THEM’S THE BREAKS
I generally believed that every comic got to where they were supposed to be. If you went on stage enough times, you got your shot. You might not be happy with the outcome but the opportunity came. Nonetheless, there were a few comics who I believed didn’t get their due, for whatever reason. There were underrated players in stand-up. At the top of my list is Canadian comedian Mike MacDonald. – Ritch Shydner
Mike knew how difficult it was to ‘make it big’ as a comic. He knew what the odds were. But he had faith in himself; in his ability, his skill, and his work ethic. He knew he was funny. He proved it over and over and over again.
He never took a performance for granted. Never just ‘phoned it in’ or went through the motions. He took his craft far too seriously for that. He was a professional, in the truest sense of the word.
Every show was important.
Every show mattered.
It was an opportunity to improve, to learn, to get better. Even if he killed, he would still look for ways to build the laughs for the next time. In all the years I knew him, I never once heard him blame an audience for a bad show.
Although, now that I think about it, I never saw him have a bad show…
I’m sure he had plenty in his early years. All of us do. But by the time I met him, Mike was already a seasoned pro.
This didn’t mean that rested on his accolades though. He still went out and won the crowd over every time. It was the perfectionist in him.
Deep down he truly believed all his hard work and dedication would eventually pay off, and he would hit ‘the big time.’ It was just a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’
But reality hit hard one day, when he was turned down for a late night television talk show. This, in spite of having had several highly rated television specials beforehand. It sent him into a escalating spiral.
“I suddenly realized comedy is not like sports,” he said, “no matter how good you are, there’s no guarantee you’ll be on the team.”
There’s that hard lesson I spoke of earlier.
Talent is not enough.
And what was that I said about luck again?
Mike understood the part luck could play better than most. He had more than one story about how fate had intervened in his career – and not in a good way.
For example, once he was approached and then signed by a famous entertainment agent. It was a very big deal. After all, the man’s other clients included Steve Martin and John Candy.
The agent told Mike, “I always liked you; I always thought you deserved to be farther up in your career than you are.”
He went on to explain that he had just set Candy and Martin up with five years of steady work, and now had the time to concentrate exclusively on Mike!
Needless to say, this filled Mike with great anticipation.
Then, the very next night, the agent awakes from a fitful sleep and goes to get a glass of water from the fridge.
He has a heart attack.
And drops dead.
Mike had a thousand heartbreaking stories like this. Stories of being on the precipice of that ‘big break,’ the one all entertainers dream of, only to have it snatched away by fate at the last moment. Truly heartbreaking. Or darkly funny.
Most of the time, Mike chose to see it as funny.
Even with all his success and enviable gifts, his decades of hard work and boundless talent, that elusive showbiz brass ring continued to escape him.
And in his darkest moments
that evasion haunted him.
AND ANOTHER THING…
By 2010/2011, Mike was relatively level in terms of his manic bi-polar illness and medication and was ready for another life change.
He had become disillusioned with Hollywood, having spent several decades there with little to show for it in terms of television or film success. Meanwhile, he had continued to work regularly in Canada. So there seemed to be no reason to remain in California now, and the couple began to make plans to list their Glendale home and return to Ottawa.
As they did, fate once again intervened.
Mike’s father took ill.
Fortunately Mike was in Canada touring at the time. He went to visit his dad in hospital and – at Bonnie’s urging – decided to get a quick check-up himself while there. He had been feeling tired anyway.
Bonnie had noticed Mike slurring his words on occasion, and lately, he had also been uncharacteristically clumsy. Mike had put it down to his age, relentless touring, and medication – but Bonnie was not convinced, and persuaded him to investigate.
The test results were shocking.
Mike had contracted Hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is a vicious viral infection that causes the liver to become inflamed. The infection spreads when blood contaminated by the virus finds its way into the bloodstream of an uninfected person. It can be life-threatening.
When and how Mike had become infected was never determined. Symptoms of the disease can take years or even decades to appear. Whatever the cause, one thing was evident: Mike was ill. The move home now had added urgency. And tragically, soon afterwards, Mike’s father passed away.
