Mike MacDonald has appeared on Letterman, he’s starred in three well received CBC television comedy specials, and he holds the distinction of being the only comedian to perform at each and every Just For Laughs gala show.
Speaking with him by phone, amateur comedian Paul Warford attempted to steal secrets from the man considered one of the funniest men in Canadian comedy.
When did you start being funny?
After I watched my first Bugs Bunny cartoon.
That’s really what it was? Old cartoons like that?
Yeah. I think most comedians, when asked about their influences, they always mention other comedians but we always forget the first influences. And the first subversive influence for me was Bugs Bunny. And if you watch my act, a lot of it is just being silly like that.
You try to slip a message in every now and then, but mainly it’s just cartoons.
So you think they’ve influenced your style? Because you have those quirky facial expressions that you do…
Him: Oh, yeah. I mean, I can’t remember this, but my mother swears I’d sit there, two inches away, and watch it. When you watch my movements and my pantomimes and stuff, there’s osmosis there from it.
So, were you funny as a kid, then, growing up and in school?
I was when my father wasn’t around. ‘Cause my dad was in the Air Force. My mom was the greatest audience in the world. Dad was the exact opposite. He’d come home and I’d be like, “Hey, I got all this great stuff, I was making mom laugh all day, do you wanna hear it?”
It was so weird, it was like with mom I could do no wrong, but with dad it was like, “Shut up.”
It was back and forth back and forth, “I can’t figure these two out. Why are they together?” She’s an easy laugh, and he was, “what the hell’s his problem?”
Did that prep you for tough audiences later down the road?
Probably. And the constant moving around probably honed my comedic skills because in school you had two choices: be funny, or be tough. And being funny’s a lot easier on the fists. A lot less broken bones.”
Was it tough breaking through and getting started?
Well, I was very lucky getting started in ’78, ’79. There wasn’t really an infrastructure set up, so I could just walk into a bar and say, “I’m a comedian, and I’d love to play this place,” and the owner would be like, “yeah, sure, great,” and I’d say, “all right, I’ll bet you fifty bucks I can make the audience laugh. Why don’t you let me onstage and I’ll prove it to ya?” And the club owner would say, “all right, you’re on!” and I’d make the audience laugh, and thank God cause I didn’t have the fifty bucks.
I had balls when I was a kid…
So, in Ottawa, when I started my first year, there was a punk club I could get a half-hour to an hour at, and there was a folk club I could play at, a metal place I could play at. On a Saturday night I could get a lot of stage time.
There’s no way a comic could go out and get that much time there like that again. And in a small town, with everyone knowing me, there was the added pressure of coming up with new material.
I guess I should talk about the tour coming here. Have you been here before?
I was to the island once for a corporate tour for a big investment group, so it wasn’t really public, but the people were really nice. But, I always expect that in Canada, the audiences are always great.
But I expected to get off the plane in Newfoundland and see that everybody’s crazy! You hear so much about the Newfie jokes, and you get off the plane and you say, “Oh, this isn’t… half of those people telling the jokes have probably never been here. Everybody’s normal.”
“Oh, look: they’ve got a Subway!”
Whadya, hate them because they’re on an island? What is that? Land mass attitude?
[laugh] Are you gonna approach it any different here? Because this place has, you know, its culture.
No, I’m… I’m Mike MacDonald. I’m just gonna come in and do my thing. And I figure they’ve got the local guys that do the culture stuff, right?
I avoid it myself… but there’s no stand-up comedy scene here, you know? And it’s a damn shame because there’s so much humour here…
But I think that’s been one of the problems, you know? It’s always hard to get out east because most people out east, they think they’re funny already, and they say, ‘We’re funny already.’ Why don’t you get onstage and be funny for an hour? So, I figure I’ll just get onstage anywhere. I don’t want to pander to the audience.
I might do the Subway joke…
There’s something I’m just gonna ask: Does comedy yield sex at all?
Does it what?
Does it yield sex? Say, like being a rockstar?
Um, the quality, yes. The quantity, no. Little difference in the ratio…
I’ve been married… But Shirley came out of the comedy. She was managing a comedy club in Toronto.
How has married life affected your set? Because obviously you bring elements of that into it.
Yeah, my wife has given me some killer lines… And she’s usually the sounding board. If I tell her a joke, and she doesn’t get it, I realize I haven’t explained it enough. “I don’t get it…”
“All right, I’ve gotta go back and re-write it.”
When she says, “oh! Now I get it!” it’s ready for consumption by an audience.
Do you watch TV?
Oh yeah, constantly. I watch tonnes of reality TV. I remember reading a long time ago that Marlon Brando would watch Candid Camera just to see people’s real reactions to stuff. And it made him a better actor.
Really?! I don’t know why, but I expected the answer to be totally different.
I love it, man. Fuck the writers. When they start writing funnier stuff than this, I’m all for it.
Now, you’re always wearing those billowy shirts onstage. Is that a style thing? Or is it comfort?
Yeah, I just got tired of trying to match shit and so I started buying every year: five Levi’s black shirts, and two pairs of Levi’s black jeans. And I’ve got three pairs of Uggs. Only one of ‘em ever sees the stage.
Really? I couldn’t picture you in those.
It’s all about being comfortable and not having to worry about what to wear. And they’re not watching me to see what I wear, they want to see my face…
And the coolest thing was when that Walk the Line movie came out. I’d come out and say, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,’ and the audience would love it. That’s all I had to say for eight weeks. But it’s rough when I work certain clubs cause I get nervous that the waitresses think I only have one shirt.
“But I’ve got five of ‘em!”
Why do you think I’m asking you about it? I used to see you on TV and think to myself, ‘Does this guy have any other outfits?’ So, that’s good we can get that out to the public.
Yeah, I save the suits for the court dates, but when I’m doin’ normal stuff I just want to be comfortable.
Earlier in your career did you do the suit thing?
Yeah, I did that. And I went through the Robin Williams thing with the Hawaiin shirt, and it was such a pain getting them dry-cleaned, and carrying them around. I said, “Fuck it. Plain black shirts.”
And the Uggs I just can’t take off, they’re just so comfortable.
So you have one pair that you just wear onstage?
Yeah, I have one pair that I only wear onstage. They don’t touch any other surfaces! No soil! They’re indoor shoes!
When you’re on stage, are you trying to tell the audience something?
Yeah. You always give ‘em some sugar, and then slip them the cod liver oil.
For example, I’ve talked about abuse to women, and what they should do about it. I’ve said to put guys in wheelchairs instead of killing them so they don’t have to go to prison. You’ll just get probation and community service.
Then there’s this real quiet from the audience…
I had a show where some guy in the audience yelled out “gender traitor!” and I said, “I’ll wear that like a badge, sir.”
There’s another bit on pedophiles and how maybe we should put them in wheelchairs because nothing else seems to work, and the audience was like, “Ooooh,” and I said, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t meant to offend any pedophiles in the audience.”
Every once in a while you have to slip stuff like that in.
You’ve gotta piss off some people sometimes.
Yeah. I feel as though I’m not doing my job if I don’t slip in a little something like that. •
Mike MacDonald will be the special gala guest at The Big Show at Molson Theatre inside Mile One Centre on Sunday, June 22. Bob Joy of CSI:NY will host, and all St. John’s Comedy Festival comics will be in attendance. Tickets are available at the box office or online at admission.com. For more information stjohnscomedyfest.ca. For more listings, see On Stage.
To read an extended version of Paul’s interview with Mike, go here.