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Kids In The Hall’s Kevin McDonald on the dark origin of “Girl Drink Drunk”

Photo: Ben Hider/Getty Images
Photo: Ben Hider/Getty Images

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

From his lynchpin role in sketch troupe The Kids In The Hall to his guest appearances on shows like Friends and his extensive work in animation, Kevin McDonald has long been one of comedy’s most unusual—and instantly recognizable—voices. Now he’s putting that voice to use on his first-ever podcast, Kevin McDonald’s The Kevin McDonald Show, which recently launched on the Forever Dog Podcast Network. Described by McDonald as an old-fashioned variety “show within a show” akin to The Jack Benny Program, the podcast finds McDonald plying both the comedy skills he’s honed over decades of sketch and improv, as well as trying on some new ones as an interviewer. To promote its launch, McDonald submitted to an interview of his own, offering his thoughts on everything from the greatness of Cheap Trick to the life-changing work of Phil Donahue.

1. What’s a question you wish an interviewer would ask you?

Kevin McDonald: It’s not my influences. It’s not how I met Dave Foley. It’s not one of my favorite sketches. I guess, being an egomaniac, I would like the interviewer to be so interested in me that it goes beyond comedy, and they want to know what my favorite album is. But not just my favorite album—my favorite album in every kind of music genre. Folk rock, just folk folk, country rock, just country, the 17 or 18 different kinds of rock ’n’ roll, the limited hip-hop I know. I would study more to find out the answer to bluegrass. I would find out what that is and what my favorite bluegrass album is. That I would enjoy talking about.

The A.V. Club: You and I have talked a couple of times, and if I recall, you managed to work in mentions of The Beatles, The Byrds, and Outkast. So I think maybe that’s already out there.

KM: Just the beginning! It’s just the beginning, Sean. Because it’s not just about record albums, right? It’s about how I view life. And if you find out how one person views life, then you learn a little bit about life.

2. If you could ride a giant version of an animal to work every day, what animal would it be?

KM: Oh, so they’re not jokey questions. I guess I would ride a benign giant animal, like a poodle. A giant poodle. So if they did kill anything, it’d be by accident. And then they’d lick it later. And people wouldn’t get mad at me, because it’s a cute poodle, albeit a giant one. You could keep a poodle happy. It is a little nervous. You don’t want a giant creature being nervous.

3. What movie have you seen the most?

KM: This is a strange answer. I was an altar boy in Catholic school, and they showed me a movie—they just showed it to me once, but I became obsessed with it in the ’70s, when I was a kid, and I’ve seen it, I think, between 30 and 40 times. Let’s say 36; that’s a good number. It was Jesus Christ Superstar. I got obsessed with it, because Judas was the coolest guy in the world to me. He was like the Fonzie of the apostles. He was torn between whether he should betray his best friend and the son of God or not. It’s really about Judas, Jesus Christ Superstar is. Jesus is a supporting character. And of course, the songs were what we called back in the ’70s—I don’t know if you’ve heard of this term—rock ’n’ roll. It made me listen to the story of the Bible, and I finally understood what the Bible was about. Not religion, but good stories. And bad stories. But stories.

AVC: So even more than the Catholic Church, Andrew Lloyd Webber caused a big religious awakening in you.

KM: He made Judas like a person to me, a torn person. He’s a tragic hero—or antihero—and those are the most interesting things in literature and art. Tragic heroes.

AVC: Who played Judas in that movie?

KM: Carl something. Not Carl Weathers, he was Apollo Creed.

AVC: Let me check Wikipedia ... Carl Anderson.

KM: That’s it! His career never took off, and every now and then, I’d see him in a cop show. Mannix would come and ask him a question or something. I don’t know if anyone knows Mannix anymore.

AVC: He also starred in Cop Rock.

KM: He was the star of Cop Rock?!

AVC: Maybe not the star.

KM: But he was in it? I must have been very excited.

AVC: It combined several of your favorite things: rock, cops…

KM: …a man who played Judas once.