After his father’s death Mike continued to work in Canada while Bonnie was left the unenviable and enormous task of packing, renovating and selling their home in L.A. I don’t know how she did it.
If you think Mike MacDonald was tough, Bonnie – his wife and partner of 30 years – is even tougher. She got it all. His early days, his obsessions with music and comedy. His drug days with cocaine and heroin. His manic episodes. His depression and migraines. His suicidal patches. His video games and vitamins. His endless touring.
Mike would often refer to her onstage, telling the crowd he considered his marriage to be his biggest success. It was not a cheap ploy for applause – though he had no problem basking in the crowd’s support – it was a genuine tribute. He knew how tough he was to live with, and he was devoted to Bonnie, as she was to him. He adored her.
I cannot begin to imagine how immensely difficult that time was for the two of them. Physically separated from one another for over a year, with Bonnie having to worry about Mike’s fading health from a distance, all while juggling their finances and future.
When my ex and I briefly relocated to L.A to pursue stand-up in the early 90’s, Mike and Bonnie were our support network. They would have us over for dinner, share advice, and offer assistance and encouragement as needed.
Mike would not only tell club owners about us, he would convince them to watch or book us. Then he would actually pick us up and drive us to the club so we could perform. When we would try to thank him, he would shrug it off and tell us he was only doing it so he had someone to play Military Madness with at home. But we knew better.
Everything good that happened to us in Los Angeles was a direct result of Mike and Bonnie.
I dread to think what might have been, had Mike not had this incredibly strong woman at his side all those years. I honestly doubt he would have survived. She was his rock. And now, she had to do it again. Keep them afloat. Sort out their lives.
One night, while performing in Canada, Mike began to behave strangely. He had not been feeling well for some time prior to this; had been fatigued and losing some weight, not sleeping great. But as usual he had shrugged it off as a by-product of touring with a Hep C infection and kept going.
On this particular night however, it became evident to all that something was off. Mike’s balance seemed really impaired. He was swaying and occasionally staggering – but he had not been drinking.
Then he began to do something Mike MacDonald would never do….
He began repeating jokes he had just told a moment before.
He forgot set-ups or punchlines to material he knew inside out.
Matt Billon was the other comic on tour with Mike at the time. Fortunately he understood immediately that something was very, very wrong. He stopped the show, got Mike offstage, and transported him safely back to the hotel. But by this time Mike was completely incoherent, delusional, and began running around the hotel in his underwear. No one knew it yet, but he was suffering from a combination of ammonia poisoning and infection.
Matt called for an ambulance and Mike was rushed him to the nearest hospital. He spent the next two days strapped to his bed because the infection had left him so delirious he kept pulling his IV out. The build up of deadly toxins had to be flushed from his body repeatedly. After three days of fluids and intravenous antibiotics, Mike had recovered enough to be released. It was a very close call.
A life-threatening experience such as this might give most people pause. But Mike just finished the remainder of his tour.
Then, two weeks after returning home, he began to get a pain in his stomach. It was yet another infection, and it was symptomatic of a larger issue – Mike’s liver was shutting down and now was overloading his kidneys. Again he survived by the narrowest of margins. But it was obvious to everyone his health was now critical.
This led to the battle of his life.
SHIT JUST GOT REAL
The news was grim. Mike was now in the advanced stages of his Hep C infection, and suffering from severe cirrhosis of the liver. He had developed a condition called hepatic encephalopathy, or HE. This was what had caused his symptoms while on tour. He could not remember his act or keep his balance because he was being slowly poisoned by a build up of toxins in his brain.
It was now evident he would require a liver transplant.
The liver is an amazing organ in that it can regenerate itself if infection or disease is caught early enough. It is the only one of our organs with this ability. So a living donor need only give up a portion of their own healthy liver to the patient, for both to heal, regenerate and survive.
Mike was advised to go public with his illness. So he called the media and made a public appeal for a living donor to come forward. He put a post on his Facebook page. He reached out. That took a lot from him. He was never one to ask for help, even when he knew he needed it. And asking someone for part of an organ, well, where do you begin?
