“What’s going on mom?” I asked, Mike at my side.
“I just discovered your brother’s collection of Cat Stevens records,” she said, clearly slightly drunk. “It’s so beautiful, I didn’t know he listened to this.”
The idea was that she was learning through this musical find that my brother’s tough outer coating – he was a hard fighting football player – had a sensitive, soft inner part to it that while she certainly knew about it, she was now seeing evidence of it that she had not suspected before.
But I was still wondering how this could possibly play out, certain that my mother’s explanation would never be enough to make up for the embarrassment I felt at having Mike’s first meeting my mom being one of alcohol and tears. Yet Mike, still not yet 20 years old, was a natural comic and reader of human situations. And he found the perfect line to diffuse the tension – and potential for worse embarrassment – when he said in a slightly low, disbelieving voice, but one designed to be heard by my mother as well:
“Jeez, if that’s how she reacts when she listens to Cat Stevens, I’d hate to see what she does when she listens to something good!”
My mother broke through her tears with a bit of laughter, and I chuckled as well, and Mike and I went off to my room leaving my mother with her Tea for the Tillerman, a sad situation having been turned into a happy memory for life.
In fact, the last time I was in touch with Mike, by Facebook in January 2016, I reminded him of the moment.
“Thanks for the story–I’m glad it made your mother laugh,” he responded. “Let me know if you’re ever in the Ottawa area–I would love to reminisce and possibly jam maybe–still play the drums…”
Had he heard my music, my voice and songs sometimes drawing comparisons to Cat Stevens (from people who have heard me sing in bars)? Probably. Mike, as far as I can tell during my last 34 years living in the country where he was born as an “army brat” – France – had not changed. Through many of his own hard times, most recently with Hepatitis C leading to a liver transplant in 2013, and treatment for bipolar disorder, Mike had continued to face life with humour as the best antidote to pain.
Yesterday, St. Patrick’s Day, in Ottawa, Mike MacDonald died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 62, that natural funny man talent he had as a teenager having led him into a career as one of Canada’s top standup comedians. *
We were not best friends, but we were mutual friends of a best friend – John Kricfalusi, who went on to fame as a the creator of the Ren & Stimpy cartoon show – and we spent enough important party nights together, and later some moments during his start in show business at the comedy clubs in Toronto, where I had had my own furtive efforts into “making it,” two or three years prior to him, for me to feel the bonds that true friendship and shared lives and experience never lets slip.
What I remember most about Mike’s show business transition from party comic to national comic was linked precisely to that moment of meeting my mother: Mike was a naturally talented, naturally funny man, but also with a sense of deep empathy. Throughout our years at Brookfield High School in Ottawa, Mike was the funny guy at the parties, entertaining us with air guitar before that term was even known, making jokes, acting strange, and generally be crushingly funny/accurate in his summations of people and situations.As John Kricfalusi put it on his Facebook page today: “It’s a very sad day. One of my best friends from high school, Mike MacDonald has died. We used to sit in our parents’ basements during Ottawa winters and he would entertain us for hours. He could do devastating impressions of every one of us and we would laugh so much that we had tears in our eyes.”
“Mike was Canada’s top standup comedian for years, and he also did intense funny cartoon voices.”
“I will miss Mike. He’s the funniest guy I ever knew.”
When he was voted head boy of Brookfield – or student president, or whatever the role was called – I was astounded. How, I wondered, could a crazy funny party guy like him be voted into a position of responsibility and respect like that, above all the other “serious” candidates? Soon enough, I would understand that it was linked to what came later, both in terms of Mike being a popular guy, as well as in another aspect of his character, something more serious. This was a side of Mike that would also be visible later in life when he would transform himself from heavy drug user to finding religious faith, and using his comedy to help other people in emotional or physical distress.
But it is Mike MacDonald’s transition from head boy to successful standup comic that I want to talk about again: After my early, brief years in show business in Toronto and Ottawa (performing mostly bit-parts, TV commercials, and trying my hand at standup comedy, music open mics and circus) I went on a personal quest of self-discovery in England, Iran and then Africa, returning periodically to Toronto.
At one point during a period in Toronto in the late 70s, I attended one of Mike’s early shows in a bar/restaurant. He was just starting to try out his standup – after careers teaching ballroom dancing, caring for handicapped people, drumming in a government supported band across Canada, and other unrelated things – and I recall attending the show with my uncle, a medical doctor. Mike was not very funny that night, there was very little laughter in the room. My uncle remarked to me afterwards: “That man has a lot of anger inside him. He will never get anywhere as long as he is as angry as that in front of his audience.”
But this Mike was not the Mike I knew – even if the Mike I knew did certainly have anger, and anger was part of what made him funny. The Mike we had seen that night was a Mike who had decided he wanted to be funny, to be a standup comic, to “make it” in show business. Trying to be funny on stage in front of an audience is about a million miles away from being funny either on a stage in front of an audience or amongst friends. I think it took Mike a couple of years of trying to be funny before, eventually, he discovered that if Mike MacDonald simply played Mike MacDonald then it would all come together. Because Mike MacDonald was a very funny man.
When Mike began on stage to become the same Mike who made that comment to my mother, and who regaled us all with his craziness at parties, that is when the comedian was born and began having success.
Why did he never have huge success in the U.S.? He moved to California, he appeared on the David Letterman show, on the Arsenio Hall show, but he never broke out into the bigger, much bigger world of popular culture that his friend Kricfalusi did with Ren & Stimpy, “settling” instead, for a career as a well-known Canadian standup comic. He appeared more than any other comic on the stage of the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, hosted Canada’s Gemini Awards show (Canada’s Emmy Awards), he hosted his own specials on TV, he appeared in some films – one of which was written by Mark Breslin, the founder of the Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Clubs of Canada, where Mike (and Jim Carrey) – got his start.
I have no answer as to why he did not enter that higher atmosphere of recognition, or reach more people. Recently, for me, sitting so far away here in Paris, but now with greater access than ever before to what is happening in the North American standup world thanks to Netflix, when I compare some of the performances I have seen of MacDonald to those of many of the comics on Netflix, he is on another level.
I knew of his liver problems, his apparent closeness to death at that time, his battles with bipolar disorder, but when I read the news of his death this morning, I was struck by how we all live with the idea that while the world may be falling apart around us, and people we do not know personally may grow old and die – or die young – somehow we and our friends will carry on into old, old age, never succumbing to the inevitable “before our time.”
Losing Mike is a blow. But reading the comments on his Facebook page and in the media covering his death, I can only feel proud to have known him, and to see how deeply he has touched so many people. If that’s how you reacted to life, Mike, I’d hate to see what goes on now in heaven!
* The news reports and some parts of the internet record give Mike’s birth year as 1954. But his own Facebook page lists it as 1955, and my memory is that he was only about two years older than me, not three or close to 4. So I’m sticking with 1955; he would have turned 63 in June.