4. What’s a stupid thing you incorrectly believed for a long time?

KM: The first thing I thought of is kind of heavy. I was a Catholic, and pro-life until I was 18. And then, all of a sudden, I got an epiphany—while watching The Phil Donahue Show—that I was brainwashed. And that’s when I started being anti-religious. There might be a God kind of thing out there, but I was anti-religious because of Phil Donahue. And then a year later I met Dave Foley, and he talked about that Phil Donahue show! He saw that! And I knew we were connected, and we had to be in the same comedy troupe.

AVC: When you say “pro-life,” you mean militantly pro-life?

KM: No, no, no. Our lunch hour was religious class, and they drilled it into us. That was the only topic they talked about for my two and a half years there. So if you’d asked me my opinion then, I would quietly say, “Well, uh, I guess it’s murder.” But even then, if I dug deeper, I knew I wasn’t convinced. I just was too lazy to think about it. And then that Phil Donahue episode woke me up.

AVC: That Donahue guy changed a lot of people’s lives.

KM: Dave Foley’s, too!

5. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever heard about yourself that isn’t true?

KM: That I suffer from depression. There was a list online a few years ago of celebrities. First of all, I thought, “I’m on a list of celebrities!” They had all kinds of celebrities. Minor celebrities like me and the major celebrities—I honestly forget who else was on the list—and we suffered from depression. They spelled my name wrong. I guess the bad joke is that’s what depressed me: “MacDonald.”

I think I know the reason. First of all, I had sort of the lead part in our movie Brain Candy, which is nothing else other than a comedy of depression. And I think I was doing a lot of interviews those days about being depressed, because my wife had just left me, and Dave had quit the troupe, and there were a few suicides in the Kids In The Hall’s families—and one of them was mine. So I think I may have said, “Oh, yeah, I’m kind of depressed right now.” And for some reason, [the makers of the list] thought I was chemically suffering from depression, which is not true. But that made me seem interesting, because then you’re a tortured artist. Didn’t John Lennon suffer from depression? I bet John Lennon suffered from depression. Why can’t I suffer from depression?

AVC: You did have that one-man show about your dad that was kind of depressing.

KM: It was totally depressing! But here’s the thing that makes me, in my eyes, interesting. I’ve had depressing things happen to me in my life. The past few years, I can’t even talk about it. But I don’t get depressed about it. I still, like Danny DeVito in Throw Momma From The Train, can be really depressed and go, “Oh, look! Cows!” I’m too simpleminded. I’m not genius enough to be depressed.

6. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

KM: I know the weirdest thing I’ve never eaten. Once a Kids In The Hall fan in Vancouver gave us a jar of cow eyes. He spread it on a plate for us and wanted us to eat them. We didn’t eat that. But what’s the weirdest thing I’ve eaten? I could be a vegan revolutionary, and be like, “Cow, man. Beef. That’s the weirdest thing I’ve eaten, man?” I am vegetarian, actually.

AVC: Lifetime vegetarian?

KM: No, since ’98. The woman I was seeing was a vegetarian, so I cut out the red meat. And then in 2001, I had the chicken dream, so I cut out chicken. The chicken dream being: She had birds in a cage, which always made me sad, and they were always over our dining room table. And when we ate chicken, I thought, “Oh, my God, we’re eating their bird cousins.” And then on my 40th birthday, my musician friend—everyone has a musician friend—took me to a Greek movie where it really happened, in real time. The actor playing the farmer took a chicken, cut his head off, and then in the same shot, the wife takes it and starts plucking it. And that night, I had the chicken dream, and it seemed real, because it was the kind of dream where I’m dreaming that I’m asleep in my bed, which I was. And then a chicken came and poked me in the shoulder and said, “Kevin, Kevin, you’ve got to stop eating us!” And since then, I quit chicken. Then Dave Foley’s 8-year-old daughter got mad at me in 2009, so I quit fish. And then I just quit eggs a few years ago. You know what freaked me out? When my dad ate frogs’ legs. Even when I wasn’t a vegetarian—as a kid. He was from Montreal; he was French. That freaked me out. I didn’t put two and two together that steaks and chicken should also freak me out. I can’t answer your question, but I’ve given a lot of talk to it.

