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 Linton Murphy.
Maybe it’s Mark McKinney’s appearance that makes him so malleable. Tall, bespectacled, and possessing the strongest jaw of all the Kids in the Hall, McKinney looks like the perfectly average Canadian male: the kind of guy you could just as easily imagine working as a community college professor or postman. But his apparent plainness belies his nimble prowess as a performer. Though they were all able to swap identities and comedic personas as easily as changing wigs, McKinney remains the Kids’ consummate chameleon, able to expertly disappear inside any role assigned him.
It’s this range that makes McKinney so tricky to pigeonhole. In the Kids’ original sketch series, he’d be just as likely to parody a hard-knuckle business owner as indulge in some over-the-top costuming with characters like the Chicken Lady, the head-crushing Mr. Tyzik, and the insufferable Belgian pedant Darrill (pronounced “da-RILL”). The Kids in The Hall also saw Mark singing the praises of the stock “preacher character” beloved to most every comedian (a sketch which also had him, as a knowing preacher caricature, defending the Bible on the basis that it weighs more than the Bhagavad Gita), or passing himself off as a chain-smoking, streetwise raconteur. He even cooked up one of the troupe’s most enduringly bizarre bits, the “Stand In the New Style” sketch, a dated (but no less funny) satire of early-’90s trend-hunting.
In the years since the Kids in the Hall wrapped their first series, McKinney has made a name for himself at home and abroad, both in front of and behind the camera. He parlayed his cache with Kids producer Lorne Michaels into a spot on Saturday Night Live between 1995 and 1997, and appearances in the SNL franchise films Superstar (directed by fellow Kid Bruce McCulloch), The Ladies Man, and A Night at the Roxbury. He also brought his writing and show-running experience to everything from Canadian dramadies like Slings & Arrows and Less Than Kind (which recently kicked off its second season on HBO Canada), to Aaron Sorkin’s doomed Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip, a show which was too clever, and had too much in common with the zanier 30 Rock, to ever really find an audience. He even took a starring role opposite Isabella Rosselini in 2003’s Genie-winning tragicomedy The Saddest Music in the World, directed by Winnipegger Guy Maddin.
If his laundry list of credits doesn’t speak to his pliability as a comedian and performer, then just check out Death Comes to Town, which returns to the CBC this week after a too-long Olympic hiatus. As the titular reaper, McKinney serves as the series’ banner character. Playing Death as a desperate, soul-snorting sleazeball with a protruding sweet tooth for redheads and owl’s blood, McKinney’s performance sets the tone for Death Comes to Town’s carefully portioned mix of the silly and the macabre. Also appearing as an aloof police officer, the newly-pregnant news anchor Corrinda Gablechuck, a judge who keeps misplacing his gavels, and scads of other Shucktown townsfolk, McKinney remains the Kids’ most adaptable performer. And whatever becomes of the Kids in the Hall after Death Comes to Town wraps this month, we’ll always have Mark to thank for imagining the grim spectre of Death as the same kind of indolent Ontario skid we all bought pot off of in high school.
Torontoist: Was it always intended that you would play Death?
Mark McKinney: I think so. I think we settled on that as soon as we knew there was going to be the character. But that’s just the common intelligence of the group. We kind of know who’s going to do what.
So there’s no voting process? Nobody’s scrapping over who’s going to play which character?
No. There might be a late flip. Some people traded off. But I can’t really remember. I remember in Brain Candy, Kevin and I flipped parts. I was supposed to be the scientist and he was supposed to Don Roritor, but at the last minute we said “no” and changed it.
How did you settle on the look for the Death character? It’s not really the standard, faceless, grim reaper thing.
We had a great wardrobe designer, and she was assisted by Wendy Charette, who was our old Kids in the Hall dresser and also a wardrobe designer in her own right. We sort of put pieces together. We started with the standard Death look, and then peeled it back until we got something which I gather is kind of vulgar and in-your-face.
Death (McKinney) gets lucky in Death Comes to Town. Photo by Michael Gibson.
Going back a bit. You and Bruce were once upon a time in the sketch troupe The Audience, right?
Well, I don’t know if Bruce was ever in The Audience. We both joined theatre sports in Calgary, within months of each other. I started out with Norm Hiscock, and we were a little two-man theatre group. I don’t know if you know how theatre sports work, but it’s basically competitive improvisation. There’s a bunch of teams, and that becomes your little comedy squad. So that evolved into a group called The Audience. But we had a common sensibility, and Bruce’s troupe had a common sensibility, and we started together doing late-night comedy—after theatre sports ended on Saturday, we took over the space and started writing sketches as opposed to doing improv.
And how’d you fall in with Dave and Kevin?
Well again, with theatre sports, sometimes there are competitions that are held nationally. When we decamped to come to Toronto, we’d heard about them, and they’d heard about us. We sniffed each other out and started doing shows together. Eventually we flipped a coin and merged. Wait. Bruce was in The Audience! See now I started this whole story with a fallacy. At that point, when we had moved to Toronto, Bruce was in The Audience.
How did you decide what name to take? Was that the coin flip?
Pretty much. It was something like that.
