As a Canadian who at one point in his life owned a television, I have of course watched a lot of The Kids in the Hall. To be more accurate, I've watched all of The Kids in the Hall. All five seasons, the movie, and the miniseries. Multiple times. Front to back. More often than would probably be socially acceptable in the eyes of most people, if I'm being honest.
Kevin McDonald always stood out to me as the most fascinating member of that merry troupe of misfits. He played with a weird energy that I was never able to quantify as anything other than quintessentially "Kevin", and as a young boy with what I thought were a lot of the same neurotic tendencies, he was the Kid I related to the most. Years later I would get into stand up, and enter into that weird cavern of emotions that plague young performers who can't quite get a grip on that idiotic lizard brain desire to make other people laugh. When those feelings would bubble up, my thoughts would often drift to the performers I most admired, and what they would have done in that situation. More often than not, I would think of what Kevin might have done, and it helped me think that one day I'd eventually get a handle on it. Can't say if I have or have not yet, but thinking of him in times of doubt has certainly helped.
I never told him about that during our interview. Nor did I tell him that I used to watch re-runs of The Kids in the Hall every night on the Comedy Network for years, to the point where I would know when the series was about to end and they would go back to showing season one episodes again. Nor did I tell him that my favourite single line in sketch comedy history is from a KITH sketch that most people don't even remember, and is a throwaway line he punctuates by eating a bite of a sandwich that he pulls out of his pocket. Nor did I tell him that I've run into him in Winnipeg several times since he moved here a few years ago, to the point where I would actually get mad that someone I respected so much could just casually walk by me on the street and I'm not supposed to get all giddy every time it happens.
I had the opportunity to gush, and I suppressed it. I'm not saying you should all be proud of me for that or anything, it's just that... well, no. No, you should all be very proud of me for that. I'm pretty proud of myself, anyway. I talked one on one with Kevin freakin' McDonald, and I did not cry or scream at him once. I rewarded myself with a popsicle when it was all over.
As part of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Kevin is returning for the second year in a row to curate "Kevin Fest", a film festival within the festival itself, showcasing five of his favourite comedy films at Cinematheque. We talked about his feelings while watching a movie he's in with an audience, his post-Kids in the Hall work as a voice over actor, and his newfound love of teaching sketch comedy across the country. More information on those shows are available at winnipegcomedyfestival.com.
J.D. Renaud: This is the second year of "Kevin Fest", your film festival that runs as part of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival.
Kevin McDonald: I really should think of a better name for it.
JD: I think it's perfect. It's you, it's a festival, what more do people need to know?
KM: The word "Movies" or "Film" in there might help. "Fest-film?" "Movie-fest?" "Fest-film-fest?". I don't know, I'll work on it.
JD: Last year the theme was films from the 70s that inspired you, and this year you have gone with films by comedy troupes. What prompted you to go with that theme, and what films were on the b-list that you would have liked to show?
KM: Something was on the "a-list" that did not make it, actually -- I would have loved to have been able to play This is Spinal Tap. I guess that one may not exactly count, since they were not technically a troupe, but then they would go on to do other things together, and work in different groups afterwards. Calling it a troupe movie is by no means wrong, because it definitely feels like a troupe movie to me. I remember when I first saw it, I had just failed at an audition, and I was going to take the long subway home to Mississauga from Toronto, and I just thought, "You know what? I'm going to see that Spinal Tap thing. I saw the commercials, it did not seem that funny, but I'll give it a shot". I had such a special feeling when I first saw it. It made me so happy. Such a funny movie. I called the rest of the Kids in the Hall, we were all still struggling at the time, and told them all to go see it. I have a lot of special memories of that film, I've seen it maybe 45 times since then. Unfortunately we could not get the rights to play it at the festival, so I picked a Laurel and Hardy movie to show instead. Kind of a brave choice, seeing as how I don't know who will be interested in seeing a one hundred year old movie. Oh well, we'll see.
