The best humor has a grain of truth to it, but in the case of The Kids In The Hall's sketch “Daddy Drank”—in which Kevin McDonald recounts caustic childhood interactions with his alcoholic father—there’s a whole mound of the stuff. Fortunately for McDonald and comedy fans alike, the actor-writer was able to convert those painful memories into three of the televised sketch comedy’s funniest minutes. Along with stories about his time with Kids In The Hall and what he calls some “bad pop songs,” McDonald’s experiences with his father form the core of Hammy And The Kids, a one-man show that headlines the Out Of Bounds Comedy Festival on Sept. 5. In anticipation of his festival appearance, McDonald spoke with The A.V. Club about Hammy’s origins, the reactions it’s garnered from his troupemates, and why he won’t be wringing any similarly therapeutic laughs out of the women in his life anytime soon. (For more from Kevin McDonald on his long career in comedy, check out his recent Random Roles.)
The A.V. Club: The obvious question is whether the idea for Hammy And The Kids came directly out of “Daddy Drank.” What’s the connection there?
Kevin McDonald: In the early ’90s, during the TV show days, Dave Foley, [KITH writer] Norm Hiscock, and I were trying to write, and we didn’t have any ideas. So I start telling stories about my dad. And I told them that story. Which is a true story. My dad really came into the bedroom and said, “How many girls called you today, Kevin? Zero? How many called you the other day? Zero? You know what zero times zero equals, don’t you? Zero!” And then Dave thought it would be a funny joke if my dad said, “You know what zero times zero equals, don’t you? Fag!” And then, Dave said the magic words that quite often start his writing: “Hey, this could be a sketch.”
I remember a month later, as we were about to perform the sketch, being terrified, thinking, “No one’s going to laugh at this. This is just painful.” Then we went out and it got gigantic laughs, and became a thing that people stopped me for. So when I started thinking about the one-man show a few years ago, I thought I’d have to include that and sort of center the one-man show around that. I figure if a rock group can play their big hit single over and over, then I could do that and no one else would say anything.
Can I tell you a story about that scene? That’s how I got my stalker. After that sketch aired, Kids In The Hall were about to do a tour of Canada and the United States, and we were all going to meet at our office, then go to the airport. I got there early, because I’m a loser that gets to places early, and I opened up my one fan letter, and it was from a woman from Edmonton. She said “Daddy Drank” meant a lot to her because her daddy drank. It was a very heartwarming letter. I had some time to kill, so I broke the cardinal rule: I wrote back to her. I said, “I’m glad we did a scene that touched you. I’ll put your name on the guest list for the Edmonton show.” So we were in Edmonton doing the show, and we used to do a Head Crusher sketch, where I was his nemesis. And I would always pop up somewhere in the audience. Whoever was next to me, I would make fun of them, then I would have a head-crusher fight with Mark [McKinney]. After the tour, I get a letter back from [the stalker], saying that she saw it as a sign from God that I had done the scene right next to her. So she decided to move to Toronto and become my girlfriend. Every day, she was outside the office, just waiting for me. The office was part of a bigger building, which had a lot of other shops and stuff in it, so the police would come every night and take me out through the gay bar that it was attached to—which started rumors that I was gay and with somebody that looked like a cop. But he actually was a cop.
That woman would come to my house. She found out that I bought CDs all the time at Sam The Record Man, so she got a job there. This went on for a while. After a while she did what the cops told me later was a classic stalker thing: She started sending me letters saying that I’d lost it, that I wasn’t funny anymore. I remember she sent me a cassette of songs she recorded. All stalker songs. The first song was The Police song, “Every Breath You Take.” It was full of songs like that. Then she slowly faded away, and I haven’t seen her since.
AVC: How do you feel knowing that this painful moment from your childhood has become one of the show’s most quoted scenes?
KM: It makes my painful childhood worthwhile. I have two favorite kinds of comedy. One is total imagination, like Monty Python, where they slap each other in the face with fishes, and it’s hilarious. [The other is] the kind of comedy that John Belushi would do, where they take something about their lives and they make it a sketch. I like that a little more than the imagination kind. I love both, but that one always hits an audience member more. If you can laugh just as much at that kind of sketch, and you can feel [that way] about something from your life, I think that’s the best kind of laugh.
AVC: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that writing sketches about your dad has become a form of therapy—since Hammy And The Kids also addresses The Kids In The Hall, are there issues there that you’re working out?
