Talking with Kevin McDonald, the John Lennon of Comedy

Best known as one of the founding members of the avant-garde sketch group Kids in the Hall, Kevin McDonald recently celebrated an anniversary. His podcast Kevin McDonald’s Kevin McDonald Show which blends sketch, interviews, and live music – just hit its one-year mark. In the past year McDonald has played host to the best of the best from his “‘90s celebrity phone list,” including Mike Myers, Bob Saget, and the rest of the Kids, along with musical guests like Ted Leo, Craig Finn, and the Gin Blossoms. I talked to McDonald about Jack Benny’s influence on his podcast, embracing his comedy cult status, and how he’s trying to be the John Lennon of comedy.

You’re celebrating the one-year anniversary of your podcast. Congrats!

I haven’t had a party or bought champagne or anything, but when someone reminds me I go, “Yeah, it’s been a year!” That’s my way of celebrating. “Hey you’ve been married for 10 years.” “Oh, yeah, it’s been 10 years!”

Are you planning anything special for your one-year episode?

The guests are pretty special: Andy Richter and Weird Al Yankovic.* It’s at Largo in LA, so that’s pretty special. But I don’t think we’re going to mention it. The ideas I have right now are pretty much the same as any podcast, so I guess the answer is no, unless you inspire me and then when I start writing after this I come up with anniversary ideas.

Those are great guests. Back in the day I pretty much only new Weird Al from the music, but listening to him on podcasts now like Comedy Bang Bang and Eugene Mirman’s Hold On, he’s actually a really great storyteller.

That’s good to hear because I’m a bad interviewer. I think he’s just a year older than me, but he started so young. When I was 18 and he was 19 I would listen to Dr. Demento at midnight on Sundays in Toronto on my little tiny radio. I remember Dr. Demento said, “Here’s a kid that’s been bugging me to play this song. I’m going to play it. It’s Weird Al Yankovic with ‘My Bologna.’” I remember hearing that for the first time. I guess I’ll tell him that.

As a self-proclaimed bad interviewer, why did you decide to start a podcast?

It was from interview shows. I listened to Marc Maron talk to Todd Rundgren, who I like a lot. A friend of mine said, “You like music so much. You should have a podcast where you talk to musicians.” We got involved with this production company in New York called Forever Dog that does podcasts. They were excited that it was me, for some reason. They booked a theater and it was going to be done live. We got Brad from The Crash Test Dummies. I was going to interview him, but then I thought, “A whole theater full of people to watch something that I’m not good at for an hour? Why don’t I just make that a small part of the show and do an audio version of what I’ve been pitching to TV networks like Comedy Central for 20 years,” which is like the old Jack Benny show. It’s a show that is part real and part isn’t. There are sketches, comedy monologues, guests you get to interview, but also a funny backstage reality, problems with the show, and stuff like that.

The show definitely reminds me of the early days of radio. Listening to it I can picture the show happening. It seems pretty well thought out. A lot of podcasts now, as interesting as they are, have very little planning. Maybe there’s an overall theme, but it’s a lot of people just sitting down and seeing where the conversation goes. Yours seems a little tighter. Is everything written in advance?

We’ve done nine podcasts. I’ve written eight of them. After seven, my producers – they’re comedy writers – wanted to write one. I said, “Sure, why not?” They ended up being pretty good, so I think we’ll do more now where I’ll write some, they’ll write some, we’ll write some together. I like it planned. I’m sort of two ways as a comic; I either like to totally write it and be tight and planned or I like to totally improvise it. I don’t like what happens in the middle, in theory. But that’s what’s been happening. There was one show where Scott Thompson and the Gin Blossoms were the guests. Ten minutes before I went on I got subpoenaed by my ex-wife. I had written a dark show anyway, then Scott told a really dark story and it became a great black comedy. Whether people like it or not, I personalize it. There’s a lot of stuff about my drunk dad, my ex-wives, and things in my life. It’s sort of like Marc Maron if he did The Jack Benny Program.

Taking things from your personal life and interjecting them into your comedy is something that you did with Kids in the Hall sketches as well.

Yes, yes! I’m very much of two minds. My favorite artist/musician of all time is John Lennon. He could do two things: imagination and personal, soulful stuff. He could do “I Am the Walrus” and he could do his first solo album, which is all about him quitting The Beatles and meeting Yoko. I love both things. I can go back and forth very happily. John Lennon is my inspiration. I try to be the John Lennon of comedy.

Something that comes up a lot in the podcast is you poking fun at your celebrity, or lack thereof. You are a cult comedy icon, but you’re also not famous. Sometimes we choose to make fun of the things that bother us as a way to control them. Is that your way of coming to terms with and accepting where you’re at?

Yeah, I’ve accepted it and I find it comedically interesting. The things I find comically interesting I say a lot over and over. It’s become a motif to the show for sure. Before that, it became a motif for the standup I was doing. Unless I’m kidding myself, I think I can say honestly that there’s not an ounce of bitterness. It’s just the way it is. There are people I started out with in Toronto who are great, but aren’t comedians anymore because they never made it, and they’re not bitter. Then there’s me, who sort of made it in a cult way. Then there’s another guy who started out with me, Mike Myers, who became one of the biggest stars in the world. But there’s no bitterness. Everything is good, sort of.

You mentioned Mike Myers. I know he’s done the podcast. Your guests are pretty diverse in terms of who you usually hear on comedy podcasts. There are people that consistently make the rounds when they have something to promote. Then you have improvisers that stick together and standups that stick together, just friends doing each other’s podcasts. But you seem to get a lot of people who don’t show up on other podcasts, including artists and musicians. Do you handle your own booking?

It’s sort of split. They do more of the work. The original idea was that I was going to get all of my ‘90s friends: Mike Myers, the Gin Blossoms, the Kids in the Hall, Patton Oswalt, friends like that. Patton Oswalt keeps being busy every time I ask him, so when that doesn’t work out we go to the producers. They asked T.J. Miller, not knowing that I knew him. They were really surprised when he said yes. He was in a workshop of mine in 2002 and on the TV show that I was writing for, Carpoolers. It’s an interesting mix of people that are happening now and what I call “my ‘90s celebrity phone list.”

* The final lineup on McDonald’s August 5th show at Largo featured Andy Richter, Aimee Mann, Mark McKinney, and Dana Gould.

Talking with Kevin McDonald, the John Lennon of Comedy