Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Cambridge, MA) Kevin McDonald has enough accolades under his belt as a writer and performer that one could have forgiven him if he had chosen to mail it in during his seminar on sketch comedy at Improv Boston. A founding member of the Kids in the Hall, McDonald has decades of experience in comedy writing and a resume that would earn him the right to lecture from on high to comedy newbies.
Fortunately for those assembled, McDonald had no intention of doing that. Instead, from the opening moments of the day-long seminar, he struck just the right balance between authority and compassion to put the most nervous comedy writer at ease. This allowed the participants the courage to try to wring as many laughs out of sketches they created on the spot, and to listen as McDonald skillfully critiqued each attempt.
In the morning, McDonald walked participants through rules of sketch comedy that can serve writers well. He did this with the caveat that these rules were made to be broken, and that he frequently broke them, but he believed such rules provided good guardrails to begin the process of understanding what works and what doesn’t in comedy.
He provided vital basic tips that could mean the difference between a well-paced sketch and slow death on stage for any sketch comedy troupe, including how to pace a sketch and why it was vital to sometimes kill funny jokes that didn’t advance the story. Much of his advice was translatable to most genres of writing, which made his teachings more a discussion of the craft of writing than musings on what might or might not be funny.
As he spoke, McDonald gave an insider’s glimpse into the creative process of The Kids in the Hall, a Canadian comedy troupe founded by Lorne Michaels which aired in the United States with Comedy Central and HBO in the nineties. He also left one with the impression that what you saw with the Kids on stage was often what you got with the actors in real life. He described fellow castmates Dave Foley (who also starred in “Newsroom”) as charming, but with demons – someone who was a perfect straight-man for some of Kids’ stranger sketches (like a blind date with a Chicken Lady); and Bruce Mcculloch as a blunt man who had a unique way of looking at the world, which led to some of the Kids’ best sketches (see “30 Helens Agree”). McDonald, himself, was just as you might picture from his characters – energetic, slightly uncomfortable, sweetly self-deprecating, and wholly unique (see “Things to Do”) . One could have listened to him all day.
But instead, the comedy writers were set loose on a much more fraught task – writing something funny and then having it read aloud and critiqued. The writers were in good hands, however. McDonald somehow managed to provide writers with blunt criticism and also the hope they could make people laugh.
I know this from his review of my own attempt at a sketch. With little practice in comedy as a medical news editor, I managed to write a tight scene that I knew was lacking one thing – laughs. McDonald deftly delivered this bad news couched in the sketch’s strengths (good pacing and setup), along with doable suggestions for how to improve it. A comedy writer could, in theory, walk away from one of McDonald’s sketches feeling discouraged, but it would take an awful lot of work to do.