PART ONE: THE LEGEND
‘He made us all see what the profession could be, what we could be, and missing him terribly will be a fact for the rest of our lives.’ – John Wing Jr.
St. Patrick’s Day in Belfast.
You would think I’d be headed out to the pub for some ‘craic’ – the Irish word for fun/a good time. Instead, I had just worked a nine hour shift at my day job, and the thought of standing shoulder to shoulder with binge-drinking 20-somethings, fighting for the barman’s attention, didn’t appeal to me. I just wanted to get home.
It was a bitterly cold day by Irish standards. Another storm had blown in from Siberia, and although we’d had no snow, the wind could have cut you in half.
There was barely a reveller to be seen as I waited for my bus, unless they were underage. Kids with their Tricolour flags wrapped tight over their shoulders for warmth – an open act of defiance. Belfast remains one of the few places in the entire world where an Irish flag on St. Patrick’s day (or any other) can be viewed as ‘provocative,’ ‘sectarian’ and ‘exclusionist….’
The kids scurried in small groups from one place to another, squealing as pre-teens do, underdressed for the weather as pre-teens are, while the wind whipped down High Street, blowing dust and discarded rubbish into swirling tiny tornados.
Home at last, I turned the heat on, fed the cats, made a cup of tea. Out of habit, I picked up my phone and logged into Facebook to post my favourite photo of a St.Paddys day gone by – and wish my friends the greetings of the day. That done, I began to scroll through a few posts on the feed….
And suddenly, my world stopped.
Someone had posted that Mike MacDonald had died. Mike was the King of Canadian comedy. A veteran stand-up comic, considered a national treasure.
And my close friend.
My blood turned as cold as the weather.
It couldn’t be true. Obviously someone had fucked up. They were having a laugh. A tasteless, mis-informed laugh. But then post after post began to appear. Bad news spreads on social media faster than the speed of light.
I did not take it well.
I just could not accept what I was reading.
Instead, I responded with shock and adamant denial. I demanded to know the source of such ridiculous reports. I was an inconsolable 4-year-old who’s just been told Santa Claus isn’t real.
It was impossible.
The cruelest twist in a long and winding road.
My own disbelief was quickly echoed by others in the comedy community. Norm Macdonald stated on Twitter:
‘I just heard Mike MacDonald is dead. My first response? Mike MacDonald is not dead.’
Exactly. Mike MacDonald is not dead. He couldn’t be.
Frantic now, I began messaging other comedy friends, asking what was happening. How? When? Are we SURE? It can’t be. From 3,500 miles and an ocean away, I demanded answers. But no one seemed to have any details. No one seemed to know the source of the reports. All they were relatively certain of, was that our Mike – was gone.
The King is dead.
By the time I went to bed, in tears and exhausted, I was still stubbornly clinging to my disbelief. I suppose there was more than a degree of shock too. A late message on my cel phone woke me from a restless sleep. Then two. Confirmation.
It was true. It was real.
He was gone.
I fell back into my pillow, sobbing. The ache in my soul was enormous.
I slept far longer into the next day than I normally would have, which is saying something. I didn’t want to get up. I felt no desire to face reality. I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to stay awash in blissful ignorance. I wanted him to come to me in my dreams and explain himself.
But he didn’t.
Instead, when I eventually opened my eyes, I was met with only that one blinding reality…
My friend is dead.
“He concludes with a parody of himself as a teenager, playing guitar on a Wilson tennis racquet (equipped with tuning pegs!”), and this set piece, built around a pre-recorded tape of Stratocaster cacophony, is a delicious triumph. The crowd leaps to its feet, whistling and cheering, celebrating stand-up comedy’s power to light up the dark” – Robert Moyes, Monday Magazine, Victoria
Mike MacDonald was my devoted and loyal friend for almost 30 years.
He became my friend one night around 1989, after watching me perform at a club in downtown Toronto. I had only been doing standup sporadically for about a year by then. I could still count the number of times I had been onstage.
