Kevin McDonald, perhaps best known as one-fifth of Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall, is the poster child for physicality. On screen and stage, the laughs he gets arise largely from how he uses his body—flinging, shaking, wiggling about—as well as his voice, a high-pitched tone that has no problem getting hysterical and getting there quickly. On the phone, not much changes. That same energy comes across as he races through thoughts, latching on to a new one before he’s fully articulated the last. But it’s less the frantic, frenzied pace of a mad genius, and more the excited vibrancy of a highly keen improv mind.
And McDonald should be excited, even if he’s reached what he calls “Plan E” after Plans A, B, C and D didn’t work out. He’s starting his own podcast. If that seems like the comedian equivalent of a hipster becoming a DJ, hold tight. McDonald is bringing a touch of cult to the whole shebang. But, admittedly, it didn’t start out that way.
After hearing Marc Maron interview Todd Rundgren, McDonald toyed with the idea of doing a music-only podcast. He’s a huge fan and eclectic listener, as likely to enjoy Frank Sinatra as Rage Against the Machine. “But then I got a company interested, and they got a theatre, and they wanted to do it live. And I figured, ‘Well, if I’m going to do it big—I’m not a good interviewer—why not do a big podcast where I do everything?’” McDonald says over the phone.
The quirkily named Kevin McDonald’s Kevin McDonald Show is a clever play on the branding often associated with live television events, tours or even, heck, stadiums. The brand Kevin McDonald presents the comedian Kevin McDonald, but, more than that, the title signifies the show-within-a-show approach he uses to frame each episode. He’s especially looking to The Jack Benny Program for inspiration when it comes to formatting. “It interests me because you can do everything,” he explains about the structure. “You can actually do a sketch, but then you can do a sketch where I play myself and I’m having trouble doing the sketch.”
Doing this kind of variety show allows him to actualize a concept he’s long been trying to get off the ground. “I copied my own idea I’ve been pitching for years,” he says. He imagines his podcast as a radio variety program that includes sketches, songs and guests. “I will interview [guests] because that seems to be the popular form,” he admits. But he sees lots of room to play. “I’ll make one a comic and put him in a sketch, and I’ll make the other a musician friend and I’ll make him do a song—or her, sorry!—as we do more.” He interrupts himself with an apologetic and oh so Canadian “sore-y.” As quick as he is to admit his brief sexism, he corrects for it. Equal opportunity pronouns for equal opportunity guests, after all.
In skirting the more traditional podcast format, McDonald adds his name to the growing list of comedians willing to translate the in-person experience of watching to the at-home experience of listening. Although Kevin McDonald’s Kevin McDonald Show is still incredibly new (with episodes arriving once a month beginning this fall) he joins the improv-focused Improv4Humans, Spontaneanation and Thrilling Adventure Hour, among others.
McDonald’s first episode launched last month on Forever Dog Podcast Network, and pairs the type of sketch comedy that made Kids in the Hall such a cult phenomenon with guests that don’t often make the podcast rounds, like playwright and actor Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride) and Crash Test Dummies’ Brad Roberts. What results is quite the surprise. Shawn reveals how he hadn’t quite understood the humor of The Princess Bride and so preparing for his role as Vizzini required following in Rob Reiner’s footsteps quite literally. (It’s too good a story to recount in full here, but suffice to say it’s likely to upend how any fan watches the movie from now on.) “Wallace Shawn was great in the interview,” McDonald says. “He got big laugh after big laugh and he looked at me so surprised. He didn’t know what the audience was laughing at.” McDonald feels the moments he got out of his guests were pure dumb luck, but it’s almost as if his faltering interview skills put guests at ease and help them open up more.
Still, interviews aside, how does a famously physical comedian translate his brand into an audio-only medium? For one, he’s got an announcer narrating what takes place as they tape in Brooklyn’s Union Hall. The announcer has a personality as well; he’s an egotistical voice that continually reminds listeners about his good looks. It’s a funny bit that grows thin over the course of the hour, but McDonald knows the announcer feels too surreal at the moment and needs to develop. “The announcer is going to evolve,” he says. “Right now I’m tackling it as a joke because I feel I am a face comic and a physical comedian, but I think it’s kind of funny to have the announcer describe what I’m doing. That to me is conceptual and a joke in itself. But also at the same time he is actually describing what I’m doing, and that will get a laugh too in itself. So it gets two laughs.”
McDonald hopes to invite future guests like Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard or Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. “Whenever he does a solo concert—or even with Wilco—he’s quite funny. He’s also obviously quite dark,” McDonald says about the latter. “When I go to L.A., I’ll ask friends like Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk and of course the Kids in the Hall. I don’t know what I’m waiting for.”
Even though guests take part in a sketch that occurs before the first interview, McDonald hasn’t found a way to make it an improv-driven scene just yet, which is surprising given his background. Besides his time with Kids in the Hall, he travels around the United States and Canada teaching improv. “I would love for [improv] to happen, but right now it’s like a bunch of strangers, especially the guest star,” he says. “Obviously if it was Kids in the Hall that would absolutely happen. It’s all about being comfortable. Like Bob Odenkirk, I’m sure, would ad-lib ideas if he did a sketch with me, but he may think, ‘Oh Kevin doesn’t want me to do that.’ But me, I say, go ahead, especially if you’re a genius like Bob Odenkirk.”
And if that last mention was any indication, yes, McDonald plans on inviting the Kids in the Hall to participate. He initially thought it would just be individual interviews on different episodes, but there’s always the possibility for a full reunion. As he knows, getting all five members together on Kevin McDonald’s Kevin McDonald Show would allow for things like longer, more improvised sketches and would likely be a viral hit. But scheduling could get in the way. “Yeah, I’ll probably be stuck with the individuals. Like me and Mark,” he says, sounding hyperbolically exasperated at having to deal with his friends and collaborators one-on-one. “That’d be amazing. Mark, I’m just kidding,” he adds, by way of that tried and true Canadian humility.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.