I picked troupe movies because it seemed to be a good theme, since, you know, I'm from a troupe and all. That's why I'm showing Brain Candy. I really like Brain Candy, don't get me wrong, but the other movies I'm showing are classics. It's a good movie, but it's not a classic, so I hope it does not embarrass itself.
JD: I'd say Brain Candy is a classic in its own right among your fans and the people who dig what you do. Is this going to be the first time since the premiere that you will be watching it with an audience?
KM: Yeah! I've seen it again maybe once or twice on TV since then, but I probably have not seen it for about 10 years. You're right, this will be the first time I've watched it with other people since the premiere. Wow, never thought of that.
There were maybe four or five pre-screenings of it before it came out that I watched with an audience. That was really hard. When people are laughing where they are supposed to, you feel great. When it's quiet at a point where you wanted them to laugh, you die. Paramount would only let us into those if we wore hoods and hats, because you're not supposed to influence people's opinion of the film. We all had to lie and pretend we were not, you know, who we were. Whenever something on screen did not get a laugh, it felt awful.
JD: I don't imagine you will have the problem this time around.
KM: I hope not. I've always wondered, because when they do test screenings like that, they always have the audience answer these really vague questions like "What did you like about the film?" and "What did you not like about the film?" when it's done, and I know for a fact they always ask "What did you think about the lead character?", which in the case of Brain Candy was me. My good friend Kelly Makin directed the film, so he knows what they said, but he's never told me. Me being neurotic, I've always assumed they hated me.
JD: I think you've probably read way too much into that.
KM: It's funny, after the premiere I promised myself I'd ask him what they said in 20 years. In five years I'm gonna ask him, I swear.
JD: Recently you did a sketch comedy writing workshop in Edmonton. Is that something you've always wanted to do, and do you plan on doing more of them in the future?
KM: I'm actually in the middle of a workshop tour -- Edmonton was my fourth one. I've done one since in Montreal, I have about seven or eight left, and people keep calling and asking to book more. Edmonton was the most successful one, in that it was one of the quickest to sell out, and they were by far the best improvisers. You an Edmonton guy?
JD: No, I'm in Winnipeg, but I had heard about it though friends I know there.
KM: Okay, good, so now you know I'm not just sucking up to you because I thought since you asked about the Edmonton one that you were from Edmonton. Yeah, they have been the best so far.
The reason those workshops came about was when I was doing the Toronto Sketchfest last November with Scott Thompson. We were doing our little two man show, and there was this free space that the festival had where they were looking for people to do workshops for a few hours. I'd always had this idea about teaching a class around writing through improv, which was the way the Kids in the Hall used to write before we had our TV show. It seemed to work very well there, and aside from working in L.A. for auditions and writing and stuff, I like to tour when I work. Hence, you know, the workshop tour. I have not set one up in Winnipeg though!
JD: I was just about to ask!
KM: I read your mind! I've been talking to the folks at the Gas Station Theatre, and we're going to try and get one together there really soon. People have warned me that it might not work there, though. "It's too expensive!", they say, or "Winnipeg people are too smart to go to one of your classes!".
JD: Oh, no we're not. You could trick a good number of us, I'm sure.
KM: Well, I'm hoping that you're smart, and that the people telling me that are the dumb ones. So, we will see.
JD: I wanted to know a bit about the voice work you've done post-Kids in the Hall. You have a very distinctive voice that jumps out immediately when you hear it, and I think the first time I ever noticed it was on Invader Zim.
KM: I love that show. That's one of those really cool things that I've done outside of Kids in the Hall that I still really like.
JD: When did the decision to get into cartoons come about? Was it something you sought out to do, or did people come to you with different projects they thought you would be good for?