Mike meanwhile, was already an acclaimed success, a household name – no easy feat in a nation where celebrity was almost non-existent. He was the best known stand up comic in the entire country, and had a huge following. His live performances were legendary. He was constantly working. Touring. Filming television. Doing radio. Like all Canadian show-biz success stories, he didn’t even live in Canada anymore. He lived in L.A.
But that week he was in Toronto to do a run of shows, and had decided – as he often did – to check out the local amateur night.
That was where he saw me.
I did about five to seven minutes of material that night. Then I left the stage and fled outside by the side door, as was my habit. Usually I was given a wide berth by the other acts and allowed to wind down alone.
But this time I was almost immediately surrounded by a collection of amateurs and pro’s alike – all of whom were eyeing me suspiciously. It made me nervous.
‘You made Mike MacDonald laugh.’ one said, almost accusingly, ‘Out loud!’
As I said, I was new to the comedy scene. But I knew enough about Mike to know this was a huge deal.
In 1989, I was one of only a handful of women stand-ups working in Canada, and I was no pro. Nor was I taken very seriously by most of my male colleagues. In general, the guys tolerated me, but only a few saw me as anything more than an easily dismissed ‘female’ comic – which, at that time, were considered unfunny, and certainly didn’t rate in the scheme of things.
But Mike had seen something in me that night almost all of the others had not.
And he decided he liked it.
While the other comics stood there, seemingly confused by it all, I spotted Mike heading over to me at speed. He moved like an angry security guard about to snatch a shoplifter. Charging forward with long strides, he led with his collarbone, arms straight and rigid at his sides, bushy eyebrows furrowed in determination.
Amateurs and pro’s alike scattered fearfully out of his path. It was like the parting of the red sea.
What he said to me then was the ultimate compliment. He told me I was funny. Not in those exact words. (His exact words are between him and I.) But that was the gist of it.
And if Mike MacDonald thought I was funny, then I was. His comedic judgement was sacrosanct.
He had given me his personal stamp of approval, and in that one action, those few words, I was validated – as both a performer, and comic. In a very public way. It was practically a proclamation.
More than this, I instantly became his friend, part of his inner circle. And just like the mob, I was ‘in’ for life. I had absolutely no say in the matter.
So it would be written.
So it would be.
I had found my most loyal of friends; my defender, my protector, my champion.
Or rather he, had found me.
When Mike was done, there was not a scrap of meat left on the bones of the subject. His energy was off the charts but it was never wasted. Mike’s style was not just manic bouncing around. Every single syllable and motion was as tightly choreographed as a ballet. It was not a monologue but a complete and exquisite show from one person. Audiences and comics laughed as hard as I’ve ever seen or felt but they were also mesmerized by his skill at the same time. His talent cannot be overstated. – Simon Rakoff
Back in the 80’s and 90’s, Mike MacDonald was a fearsome presence on the Canadian comedy scene.
This was not the warm, fuzzy Mike people later in his life came to know. This was Mike as a raging bull of jokes, sarcasm, and comedic judgement. Some old friends have been using the phrase, ‘force of nature’ and that is certainly what he was. Unstoppable. Intimidating. Larger than life. Both amateur and professionals comics alike would tread softly in his company, less they awaken the beast.
They were justified in their apprehension. Mike never coddled anyone when it came to being funny.
He was arrogant, but he could afford to be – he had the goods to back it up. And he was very particular about his professional and personal associations. If he didn’t respect your act – or you – you’d know it. He had little time for comics he felt treated the art or the audience with disdain.
Powerful, physically imposing, with a wit and tongue sharpened to laser-like precision, he could also be fiercely competitive – sometimes in the funniest of ways.
Once, when he realised there was another comic who had a place in my heart – both professionally and personally – he did all he could to persuade me that he had to be number one. It was Mike who was the King of Stand Up and Mike, whom I must adore and indulge above all others. The ‘other guy’ could NOT be my favourite. Only HE was deserving of my adoration and respect.
He ordered me to acknowledge this.
But I would not.
My small slight drove him to distraction. It became a running gag between us. He would never let me forget it.
