Back in 1984, Kevin McDonald became a founding member of the five-man Canadian sketch comedy troupe the Kids in the Hall and from 1988 to 1994, the Kids were the edgier siblings to Lorne Michaels’ Saturday Night Live, creating characters who became such popular favorites they were able to bring them on tour once the show ended.
Since then, McDonald has been writing, acting and doing tons of voice work, most notably on the popular Nickelodeon cult classic Invader Zim, which recently returned with a Netflix movie called Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus, for which McDonald reprised his role as Almighty Tallest Purple, leader of an alien race planning to invade earth.
More importantly, McDonald is mounting a one-man show called “ALIVE on 42ndStreet” which will play (where else?) on 42ndStreet in New York, starting Sunday, August 25, for one week and eight shows only.
Earlier this week, The Beat spoke with McDonald on the phone for the following interview that will include a few bits that will make Kids in the Hall fans very happy. The funny thing about talking to Kevin is that you think he’s always joking with you, and sometimes I wasn’t sure.
THE BEAT: I saw you with Kids in the Hall a couple times when you toured. What made you decide to do a solo one-man show? Did you have a lot of material that needed to be out there? What got you started?
Kevin McDonald: Well, a few things. Like ten years ago, I got tired of writing stuff that… I sold a lot of pilots and stuff but never got them to air, and I thought “Why don’t I write another one-man show?” This is me at the beginning thinking I could be a solo guy, because I was always afraid of being solo. When I was young I never thought I could do stand-up – I always thought I was a sketch comic or a comic actor. I needed other people, and then ten years ago, I thought, “You’re dying to show something to people that you write.” Every time I get an idea and write it down – well, not every time – but sometimes I go, “Oh, people have to hear this!” Then I thought I’d write one of those mini-mini one-man shows about a guy with a drunk dad, as long as I made it all funny. I did that ten years ago and then in the interim I have moved from where I lived in Los Angeles to Winipeg, because I fell in love with a woman and I live here now. It made sense, because there aren’t a lot of TV shows in Winipeg, to make sure I always had work, so I fly out every weekend, and I’ve been doing a lot of solo shows. Teaching workshops during the day, doing shows at night and then … the answer’s almost finished, I swear to God! … it’s a complete answer, though. Too complete. I started doing a podcast two years ago which is like a variety show, and I started writing and every show has a new sketch, a new song and stories, and I thought it’d be fun to get the best of that stuff and put it in a one-man show, which hopefully after we do this in New York, we’ll do it in other places. Some of the stories and some of the songs, they’re separate stories and separate songs, but they do add up to a theme I think.
THE BEAT: And what is that theme? Or is that meant as a surprise?
McDonald: Well, accidentally – or maybe sub-consciously – the theme is that I had more fun in my past. (laughs)
THE BEAT: That’s normally how it is when you get older.
McDonald: A lot of that has to do with aging, yes. I don’t know if I meant that, maybe subconsciously, but it’s come out, because the stories of the past are more fun than the stories of nowadays are less fun. I’ve done this show like five times I think, and people like it, and they think, “We’re sorry that you’re sad now, though.” And I’m not. (laughs) So I wrote a song at the end – I’ve done it twice – called “The Happy Song,” but because I’m me, it sort of becomes even sadder because it’s ironic. It’s not really that I’m happy. At the end of the show, I ask people to call for an encore so I can do “The Happy Song.”
THE BEAT: Where did you perform this before?
McDonald: I did a small Southern Ontario tour – where I’m from, where the Kids in the Hall are from, Toronto – I did two shows at the Rivoli,which was the Kids in the Hall place in the mid-80s. That’s where we became a troupe and where we did a show every Monday night until we got discovered by Lorne Michaels, so that was exciting. Then I did a small tour of places nearby – strange and mysterious places called Guelph and Hamilton.
THE BEAT: You’ve done shows in the States as well, so do you notice a big difference when performing for Canadians vs. Americans? Are there things that work for one country’s audience vs. another’s?
