If you don't recognize the name, Kevin McDonald is best known for his hit sketch comedy troupe The Kids In The Hall, and starred in a number of other sketch comedy TV series including Papillon and Less Than Kind. His acting resume also features roles in The Drew Carey Show, Friends, and Seinfeld, to name just a few.
The improv scene is exploding in Philadelphia, which means that, when Greg Maughan -- founder and executive director of Philly Improv Theater -- brings a heavyweight comedian like Kevin McDonald to town to teach an improv class, the class will see three times as many people looking for spots as it had spots available. To hear them talk about it, McDonald might just be back to do it again. In the meantime, hungry customers might enjoy our interview.
Kevin McDonald: I’ll probably just answer the questions straight, because I don’t feel funny anymore, because I’m exhausted.
215 Magazine: I bet. It’s been a couple days of this for you?
KM: Two days, yes. It’s exhausting, and the people taking the workshop always tell me how tired they are when it’s over.
215: So, how did you learn improv?
KM: That’s a good question. No one’s asked me that for a long time. Now I’m judging the questions, because I’m so tired! It all started when I was 19, when I was kicked out of college for acting. It was a 3-year program, but I was kicked out after three-and-a-half months. My improv teacher, when I was sadly leaving the college to the bus stop to take the long two hour bus stop home -- because I lived in the suburbs outside of toronto -- my improv teacher ran after me and said that I was good at improv, and that I should try improv. And I always knew I was funny, and I always wanted to be a comedy actor, but I knew stand up wasn’t the thing for me. Standing up telling jokes wasn’t how I was funny. I sort of knew I was funny in situations, like hearing what someone said, pausing, and coming back, like dialogue. And so, he gave me the phone number for Second City Workshops, which excited me because SCTV was like one of my favorite shows back then. And they were all Toronto guys, so I thought it was gonna be John Candy teaching me improv.. And so I went and that’s how I started, and like I always say, most of the people were over 30, and they were actors and wanted to learn how to do improv. And there were two teenagers, me, and a guy named Mike Myers. And that was my first in to improv
215: And so it’s something you feel you obviously have to refine with experience for your whole career, mostly?
KM: Yeah, you know, technically, I’m not very good at improv! Technically, I’m not horrible: I don’t block -- and I can try to advance -- the story, but mostly my thing is like to get laughs out of it. Two [of the] Kids In The Hall -- of course they always got laughs, but they were also technically good at improv, Dave and Mark -- they could like really advance the story AND get laughs. The rest of us sort of were just funny. But we did improvise all the time before we sort of learned how to write.
215: What does that mean to you to me “technically good” at improv?
KM: "Technically good" is to move the scene along, to be writing it as you go on, not to sacrifice the story for a joke, and if you think of something that’s funny that advances the story, and you do that on a regular basis, then you would be technically a good improviser.
215: So, there’s an element of improv in all comedy, would you say that’s right?
KM: I would say so, yeah. Like a standup could say something even who says it a different way, the other night in a different way, or, and sometimes you improvise through rehearsal and that gets like, when you’re taping a TV show and that gets in, I would say yes that improv which should be an important part of all comedy.
215: Now you’re teaching improv, so what’s the difference? How do you teach improv?
KM: Well, I’m not teaching improv -- I wouldn’t be that good. I’m teaching writing for improv. So, the difference is -- mostly everyone that comes to workshops are [already] improvisers, and as long as they know no not to “block,” which is like the biggest thing in improv, then great. But improv is either a means to an end in itself, or a means to something else, and in the workshop I’m giving it’s a means to something else.
215: What’s it a means to in this workshop?
215: You grew up in Canada, right?
KM: Yes, I’m Canadian, and I grew up in Toronto.
215: And then you moved to LA?
KM: As a kid in grade 2 I moved to LA, but at the beginning of grade 3 I came back. I lived there for a year and a half, because my father, a dental equipment salesman, was transferred to Burbank, CA. But that was a short thing, and then we moved to a suburb of Toronto.
215: And that’s where you met one of the guys from your comedy troupe, The Kids In The Hall?
KM: Yeah, I met him in Toronto, after I’d done the Second City workshops for a year. It’s funny, Mike Myers and I became best friends, and he was so advanced -- Like, I had potential, but I wasn’t there yet. He was, I guess 17, because he’s two years younger than me, he was like as good as he is now. He was hired by Second City, he was in the Second City Touring Company, and it’s funny, the session after Mike was discovered, Dave Foley came. And it’s not that I thought he was funnier than Mike -- they were just as funny, in different ways -- but he was someone I could work with right away. He was just as funny, and I had a chemistry with him. Mike and I tried to start a troupe, but there wasn’t a chemistry there, is sort of didn’t work. Dave and I fit like a glove, and after the first class -- I forgot your question, but now I’m on this tangent! -- I asked him to join my troupe, and I didn’t even know his name. I didn’t even have a troupe!