7. What was the first concert you ever went to?

KM: Cheap Trick, 1978, ’79. It was in the Montreal Forum. I was visiting my cousins, and we were big Cheap Trick fans because of the song “Surrender.” I thought that was the greatest song ever. It was what I was getting into—power pop. Take the Beatles’ melodies, and you have weird chord changes, but you make it really catchy. It’s like Slade. Do you young Americans know Slade?

AVC: Of course. “Cum On Feel The Noize.”

KM: Yes! I still love it. It was exciting, and at the concert Rick Nielsen threw his guitar pick. We were nowhere near it, we didn’t catch it, but someone did, and that was exciting. Robin Zander was the pretty lead singer who had a great voice. The drummer was a weird-looking guy in a baseball cap. The bass player was pretty. It was exactly what your first rock ’n’ roll concert should be. During the encore, people started rushing the stage.

I did see a concert of a local group before that at a bar with my friends. There was a local guy in Mississauga that was also kind of Beatles-ish: Bob Segarini. We were so excited. I was living in suburb outside of Toronto about 30 miles away, and he was playing at a bar that had a stage. Me and five friends went to see it, and then there were, like, five or six guys at another table where a fight started. Me and Glen Ford—who was a brilliant drummer—we hid under the table when the fight started. His name was Glen Ford, but not the famous actor. I still remember Glen Ford’s classic joke: He said, “Yeah, I never get in fights. My favorite book is Peace And Peace. It’s a big motherfucker.” Not a bad joke for a Mississauga guy! Look, it was the late ’70s. He was 18, he played drums, he was from the suburbs. He never became a comic; he’s a musician. That’s not a bad joke.

8. What’s the most interesting opportunity you’ve gotten through your work?

KM: This is where I get hokey and say all the wonderful people I worked with. Well, I’ll probably think of more later, but it’s the podcast and my guests on it. Talking to Wallace Shawn. When I was a teenager—in between Cheap Trick concerts—I saw My Dinner With Andre. That movie freaked me out, in a good way. It was two guys having dinner. I didn’t know anything about the movie business, and I thought maybe they filmed the whole thing like a play. It was an hour-and-a-half movie; it took an hour-and-a-half to shoot it. The waiter seemed real. They shot it in a restaurant. They were talking about art, but more than that, about life—about how art got in the way of life. It sort of conquered my mind for six months. And the fact that I got to talk to Wallace Shawn, and how articulate he was in explaining the movie, how they thought of the idea, and how more showbiz-y the movie was than I thought. How it took three or four weeks to film. It was a set; the waiters were actors. How it took them a couple years to write the script, where it seemed improvised. That was a wild moment.

Also on the podcast, Brad Roberts of Crash Test Dummies. I always knew I liked the song, but when he did it just him and the guitar—“Superman’s Song”—it was really, like, oh, my God, that’s a special song.

AVC: That’s all pretty recent.

KM: Because I’m shallow, any other answer would be the typical, “Getting to work with Jerry Seinfeld,” and things like that—which was kind of exciting. But the idea of it is way more exciting than the reality.

AVC: We’ve talked about your experience on Seinfeld before, and how he wasn’t exactly welcoming to you.

KM: Oh, yeah! Please stop me if I repeat my stories to you. I’m like my father: I have 17 stories, and I say them over and over. I wasn’t going to say that one; so far I’ve been lucky. But yeah, the thing is, “Oh, my God, you’re doing Friends!” But when you get there, they’re all nice people, but it’s just a job. If you’re an actor, that’s what you’re doing, and if nerves don’t overtake you, it’s just a job.

AVC: Do you feel like you’re hitting a new late-career stride as an interviewer?

KM: Yeah, though I make myself feel better about it when I think about how that’s just a small part of what it is. Because I wanted to do a show that has a little slice of everything: a sketch, a monologue, a funny song, guest stars. And because it’s a podcast, I thought to myself, I guess “everything” would include doing interviews. I’ve never done them. I’m not good at them. But I think the trick is to pick good guests and not get in their way. I’ve only done two now, but hopefully that’s what I’m learning.

AVC: Can I give you a tip about interviewing?

