IT’S CALLED SHOW BUSINESS…
‘…When I was manager of the Bay/Yorkville club in the 80s and 90s, I learned quickly, “Don’t FUCK with his music!” Mike would always control the music for the club from the sound booth and play his own tapes. One night a new manager came down, went in the sound booth and put his own music on. It wasn’t a good idea. Mike stopped what he was doing, went to sound booth, and set him straight about the rules. The guy was miffed but all the comics verbally backed Mike up. You don’t fuck with his music…’ – Fred Mundy
The only rival to Mike’s love of comedy, was music.
The photo above is of him performing his first ‘signature’ comedy bit, his big closer: a kid acting out his rock and roll fantasy, in the privacy of his bedroom – complete with tennis racket Stratocaster.
He was fanatical about music, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of bands, types and styles of music, performers, songs. He was also a skilled drummer in his own right. Both of his younger brothers grew up to become professional musicians. His parents were regular dancers on the Ottawa dance scene. Music and entertaining ran in the family.
One of the informal games Mike liked to play with friends, was ‘guess the band.’ In this impromptu trivia session, we would share a song title and the others in the room had to guess the name of the band who had performed it. Or the other way around. Mike would play audio clips of songs too, and we had to guess year, artist, even album. He never travelled without a collection of music and at least two devices to play it on. (Later, when video games caught his interest, he would also travel with his own console.)
I shared his love of music, and am pleased that I did quite well in the musical trivia competition. Mike respected my musical knowledge, and our conversations on different musical influences could be very in-depth. We shared a fanatical love of the Beatles, which neither of us ever tired of talking about.
And yes, John was our favourite.
In view of all this, it is not surprising that Mike’s first actual onstage appearance had not been as a stand up comic at all – but as a drummer in a rock band.
A rock band sponsored by the Canadian government.
I shit you not.
He and the band – called “Maple Ridge” – actually toured across Canada, performing a rock opera about the life of Louis Riel.
Again, I shit you not.
Mike claimed that once he realised he could perform onstage without having to have four other people agree with him, that was the end of his days as a drummer.
So around 1978 he began appearing onstage at an Ottawa punk rock club, doing stand up comedy. Not an easy gig, by any means. Perhaps that was one of the reasons Mike got so good, so fast. Tossing out jokes while simultaneously ducking ashtrays, bottles and spit underneath ‘Teenage Head’ posters…
There were no full time comedy clubs in Canada. So Mike took gigs wherever he found them, gaining confidence, building his already growing repertoire of material.
His very first professional gig was at the Rotters Club in Ottawa in 1977.
His brother JP later revealed that in preparation for that night, Mike had put together three, different, 45-minute sets of material. That, is unheard of. It took him awhile, but eventually he won the audience over. He had found his calling.
And once he did, he never looked back.
“When we got to open for him over the annual Christmas concert at Yuk Yuks in 1983, it is hard to convey the stature of Mike MacDonald. We did six shows and Mike never spoke to us. Not. Once….”
“….Then, maybe ten minutes later he got up from his table, far on the other side of the room, and came over. He told us what jokes and bits we did that he liked. I had no idea that he was paying attention, but from the time he arrived at a gig, Mike paid attention.” – Lara Rae
Although he was a hard taskmaster, Mike secretly he wanted other comics to succeed. He wanted them to be better. He figured it was part of his job to ensure that they were.
He was dismissive of those he did not respect, he could even be a bit of a bully in his early years. But when inspired he could also be generous and supportive. If he thought you had a funny bit, he would come over and tell you so. If he thought it needed work, he would tell you that too, and even offer suggestions as to how to improve it.
One of my favourite oft quoted tales of that time, takes place after a gig Mike attended. During the show he had heard another comic doing a ‘bit’ onstage that he felt had a lot of promise comedically.
So he walked over to the guy afterwards, loomed above him like the grim reaper, and said, “You got one week to make that funny, then its mine!”
Mike made a study of all things comedic. From its humble ancient origins to the most current cutting edge. He devoured it all, took the lessons he learned and bent them to his unique style of physical delivery and deadpan sarcasm.
