"The King of Canadian Comedy"
Canadian Comedy Legend Mike MacDonald Dead at 62
This is the very personal Article that I wrote about Mike after his Liver Transplant:
Born June 21, 1955 - Died March 17, 2018
From Mike to David Reuben on March 28, 2014
At first I thought it was a bit too personal but I just read it again and to me when I die this is the story you let them read again.
How did a kid from Metz, France, who only spoke French till age 7, become the King of Canadian Comedy? That is the question I posed to Mike MacDonald during an extended phone interview.
Mike was born in Metz, France and until age 15 lived in Europe including France and Germany. It was in Ramstein, Germany where a little Jewish boy turned young Mike MacDonald onto music. According to Mike, "I had been touring since birth with a father in the Canadian Military."
Two important events happened when Mr. Mike MacDonald turned 15 years old. First, his family settled in Ottawa Ontario Canada. Second, Mike started playing the drums. Mike states, "I wanted to play drums like Ringo Starr and loved the Punk Scene."
The MacDonald household was always filled with Music as both Mike's parents played piano and younger bothers JP and Dave were also musicians. During Mr. MacDonald's time at Brookfield High School, the MacDonald basement was bursting with young musicians. As Mike mother remembered, "the whole gang would come over after school and Mike would beat the life out of those drums and the floor would be shaking."
In fact Mike had a huge affect on his mothers musical taste when he introduced her to rock and particularly Jimi Hendrix. Dad and younger brother JP were more into the big Band era.
That first set of drums have a long history in the MacDonald family. Mike had a paper route that he handed down to his brother JP. The only problem for JP was that Mike knew when he got paid from the paper route. JP recalls, "I would do my collections and then Mike would borrow some money off me and by the time I was 16 years old Mike owed me about $380.00."
At about the time Mike owed JP $380.00, JP was starting his first band and needed a set of drums. JP remembers; I called off the debt and got Mike's original set of drums for $400.00." Today those original drums are in the hands of youngest brother Dave who stripped them down and restored them.
Mr. MacDonald was always funny as a child. It made life easier when you were always the new kid in school. Mike remembered, "It was easier to make the other kids laugh then having to fight everyone."
Mike's extended family had a great sense of humour. But it was his mom who always encouraged him and his dad was the authority figure that Mike rebelled against. However, the turning point in Mike's life was discovering Bugs Bunny. "Bugs Bunny taught me that life does not have to be taken seriously."
According to Mike's long time friend Manny Montenegrino, "Mike was an extremely shy grade 9 student with a stutter, but by grade 11 he came out of his shell and became [Head Boy] student president of Brookfield High School."
When Mike, Manny and Rob Filuk wrote and performed the 7 Deadly Sins in high school Manny remembered that "you could already see that Mike had a gift for writing and performing comedy". In high school, Mike was also the lead in Bye Bye Birdie including wearing the Gold Lame Suit which Mike's mother says he may still have.
After high school Mike was part of a government funded 27 piece band called Maple Ridge that toured performing a rock opera based on the life of Louis Riel. A bunch of interesting jobs followed including working with handicapped children and a ballroom dance instructor. Mr. MacDonald remembered, "being a ballroom dance instructor was weird as the school preyed on lonely wealthy widows. I kept telling them not to buy the $1,000 package of dance lessons. I was not a trained dancer, just two lessons ahead of my class." Young Mr. MacDonald may have had some help with the ballroom dancing as both his parents were exceptional ballroom dancers.
It is 1978 and Mike's friend Stuart from the Maple Ridge band was having a record release party at the unlicensed Rotters Club in Ottawa. He needed someone to do comedy between the music and asked Mike MacDonald because he was the funniest guy in the Maple Ridge band. That night Mike did two 45 min sets and about 60% to 70% of the material, some original and some borrowed, worked.
A couple of weeks later Mike walked into the recently opened Barrymore's Music Hall in Ottawa. That night a Rolling Stones Tribute Band was on stage. A brash Mr. MacDonald wanted stage time, but the Manager would not bite. Mike would not take no for any answer and bet the Manager $50.00 that he could make the audience laugh in between musical sets. According to Mike, "lucky for me the audience laughed that night because I did not have the $50.00."