KM: Yes.

AVC: Don’t ask everybody the same 11 questions.

KM: [Laughs.] All right. But what if I take your idea and I go crazy with it? “37 Questions,” I’ll call it.

9. What embarrassing phase did you go through?

KM: Oh, man, so many. I’m going through one now. The phone call phase—that’s pretty bad. I went through all the regular phases. Let’s see, teenage to adult, was that hard? Well, I had my own problems—like an alcoholic dad, like a lot of people do. I was sort of more concentrating on that. What about the phase from lonely guy to guy who dates women? That took a long time. Does that count as a phase? I was 23 when I had my first girlfriend. “Being an adult” is a bad phase for me. I do everything slower. I didn’t swear until I was 24. I didn’t drink until I was 27. My first date was when I was 23. I moved out of the house when I was 22. Because I didn’t have that much money, I was living with a couple comics who were in Kids In The Hall at the time. I was a movie usher, so all I ate was popcorn. So I lost weight—not a lotbut eventually some women began being interested in me. “Liked me back,” as you say in high school. And that’s sort of when I started dating. It was a series of popcorn girls at first.

AVC: “Popcorn girls,” as in girls who sold popcorn?

KM: No, in Toronto, “popcorn” is a slang for a kind of girl that… [Laughs.] Yeah, I meant like a candy girl. Are they still called candy girls? That’s what they used to be called.

AVC: It reminds me of movies in the ’30s with “cigarette girls.”

KM: Yeah, if it was the ’30s, it would have been those kind of girls. Sorry, women. Every phase that I’ve been in my life, I’ve done it slowly and painfully. I didn’t have my first drink until I was 27. It became a Kids In The Hall sketch. Those of you Kids In The Hall nerds who are reading this one will know it. Before we had a TV show, we did a few dates in Alberta where Mark [McKinney] and Bruce [McCulloch] were from, and we played Calgary where Bruce grew up, and all his family came. And I remember thinking that it was a bad show. All the other shows we did were great in that particular little mini-tour, and that show was awful. And I remember thinking Bruce was affected by his family, because I had never seen a guy—especially someone as good as Bruce—be more off. He was just off. He couldn’t get a laugh. He couldn’t buy a laugh. He couldn’t set anyone up for a laugh. He was just awful.

After the show, we were all sitting in the green room talking about how bad the show was. It was unspoken, but we all knew that Bruce was awful. He comes to us and says, “I’ve never been more disappointed in the troupe.” Really, Bruce? You had the worst night I’ve ever seen a comedian have. “I’ve never been more disappointed in the troupe.” Not that I suffer from depression, but that started to depress me. Mark took me out, and for some reason, the only thing that was open that night was a gay bar by our hotel. It was Calgary, which is a cowboy town, and there was only one man in the bar, and he had a cowboy hat. Every now and then, he said, “This is my last drink, and then I’m going to go to my room and kill myself!” Which depressed me more. Mark said, “This is it. This is the night you have your first drink.” And then he said the words that became famous—minorly famous—in our sketch: “Have a margarita. You’ll like it. It tastes just like candy.”

AVC: That’s a really dark origin story for that sketch. You know, I actually own a “Girl Drink Drunk” shirt.

KM: Did it ruin the shirt? I hope I didn’t ruin the shirt.

AVC: A little bit.

KM: [Laughs.] Sorry. You’ll forget. In two years, it’ll be a good shirt again.

10. Have you ever stolen anything?

KM: I have not, that I remember.

AVC: I figured. No offense, but if you didn’t drink until you were 27

KM: Right, I didn’t start stealing things until I was 43. I’m a late-bloomer kleptomaniac. There’s lots of reasons. As a kid, there’s always two or three friends that you’re out with that want to steal things just for the fun of it. And I never would. I wouldn’t even go in the store with them. I guess the biggest thing was because of fear. I was chubbier and slower than them, so I’d be the one that was caught. I had a fear of being caught. And also, some kind of morality thing. My dad was a moral drunk. In between the vodka bottles, he’d say, “Never cheat on your girlfriend!” Not that I had one until I was 84. “Never steal!” So that was in my head. Also, the Catholic thing. Going to hell was sort of in my subconscious—it sort of is forever. I don’t think in those terms: I’m going to hell. But those words are ingrained in me, as I think it would be for any aging Catholic.

