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Arts Mike MacDonald was a brilliant comedian who embraced his demons

Dan Redican, left, and Mike MacDonald in CBC TV Drama series Mosquito Lake.

George Kraychyk/CBC

Despite an age difference of three decades, Canadian comedy legend Mike MacDonald and Ottawa filmmaker Brendan Mertens got along like a house on fire. In the many hours they spent together, before, during and after the shooting of The Mike Stand, a documentary about Mr. MacDonald’s career comeback, they only ever argued about one thing: Who was the greatest punk band, the Clash or the Ramones?

Mr. MacDonald always insisted it was the Ramones and wouldn’t hear otherwise. “We’d get into incredible fights over it,” Mr. Mertens said, laughing.

If Mr. MacDonald took his punk rock seriously, that was only to be expected. A musician himself, he had cut his teeth as a stand-up comic in the raucous, beer- and sweat-soaked atmosphere of the late-1970s punk-club scene, brashly competing for attention with snarling singers and crude guitars.

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And he got that attention. With his very first professional gig, at the Rotters Club in Ottawa in 1977, the bright-eyed, bushy-browed comedian won over a surly audience with sheer persistence – and some very funny material. His killer bit was a soon-to-be-classic routine about a kid living out his rock ‘n’ roll fantasies in his bedroom, which had Mr. MacDonald donning a pair of giant sunglasses, grabbing a tennis racquet and launching into a wild, Jimi Hendrix-style solo. It was an exuberant, dead-on spoof of teenage air-guitarists before the term “air guitar” had even been coined.

It was also ground-breaking stuff at the time, coming from a man who would go on to be at the forefront of Canada’s 1980s comedy boom, a mainstay of the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival and a figure of awe for young comics on the way up.

“When I was getting started in 1989, everyone talked about him,” recalled fellow comedian Russell Peters, who became close to him in later years. “They all said nobody ripped a room apart like Mike MacDonald.”

But Mr. MacDonald, who died March 17 at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, at the age of 62, never had an easy go of it. He saw his contemporaries get the bigger breaks down in the United States. He battled drug addiction and suicidal depression and nearly died of hepatitis before receiving an 11th-hour liver transplant. Through it all, he showed the same bloody-mindedness that won over the punk crowd, facing down his demons and speaking candidly about them in his comedy.

“He not only acknowledged his dark side,” Mr. Peters said, “he fully embraced it.”

“Everything was fodder for the act. Always,” Mr. MacDonald told podcaster and fellow comedian Marc Maron in a 2017 interview. “I learned a long time ago: I play the cards that I’ve been dealt.”

Michael Allan MacDonald was born on June 21, 1955, in Metz, France, where his father, Reginald, had met his mother, Colette, while stationed there with the Royal Canadian Air Force. The family was later posted to Reginald’s native Nova Scotia (Greenwood and Halifax), and expanded to five with the birth of Mike’s brothers, John Paul (J.P.) and David. The MacDonalds then spent five years at the NATO base in Ramstein, Germany, before a final transfer to Ottawa in 1969.

Mr. MacDonald would later make fun of his strict military upbringing, notably in his much-loved comedy special My House! My Rules! In fact, he had a good relationship with his father, whose role as a disciplinarian was exaggerated for effect. “Mom and Dad came out to all his shows in Ottawa,” said brother J.P. MacDonald, known to Ottawans as singer Johnny Vegas. “And when Mike would tell these stories about him, Dad would laugh his ass off.”

At Brookfield High School, Mr. MacDonald scraped by academically but was a hit with his fellow students, entertaining them with original comedy “concerts” and playing the title role of the teen idol in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. A budding rock drummer as well as a class clown, he found an outlet for both in 1973, when he temporarily quit school to join a federally funded youth project that created and toured a rock oratorio about Louis Riel. Mr. MacDonald played percussion for the show’s band, called Mapleridge, and became its unofficial jester, doing comic bits between the performances.

After leaving school, Mr. MacDonald worked a series of jobs, from a disco-dance instructor to a teacher’s aide at the Clifford Bowey Public School for children with developmental delays. About the same time, music producer Stuart Smith, one of his Mapleridge cohorts, opened the Rotters Club in the basement of a lobster restaurant on Bank Street. Mr. Smith was going for a multimedia venue – “a clash of unrelated art forms,” he recalled – and Mr. MacDonald obliged by adding his stand-up act to the mix.

Although he revelled in the excesses of the punk scene, he was also clearly committed to honing his comedic skills. “When a show was finished, he wouldn’t party right away,” Mr. Smith said, “he’d go into the back room and make notes of what he could have done better.”

Mr. MacDonald had to play the Rotters simply because there were no comedy clubs in Ottawa at the time – or in much of Canada, either. The stand-up scene hadn’t yet taken off, but it would in a few short years. In Toronto, Mark Breslin had already opened the first club in his future Yuk Yuk’s chain and, in 1984, would launch a second venue in Ottawa – with a now-seasoned Mr. MacDonald as the headliner.

