Beneath the spotlight, the artist slips into a red jacket covered with a bizarre array of badges. Revealing a tennis racquet encased in vinyl, he seductively pulls his finger across the word Stratocaster, painted lovingly onto the cover.
In silence, he strips off the plastic and moves stage left to flip on the power switch to an imaginary stack of Marshall amplifiers. WeeEE-AAhhh-EEEeee. He adjusts the levels, then, as Led Zeppelin blasts the house, he delivers the world's best, most memorable air-guitar performance. Ever.
Air guitar? So what, you say. Well, this wasn't any air guitar. It was comedy -- a slice from one of the signature sketches of standup Mike MacDonald that became a touchstone of teen angst for crowds across Canada, earning him standing ovations and legions of fans.
That was 20 years ago during the eighties comedy boom, when any joker with a dream headed for Hollywood. Stateside, it was Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay. Canada contributed Howie Mandel and Jim Carrey. It was thought, hoped even, that MacDonald -- Ottawa native and edgy bad boy in his 20s who could effortlessly control the stage for an hour and a half -- would follow in their footsteps.
Sadly, what audiences adored, live and in their faces, the camera quarrelled with. Something about MacDonald just didn't translate onto the screen -- small or large.
From his home in Glendale, Calif., where he's been living with his wife Bonnie, two dogs and seven cats for the past 11 years, he readily admits, "The camera doesn't love me, that's for sure. Somebody like Norm Macdonald, when you meet him in real life, it looks like he's dying, like he's going to blow away with the wind -- on camera he looks great."
Woefully miscast as the "good guy" in the CBC-TV sitcom Mosquito Lake (1989-90),Mike MacDonald took a heavy career hit. The series, a caper comedy set in Ontario's cottage country, suffered serious heat from media critics -- no surprise to MacDonald, now 45, who snaps, "I will put the Toronto newspapers against anybody in the world for eating their young. I had a joke about the Toronto papers a long time ago -- the opening of Phantom of the Opera,the review is: 'Couldn't see the face.' "
What pricks him more than the pans is that he believes Mosquito Lake is still "used as a bullet point as to everybody else saying this is why Canadians can't do sitcoms."
He insists, "Canadians can do anything they want. With Mosquito Lake,there were too many bosses. In the American sitcom arena, when comedians like Drew Carey and Tim Allen and Roseanne are in charge, it's a better show."
However, content control and not being photogenic weren't his only obstacles. MacDonald had a drug problem. On stage, he likes to refer to it as "the experiment that turned into the 10-year research project." Heroin, cocaine, LSD -- those were the drugs du jour. Like Lenny Bruce, John Belushi and Kinison, MacDonald had faith drugs could kick-start his creative juices.
Off stage, MacDonald was remote, belligerent and not one to engage in backstage banter with the boys. He saved his shtick solely for his audience and a coterie of young comic pals that included Lawrence Morgenstern, now a writer for Mike Bullard. Sixty some-odd -- some very odd -- hours of drug-induced audio sessions with this inner circle sit in MacDonald's closet. "I can't remember the last time I've tried to listen to them. It's all psycho . . . babble," he says, laughing. "Maybe some of the other guys think that it's filled with funny gems but boy, wheeeew, it's about having to mine a lot of fool's gold before you get to the real thing."
In an attempt to mine the real thing, Yuk Yuk's impresario Mark Breslin, with associate Joel Axler, got into the act via the large screen by making the movie Mr. Nice Guy. You can hear MacDonald's eyes roll over the telephone line. "Everybody was inexperienced, myself as the lead, everybody involved in the writing, the fact that I was doing a ton of drugs at the time and didn't give a shit what was getting on the screen. You had your basic equation for disaster."
Disaster relief arrived in the form of religion -- that full-fledged born-again Christian kind. And once it did, rumours started to circulate that the once-devilish MacDonald would go on stage with Bible in hand. "None of that stuff happened," he maintains. "Most people don't like change. People want you to be the same old, same old. I wasthe angry young man, but I don't want to be the angry old guy."
Again, the press failed to rally to his recovery. When MacDonald re-entered television with a series of CBC specials (later picked up by Showtime in the United States), The Globe and Mail wrote of one, My House! My Rules! (1991): "Quit trying so hard to be loved, go back to being nasty, you're a lot more funny and likable when you do."
He considered that comment "one of the last straws. A lot of people misconstrued the whole thing. They thought I was being nicer whereas I thought I was just picking my targets better. In the old days, it was the equivalent of having a machine gun and now it's like being a sniper and getting off the one shot that's true.
"The irony is that everybody I meet, including here in the States, that has seen my specials, My House! My Rules! is always the one that they bring up. Always."
Hardly a surprise. My House! My Rules! was nominated for two Gemini awards and two CableACE awards. What's "weird," he says, is that, "nine out of 10 people who comment about my shows are black. Black people just related to it."
Encouraged by that appeal, MacDonald has been busy collaborating with African- American comics on two movie scripts they hope to self-produce with the aid of investors. "Black films make more money than any other films because they're made cheap -- you make something for a million, the profit is just amazing," he says with enthusiasm. "The average black film, be it good or bad, pulls in $14-[million]"
The first script, a parody of Hoop Dreams,was written with Ty Phipps, Darryl Littleton and Wiley Roberts. The second, Champeen,completed just last week, takes on Mike Tyson. According to MacDonald, he "could not have written those two films being in Toronto. I would have written them with two Jamaicans -- these [comedy writers]are hard-core ghetto blacks. These are guys that grew up in the projects and know what they're talking about."
However, the old humiliations still hurt. "I'm always amazed that when I go anywhere and people show up," he remarks.
Today, he still does all of his live work in Canada. In fact, he has two dates in Southwestern Ontario this month. In addition to club tours, he has earned the distinction of being the only comedian invited to perform annually at Montreal's prestigious Just for Laughs festival.
In retrospect, he confesses, had he the chance, he would have tempered "the amount of misery I personally contributed to. I may not have moved to Los Angeles. I probably would have stayed in Toronto. It would have been a lot better actually."
In the meantime, he says, "I'll pray -- four, five times a day."
Mike MacDonald appears at Yuk Yuk's in London, Ont., tomorrow and Saturday, 519-850-5233 and at Yuk Yuk's Superclub Toronto on Monday, 416-967-6425.