McDonald: Yeah, there are different things. First of all, I’m very lucky, because as Dave Foley once said very articulately – he had a theory that when the Kids in the Hall are performing, either together or separately, we have the same kind of people that come, whether it’s Vancouver, British Columbia or whether it’s New York or Austin, Texas, there are all sort of the same people, because we’re like a cult thing and we have a lot of wonderful comedy nerds who love us. So it’s like we have our own Kids in the Hall city, and it’s like they all moved to different cities, but having said that, there is a difference in different cities. Some cities are more politically-correct than others. Some cities are more aggressive in how they laugh. Some cities enjoy it just as much but their laughter is quiet. I wonder how New York will be with the political-correctness, because I tell a true story – of course, I exaggerate for comedy – but how in 1987 when the Kids in the Hall were in New York and we were writing our pilot under the wing of Lorne Michaels. We were performing at night to keep from going rusty as we were writing the pilot and Scott [Thompson] wrote a scene. I won’t tell the whole story but it’s not as horrible as it sounds. It became a famous scene in the TV show but we cut out this part that I’m about to tell you. I won’t tell you too much because it’s in the show I’m doing, but Scott plays this character Fran who is based on his mother and Dave Foley plays her 16-year-old son Brian, based on Scott, who tells his Mom that he’s gay and he comes out, and then Fran has a nice monologue about coming to terms with it, like a funny monologue, and at the end, she wonders at the end what her husband is thinking, and then we show the husband’s worst fear. As it was originally written, the worst fear was that the son is visited by the AIDS Fairy.
THE BEAT: Oh, God…
McDonald: And I was forced to play the AIDS Fairy, and I shouldn’t say anymore… because people come to see me, it always does well, but sometimes it does well EVENTUALLY. And sometimes in different cities, just saying the term “AIDS Fairy,” no one complains or anything. In the real show in ’87, as my story goes, the audience attacked us, so we sort of get our come-uppance. Nowadays I tell the story and you can sort of hear the silence sometimes. It takes place in New York and I wonder how New York is going to take this story. They always stay with me, and it always gets tons of laughs, but I wonder how they’ll be when they hear the term. I can defend this and I can justify it, because in ’87, that would be a Dad who cares about his son and would be worried about him getting sick.
THE BEAT: I don’t think AIDS is as taboo these days. In ’87, people were dying right and left, and it was horrible, but these days, it’s being kept under control so that people can live with it.
McDonald: I know, and I agree, but we’re living in such a climate of political-correctness, just saying something like that in the context of a comedy story where people maybe think I’m making light of it, they don’t know… sometimes they laugh ‘cause they get it right away, and like I said, they always eventually laugh, but sometimes they don’t know where I’m taking it ‘cause it’s sort of your job nowadays to make sure no one says the wrong thing, which I understand.
THE BEAT: That must be really tough for someone who specializes in comedy. I have the same problem. I make jokes on social media all the time and my editors are telling me I can’t say certain things.
McDonald: It’s tough, but it’s also more challenging in a good way. Also, the Kids in the Hall, we were in the ‘90s. Political-correctness started, I remember, one Wednesday afternoon in 1989 when we started writing for the show. I’m sort of serious, because we read the term about this new movement called “political-correctness” but it wasn’t powerful or anything. We were on HBO, and HBO BEGGED us to do edgier stuff. Remember there motto was, “We’re not TV, we’re HBO” so we were selfish and encouraged to do whatever we wanted. We always had a thing that we never did anything just to be shocking like I think some shows did after that. It always had to be funny. If it was funny and it HAPPENED to be shocking, that was fine, as long as it was funny, but maybe sometimes we were, in an unknowing or unthinking kind of way, more selfish than we thought we were. It was too much one way back in the ‘90s – not just the Kids in the Hall but every comic – and now, as a reaction, it’s too much the other way right now. But it’s the way that they should be doing it, I think, and then when my children’s children are comics – I expect all grandchildren to be comedians – my hope is that everything will be in the center and people will know what to say, because they can justify it, that it has a point of view or that it’s funny, and then some people will know that they can’t say that ‘cause it might just offend somebody. That’s what my hope is in a generation or two.