By then, Mr. MacDonald had relocated to Toronto to be closer to the action. He became part of an exploding stand-up scene that included fellow rising stars Howie Mandel and, later, Jim Carrey. Back then, he was not a fan of Mr. Mandel, who traded on goofy innocence – his signature character was the squeaky-voiced toddler Bobby. Mr. MacDonald preferred an angrier, edgier brand of humour, inspired by his idol Richard Pryor. At the same time, he excelled at physical comedy. A favourite with audiences was a scene in which he mimed a frantic customer trying to get into a bank at closing time.

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“Very few comedians can be all things: be physically funny, be a great writer and have a connection with the audience,” said Yuk Yuk’s co-founder and Ottawa club manager Howard Wagman. “Mike had all three.”

Mr. MacDonald got early U.S. exposure appearing on A&E’s An Evening at the Improv and scored appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and The Arsenio Hall Show. By the late 1980s, he had relocated to Los Angeles, although he continued to work mostly in Canada. He appeared regularly at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival, performing at all its galas and hosting its 10th anniversary special on CBC Television in 1993. For the CBC, he also starred in one failed sitcom, Mosquito Lake (1989), and three successful stand-up specials: Mike MacDonald: On Target (1990), My House! My Rules! (1991) and Happy As I Can Be (1993).

The specials aired on Showtime in the United States and My House! was nominated for two CableACE Awards. Despite that, Mr. MacDonald had a tough time breaking into the American market. Typically, he turned the rejection into a joke, claiming that his use of sarcasm flew over American heads. Among a generation of often-misogynistic comedians, Mr. MacDonald also had a refreshingly feminist attitude, often pointedly critiquing the way that men treat women.

During his early days, Mr. MacDonald dove headfirst into the sordid drug world behind the 1980s comedy scene, where the most infamous addicts included Mr. Pryor and Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi. “There was a lot of peer-group pressure,” he recalled wryly to Mr. Maron. “‘John Belushi did what? Well, I gotta try a speedball.’” He developed a heroin habit but kicked it cold turkey – replacing it with video games.

In retrospect, Mr. MacDonald believed he’d been self-medicating to deal with a manic-depressive personality: “I would get really, really angry and then I would get really depressed and want to kill myself.” He was on the verge of suicide in 1993 when his manager recruited one of his other celebrity clients, Dr. Drew Pinsky, to help convince him to check into a psychiatric ward. There, he was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. After that, Mr. MacDonald was able to manage his illness and became involved with the Vancouver-based advocacy group Stand Up for Mental Health.

But he paid a penalty for being forthright about his condition. “Back in the nineties, if you said you had a mental disorder, people turned their back on you,” J.P. MacDonald said. “Many people told him he should keep it to himself, but he felt he had to speak up about it. His career underwent a major slump at that point.”

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Throughout his ordeals, Mr. MacDonald was supported by his wife. He’d met Bonnie Lee Bayes when she was managing Toronto’s Yuk Yuk’s, and they were married in 1987 in Las Vegas. They settled in the L.A. suburb of Glendale and remained there until 2011. That year, during a visit to Ottawa to see his ailing dad, a burnt-out Mr. MacDonald took a blood test and discovered he was suffering from the late stages of hepatitis C. A liver transplant was necessary and was performed in Toronto in 2013. Mr. MacDonald was again forthcoming about his situation, advertising for a live donor online, and saw an outpouring of support and donations to help him cope with the operation. He remained in Ottawa, where Bonnie eventually joined him.

After the transplant, Mr. MacDonald mellowed. He loved watching younger stand-ups and offering advice. “Mike was down at the club all the time, even when he wasn’t performing,” Mr. Wagman said. “He would come in and sit with me at the back, sip his ginger ale, and we would watch for anyone who was innovative. And then he’d always go over to that new comic afterwards and give them little bits of advice on how to tweak their routines and make them funnier.”

Mr. Mertens was among the younger people who gravitated to his wisdom. Determined to shoot a documentary about Mr. MacDonald’s post-op comeback, he instigated the comedian’s return visit to L.A. last summer. Mr. MacDonald met with old colleagues, including Mr. Mandel and the sandpaper-voiced Bob Einstein of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, and performed again at the Hollywood Improv.

“He did his best set ever,” Mr. Mertens said. “Afterward, he was as excited as a 15-year-old boy. He had so much life in him that if you had told me in eight months he’d be gone, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

In March, Mr. MacDonald was admitted to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. His sudden death, from heart complications, came five years to the day after his liver transplant.

Mr. MacDonald was predeceased by his father, Reginald. He leaves his wife, Bonnie; mother, Colette; brothers, J.P. and David; and extended family.

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