KM: People have always told me that I have a cartoony voice. I auditioned for a bit when The Kids in the Hall TV show ended, but the grand majority of the work I get in cartoons is when someone who watched me in college and now runs a cartoon asks for me, and I don't have to audition at all. That's pretty much always been the way. If I have to audition, I'm not getting the job, but if you loved me in college, I'm in. They always want me to do the voice of a character from The Kids in the Hall, too. You remember the cartoon CatDog?
JD: I do!
KM: Nobody remembers this, probably because they replaced me very quickly, but for the first few episodes I was 'Cat'. It was the hardest job I've ever had, and I was so happy when they finally fired me. The guy who created the show wanted me to essentially do the character I did on Kids called "The King of Empty Promises", which is the guy with the really slow pace who always says "Will do". Nickelodeon, on the other hand, wanted the voice to be really fast paced. So together, they wanted a fast-paced-slow-pace character, which I really did not know how to do. All these people were in the control booth, watching me read my lines, and I could see them all arguing with each other on the other side of the glass. One of them would tell me to do it slow, then the other would tell me to do it fast, and so on, and so on. I still don't know exactly what they wanted me to do.
Shortly after that, what really got my voice work career going was Lilo and Stitch, which was co-directed by a guy from Ottawa. There are so many Canadians in the cartoon industry in L.A., it's insane. He was a Kids in the Hall fan, and there was one perticular sketch where I played an alien, and he just loved that voice so much he offered me the job. So I did the Lilo and Stich movie, which led to the Lilo and Stitch TV show, and the bulk of my cartoon work really came about because of that.
JD: What live performing do you have planned in the near future? You had your one man show (Hammy and the Kids) in the Winnipeg Festival two years ago, and you mentioned the live show you had been doing with Scott Thompson.
KM: Right now, the focus is still with Scott. We did our tour of the states last summer and fall, and we are looking at doing a Canadian tour this coming fall. It's sort of us doing stand up, which is pretty wild. I come out and do a stand up act, then he comes out and does a stand up act, then I come out, then he comes out, they we both come out together at the end and have sort of a fake arguement to end it all off, but before that it's really just two guys doing stand up. It's been going quite well. Right now, all my live performing is me doing something I'd never thought I'd ever actually do. Something I've always admired when I see other people do it, but that I never, ever thought I would do myself. Well, now I'm doing it. It's been great. Hopefully in the fall we can make it to Rumor's in Winnipeg.
JD: Speaking of which, Dave Foley is coming to Rumor's in May.
KM: I know, I'm really excited for that. I'll probably see every show.
JD: You've made Winnipeg your home, but you're working outside of the city, and of course you're touring around a lot. Some people now don't think that they need to move to a bigger city like Toronto, New York, or L.A. to make a living in comedy, be it stand up, sketch, or otherwise. Do you have any advice for someone just starting comedy in a city like Winnipeg that maybe does not think they need to leave to make a living at it?
KM: I moved here for love, and I moved here established. It's much easier for someone in my position to live here and work elsewhere, and I also get a lot of writing work, which you can do pretty much anywhere. I'm writing a movie right now that hopefully we will end up shooting in Winnipeg, as a matter of fact. My advice would be more conventional, though. If you're living in a city like Winnipeg, Edmonton, or Calgary, definitely start there and get your comedy chops. Do whatever it is you want to do, be it stand up, sketch, whatever, but seriously keep the option open to move to either New York, Los Angelas, Toronto, or Vancouver. If you want to make a living off comedy, I still think you have to do that. Then again, there are freaky exceptions. Crumbs, who are an amazing improv duo from Winnipeg, they still live here and make a good living by touring Europe. I guess it all depends on what your idea of success is, and what level of success you really want. I'm happy here, but if it's TV and movies that you're really after, you're going to have to move. Sorry, I guess you were expecting a weirder answer from somebody who was in The Kids in the Hall.
Kevin Fest runs from April 5th to the 12th at Cinematheque, as part of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival:
J.D. Renaud is a writer, comedian, producer, and visual artist originally from Oakville, Ontario. You can follow his weird thoughts on Twitter at @jdrenaud.