Mark McKinney on stage with Rachel McLatchie (left) and Adrienne Thiessen. Photo by Marc Lappano.
In partnership with the Humber College Comedy Writing and Performance program.
Mark McKinney pauses as he looks around the rehearsal hall at Humber College. Showtime is only five days away and sketches are still being chosen, rewritten and rehearsed.
That’s “kinda what’s fun about it,” McKinney says. “Sometimes your best friend in comedy is a deadline. You gotta get it done.”
No, this isn’t prep for a Kids in the Hall reunion tour. McKinney is working with the graduating class of the Humber College Comedy Writing and Performance program as they prepare for their annual industry show, New Faces.
This unique showcase is a rite of passage for Toronto’s brightest young comedians. Organized for scouts, directors and agents, it caps the college diploma program with the professional, high-stakes experience Humber Comedy is known for. After two years of studying stand-up, improv, scriptwriting, sketch, and all other aspects of the comedian’s craft, top-performing students spend a little over a week working with a guest host like McKinney to create an original comedic variety show. This is more Saturday Night Live than classroom.
Austen Alexander, who’s working on the show as both a writer and actor, says he’s glad they get lots of experiences where they’re working under pressure.
“We get pushed to the limits in this program. We’re like, ok, we have a week to write sketches and perform. And every time we’ve done a big show, it feels like it’s falling apart – even the day of – and the night of, people just turn on and the energy kicks in.”
Fellow student Zach Berge adds that he knows it’ll go well “because we’re being worked with by some very good people.”
The young comedians are unanimous in their praise of McKinney, both as an instructor and a performer. Alexander says he thought a superstar like McKinney, or the other guest speakers they’ve had this year (Bruce McCulloch, Merrill Markoe, Eric Gilliland), might be really mean, but it’s just the opposite. “He’s a really nice guy, very down-to-earth, very easy to talk to. Just like our teachers.”
Dave Koval, co-writer of McKinney’s opening monologue, chimes in to say that watching the Kid work is “insane.”
“He’s obviously a very funny guy. He’ll add little things into the scripts and everything he’s added has been a laugh. He has that instinct, obviously, because he’s been doing it for so long, and he just enhances everything that we’ve written, which is really impressive. And he’s cold reading – he hasn’t read any of these scripts before!”
The students would be flattered to hear that Mark McKinney says there’s not much difference between working with them and working with the writing staff at Saturday Night Live.
“Students at this level, who are completing two years of writing at Humber, you’re not coddling them anymore. We all know that comedy is quick and brutal and things get dropped and you generate stuff, so I don’t see that much difference, except that they are enormously young, which is kinda neat.”
Berge says he expects and prefers that kind of unvarnished feedback, and adds that McKinney presents the criticism in a “super good way.”
“It’s what the business is. You’re going to present your work and be told it’s good or bad, but even when he’s telling you it’s not up to par, he says it in a way that makes you want to work on it rather than saying it’s garbage.”
Certainly McKinney has learned a thing or two since starting out as a 20-year-old on stage at the Loose Moose Theatre without a shred of experience. Which, he says, is the only way he could have made it in comedy.
“I just did it. I didn’t have time to think. If I’d tried to think my way to a career, I never would have made it.”
Which is exactly why his advice to comedy students is simply to get out on stage.
“It isn’t a hard and fast rule, but generally I think a multitude of experiences is a really good thing when you’re starting out. Do children’s theatre, do stand-up, just do as much performing as possible because, in my case anyways, it took a lot of hours on stage before I was able to ‘be’ there. To think there. To forget the audience and to do what I wanted to do.”
Five days later the students got on stage at Toronto’s Second City and did exactly that. The show – which was sold out – went off without a hitch.
Find out more about the Humber College Comedy Writing and Performance program here.