He spoke about it to Harvey Chartrand, of Ottawa Life Magazine afterwards:
‘… that’s when I went on Facebook and said – whoah! Is there a living donor out there maybe? I don’t know how to ask for this. It took me a long time to write that letter. It took something like 10 days. It was like one of the hardest writing jobs I’ve ever had to do. Just strictly on a writing level, because I didn’t know how to ask. I didn’t know what to say. My friends said (cocky): “Ah, just go on Facebook and ask for a liver.” Ah, you can’t just ask like that. I had to tell the whole story of what happened and why. It’s not like (moronic-sounding voice): “Can I borrow a cup of sugar? Can I borrow a portion of your liver?”
While they waited for a donor to be found, Mike could no longer work, and he and Bonnie was still in California, trying to renovate and sell their L.A. home. Now they were also facing additional medical expenses. Mike’s comedy comrades, the media, comedy festivals, clubs, and the public, all rallied to his aid. Fundraisers took place, donations were gathered – anything to provide some sort of financial support.
But Mike also began to reap an outpouring of emotional support; from friends and fans alike. Even from comics he thought he never had much to do with. He was surprised and overwhelmed by this. It touched him deeply. When he would speak to me about it, by phone or email, he always seemed shocked that people loved him enough to care. He knew he could be sarcastic and aloof in nature, and the sudden outpouring of kindness, concern, and reverence left him humbled for the rest of his days. It led to a huge change in his character, an awakening.
His life mantra now became, “love is better than hate” and he meant it. He was finally able to accept the warmth, love and affection he had been unable to embrace his whole life. The carefully constructed walls around him began to fall away.
The list for a liver transplant – like most transplant lists – is a long one. And in spite of some vicious outright lies peddled by idiots and trolls online, being a famous comedian in Canadian show biz does not qualify you for special treatment. Go figure. There is a barrage of criteria that needs to be met, and you just gotta wait, and hope your life does not evaporate before your chance comes and the right match is found.
I did not have to think about it.
As soon as I heard the news, I immediately went online and downloaded the required forms. I put myself forward as a potential donor. I did not tell my family of my decision. At first, I didn’t even tell my partner. Only Mike. I figured there was no point in everyone freaking out, unless it was a done deal.
As expected, the donor application was long and extremely detailed. And that is when my own life choices came screaming back to me. Turns out liver disease is a factor in my own family’s medical history. As is diabetes, cancer, and a whole bunch of other fun illnesses and diseases.
But the good news was that my blood type was RHO+, which would be compatible with Mike’s. I was not a drinker, and had never smoked cigarettes.
I too, had experimented with drugs in my youth, but that had been decades earlier, and the only one I still used was cannabis. Just to ensure that would not be an issue, I immediately stopped, and weaned myself off all my prescription meds too, just for good measure.
Sadly, but as expected, Mike continued to deteriorate. I knew him as a powerful, robust man – standing about sixty feet tall with a booming voice and the wit and personality to match. But when I called to see how he was doing, I didn’t even recognize his voice. I thought at first, that I had gotten a wrong number.
From my home in Belfast I watched his ongoing Canadian television interviews with growing anxiety. He had lost so much weight. His face had changed. His trademark boundless energy had disappeared. It looked as if every part of his body ached. He could barely move. It was horrifying and heartbreaking to see.
He was becoming more seriously ill by the hour. He was nearly out of time and he knew it. That miracle donor he had been praying for seemed ever more elusive, and reluctantly he began reaching out to close friends to wish them well, and to say – without actually saying it – goodbye.
Then I got a call from the hospital in Toronto that would be doing Mike’s transplant. They informed me that they would keep my application on file, but that they would be pursuing an alternate possible candidate. It looked like a good match had been found.
I hung up, relieved for both of us. I hoped with all my heart, that this would mean a resolution to Mike’s nightmare.
I hoped, that this would mean he’d soon be on the mend.
(More to come…)