He did this right from the start. Recently Stewart Smith, the owner of that very first venue – Rotters – recalled, “When a show was finished, he wouldn’t party right away. He’d go into the back room and make notes of what he could have done better.”
This was the work ethic Mike would apply to the rest of his career. He taped nearly every one of his shows. And he studied the recordings afterwards, as if it were a final exam. He would keep what worked, toss what didn’t, refine it all – until he had methodically sculpted the perfect comedic form.
He was a master of structure and timing, and made it his business to observe. He could have studied pantomime at the best theatre schools in Europe. He loved slapstick, and over-exaggerated facial expressions.
Nobody could ‘mug’ like MacDonald.
Man, could he hang it out to dry…
Here was this big, powerfully built guy, using his face and body like the best comics of the silent era. You only need to watch him in his brilliant CBC special, ‘My House, My Rules’ to see this…The way he used his own physicality – graceful, even in chaotic gesticulation. Just like John Cleese doing his silly walk, you don’t expect to see a big guy move like that. It makes it even funnier.
And Mike knew it.
He was very visual, and his exaggerated pantomime and facial expressions were the stuff of legend. He could work those crazy eyebrows of his like a pro. It was classic theatre. Slapstick. Mime. The tradition of performance. Watching Mike you could see shades of all that had gone before. Buster Keaton. Chaplin. The Marx Brothers. The three stooges. With a dash of Marcel Marceau thrown in for good measure.
And just like a little kid, Mike never outgrew his love of Saturday morning cartoons and comic books. He adored ‘Looney Tunes.’ Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc were idols of his. He brought that love to life onstage every time he performed, executing his material like a classic animation. He used his face and body as an extension of the gag. He could get a laugh with just an expression.
And he was relentless. He would hammer at a premise until he had wrung every possible angle out of it. Combined with his intensity and intelligence, this made his performance style both mesmerising and slightly terrifyingly to watch.
There was no one like him.
And in a live venue, he absolutely slayed.
We all know someone in our personal circle who makes us laugh – your best friend, that guy at work, your crazy aunt. But there is a difference between being funny with friends, family and acquaintances, and being funny in front of a room full of strangers.
It is exceedingly difficult.
Stand up comedy is constantly under-valued because everyone has said or done something funny at least once in their lives; so the assumption is that anyone can do comedy.
They can not.
People also erroneously think that the hard part of stand-up is getting up in front of ‘all those people‘ to begin with.
It is not.
There is no point trying to convince someone they’ve got it wrong. The only cure, the only true way to slap some reality into folks, is to let them try it themselves. Getting up in front of a room full of strangers is the easiest part.
The hard part, is finding the funny.
Its difficult to imagine someone showing that kind of arrogance with respect to a lot of other professions. Like a plumber or lawyer, a doctor or surgeon. Assume that you know what you’re doing in any of those situations and the consequences could be grim.
“Yeah, I watched HOUSE on TV once, so I’m pretty confident I got this heart valve operation under control…”
Now obviously I am not comparing the complexity of cardiac surgery to a well-constructed ‘dick’ joke. But stand up is just as delicate, and its consequences are just as immediate.
It takes years of hard graft, persistence, and a truckload of self-belief (some would argue self-loathing) to learn how to wield that rubber scalpel with precision. And it takes a degree of innate ability and talent.
The elegance and fragility of comedy cannot be understated. And stand up, is one of its purest forms. One word can mean the difference between a laugh or deafening uncomfortable silence.
A facial expression. A gesture.
Even a pause.
Jack Benny built a career on it.
And so did Mike.
I’ve seen it happen.
My ex was a very funny guy in his own right. Once, he tried a new ‘bit’ out on stage. In it, he used the name ‘Bill’ for a character he was describing. No laughs. Not one.
The next night he did the exact same joke, told the exact same way. Every word identical, every gesture and pause in the same place. But this time he changed the character’s name from ‘Bill’ to ‘D’Arcy.’
D’Arcy is funnier than Bill.
That’s the intangible mystery.
There’s a great scene in the movie ‘The Sunshine Boys’ with Walter Matthau and George Burns. The two of them play an old vaudevillian comedy duo, former partners who had fallen out years before.