As the five of you started performing, and going into the TV series, do have any particularly memorable characters or sketches that you look back on and are fond of?
The one I remember fondly—maybe it’s because I got my hands on the editing a little bit—is a sketch I had with this character called Tucker. He was very, very dim.
Oh yeah. The mouse sketch? Where he’s trying to catch the mouse?
The mouse sketch, yeah. I don’t know why, but I loved how weird it got and how funny it was at the same time.
And then when you went to SNL, you kind of took the Melanie character with you too?
Yeah. I remember doing that with Chris Elliot in some weird sketches.
Were you kind of trying to do that in the same way that Martin Short emigrated the Ed Grimley character from SCTV?
Well he was much more successful at emigrating his characters than I was.
Since SNL, you’ve done a lot of work behind the scenes, on shows like Slings & Arrows, or there’s the rumour that you were brought in by Aaron Sorkin to save Studio 60. Was this a different challenge for you, writing for characters that you wouldn’t necessarily be performing?
I was sort of in these…well I don’t want to say “doldrums” after I left Saturday Night Live, but I certainly didn’t knock it out of the park. You know, I was in New York doing theatre, and going out of town doing a bunch of different movies, but as an actor. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write for TV, because it was at a time when there were only sitcoms or procedural cop shows. But then someone sent me a screener of The Sopranos, like right before it came out. And it changed the way I thought about television. So I kind of brought that to stuff like Slings & Arrows.
Do you like having this sort of creative control, working as a producer?
Behind the camera, being a show-runner or executive producer on television is a very creative position. It’s like, you’re not in the sketch, but you get to do everything else. You set the tone and pick the people and all the decisions. I guess in theatre and film it’s the same, but in television it feels like you’re really using your creative mojo.
You also starred in Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World in 2003. What was it like working with someone like that, who’s now carved out a space for himself as one of Canada’s premiere filmmakers?
It’s a pure art space. It’s almost like I wish I could evolve what I’m doing now towards something like that.
But it’s really funny, too.
It’s really funny. Guy’s one of the funniest people in the world. Have you interviewed him before?
So you know how funny he is. He’s crazy funny.
Yeah he is. But you’re funny in it. The movie’s funny. Not just Guy. Was it different to do comedy in a film that, not to use a bad word, would probably get labelled an “art film”?
It made total sense. And the script, if you ever get a chance to pick it up and read it, is one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. Ever.
[Bruce McCulloch enters the room.]
Bruce McCulloch: Are you guys talking about Dog Park?
Mark McKinney: We were, yeah.
Torontoist: We were talking about Stealing Harvard.
Bruce McCulloch [laughs]: You’ve done your research!
Torontoist: It’s not research. I saw Stealing Harvard in theatres!
Bruce McCulloch: Good boy!
[Bruce picks up a magazine.]
Mark McKinney: Enjoy that July 2009 Maclean’s, Bruce.
Bruce McCulloch: I am. I’m going to use it…for things.
Mark McKinney: You researching? Good on ya!
Bruce McCulloch: Yeah. Oh…are you guys doing an interview?
Bruce McCulloch: Okay, great!
Torontoist: Um…where were we? Saddest Music?
Mark McKinney: Right. With that it was so clear that Guy Maddin was into his own thing that I just tried my best to fit into it.
So back to Death Comes to Town. When you were cooking it up, were there ever any plans to bring back characters from the original show? Or was it always intended to be all new stuff?
It kind of wrote itself as its own idea. By coincidence, there were slots for a couple of our older characters.
Right. Like the Shucktown cops you and Bruce play, which are a lot like the cops from the old “Police Department” sketches. Was that an intentional thing, to bring these characters back, or to have them as some sort of reincarnation? Or is it just the dynamic that you and Bruce naturally have?
Well we knew it was going to be a murder mystery, so there had to be cops. And if they didn’t fit, tonally, we wouldn’t have used them. We’d have invented some other person.
A Shucktown judge (McKinney) attempts to command order with a woodwind in Death Comes to Town. Photo by Michael Gibson.
Now that you’ve got a couple of generations of fans—fans of the original show’s run, and those of us who came in on reruns—was there ever any pressure to live up their high expectations? Or was it just more about getting back together with the other guys and doing something again?
You know there probably was a little bit of pressure. You do want to be as funny. And we’ve all seen Canadians flame out for one reason or another. Maybe that’s the good thing about being in the troupe, is that someone will stand up and say, “This isn’t working, is it?”
So the group dynamics have mellowed a bit?
They’ve mellowed to the point that we were able to get this done. Fifteen years ago, the other four would have been incredibly threatened by the idea of having Bruce pound out the story. We all would have wanted our hands in on that. But there was no way it was going to get done with us doing other jobs and living in other cities. We’ve learned to acknowledge each other’s strengths, as opposed to just tearing them down.
Are there any plans for the material from the 2008 tour?
We should put it out. When we first wanted to do something again, one of the ideas was to get that out, because it was a good, funny, tour.
Any plans for a tour right now? Or are you just trying to deal with Death Comes to Town and play it by ear?
I think we’ll take a little breath after this and see what happens.