AVC: You’re not going to go steal anything after this, right? Just to see what it’s like?

KM: If I do, you’ll be the first one I call.

11. Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met?

KM: Does them shaking hands and not really knowing who you are count?

AVC: Sure.

KM: Muhammad Ali, at the ACE Awards. Remember the ACE Awards? Before HBO was considered a real thing? We were there because Mark was nominated, and he won best actor. I guess we were nominated and we lost something, us writers. My dad, he idolized a lot of people, and Muhammad Ali was one of them. Not just for his boxing skills, but the fact that at the prime of his career, because of his belief system, he wasn’t allowed to box. It was his choice; he’d rather not box than do something he doesn’t believe in.

I felt a little bad, because [Ali] had the beginning of Parkinson’s, and he was shaking a bit. But after the show, people were lining up to meet him. It’s funny. You could be in a room full of celebrities, rock stars, comedians, actors, but a sports hero always gets the biggest response. And when it’s a special sports hero, like Muhammad Ali, who did something for his beliefs, then it’s like God is in there. There were a lot of superstars in the room, but people were only lined up for Muhammad Ali. I felt bad because he wasn’t well, so I didn’t ask him to sign anything. I just shook his hand and said he meant a lot to me. I shouldn’t have lined up. I should have let the poor guy rest.

AVC: Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met who also knew who you were?

KM: There’s a couple people… Seinfeld, though he kept calling me “Dave” all week. And this person who—she’s not the most famous person in the world, but her husband meant so much. Dave Foley and I, in 1990, we always saw repeats of Ernie Kovacs, and we loved him. They released—that was the great thing about the early ’90s—they released DVDs and CDs of everything. It was a great age to be a music and movie and comedy buff. So there was a six-set, hours and hours, like hundreds of hours of everything Ernie Kovacs did on television. And we loved him. He was way ahead of his time. He was like Monty Python in the ’50s. He was so weird that his show kept getting canceled every year. But he was so special, another network would sign him up the next year. So it’s all a series of different shows. He did traditional comedy stuff in a weird way. I remember one weird sketch, where it was setting up a Russian chess champion, and there were no jokes for the first four minutes. There were no jokes, actually, in the sketch, but not even comedy attempted in the first four minutes. It’s just the Russian chess player thinking about his move and doing it. And then the other players are there, and the commentator goes, “Oh, and here comes his opponent,” and it’s just a guy in a gorilla suit. And he dives on the table, upsetting the chess pieces all over, and he runs off. And that’s the sketch.

So Dave and I were obsessed with Ernie Kovacs. The night before the ACE Awards, because they were giving Ernie Kovacs a special thing, his wife, Edie Adams—she’s a semi-famous singer, and from across the room we heard a gasp, and Edie came running over. We had just done one year on HBO. And she came over to just Dave and I—wouldn’t you know it, because we were the only ones obsessed with Ernie Kovacs—and said, “Oh, I just want to tell you guys, Ernie would have loved your show.” And that’s the thing that I’ll probably—as I’m dying, when I get hit by that truck, my last words will be, “Ernie would have loved the show.”

Bonus 12th question from Nicole Byer, in three parts: Are you single? Do you find Nicole Byer attractive? Would you take her on a date?

KM: Does she know who she was asking the questions to?

AVC: I don’t think so.

KM: I’ll just be polite. No, I’m not single. If I were single, I would ask her on a date. Why not? Let’s go see a movie. What was the third one?

AVC: Do you find her attractive?

KM: I’m sure I do, yes. I’m sure I do. I find her questions very attractive.

AVC: What do you want to ask the next person?

KM: I have an obvious question: What’s your favorite song in Jesus Christ Superstar? If they know, it’ll be great. If they don’t know, at least they’ll know enough to go, “Well, the song ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’” That way they have a chance to be knowledgeable, and they have a chance to answer the question. I’m not screwing them!