Once, he was in town for a week-long run after a long absence. He rang me to ensure I would be coming down to see him perform. Of course I was. He chuckled mischievously, but would not explain why.
When I went down to the club later that night I was greeted by a huge well-lit sign above the club entrance, promoting his appearance.
Here it is:
I have never been prouder.
THE KING HOLDS COURT
‘…When most comics try out bits on you, you just look at them like, “Really? Just talk to me like a human being.” But Mike would talk to you like a human being, making you laugh at something he said. Then he’d go onstage and do it and get a huge laugh. I could never help feeling impressed at how well I was just used. – Howard Nemetz
In those early years Mike carried a lot of barely repressed anger, and when it came to his craft he was ruthlessly dismissive of anyone who didn’t meet his standards of comedy perfection – or at least comedic potential. If Mike didn’t think you were up to scratch, his disdain was crushing. Sharp dressed and equally sharp-tongued, he could verbally cut you down to size faster than a lumberjack on speed.
He could be aloof, even cruel when he wanted to, but as I came to know him better I realised he was far more sensitive than most people would have imagined. I suspect the hard facade was an excellent defence mechanism, as well as a way for him to frighten off those he disliked or disrespected.
I was fortunate. He had already decided I was funny. That was my membership card. I was one of the ‘gang.’
I say ‘gang,’ because back then Mike was very particular who he spent his time with offstage. He chose the company he kept. He selected you. You didn’t just ‘tag along.’
No one got to enter our inner circle unless it was by Mike’s personal invitation. And if you wanted to invite someone else to join us – someone new or outside the core group – you had to run it by Mike first and he had to be persuaded. You had to plead their case. If he didn’t judge in their favour, the extra guest was jettisoned. He knew who he wanted to be around and that was that.
Everyone else could fuck off.
So each time he came into town he already had a pre-approved collective that was expected to be available on demand. The routine was always the same: Either you came to the show that night and then back to his hotel to socialise, or – if you had a gig of your own to go to first – you just met at the hotel afterwards. Excuses would not be tolerated and missing a meet-up without good reason (you were out of the country, dying, dead) risked future exclusion.
In the court of Mikedom, there was only one king.
This did not mean Mike dominated the evening completely. If you were at his hotel it was because he enjoyed your company and respected your comedic bent. You were there as a comrade, in the truest sense of the word. You were someone he trusted and could relax with. But make no mistake, you were also there to work. To bounce material around. To talk show biz. To examine technique. To worship at the altar of comedic tradition.
You were also Mike’s ‘test’ audience, as he was yours. Someone he could run bits by to see if they held promise. He was expecting your comedic input, and you’d better have something to offer.
I suspect we all harboured a secret desire to prove our own worth. You looked for his approval, just as he looked for yours. (Though certainly not with the same degree of hunger.) He was the guy who ran the show, and the rest of us just did our best to keep up with him.
There were no early nights…unless Mike needed to be up early. (The King dictated the terms of engagement.) And once you were there, you usually stayed. You stayed until you were barely awake or Mike decided he had had enough – which was usually around 5 or 6 the next morning.
And these are the days after he quit drugs…
Mike loved games. They spoke to the competitive side of his nature. So our evenings were usually spent playing cards, board or video games, telling jokes, working out new material and trading endless showbiz stories.
Some of us would have a few drinks, but Mike wasn’t a drinker. Hotel security staff was often sent up to ask us to keep the noise down. After awhile they knew what to expect whenever they saw him check in…late nights, music, and constant loud laughter. I am sure the front desk usually tried to house him in a room near the end of the hall, or in one that had no other guests nearby.
Mike always had the best stories. But he never simply recounted a tale. Just as when he was onstage, he would act it out. He couldn’t help himself. He was a natural performer. Even for his friends.
The Red Foxx story for example – which took place in Vegas after the end of Foxx’s TV series ‘Sanford and Son’ – was a full performance pageant; complete with theme song.
Mike would mime the blaring trombone players standing to play Foxx’s intro onstage, trumpeting the music himself. Then he would shift into the character of Foxx, eyeing a nearly empty audience:
“Red Foxx don’t work for six motherfucking people…”
Then shift back to the horn section, as it played the disgruntled Foxx back off.
