Kevin McDonald on Writing For SNL, His Favorite Characters, and Another Possible Kids in the Hall Tour

Kevin McDonald has a face and voice that are practically built for comedy. The Canadian funny man is gifted with a unique and rubber-faced countenance that he's adroitly twisted into wild, unusual, and comical expressions aplenty.

Paired with McDonald's often shrill and manic-sounding vocal talents, he's always brought a sorta wiry and neurotic vibe to the characters he's played in movies, TV shows, and (of course) as an original member of The Kids in the Hall.

A founding member of the legendary five-person sketch comedy troupe, whose landmark show aired for five seasons on North American airwaves, McDonald portrayed such memorable recurring roles as Sir Simon Milligan, The King of Empty Promises, Darcy Pennell, and Jerry Sizzler.

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After close to three decades writing for KITH (and even a recent guest gig on Saturday Night Live), he's accrued a wealth of experience in improvisation and sketch situation. The 52-year-old's eager to pass on said knowledge, which is why he'll be hosting a two-day workshop at the National Comedy Theatre in Mesa on Friday and Saturday.

We recently spoke with McDonald about the improv and sketch comedy workshops, as well as what it's been like writing for Kids in the Hall for almost 30 years, some of his favorite characters, and what projects the troupe is working on.

What will you be doing at the National Comedy Theater this weekend? The big thing is that I will be teaching a two-day workshop, seven hours a day, where I'll teach what the Kids in the Hall used to do before we had a TV show and we were just a stage troupe, and that's how to write sketches through improvisation. And the other less big thing that I'll be doing is I believe I'm doing a show there, which will be me sort of attempting stand-up comedy. And I'm not good at stand-up comedy, so its sorta about a sketch comic struggling through stand-up comedy.

That's getting a bit meta, isn't it? Yes.

I'd feel like any potential comedian would want to learn from someone such as yourself who spent like.... ...A hundred and five years doing it, yes.

Dunno if it was that long. Kids in the Hall ran for like...five seasons? Yes...and we'd been in a troupe for like five years before the TV show and we'd done a new show of sketches every Monday. So we always thought of it as a TV show like in the sense that there were new sketches every week. Even in our 20s when we got the TV show we were like hardened veterans of writing and getting sketches on their feet.

How difficult is it to write for sketch comedy? I've read how writer's rooms for shows like SNL can sometimes be a pressure cooker. I feel that if you're someone who really wants to do it, then you're in the position that it won't be difficult. It is a pressure cooker at Saturday Night Live. I just did a guest writing stint there for two weeks and you have one day -- Tuesday -- from 12 o'clock to 5 a.m. to write the sketches. And no one seems pressured. The fact that you're good enough to be writing sketches is why you're there on a Tuesday. And if you decide to see it as a pressure cooker, then you're not going to get anything done. And you probably won't be there. But once you're in the loop , that's all your doing and it's much easier than it sounds.

What was the creation process like for Kids in the Hall? Well, at first as a stage troupe it was like what I'm gonna teach in the workshop. People would bring one-line ideas and then we'd improvise 'em. We'd talk 'em out first, make beats for 'em, figure out where the scene could go, and any joke we thought of, we'd use. Like someone would bring in a scene like "Dr. Seuss Bible," like Bruce [McCulloch] did with his idea and we'd work on that. We'd point for him where we could go. We decided who played Jesus and who played Dr. Seuss. And then we'd improvise it for an hour over and over until we'd stick with the stuff that's working.

When we got the TV show we were forced to use computers, which were new to us. And we had to write our sketches out, but even the format of how we wrote onstage sorta helped us a lot how we wrote. And we wrote in groups of twos and threes and ones. And by that time we knew what a sketch was like. We were obsessed with that; a sketch had to be seven pages for example, like a normal sketch, it wasn't a blackout or an epic. And we brought our sketches in every Friday to read through. And then we'd pick 'em that way.

How did the Kids in the Hall movie come about? When we did the movie Brain Candy our writing process changed again. All five of us plus Norman Hiscock, our writing partner, were in the same room, and it was very slow, because we were very opinionated and we couldn't go onto the next page until we all agreed and we never agreed on anything. It took a long time to write, and when we shot the movie we didn't have the ending really perfect. And I like Brain Candy a lot, but the ending's a little weak.

Brain Candy was a very difficult project to bring to the screen for reasons like that with the writing or... ...Personal reasons, yes.