THE BEAT: As far as the show, it’s a one-man show, but do you have a set or is it literally just you on a stage?
McDonald: It’s me on a stage with a guitarist I’ll be meeting five hours before we do the first show. We’ve been working back and forth via Email and stuff. The problem is that he’s really, really good, and I just know guitar enough to write songs. I know like 3/5ths of the chords in the world, so I keep giving him notes ‘cause he keeps sending instrumental music back saying, “You’re playing too good, and it’s throwing me off,” so we gotta practice. If he starts doing a riff, I will start singing the melody of the riff, because I’m not a musician. Every comedian wants to be a musician, every musician wants to be a comedian. I don’t know why. Apparently, the Black Crowes were a comedy troupe in high school before they were a band.
THE BEAT: Is that true?
McDonald: Yeah, we became friends with them. In the ‘90s, we toured the same cities they did, even though we liked the Replacements and the Pixies. We liked them, their music, because we like everything, and they were fun guys. I forgot what the question was …
THE BEAT: It’s just odd that you might go see a Black Crowes show someday, and they might come out and say, “Sorry, folks, we’re only going to do comedy tonight, not play any songs.”
McDonald: But they’re funny! Chris Robinson was funny and Steve Gorman, the drummer, was very funny.
THE BEAT: You’ve been doing a lot of voicework for animation and different characters, but you mentioned you live in Winnipeg, so do you have a studio in your own home?
McDonald: Yeah, they want me to, but in Los Angeles, Nickelodeon or Disney – whatever I’m working on – they’ll rent a studio or the biggest studio in Winnipeg, and I’ll do it. I go there every couple weeks, and I’ve been doing a lot of shows, but now I’m in between seasons. But I’ve been doing a lot of video games. I wouldn’t be good enough to set up my own studio, and I like going into a studio. I like putting headphones on and calling them “cans.” “I got my cans on!” I like it being official, because at home, I don’t think I’d be able to do good work, because I’d be too relaxed.
THE BEAT: When you go to the studio to record voicework, you don’t have to get dressed up, but doing it at home you don’t even have to wear clothes.
McDonald: That’s true. I could do it in my pajamas or I could do it half-naked I guess.
THE BEAT: Maybe some characters are better to do when you first wake up.
McDonald: Yeah, some people do that. I mean, I have to do my auditions that way. I wonder if I lived in Los Angeles if I’d do it that way anyway. I wonder if people come in for auditions anymore for cartoons. I don’t even know.
THE BEAT: So Invader Vim just had a movie on Netflix, and it’s been a while, right? Has it been 15 years or more even?
McDonald: It’s been like 16 or 17 years, but they started doing it two or three years ago. I think there was a 15-year pause. Everyone was shocked when it was cancelled, because it wasn’t a super-hit like SpongeBob, but it was enough of a hit, and the critics liked it so much, and it really spawned a generation of “Invader Zim” fans. When I do a show, there are two kinds of comedy nerds. Two-thirds of them are “Kids in the Hall” fans, and then there is one-third who are in their mid-20s, who are like the right age for Invader Zim, and they want me to sign their Invader Zim DVD.
THE BEAT: Do the fans recognize you from your face walking down the street?
McDonald: People recognize my voice. As I said, I work at a comedy improv theater. I teach during the day and I do shows at night, and usually, some comedy runs the theater who is around 40 and his or her children are in the car when they pick us up. This has happened over 20 times, and when I start talking, they go, “Oh, you’re from Milo and Stitch! You’re the voice of Mile and Stitch!” So they recognize my voice, because I’m not like a real good cartoon actor. A real good voice actor has a million voices. I have one voice. I’M THE MAN OF ONE VOICE!