KM: There are. I touch upon a thing that Dave [Foley] and I have worked out since—or have worked on it so much that we continue to work it out as we grow older and closer to death. Dave and I were best friends, and then during the filming of Brain Candy we did have a falling out, where we didn’t talk to each other for a while, and he quit the troupe. I talk a little bit about that in the one-man show. I could do a whole one-man show just about my relationship with Dave.
AVC: The other Kids have seen the show; how have they reacted to you telling these stories?
KM: They seem to like it, and I don’t think they’re being phony, because they’ve seen it four or five times. Scott [Thompson] has seen it two or three times. Mark has seen it once, which for Mark is like seeing it 10 times. Bruce [McCulloch] has seen it several times. I honestly think that what makes it easier for them to see it over and over is the songs. Even with a guy who can’t sing, it just seems to make it easier to see something about yourself. Because I mention them a lot, and I always wonder if I went to see a show Scott did about us, what would I think of it.
AVC: The show reportedly made Scott cry.
KM: Oh yeah, he did cry. He came up to me afterwards and told me that he cried. I tell a lot of stories about Scott, at his expense, because Scott is sort of functionally crazy. He’s also the kind of crazy that when he hears me tell a story about him being crazy I know exactly where his mind would go. It would go “I can’t believe he’s telling that story. Hey! He’s telling people stories about me!”
AVC: You’ve previously told The A.V. Club that you’re kind of a naturally shy and quiet person. How do you become more comfortable with performing outside of a group?
KM: As a kid, if you put me in a class, especially at a new school, I’d be really shy and not talk to anyone. But if you put me in a performing situation, it didn’t feel like it was myself. I felt like I was the character—though, strangely enough, I don’t really do characters. So it’s like that, performing the one-man show. As soon as I go onstage, I just feel like I’m another character, and it doesn’t feel like shy Kevin. But if it was a party, and the audience was just the same amount of people, and I walked in, I would be totally quiet and shy.
AVC: What’s the difference? Do you feel like there’s something to prove in performance?
KM: Also, it brings me to a place where my insecurities don’t matter. I don’t want you to think I’m the quietest, shyest guy in the world. Most of my friends would be shocked and say, “You’re not shy.” But sometimes I have trouble figuring out what to say, and don’t think anything is interesting. It is different from performing for some reason. If I’m doing improv with Scott or Dave, and they start talking first and they’re very funny, I don’t get shy. But I get a block thinking, “They’re doing it so well. How do I match up to that?” And then sometimes it’s hard for me to turn my comedy-brain on.
AVC: The other Kids have always said that you’re the funniest member of the group—that you’re the one they have to live up to.
KM: [Laughs.] Yeah, they’re very nice. They say that. If I was a fan of Kids In The Hall—this is horrible—I might think that, too. This is what I think—every one of them is better than me at individual things. Dave is better at timing. Mark can do characters. Bruce is a better writer and comes up with better jokes. Scott’s a better performer. There’s nothing I’m the best at, but overall, there’s just something about me that’s just sort of funny. I can’t think of a joke to save my life, and I can’t think of characters, and it’s just me being funny. I think that’s what they mean when they say that.
AVC: You’ve mentioned elsewhere working on another show called The Women That I’ve Ruined. Did you ever wind up finishing that?
KM: I was going to, but I never got around to it. And now I have a girlfriend, and there’s no ruining happening. I don’t want to scare her to think I’ve ruined—but I wrote down notes for a few pages and if I ever do another one-man show I would do that. It would be about my mother. And my first two girlfriends. I never had any girlfriends when I was a teenager. I was shy, overweight. I had crazy hair, thick glasses, braces, and no confidence. So I didn’t have my first girlfriend until I was 23.
AVC: So if you ruin this relationship, then maybe you’ll work on the show?
KM: Yeah, after the 10 years of devastating sadness.
AVC: If you had to compare, would you say your one-man show is more like Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! or Robert Goulet’s The Man And His Music?
KM: Well, I would have to pick a third one. I would say it’s more like Give ’Em Hell, Harry with James Whitmore.
AVC: In what way?
KM: I was joking, but now I’m going to try to think of a way: Because I believe that in my 20s, going between the Kids In The Hall and my dad, [it] was a little like World War I.
AVC: Lots of mustard gas?
KM: Lots of it. Spiritually, there was lots of mustard gas.