Looking back some 17 years later, do you regret it? I'm proud of it. Like I said, I'm not so happy with the ending. I think we did a pretty good job for a first movie. What I always think is this: in retrospect, we were too ambitious. We picked a story and it was a story with sort of a serious theme. You could've easily made that into a drama, with that plot. We're comedians, so we made it into a comedy.

But I think that should've been our second or third movie, and maybe the first one should've been a gag-fest where we just had a loose story and just went for laughs. Sort of like how Monty Python's first movie was a sketch movie. And then their second one was Holy Grail, which is what I'm talking about -- a loose, loose plot, but an excuse for a series of gags. And then Life of Brian was sorta like Brain Candy, but way better, in the sense that it was a serious theme and a real plot and lots of laughs in it. We should've gotten our feet wet with a gag-fest first, I think.

Of all the characters you portrayed with Kids in the Hall, what were some of your favorites? You know, I guess my favorite was the King of Empty Promises, where I would always promise I would do something for someone with a "Will do." And when I didn't do it, "Oh, it slipped my mind." Norm and I wrote that it was sorta based on me, I'm sorta like that. I mean it every time I say it but I'm kinda the king of empty promises myself.

But the way that he speaks is how Paul Belini speaks. He's the guy in the towel that we poke with a stick and that's how he speaks. So it was my evil personality with how Paul talks. And when you put those both together, it seems like the guy is really evil.

I also have fun with Simon and Hecubus, the two things that Dave and I do. And also, something we don't talk about much, the Sizzler Sisters that Dave and I played. That was a lot of fun. Except we always lost our voice after we did it.

I was always a fan of "Daddy Drank." Yeah, yeah. That was a true story about my dad. Daddy really drank. And I was in the office one day and telling Dave and Norm those stories. And for some reason they thought it was funny and thought it could've be a sketch. Even though I thought it was sad, we made it a sketch.

So your father actually told you...uh, "I'm gonna kill you while you sleep?" Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Did he have quiet shoes? That's imagination from Dave. His shoes were loud in real life.

Were there big characters you wrote that were portrayed by another Kid? Near the end I wrote some sketches for others... Oh, you know what? Chicken Lady sort of came from one of my sketches. Mark sorta made it his own. I did a scene called "Freak" where I was a freak at a carnival, like an act there, where I could nosebleed at will. But I've just been to a 12-step group and I'm trying not to be like an emotionally dependent. So I refuse some kids who paid to see me nosebleed. And I say, "Go to the Chicken Lady. She'll lay her eggs at the drop of a hat." And in the first draft of the script, we didn't see [her], I just said that. Then when I read the script, Bruce McCulloch's note was that he wanted to see the Chicken Lady for a second.

So when I rewrote it, I had a quick cut to the Chicken Lady. And arbitrarily, I picked Mark to be the Chicken Lady. And all week when he was in his costume rehearsing, he started developing a character and that's when he wrote the sketch. So I didn't write the character, I guess I just got him the Chicken Lady costume. Like, I never in a million years would've thought of the brilliant thing that Chicken Lady's horny. That's all him.

Was Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town just a one-off miniseries? Yeah, yeah. Bruce, he was like a showrunner now, and like a big TV producer and head writer, so he was in charge and I was the only Kid in the Hall available, because everyone else was busy at the time, and he and I wrote everything. And even though we're pretty good writers, I don't think the series was as good as it could've been because only two of us were trying to represent everybody.

Are there other projects in the works? I just got off the phone with him [Bruce] a half-hour ago and we're going to meet in Toronto for 10 days and write like we used to. Coming up with ideas there or bringing ideas and acting them out or improvising them. And then we're gonna do a show for three or four nights and we'll also be looking for new material for a new tour.

That's the first step right now, that we're working on with the Toronto thing. We're gonna write new sketches to write a new tour. And then we will get our schedules together and then go tour. And then, hopefully during the tour maybe we'll do what we did last time, which is start writing another miniseries like we did, like Death Comes to Town.

Any chance for a sequel to Sky High? It's funny, on the set, this is a rare thing that Dave and I did that we're not embarrassed about. I actually think its kind of good. Kurt Russell is great in it. I remember Dave and I came up with an idea for Sky High University, but the producers seemed to be excited for it but the movie wasn't that much of it. And I forget what the idea was entirely. So I don't think it will be a sequel.

Kevin McDonald's "Improv Into Sketch Workshop" takes place 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at NCT Phoenix. Registration is $300 (e-mail [email protected])

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.