Comedian Kevin McDonald, bottom, leads a group of students in an improv game called "Story" in his sketch comedy class at Stomping Ground Comedy Theater.EXPAND
Comedian Kevin McDonald, bottom, leads a group of students in an improv game called "Story" in his sketch comedy class at Stomping Ground Comedy Theater.
Danny Gallagher

What It's Like to Learn Sketch Comedy from The Kids in the Hall's Kevin McDonald

When the Canadian sketch comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall formed back in the 1980s in a weekday slot at a Toronto rock club, comedy troupes were a rare commodity. Now thanks in part to The Kids in the Hall's massive rise as a comedic touchstone, more of them have sprung up across the continent.

Some of them sprang up out of comedy theaters and classes. Others just watched shows like Saturday Night Live, SCTV and The Kids in the Hall and thought, "Hell, we can do that." Both avenues have a glaring similarity: The sources they studied make it look easy.

It takes more than a goofy premise and friends who can memorize lines to execute a unique and funny sketch concept. Comedian Kevin McDonald of The Kids in the Hall says comedy is a personalized art, but it also depends on form and structure.

"I've learned that comedy is a mixture of structure and instinct," McDonald says. "As you write comedy more and more, there is a personal structure that each comic picks up and can fall back on. But every comedy sketch, every comedy moment is different – so there is always a time when writing a sketch – when you have to fall back on instinct and do what's right for that sketch."

McDonald started his own sketch comedy clinic that tours America and Canada and teaches The Kids in the Hall method of sketch comedy writing. That time-honored method uses improvisation to explore and flesh out ideas while sticking to a structured process to bring the sketch from the writer's brain to the page and the stage.

"For years, I've had all these theories about comedy and sketches and I've bored people at parties with them – and now I can teach people who are interested in them," McDonald says. "I realized that how The Kids in the Hall wrote sketches in the mid-'80s when we were starting out as a stage troupe wasn't as chaotic and haphazard as I remember it. There was an unspoken method about it. So in my classes what I've done is put a structure and words to what we did and teach that to the students."

McDonald hosted his two-day workshop at the Stomping Ground Comedy Theater, where students wrote an original sketch and performed it on stage with McDonald.

"Every sketch is different," McDonald says. "And I've learned that you have to know the rules. And when you really know the rules, you can break the rules. And that's when the interesting writing really happens."

McDonald takes his sketch comedy class through the process that dreamed up the Dr. Seuss Bible, one of the most famous sketches in The Kids in the Hall's comedy arsenal.EXPAND
McDonald takes his sketch comedy class through the process that dreamed up the Dr. Seuss Bible, one of the most famous sketches in The Kids in the Hall's comedy arsenal.
Danny Gallagher

His recent workshop took a theater full of eager sketch comedy students through his troupe's process that produced almost every memorable sketch and character in The Kids in the Hall's filmography, such as the lonely ex-sideshow girlfriends Chickenlady and the Bearded Lady, the evil Sir Simon Milligan and his manservant Hecubus and the Dr. Seuss Bible.

"This is my first time doing anything with sketch," says Kent Wicklander of Dallas who attended McDonald's workshop. "It's really exciting to learn from someone I've watched my whole life and get some perspective. I'm just excited to see how the sausage is made."

All sketch ideas start with a premise that McDonald challenges the class to come up with in one line, like "a guy is $10 short of being a millionaire" or "what if a guy had toasters for hands."

"Something funnier than that," McDonald says to his giggling class.

Premises can form from sudden strikes of lightning to the brain or just by fooling around on a stage and improvising a scene from scratch. McDonald tells the class that each group of students will perform an improvisation and whatever comes out of the scene "good or bad" will evolve into the sketch they'll perform before a live audience.

"Don't be afraid of bad work," McDonald says. "You can learn so much from bad work."

The improv starts with some short-form games that exercise the students with the storytelling process. Then McDonald breaks the class into small groups, and each improvises a scene based on a single word just like they would in a live comedy show. The first group produces a scene on the spot about a doctor who doesn't know basic medical terms like "terminal."

McDonald takes the five-minute scene and throws it open to the group for ideas. Someone suggests a scene about a doctor who sees only terminal patients because he's not good at being a doctor, a funny idea and a clever nod to The Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley, who often played a doctor who earned his degree by coasting through medical school and his career on his looks and likability.  Someone else suggests a funeral home that doesn't know the meaning of the word "grief."

Kevin McDonald, right, watches a group of students improvise a scene at Stomping Ground that will eventually become the basis for the sketch they will write for their show at the end of the workshop.EXPAND
Kevin McDonald, right, watches a group of students improvise a scene at Stomping Ground that will eventually become the basis for the sketch they will write for their show at the end of the workshop.
Danny Gallagher

The course continues in similar ways with various other groups until it's time to leave and rest up for the writing sessions, followed by rehearsals leading up to their final performance.

McDonald says he was impressed by the talent he saw in Dallas.

"I would say the students at Stomping Ground have a 'good writer' personality," McDonald says. "They mostly all seemed to be good writers. I could tell early on by the good notes they gave to each improv. Then when I heard their ideas, I knew I was right. A lot of them were natural writers. It was very hard for me to only pick five or six scenes because there were at least 20 ideas that were all good."

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