Around this time Ottawa's first full-time comedy club Hiccups opened and Mike McDonald tried his hand at the Amateur Night. In his own words Mike says, "I bombed! It was totally different then doing comedy at the Rotters Club with a punk music crowd."
About 4 months later it was the Jewish High Holiday Yom Kippur and the manager of Hiccups needed a headliner. Some local comics recommended a young hot comic by the name of Mike MacDonald. However, the manager remembered that the MacDonald kid had bomb on amateur night. Mike's friends brought the Hiccups Manager to the Rotters Club where Mr. MacDonald killed. Mike became a regular at Hiccups and the headliners from Toronto would ask him to fill in for them headlining the late shows. This put more money in his jeans and a chance to do 30 minute sets.
Of course news of this young brash take no prisoner comic reached Mr. Mark Breslin, founder of the famous Yuk Yuk's chain of Comedy Clubs. But back in 1978 there was only one Yuk Yuk's in Toronto on Bay Street in Yorkville. Mark Breslin and one of the headliners Steve Brinder took a trip to Ottawa to check out Mike MacDonald.
According to Mike, "I did a set at Hiccups and then took them to the Rotters Club to me work in a non- traditional comedy venue."
According to Mark Breslin, the founder of the famous Yuk Yu's Chain of Comedy Clubs, "I never know if a comic is going to be great. I can only tell if they are going to be good. Greatness comes with a lot of hard work and a lot of luck. When I first say Mike MacDonald he already had been doing sets in Ottawa and had the building blocks of a very good act."
It took Mike about 3 years to establish himself in Toronto where the style of comedy was different than working the Rotters Club and Hiccups in Ottawa. Mike is proud of being able to open a lot of doors for other comics. Mike states; I opened a lot of clubs throughout Canada and wanted to go back to them in 6 months, and I worried if the other comics would keep the door opened for me when I wanted to go back."
Another big change in Toronto comedy came when the original Yuk Yuk's got its first liquor license, Mike remembered that " a lot of interesting acts left Yuk Yuk's because they could not handle the drunk hecklers." However, Mr. MacDonald's take no prisoners style of comedy lent itself to alcohol fuelled hecklers.
During the late 1970's and 1980's another off shoot of the booming stand-up comedy scene was the use of hard drugs. Already a pot smoker, Mike MacDonald discovered cocaine about a month into stand-up. This led to the use of heroin. To Mike's credit, he never went on stage high and kept his drug use to after working hours. Luckily, in 1988 Mike was able to get off hard drugs. Mr. MacDonald states; "I decided to get off the hard drugs and it took 3 days of praying and I did it cold turkey with none of the sickness that is associated with getting off hard drugs."
Mr. Mike MacDonald has accomplished more than anyone could dream of in stand-up comedy. He holds the record for most consecutive appearances at Montreal's Just For Laughs. In addition to his successful and well received live performances all over North America, Mike has appeared on numerous TV shows including Late Night With David Letterman, Just For Laughs, Showtime's Comedy Club All-Star Show, A&E's An Evening At The Improv and Comedy Central's The A List.
He has also starred in three well received and critically acclaimed specials for the CBC in Canada and for Showtime in the U.S. Mike MacDonald: On Target, My House! My Rules! and Happy As I Can Be. Mike hosted his own CBC special, Mike MacDonald's Politically Correct Christmas Special, and starred in The Rogers Cable, a 10-minute short that appeared at the Cannes Film Festival.
In 1995, at the age of 40 after his last CBC and Showtime special Happy As I Can Be another life changing event happened. Mike's management team call the Letterman people about having Mike on the show to promote Happy As I Can Be.
The Letterman people refused and Mike listening in on the extension realized it does not matter how talented you are or how hard you work.
This lead to his first stint in a psychiatric hospital where Mr. MacDonald was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Mike admits he was always moody, sarcastic, and would get angry easily so the diagnoses was not a complete surprise. In the years before the diagnoses it was always 50/50 if Mike MacDonald was nice to friends and fans or a jerk.
