Culture

Kevin McDonald Explains Why Silliness Beats Politics Every Time

by Katie Wudel

October 14, 2017
Bruce McCulloch, Scott Thompson, Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald, and Dave Foley of The Kids in the Hall perform at Festival Supreme 2015. Image by Jason Kempin/Getty Images.

Jon Hamm can’t seem to shake Don Draper. Bryan Cranston will forever be “the one who knocks.” And for fans of the exceedingly ridiculous sketch comedy group The Kids in the Hall, Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald may always be Ray and Mr. Barnes of the six-minute exercise in utter absurdity known as “Girl Drink Drunk.”

The two have since held a number of illustrious jobs, of course, from Foley’s star turn as Dave Nelson on the masterful 1990s sitcom “NewsRadio” to McDonald’s variety hour-esque podcast and countless cameos on beloved shows like “Seinfeld,” “That ’70s Show,” and “Arrested Development.” But as The Kids in the Hall’s founding members, their comic genius is undeniable (though the humble Canadians would probably cringe at such an observation).

This weekend, Foley and McDonald will receive the Ernie Kovacs Award, an honor previously bestowed to other comedy legends like Terry Gilliam, Robert Smigel, Mike Judge, and Harry Shearer. The award is named after a pioneering television comedian who made his mark in the 1950s and 1960s. McDonald describes Kovacs as “ahead of his time, almost Monty Python-esque. He had too many shows canceled, which is proof of his brilliance.” He spoke with GOOD about how it feels to be deemed a comedy pioneer, why humor matters in these heated political times, and whether or not The Kids in the Hall is really coming back.

So, I hear they give these awards out to comic “visionaries” and that you occasionally teach your vision to students in a comedy workshop. What’s your comedy philosophy?

Maybe I’ll figure it out when I’m finished with this interview. I mostly teach writing sketch comedy through improv. And I don’t have any comedy philosophy whatsoever, but I’d say that being funny is great. And you should have a point of view. When you look back at your body of work, it should be about something. For me, Ernie Kovacs is a huge inspiration in that regard. If you’re going to be a sketch comic, you need to find your voice — and after you do enough sketches in your voice, you’ll have a point of view without even knowing it.

I listened to you on Marc Maron’s “WTF” a while back and was totally surprised by your dark, really personal connection to “Girl Drink Drunk.” I suppose I’ve always thought of your humor as surreal, absurd stuff. Do you think it’s personal, too?

It plays a big role. When I’m writing, it’s like there are two brains. One is the imagination-absurdist brain, and the other is the “Oh, I’ve got to write about myself” brain — the trouble I get myself into, I have to write about it. It’s a way to make sense of what’s inside of me.

I’ll march against Trump but won’t do jokes about him.

I try to be the John Lennon of comedy. You know, John Lennon could write songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” or “I Am the Walrus,” which are sort of absurdist. But his observational first solo album, where he talks about the cult of The Beatles and Yoko and ends with “I don’t believe In the Beatles anymore!” Then you go back, and in a way you understand that “I Am the Walrus” actually had a personal connection, even though it’s absurdism. I try to do that with comedy. Not that I’m always successful, of course, but I certainly try. There are some things I’ve done that are obviously personal — “Daddy Drank,” for example. But most of the time, there’s something personal to me, but nobody would ever know what it is. 

Is there a sketch you’ve done that’s secretly personal that others may not know about?

There’s one — the “King of Empty Promises.” With that one, I was just thinking about doing a crazy character. And I am — I’m doing a character that’s not me, but it’s based on me. I always make promises to people, and I mean it when I say it at the time, but it’s out of my head, and then I never do it. My writing partner picked up on that, and one day he said, “That’s a horrible thing you do to people,” and we turned it into that sketch.

I have to tell you, I do the same thing sometimes. Speaking of big promises, I also saw recently that Kids in the Hall might be making a comeback. Is that really true?

People are busy, and it’s hard to arrange, but we want to set up a meeting. It’s a thing that’s wanted by at least one person in the world, Lorne Michaels, and he has enough power that maybe he could try. We’re all pretty interested in it, and we already have tons of new sketches. We’re trying to think through — should we use the old theme song? Or write a new one? And when you reach that point, that means we’re all pretty ready to go. 

Well, I hope it happens! If you redo the show, what do you think your role would be as comedians and commentators? I look back at Kids in the Hall, and the way you handled gender and LGBTQ roles was way ahead of its time, especially characters like Buddy Cole or even the Chicken Lady. Do you think your show would be at all political? Or more silly and escapist?

Well, there’s a lot going on in the world today that upsets us, but we’ve never really been political. Maybe socio-political. But we never sit around and say, “Oh, what should our socio-political sketch be about?” We all write about ourselves — in absurdist ways, but sometimes it’s dead-on about ourselves. Even though we’re eccentric comics, there’s just enough of a normal human being in there that people can relate to that — and when they relate, they laugh harder, we hope. We don’t sit around being pretentious, we just think of funny ideas, and hopefully it touches people.

I wish we were a more political comedy troupe. I mean, Scott (Thompson) does it a little bit— but he does it as a stand-up. I hate what’s going on in the world, I’m against Trump like everyone, and I wish I had good jokes about that, good satire — you know, I’ll show him — but it’s not the way I write. I’ll march against Trump but won’t do jokes about him. I just won’t be funny in the march.

I don’t know what a funny march would look like, but I want there to be one.

Silly walk, I guess.

Image courtesy Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald.

Yes! If you want to organize one, I’ll help. I look back on your roles, and you’ve done everything from voice acting as Pleakley in “Lilo and Stitch” to getting into any number of outlandish costumes. Do you think costumes help you get into a role more? Or do your prefer being a voice actor off-screen?

Well, I’m not much of a character actor. I’m kind of always playing me. Or four different versions of me. But when I play a woman, I become a better version of me. Maybe that’s sexist in a way, but I become kinder and more thoughtful, and for some reason I have a British accent. And I think if I were like this woman I played, I’d become a kinder person.

Good to know. Anything else?

Just that I’m so excited about this Ernie Kovacs Award. It was impossible to say no to. It’s pretty amazing. I’ve told this story a few times before, but back in the 1990s, when Kids in the Hall was just getting started, Dave and I were at an awards show, and Ernie’s wife, Edie, screamed and she said she was a big fan and that Ernie would have loved us. Dave and I loved Ernie so much that we went in the back, and we cried — it meant so much to us. This is a very special award.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Top and share image by Jason Kempin/Getty Images. 

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Kevin McDonald Explains Why Silliness Beats Politics Every Time