Critics were mean to Brain Candy, but the Kids only feature film looks pretty good in hindsight. What’s not to appreciate about an evil Pharma company’s mad, mad, (mad, mad, mad) rush to commodify health, market an untested happy pill, and warehouse a nation? It’s a dark, borderline cynical fable of success and corruption that, for being implausibly white, pairs beautifully with Boots Riley’s surreal romp, Sorry to Bother You. Both are comic book-style journeys to the dark heart of the Winning class — A tour through the gilded rooms where the real party (inside the party) never stops and things are always weirder, dumber, and way more evil than you’d ever expect. But mostly dumber.
Local comedy fans have good reason to be excited. McDonald is on his way to town to lead a pair of workshops and perform an intimate program of comedy three ways: Standup, sketch, and an improv jam with Memphis’ own Bluff City Liars. Here’s what McDonald told The Flyer about being a Kid, teaching comedy to people who are terrible at comedy, and whether or not super dreamy TV host Darcy Pennell ever got to roll with The Hell Riders. (Spoiler alert: SHE DID!!!)
Memphis Flyer: Okay, I’ve been waiting 25-years at least to ask this question.
Kevin McDonald: Okay.
MF: Darcy Pennell. Did she ever finally get to roll with The Hell Riders?
KM: Sure. It’s my imagination, sure she did. She did a story. It was supposed to be a story for one weekend but she fell in love with Ace, the second in command which was frustrating because his name was Ace, so you’d think he’d be in command. But he was second in command. And she fell in love with him and they stayed together a year and then he broke her heart and she went back to the TV business. There, I made that up.
MF: Fantastic. Good for Darcy.
KM: Darcy Pennell was based on a local Toronto host of a TV talk show named Dini Petty.
MF: I didn’t know the character was inspired by one person. I’d assumed it was an amalgamation.
KM: Well, the name was. She sort of acted kind of forceful and strong. I can never do impressions, so I took this one aspect of her show that I really found interesting and I put it in Darcy Pennell.
MF: Nice. Can you tell me a little about the thing you’re doing in Memphis with Bluff City Liars? They said you’d reached out and found them. Is this a thing you do regularly? Find regional improv groups and then do workshops and a show with area comics?
KM: Yeah. I’ve been going around North America and doing that for the past four or five years. I spend weekends and I go to theaters with improv troupes and I teach them the Kids in the Hall method during the day. When I’m not doing cartoons or shooting stuff or doing my big podcast Kevin McDonald’s Kevin McDonald Show — I’ve got one coming out with Weird Al Yankovic and Tim and Eric.
MF: Oh, cool. I just saw he’s on tour and coming to The Orpheum in Memphis. Weird Al. Not Tim or Eric.
KM: He won’t be there this weekend will he?
MF: No, I don’t think. I think that’s a 2019 date. I just saw the announcement.
KM: It would be amazing if he was. He’s the nicest guy in the world. He sorta looks like he’d be the nicest guy in the world, and he is the nicest guy in the world. Anyway, I spend my weekends teaching and performing like I will Sunday night.
MF: It’s a cool thing. Gives comics and writers access to your process. To a Kids in the Hall experience. And also we get a chance to see you perform. What’s the origin story for this project.
KM: Well, I moved to Winnipeg. And I thought I wouldn’t get as much TV and film work as I’d been getting. I still get a lot, but I have to fly to places. So I had to think of something else. So, I have these boring theories about sketch comedy that I’ve been bring people for years with at cocktail parties. And I was performing at Toronto Comedy Fest with Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall, and they asked if I could teach. And I said I could throw something together. And I kinda liked it. And then I developed this thing. I guess it’s been six years, actually.
MF: I remember one time hearing you talk about the writing process with Kids in the Hall. About how you really thought the writing was the strong suit. Is that a focus of the workshops?
KM: Yeah. I think writing was sort of our strength. I think we’re all really good performers, so that gets into the writing. I teach the students writing through improv. So writing and performing are the same thing. But it all starts with the idea. And I think we were all very good with the idea. Then we learned how to go from an idea to a whole sketch through improv. Then when we got the TV show we had to actually write them down. Then we became like writer-writers. And we had to be performer-performers.
MF: I don’t want to say dark, that’s kind of an attitude, but there was a tone. I was watching some old sketches today and thought they were funnier than I did the first go-round. And prescient.
KM: Funny you say that. There are some things about the show that if I watch today by accident I’ll be like, “Oh, why was I complaining about that scene? That’s a really good scene?”
MF: Funny that way. And the film Brain Candy, looking back from 2018 it’s like you were looking into a crystal ball. I know you were just responding to the advent of Prozac and drug marketing…
KM: Yeah, exactly, it was. It was Prozac, but that was like the beginning of all of it, wasn’t it?
MF: There’s that line after your character has been invited to the secret VIP party inside the VIP party and wakes up with two women in bed. They’re called over to sign legal waiver saying the night never happened.
KM: It’s nice of you to say that. I don’t know if it’s a fluke or…
MF: It’s anachronistic, I know...
KM: But I’m very proud of the movie. It’s not just a good comedy movie, it’s sort of a good movie movie. It is sketchy, but we wanted to do a movie that was a whole movie but had great parts because we were a sketch troupe. And by whole I mean W-H-O-L-E not H-O-L-E.
MF: Yeah, that would be awkward.
KM: Bad plan.
MF: When you go out and work with troupes are the ideas they bring in already kind of Kids in the Hally?
KM: I don’t think so. Maybe I’m to close to it. Sometimes it’s an idea that reminds me of an old idea of ours and they don’t know it. But a lot of times it’s more Saturday Night Live or Key and Peele. And a lot of times it’s just bad because a lot of them are just starting out on sketches and I know my first hundred were probably horrible.
MF: That’s the learning curve. But what do you do with that, just rip the Band Aid: “You’re horrible, let’s work on that.”
KM: At first I didn’t know what to do, but now I know how to work with lots of things. What we do is, on the first day I break everybody up into groups and we improvise. Then that afternoon we work on turning those improvs into sketches. But then they get homework. The have to bring in a comedy premise on Sunday. I pick my five favorites and we work on that all day. Sometimes there’s a lot of good ones.