Back in August 2002, I went to Humber College in Toronto for a one-week course offered by the Humber College School of Comedy. I was enrolled in the standup-comedy course.
I had just published my first book: The Joy Of The Joke and had come up with the idea that a good way to promote the book would be to go to stand-up comedy clubs on their open-mic nights, get up on stage and tell a few jokes from the book. Then, at the end of my set, tell people that I was the author of this hilarious joke-book that they could buy, (“Right now if you want,”) or on line at Amazon or even Chapters and Borders. Chapters has now morphed into Indigo and Borders has gone the way of the Dodo bird.
Truthfully, it had always been a closet fantasy of mine to try stand-up and this looked like a good way to either ease my way into it or decide that it was not for me and move on to my other closet fantasy of writing a best-selling novel.
I checked in to the Humber College campus residence around 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon and went to the orientation, wine and cheese reception. It was very cool. They also had free beer for the stand-up crowd. There was Joe Flaherty of Second City, Robin Duke of SCTV along with SNL writer Lorne Frohman, improv maestro Colin Mochrie and Larry Horowitz, the comedian who would be teaching the stand-up course. About half an hour later, in walked the legendary Canadian stand-up comedian, Mike MacDonald. I had seen him numerous times on Just For Laughs from the Montreal Comedy Festival and I had also seen two of the three one-hour stand-up specials he did for CBC. I – along with many people – thought he was hilarious.
Mike had just flown in from Los Angeles to attend the Montreal Comedy Festival – which was taking place the following week - and he wanted to get tuned up for it by spending this week at Humber with the class. There were about 10 of us in the stand-up class and we were a varied group: men and women, young and old. During the next week I had breakfast, lunch and dinner along with a few beers with my fellow students and the teachers. Mike MacDonald was with us most of those times. At night there was usually an event somewhere in downtown Toronto attending live venues pertaining to all the various courses that were taught: writing, TV and movies, improv and stand-up. Mike went with us every night.
I told Sylvia that if I was getting a BA in stand-up during the day, I was getting a Master’s degree at night. The core group of us from the stand-up group constantly peppered Mike with questions about his material: how and when did he write it, how did he remember it, did he have backup material in case what he planned on using didn’t work? Who are your favourite comedians and of course there was a lot of, “Did you ever meet?” - “What are they like?” and “Who are your favourites?”
He patiently answered all our questions and even brought out his laptop computer to show us how he wrote his material and built rabbit holes: “If they laugh at this I go this way. If they don’t, I go this way. In Canada I do this. In the US I do this.”
A big question was. “What was it like going up the first time?” That was because we had to go up on stage at Dave and Buster’s and do 6 minutes on the last night at our “graduation” ceremony.
He told us how he had started out in Ottawa back in 1978 when he was 24 after several other career attempts. He did well in Ottawa and then moved to Toronto to be near the centre of things. Then he headed south. Did well. Did the talk show circuit: Letterman, Arsenio Hall, A& E and Comedy Central. He came back home and did three specials for CBC. He told us how it was frustrating that the media wouldn’t do anything up here for him until he had made a name for himself in the US. He continued to live in the US where he did a lot more stand-up but also got into writing scripts for movies and TV proposals which is what a lot of stand-up guys do after they’ve been on the road for a long time. They want to try and get some semblance of a normal life going.
I found the most interesting part was to learn what the life of a stand-up comedian was like: “How did you get started at it and what was a career in stand-up like? What is the money like?”
The big money for Mike and a lot of other comedians is to do corporate gigs: sales conferences and the like. “Three to five thousand dollars plus expenses for an hour or two of work. First class air and a night or two in a Four Seasons. Easy money and good living.”
My classmates and I determined that you are considered to a be success as a stand-up comedian if you own a car. You are thought to be a comedy superstar if you don’t live in your car.
Mike had with him - at all times - a small carry-on type piece of luggage, and when we were sitting someplace he would open it and pull out a small handheld fan. It was very weird to be sitting there talking to a person holding a small fan in front of his face and directing the air-flow to various areas of his head and face. At first I thought it was just some idiosyncrasy that, “these weird show business people pick up along the way.”
Turns out Mike was bipolar and that case carried all his meds and tools to keep himself “in the zone” where he could function normally. We didn’t even have to ask as it all came out in the conversation. It also turns out that Mike had acquired a drug problem when he was in his twenties. He liked heroin. As far as I can tell, he was the first – and only – heroin user I’ve ever talked to.
“What was it like to be stoned on heroin?” I asked.
“Great,” he said. Then he added, “I guess.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, I don’t remember much at all about it. I mean I knew I was addicted to it and that everything was like, ‘Wow,’ when I did it but I have absolutely no memory of anything I did when I was stoned. You know those CBC specials I did that you said you liked?”
“I can’t even remember doing them. I do remember that I got high with Sam Kinison at the Montreal Comedy Festival but that was only because I shot him up before I shot myself up.”
I said, “I can imagine that it would be difficult to forget a guy like Sam.”
He smiled. “Very difficult. He told me it was his first time with heroin. I shot him up and then told him, ‘I’ve made a deal with the devil. One more soul and I’m free.’ We had a big laugh and then he went on stage and absolutely killed.”
One day in class we were working on our material for the last night of the course: “graduation night.” I had some material ready but after doing it in front of the class, both Mike and Larry told me not to use it because they could see all the punchlines coming, “a mile away.” So, I was back to ground zero. Over the next three days everybody chipped in and helped me develop a totally different six-minute bit.
It went over pretty well and over the next year I “went up” at various open mics like Yuk-Yuk’s and Mark Ridley’s and did it. I eventually decided that I liked writing it more than I liked doing it and decided that the stand-up life was not really for me. I like to be funny when I feel like being funny, not when I have to go up and be funny at 11:30 p.m. for 8 minutes on Wednesday night… for free! Besides, in the summer I have a sailboat race on Wednesday night.
In 2011 Mike came back to Canada. He had hepatitis “C”. He looked in rough shape. His pals and fans had a fundraiser for him to help him out with some living money. On March 17, 2013 he underwent a 7-hour liver transplant operation. When he came out of it, he had forgotten everything about being a comic: all his bits… gone. He had to learn it all over again. But learn he did and within a year or so he was back doing stand-up. He was interviewed on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in August 2017.
While writing this column on March 18, Sylvia came into my writing room and told me that she had just heard on CBC that Mike MacDonald had passed away after a heart attack. I looked it up on-line and Global had pegged him at 63 while CBC had him as 62. Mike would have loved that: “You mean I would have had another year to live if I hadn’t been watching CBC?”
Mike MacDonald: a very, very funny man. Sure, he had his demons but he turned and faced them. Like the rest of us, he was just trying to figure it all out. We’ll never know for sure if he really did ,but I think he was learning real fast there at the end. He just ran out of time.
At least that’s my opinion. I could be wrong. Anyway… thank you for your time Mike. You made a lot of lives a little bit better.