215: So, what is the difference between comedy in Canada vs. comedy in the United States? There’s gotta be some differences -- how about audience differences, to start?
KM: Well, it’s hard for me to judge the difference between Canada and the states, it’s easier for me to judge the difference between cities. Each city has a different personality. And I couldn’t even tell you what city has what personality -- each city has like one different fat guy, and like 80% will laugh at the same things, but it’s that 20% that’s interesting, where they laugh at different things. You could say -- and I don’t know if this is true, but the myth might be true -- Canadians might laugh at drier things, and Americans might laugh at harder-hitting things. I don’t want to say more obvious things, because I don’t mean that in an assaulting way, but things that are more hard-funny, where Canadians will chuckle over something dryly witty.
215: And so, in your improv, from city to city, is that something that you consider as you get up on stage, or do you just do your thing regardless of the audience and the personality?
KM: Regardless! I don’t think that at all. It’s like, I go city by city. Edmonton and Philadelphia were similar in that they were real -- well Edmonton was more of a real improv city, and I didn’t know that -- back in that day when I was young it was Calgary -- but Edmonton had become a real improv city, and Philadelphia was a real sketch comedy city. And I had no idea of that. I had no idea until yesterday at 2:00, when it finally hit me, not only how good everybody was, but what they were telling me about the scene here. But Edmonton and Philadelphia have really distinct personalities. Regina, Saskatchewan, had a distinct personality, but it was people that wanted to learn that knew nothing. That was the only city where people knew nothing about improv! They mostly wanted to come A) to either learn to write or B) to take a class with Kevin McDonald from Kids In The Hall. And that had its own distinct personality.. And I’m boring enough to go through every city! But I’ve taught in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, that little town near Vancouver, Regina, Saskatoon, Los Angeles, and I’m doing Chicago in a week and a half.
215: Is this your first time teaching here in Philly?
KM: Yeah. I love Philadelphia, it’s always been a big town for Kids In The Hall! It usually sells out, and the audience is always very excited and laughs throughout the whole thing. So I’ve always liked Philadelphia. I like it as a city, I like the way it looks, I like the fact that sports fans are crazy. It’s a unique city. Boston is always -- and I shouldn’t say this -- but Boston is always a little disappointing because it’s got such a reputation for being a comedy town, but people are kind of mean there..
215: Are you a hockey fan?
KM: Yeah, big hockey fan, I live in Winnipeg so we’re excited about the Jets. I just moved to Winnipeg, because I fell in love with Paula, who lives in Winnipeg, so I’m there for a little while, but we’re gonna go back to Los Angeles. I’m a Los Angeles Kings fan, I lived there for fourteen years after the Kids In The Hall show ended, and so tonight I’m going to -- apparently it’s a gay sports bar by my hotel. They say that’s the one place for sure that will turn one of their TVs to a hockey game. I wanna see the Kings!
215: The Flyers just advanced today..
KM: I know... I know... I like Pittsburgh a little better.. Are they gonna go crazy celebrating?
215: Never know.. it’s a sports bar..
KM: But it’s a gay sports bar.. so it should be calmer, homophobic to my advantage...
215: So who’s funny these days, in your opinion?
KM: It’s funny, the people I always answer that question with -- it’s been 10 years. The younger people I don’t know, or I’m forgetting at the moment. Because I have my pat answer: seven years ago I’d say Will Ferrell and Jack Black and Chris Rock, and Chappelle before he left his show. But there are a lot of young stand up comics that I think are really funny whose names I forget. Also Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins -- who’s from Philadelphia! They’re brilliant. I’m really open-minded, I still buy new albums and I still like new comics, as much as old ones.. the only problem is, as I get older and now have kids, I have less time to discover new stuff. But my open mind is always there! It’s funny, when I was 24, I thought, “I have six years left, and I guess when I’m 30 I’ll stop liking rock ‘n roll!” But I still buy albums. What did I buy recently, ridiculous album -- Foster the People... I think it’s a one-song album, but..
215: One more question -- improv skills for people who are comedians are obviously important. Do you think there’s an element of improv that could actually help people be more sociable in regular “life” situations, in interviews, or situations like that?
KM: I always thought that! I always think that improv skills could help people in interview situations, I always thought, “what if I had to go speak to my mother-in-law and I didn’t know what to say? Improv would help!” But sometimes, when you talk, you’re sort of like, faking it anyway, faking conversation to get through it and be polite to the person. I do think that, that’s a good idea. That would be a good workshop: Improv Skills For People That Don’t Do Improv!