I was scared to talk to Kevin McDonald, one of the marquee guests at this year's NC Comedy Arts Festival. I really was.
After all, McDonald helped make improv comedy mainstream. Without The Kids in the Hall, his legendary sketch comedy troupe and television show, there might be no Amy Poehlers or Will Ferrells. Yet the Kids have retained an underground cult following, too.
The NC Comedy Arts Festival, the long-running effort of DSI Comedy Theater, has made Chapel Hill and Carrboro a destination for stand-up, improv and sketch comedy that can draw international talents like McDonald, who performs at the ArtsCenter Feb. 11 and gives a two-day workshop Feb. 12 and 13.
Before our interview, I sat at my desk, twiddling my clammy thumbs. I kept taking off my sweater and putting it back on. I don't know what I expected—it surely wasn't for McDonald to be just a fellow human being. But he was, and I felt relieved. We immediately began to talk about the winter storm being named Jonas. After we got our mutual disgust out, we got down to the funny stuff.
INDY: I've been kind of nervous to talk to you. You're one of those great, enigmatic figures in comedy.
KEVIN MCDONALD: [Laughs] Yeah, The Kids in the Hall are definitely up there for cults, you know? I always compare us to the Pixies, our favorite band when we were starting out. The Pixies sort of bequeathed to Nirvana even though they weren't nearly as popular.
Unlike a lot of alt-comedy groups, Lorne Michaels loved you guys. I know your show got cancelled a couple of times and he was backing you the whole way, so it's strange that you've managed to maintain an underground presence.
We actually have a theory about that. Lorne Michaels had his mainstream success, and then, when he went to dinner parties full of intellectuals in New York, they complimented him on us. We made that up; it's just a Kids in the Hall theory. He's the greatest guy in the world. Lorne has backed us up forever, and we owe everything to him.
There wasn't a lot of stuff like you back then—maybe Monty Python.
When we were kids, we were definitely influenced by Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. Monty Python, you'd have to say that for Mark [McKinney], Dave [Foley] and I, it got ingrained in us for sure, as well as early Steve Martin, among other things.
You have a headlining stand-up act at the NC Comedy Arts Festival. New stuff, old stuff, both?
It's sort of half old and half new. It's funny, actually. I moved to Winnipeg because I fell in love with a woman. I wound up making a stand-up act so I could tour around and make money. I always thought, "Well, this is my act. I'm not going to change it." I've done it so much that I get bored, and now I am going to change it. The new stuff is darker and grislier, which doesn't necessarily work at stand-up clubs.
Have you been working the new stuff out at open mics or alt-comedy clubs?
I haven't been, but I should. My act is sort of a parody of stand-up and stand-up at the same time. Sort of like my idols when I was a kid: Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, Albert Brooks. What I would call postmodern comedy, where they did it but made fun of it at the same time. So here's the problem: When I play standard stand-up clubs, half the time, I don't do very well. Sometimes people don't know who I am, and they only come because it's Punch Line in San Francisco. You sort of have to know me and know that it's not going to be normal stand-up. I'm not saying that it's more special; I'm actually not good enough to do normal stand-up.
Let's talk about your master class.
It's a two-day—it's so hard! Eight hours a day. The students are usually exhausted by the end. I teach how to write sketches through improv, which is the way The Kids in the Hall started when we were just a stage act in the mid-'80s, before Lorne Michaels discovered us.
Can anybody take these classes, or are they reserved for people who have done comedy?
At first I was like that when making a master class. But then I taught one where everybody was invited, and it turned out to be amazing. Nobody who was a seasoned improviser or sketch comic had anything against someone who was just trying. It was those people who did something special by accident—the people who just came because I was a Kid in the Hall.
Dave Foley hosted a poker show, and he says the people who played poker for the first time always won. You always have that special moment where you don't know what you're doing.
People in the comedy world say that they hear the same story over and over with a different ending. The same story is that the first time they did open mic night, they killed. The second time, they bombed. Half of the people that tell me the story say they just got committed to working harder on their stand-up. The other half are writers that say they knew they liked comedy, but not performing it.
What was your first moment like when you went onstage to do stand-up?
The first time I went onstage in front of a paying audience was with Dave Foley and Luciano Casimiri, who was a Kid in the Hall for a second, and was brilliant but suffered from stage fright. Also, another guy who hung around us but who we didn't think was funny. I remember being really, really nervous. The most exciting thing about it, afterward, wasn't that we got so many laughs or we bombed, but just that we did it. We signed up every week after that.
What's going on with The Kids in the Hall?
We never broke up. We'll be together until one of us dies. None of us are replaceable. We just did a tour last summer, and now we're talking about doing another mini-series, or maybe a movie. Maybe something like Mr. Show. We've been offered six episodes of our sketch show.
I feel like when you guys hang out, you're riffing anyway. I'm sure a lot of that goes straight to becoming jokes and sketches.
Yeah, that's what usually winds up happening. We already have about 20 or 30 sketches, but we'll probably write another 20 or 30. If we do [the show] again, the best part, for me, would be hanging out and coming up with ideas. The filming is always fun, but the best part for me is always the writing process.
Our comedy critic, Craig D. Lindsey, picks the highlights of the 2016 NC Comedy Arts Festival.
There's really too much funny at the NC Comedy Arts Festival this year, with comedians, improv and sketch groups swarming Chapel Hill and Carrboro for two weeks, attacking audiences with hilarity. With so much appealing talent on display, I picked the most intriguing days rather than individual acts.
Sunday, Jan. 31—First out of the gate is, believe it or not, a hip-hop cypher. Organizers of the UNC Cypher, along with rappers, improvisers and other artists from in and around the Triangle, will attempt to break the Guinness World Record (12 and a half hours) for longest cypher. This starts at 10 a.m. at DSI Comedy Theater and (hopefully) goes on until at least 10:30 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 5—It's a cavalcade of stand-up at Local 506. Regional and national comics, including Durham faves Julia McClung and Lauren Faber, will hit the stage at 8 and 9:30 p.m. And down at DSI at 8:30 p.m., North Carolina-born actress and comedian Sarah Barnhardt performs her solo sketch-comedy show, This Is the Worst, which won't be what many people say after they see it.
Saturday, Feb. 6—The IMPRO(vs)TANDUP show, starting at 7 p.m. at DSI, sounds very fascinating, as stand-ups and improvisers join forces (and, at one point, switch places) to put on a comedy revue. After that, Chapel Hill's Ngozi Ikeakanam and Cary's Gretchen McNeely will do stand-up sets. At 8:30 p.m., Atlanta's Mark Kendall puts on his one-man show, The Magic Negro and Other Blackness, where he displays the varied, usually offensive ways black men have been represented in the media.
Wednesday, Feb. 10—At the ArtsCenter at 7:30 p.m., Kevin Allison once again returns to NCCAF to make people tell sometimes-embarrassing, often-revealing stories for his live show and podcast, RISK! Then Emo Philips, another returning champion, hits the main stage at 9 p.m. to do some kooky shit.
Saturday, Feb. 13—North Carolina son, Second City/ImprovOlympic/Upright Citizens Brigade alum and former Saturday Night Live writer Ali Farahnakian will have the ArtsCenter main stage all to himself at 7:30 p.m., followed by hip-hop improv from New York's North Coast. But I'm most intrigued by what's going to happen at 11 p.m. with The Bat, which is supposed to be an improv show done completely in the dark. Some injuries might occur, but it's all in the name of comedy! —Craig D. Lindsey
This article appeared in print with the headline "We need to talk about Kevin."