His wife Bonne says, "that Mike was always having a war within himself as the diagnoses came so late in life."
After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder Mr. MacDonald started working with "Stand Up For Mental Health" and its' founder Mr. David Granirer. In the last 18 years Mike MacDonald has been raising awareness to reduce the stigma and discrimination around mental illness.
According to Mr. David Granirer, "Mike has been very generous with us and done shows with us in Vancouver, Victoria, Ottawa, and Halifax. And after every show he insists on spending an afternoon with the comics talking about his career and how he's dealt with his bipolar. It's truly inspiring for them to hear from someone who's such a great comic and a great person."
Mr. Mike MacDonald spent a good portion of his career living in the USA, but a majority of his work was in Canada. Both Mike and Bonnie say that Los Angeles was never really home and the best thing was the weather. Mike says that he stayed in the U.S.A. to long, " I was like an old west gunslinger trying to make the one big heist and then head home."
Fast forward to 2011, Mike and Bonnie were talking about moving back to Canada when fate stepped in. In February 2011, Mike's father broke his hip and was hospitalized. The MacDonald family urged Mike to come to Ottawa to see his dad.
When Mike arrived in March 2011 both his mother and father were shocked by his appearance and they made him promise to see the family Doctor. Mike's Mom remembered that "Mike was slurring his words, and seemed really stoned all the time. It turned out that when Mike came to visit his Dad he already had ammonia poisoning."
Mr. Mike MacDonald was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in March 2011 and in April 2012 the illness progressed to the point where his liver and kidneys shut down. He was put on a waiting list for a liver transplant.
While waiting for the transplant Mike and Bonnie found out how much they were loved and respected by fellow comics and fans. A donation website was set up, comics and fans offered to donate part of their livers to Mike. Fundraisers were held at the Laugh Factory Los Angeles and the Yuk Yuk's chain of Comedy Clubs did fundraisers on Mike's birthday June 21st.
According to Mike, this was very humbling to say the least." His wife Bonnie says that "this was life changing and humbling.". His brother JP says that "Mike and the family were amazed by the feedback and it changed Mike's life finding out that people appreciated who he is and what he has accomplished."
While waiting for the liver transplant and getting sicker by the day, Mike did numerous print, radio, and television interviews and tape commercials about Hepatitis C . In March 2013 exactly 2 years after the initial diagnoses, Mike MacDonald had a liver transplant in Toronto, ON, Canada. It was a 7 hour surgery and totally successful.
However, the anti rejections drugs flared up the bipolar disorder which lead to a visit to the psychiatric ward of a Toronto hospital. Like every other obstacle in his life he fought through this with the support of his wife Bonnie. During our extend phone interview Mike says that "if I had a gun when I was in the psychiatric ward in Toronto we would not be speaking now."
Career wise Mr. MacDonald had doubts that he could ever perform again. One of the weirdest moments for Mike was back during his initial stay in the hospital he woke from a deep sleep. " I look over to the t.v.--it's on the Comedy Channel and it's me on Just for Laughs from about 5 or 6 years ago. D'OH! It's me looking at me looking at me! Not only was it a shock but it was entirely unfamiliar and no matter how much people laughed to me is was depressingly unfunny. It took a good 3 months before I could remember a single word from my act let alone like any of it. I believed I would never return to the stage."
Today, thanks to the encouragement of family, friends and the entire comedy community, Mr. Mike MacDonald is not only healthy but back on stage where he belongs. Mike says, "Thank God the new material is working."
Christmas 2013 was a joyous time for the MacDonald Family. Everyone was together and Mike was healthy and his usual funny self. On December 31, 2013 Mike was a special guest performer at the Massey Hall Comedy Extravaganza in Toronto.
The future look bright for Mr. Mike MacDonald, he has a new lease on life promoting Hepatitis C awareness and Mental Health awareness. The spark is back in his comedy and Mike recently did a 45 minute headlining set. According to Mike; "I plan to live a long productive life and die naturally. After all It Is A Wonderful Life."