marnie, ‘cause Scott’s like an old lady so he always plays old ladies. And Shaye, we were thinking of getting an actor to play him when we didn’t know how many roles we’d each play. There’s a lawyer I play that comes in on episode four that we knew would always be me. But half of the characters, when we were writing it, we weren’t sure who was going to play what.

Kevin McDonald as a town massage therapist giving Death (played by Mark McKinney) a rub-down in Death Comes to Town.

When production was gearing up there were all these rumours about how you guys were going to play every character, like an Eddie Murphy movie or something. Was there debate about how many characters you were each going to play?
Well some people wanted to play everyone on the show. And some only wanted to play one or two characters. It’s pretty much what Brain Candy was, each of us play a bunch of characters. Some of us play six or seven. I don’t think anyone plays less than four.
You’ve lived in L.A. for some time, right?
Yes. Since 1996.
What was it like coming back to Canada and working with the CBC again?
It’s great. It’s home. It’s where we did our first show and made our name. It’s funny, I always assumed it’d be on CBC, but apparently Bruce pitched it to a few places and CBC just said “yes” first. I’d be happy doing any network, but CBC felt like home. A lot of the crew were faces that we knew. Even the executives at the CBC, even though they weren’t there when we had our TV show in the early nineties, they were people from the comedy world that we grew up with. It’s like an old family, for sure.
Death Comes to Town seems a nice fit on the CBC too. It has a bit of a Little Mosque, Corner Gas, small town Canadian sitcom feel, but with a Kids in the Hall twist.
We were all obsessed with small towns before we had a TV show. As a stage troupe we did a lot of small town stuff. I’m not sure why. We did a scene called “Crosstown,” which was a half-hour sketch where Bruce was a boy, but since there were no women in town he was the prettiest girl in town and he was trying to get out of it. So when we thought of this mini-series we decided it would be a small town thing. It’s very Canadian of us.
Are there any other plans in works for the Kids in the Hall at this point?
The beautiful and ugly thing about the troupe is that we never have plans. We’re going to see how this goes. We’re not thinking sequel or anything. What I would love it to be is wildly successful so we can do a movie, or do a movie any time we want. But it’s hard to get five guys with separate lives together to do stuff. So our plan now is just to sit back and watch the show on TV with everyone else every Tuesday, and then see what happens.
All Death Comes to Town stills courtesy of Suzanne Cheriton.