THE BEAT: People obviously like it cause they keep hiring you for stuff.
McDonald: Yeah, that’s nice. It’s very nice.
THE BEAT: Was it hard to get back into voicing the Almighty Tallest Purple when you started voicing him again?
McDonald: No, it was sort of easy because that voice was sort of different. We did two or three seasons, I forget, and I started off doing it in a bit lower voice for me. I had a character on the “Kids in the Hall” show called “The King of Empty Promises” where I said “Will do” and it was sort of like that. As I listened to the seasons, it started getting higher anyway, and that’s sort of what happened with the movie. I started with the low, and I got higher, and they’re very happy with that. Because they like variety anyway.
THE BEAT: One of my colleagues is a big Invader Zim fan– I assume she’s in her 20s – she mentioned your character has a lot of lines with food in your mouth…
McDonald: Yes!!! Yeah, yeah, they always have me eating.
THE BEAT: She wanted to know what you’re eating in the studio and what your favorite food is, because I assume you’re actually eating and have to starve yourself beforehand.
McDonald: I remember in the days, they had a good craft table, and it was my excuse – ‘cause I’m a vegetarian and I try not to eat sugar and stuff – but the best thing they had were little tiny chocolate bars, and that was my excuse to eat chocolate bars. I always thought, “If it’s for work, it’s not calories,” so I’d eat that. It sounds boring, but there’s a famous story where whenever I was eating, I had on a napkin, and I accidentally ate and swallowed some of the napkin. True boring story! When you get together with the Zim guys, they’re like, “Remember that time you ate the napkin?” It’s not much of a great story, but it’s the best story they have.
THE BEAT: I wasn’t sure if you were going to be referencing the Kids in the Hall in your one-man show at all, but it sounds like you will be.
McDonald: Absolutely, absolutely. I’ve got a few Kids in the Hall stories. A lot of them – because he’s sanely insane – a lot of them involve Scott Thompson, because the craziest things happen when you’re with Scott Thompson. I got one, two, three or four Kids in the Hall stories. They’re not all Kids in the Hall stories, but the funny part is how Scott Thompson reacts to a certain situation.
THE BEAT: Do you keep in touch with the other guys? Are you still talking all the time?
McDonald: Oh, all the time. We’re together all the time. We’re still a troupe. We had a conference call last week, because they’re going to make a documentary about us, and also, we’re in talks – it may never happen or more likely, it will happen but in a year, because some of us are too busy – but we might be doing another TV show again on some streaming thing.
THE BEAT: Oh, nice, that would be awesome!
McDonald: Yeah, like “Mr. Show” did, yeah. It may never happen, but right now, there’s two people negotiating for us. They have to be patient, because for example, Mark McKinney is shooting Super Store all the time. It’s almost like we’re waiting for Mark’s show to be cancelled, which is crazy. I don’t want to give those sorts of vibes to the universe, instead of just letting it happen.
THE BEAT: Kevin, it’s great talking to you, and I can’t wait to see the show on Sunday.
McDonald: Oh, that’s the 5 o’clock, the preview one? That will be a fun one. Enjoy that on a different level, though, cause I will have just met the guitarist. I’m very bad, and he won’t have learned yet that I make a lot of mistakes. The other guitarists I work with in Kids… there’s three that I work with in Canada a lot, and they’re like good friends of mine, and they know when I’m making a mistake what to do. They hang around on the chord till I figure it out. He won’t have figured it out yet. I’m not saying, “Don’t go,” I’m saying, “Enjoy it on that kind of level.”
Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus is now streaming on Netflix. Kevin McDonald’s one-man show “ALIVE on 42ndStreet” runs from Sunday, August 25 through Saturday, August 31 at Theater Row, 410 West 42ndStreet (that’s in New York), and you can still get tickets through Telecharge.