If we erupted into spontaneous laughter at something, (which happened a lot) Mike took note, filing it away in his head for later use.
It’s surprisingly difficult to make other comics laugh. Like, really laugh. It’s our business after all. We can see the punchline coming a mile away. We anticipate all the angles with speed. It takes something truly unexpected or strikingly dark to catch us off guard and drag us out of our dispassionate observation.
Generally there are only two comedic responses to something funny.
One, is the deliberate expulsion of the word ‘HA.’
This is more statement than involuntary reaction. A comic will hear something that amuses them, and then this sound will emanate from the back of the room. Just the single syllable.
As flat and emotionless as possible. And usually a split second after the audience’s spontaneous and more honest response.
‘HA,‘ is the equivalent of a comedic nod. It’s a tip of the hat, a mark of approval or acknowledgement – or even a mental note to self.
The second response is when one comic turns to another after hearing something amusing, and soberly notes, ‘That’s funny.’ Which generally solicits a solemn nod of agreement from the other, without further comment.
People often think that being a comedian, and being around other comedians, means you laugh all the time. Sadly, what it usually means is this; quiet reflection, silent analysis.
But on rare occassions, something truly extraordinary can occur…
Like, serious belly laughs. And if its truly exceptional, tears of laughter.
When we were with Mike, we laughed. We laughed so hard we cried, went into coughing fits, choked on our drink, did a spit-take. Especially if it was inspired by some deeply disturbing and dark humour. Mike’s hotel room was a ‘safe’ place to push comedic boundaries and break taboos. It was a place to test the waters. And more often than not, it was Mike who led the charge.
Mike had a lethal library of funny, and each and every bit was tailor made, honed for its specific audience. He would tell us what new comics or shows to watch for, who he had met and toured with recently, and the best gags he had heard from other acts since last we had met. We were a study group as much as a social clique.
We in turn, would tell him who we had discovered, and bounce our own new material off him from time to time. He would either laugh once, nod, and if inspired, eagerly add to it. Or he would stare at you blankly with the wide ‘crazy eyes,’ and tight jaw – which meant the bit needed work, or should be immediately dropped and never spoken of again.
You could tell the difference by how long he held his expression.
During one visit Mike told us about the newest creation of his close friend Len Austrevich, an American comic who ran ‘The Funny Firm’ in Chicago, Illinois.
At that time The Funny Firm was running a weekly late-night, nothing-is-sacred, no-holds-barred stand up show called ‘The Blue Night Special.’ Promotional material actually warned that the scheduled acts were ‘guaranteed to offend,’ as an audience disclaimer. Rooms and shows like this are a rare bird in stand-up, especially these days. And as such, comics would vie fiercely for a spot on the line-up.
Mike informed us that, especially for this show, Len Austervich had created a darkly funny reoccurring character called ‘Mr. Belligerent.’ Mike immediately fell in love.
‘Mr. Belligerent’ became his favourite comedy abomination, and I suspect he was very disappointed he had not thought of it first. The character became an obsession, and whenever he came into town Mike would dutifully recite every new bit that had come out of ‘Mr. Belligerent’s’ alarming mouth since his last visit. Every nightmarish but hysterical horror, would be recounted with the reverence befitting a sacred relic. But he would only share it with his fellow comics in the inner circle. Mr. Belligerent was for a select audience. He was not for public consumption.
Mike shared so much of the character’s material, that the persona’s style of delivery became his own preferred method of communication. The intonation, the physical bluster, the roll of the eyes and head. After that, whenever he came into town, Mike would call and leave only this horrible sound – made famous by ‘Mr. Belligerent’ – on the answering machine.
No ‘hello’ or ‘hey, its me.’
Just the sound. That hideous sound. A throaty gurgling, like that of a drowning man….
And then the click as he hung up.
That was our notice that he had arrived safely and was staying at the usual place. It was our invitation:
Mr. MacDonald expects your attendance at his convenience, in his private rooms this evening.
(More to follow…)