IT’S CALLED SHOW BUSINESS…
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. 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.
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. 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
It was obvious to anyone who saw him perform that Mike had a passion for what he did.
He made a study of all things comedic. From its humble ancient origins to the most current cutting edge. He devoured comedy. He then took the lessons he learned and made them his own.
He did this right from the start of his comedic career. 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.”
Mike 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, 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. Pure Buster Keaton. His exaggerated pantomime. Theatre. Slapstick. Classic mime. Marx Brothers. Three stooges. His facial expressions. Laurel and Hardy. Saturday morning cartoons.
Just like a little kid, Mike never outgrew his love of those ‘Looney Tunes’ cartoons. Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc were idols of his. He brought that love to life onstage every time he performed, animating out his material as he recounted it. He could work those crazy eyebrows of his like a pro.
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.
Combined with his intensity and intelligence, his performance style made him both mesmerising and slightly terrifyingly to watch. But always entertaining, and always without fail, funny.
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 could be dismissive of those he did not respect, but he could also be generous and supportive when inspired. 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, often quoted tales of that time, takes place after a show Mike attended. He heard another comic doing a ‘bit’ onstage that he felt had a lot of promise comedically.
So he walked over to the guy after the show, loomed above him like the grim reaper, and said, “You got one week to make that funny, then its mine!”
That was not just a challenge – it was also a compliment.
We all know someone who makes us laugh; the office clown, the funny brother-in-law, the practical joker, the snappy shop girl with a quick come-back, the quiet guy who suddenly unleashes a witty remark that has all his pals in hysterics, even the kid who impersonates his family members perfectly.
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 other people find funny at least once in their lives, the assumption is that anyone can do comedy.
But they can’t.
Most people believe that the hard part is just getting up on the stage….and the rest comes easily.
It does not.
And there is no point trying to convince people of this. The only cure for this delusion is trying it yourself.
Its difficult to imagine 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, degradation, and plenty of trial and error to learn how to wield that scalpel with precision.
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.
I’ve seen it happen.
A comic I knew, once 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.
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 replies 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’ sighs 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; often before the comic says a word. For no discernible reason. Even if the comic they dislike is actually funnier. It’s 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. 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.
Words with a ‘k’ in it are funny.
I honestly believe, to the core of my being, that you can never truly appreciate how technically difficult stand up is, until you try to do it yourself.
The tricky bit, is finding the funny.
Comics have enormous egos. No doubt. But being a professional comedian is hard.
It requires constant commitment and concentration. It takes a thick skin, buckets of self-confidence, and a degree of fearlessness. You don’t qualify for financial support, credit, bank loans, a mortgage or grants. You are on your own.
And even if you are dedicated and disciplined – there is still no guarantee of success.
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 watched and worked 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…)