At one point, Matthau’s character, Wllie Clark, is speaking to his agent nephew. They had just left a bad audition for a TV commercial and Willie is complaining that he didn’t get the part because the lines he had to read were not funny.
‘You’re in this business 57 years you learn a few things,’ says Willie confidently, ‘you know what makes an audience laugh.’
He asks his nephew, ‘Do you know which words are funny and which words are not funny?’
‘You’ve told me a hundred times,’ the nephew sighs wearily, ‘Words with a ‘k’ in it are funny.’
‘Words with a ‘k’ in it are funny,’ confirms Willie, who goes on to list examples, even as his nephew lists them first.
‘I’ll tell you which words always get a laugh,’ he says, ‘Alka Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a ‘k.’ ‘L’s’ are not funny. ‘M’s’ are not funny.’
“Only ‘K’s’ nods the nephew, ‘I know.”
‘Cupcake is funny,’ Willie continues, ‘Tomatoes are not funny. Lettuce is not funny…’
Every comic worth their salt understands this scene. They recognize its truth. Willie is absolutely right. Some words will get a laugh and some won’t.
The same applies to the comic themselves. The audience will immediately like some acts, and dislike others just as quickly; even before that comic utters their first word. For no discernible reason. And even if the comic they dislike is actually funnier. It’s ethereal, a strange kind of alchemy.
So let’s say you are actually funny. Controlling a room is something different again. Learning how to ride the laughs like a wave. Being able to ‘read’ a room and know – even as the words are coming out of your mouth – which of your material will work and what won’t, with that particular crowd on that particular day at that precise moment. What their limits are. Your timing. Your delivery. Your appearance. The tone of your voice. The tilt of your head. The way you phrase the words.
One wrong step, one wrong assumption, can mean disaster. Get overly aggressive with a heckler or respond too meekly and you will lose the audiences trust. Misread their limits and they will turn on your like a pack of wild dogs; a slow guttural growl that quickly escalates into bared teeth and torn flesh. And a lack of future bookings, which is far worse.
I honestly believe, to the core of my being, that you can never truly appreciate how technically difficult stand up is, until you try it yourself.
Comics have enormous egos. No doubt. But being a professional comedian is hard. It requires dedication, commitment and focus. It takes a thick skin, buckets of self-confidence, and a degree of fearlessness. You can’t be afraid to fail, or look silly or stupid, and you can’t expect it to be easy.
You can’t take it for granted either. No matter how long you have been at it. I have learned this firsthand.
If you haven’t performed in a few weeks, or months, or even years – and then go back onstage expecting to pick up where you left off, you are in for a very rude awakening.
It is not like riding a bike. Unless you ride your bike into a tree a lot.
It must be earned, every…single….time. And your victories are always fleeting. You’re only as good as your next set. You kill one night and bomb the next – with the same material.
It. Is. Work.
And it can take a serious mental and psychological toll too. More than one comic has suffered because their sense of self-esteem is inextricably linked to how much work they get or how well their show went the night before.
And the job itself can be isolating. Some of us sleep all day because we’re up very late at night, or have trouble sleeping at all because we are travelling. We eat too much crappy take-away food, cos that’s all that’s open at 2 am when you get back to the hotel. We’re away from our ‘civilian’ friends and family and support network. It can get tiring. It can get lonely.
And so comics, like many artists, are often prone to depression, substance abuse and alcoholism. And questionable collections of pornography.
Even if you are dedicated and disciplined, if you shrug off all the adversity, work unbelievably hard, and have an innate gift – there is still no guarantee of success in our business.
The hardest lesson I ever learned in comedy is that talent is not enough.
Desire is not enough.
Even being funny…is not enough.
You need to have all that and more.
And a big degree of luck.
I have been fortunate to watch and work with some brilliant and talented people in my time. Some unique and very funny people.
Most have never achieved the level of fame and fortune they so richly deserved.
Some have since died, virtually unknown and unlamented, except by their families, friends and comedy colleagues.
It’s a hard lesson. A cruel one.
One I have yet to fully accept.
(More to follow…)