Michael McDonald is a creature of Hollywood. Comedy fans know him as the contributing writer, director and longest-running cast member of MADtv. But he was also a fixture on Scrubs, wrote and directed films for Roger Corman, had a cameo in every Austin Powers movie, and now serves as writer, director, and producer of the Courtney Cox series Cougar Town. He works out at a gym, is well tanned, lives in Hollywood Hills, and pals around with comedian Kathy Griffin. Hard to get more Hollywood than that.
But inside McDonald is a unique comedy voice wanting to be heard, one that was in fine form for his early Friday show at The Improv in Addison. At MADtv, McDonald was deeply immersed in characters like the Depressed Persian Tow Truck Driver, Bible Dude, man-child Stuart and a host of celebrity and public figure impressions. In live performance, what you get instead are stories and an impressive display of acting chops that most comedians wish for. McDonald slipped seamlessly in and out character voices and possessed an emotional honesty that was truly powerful. He's still a cypher, very guarded personally, and so much of an actor that you don't really know who he is. You're just glad his Hollywood life and somewhat tortured Catholic upbringing has spun off so many good stories.
McDonald started out with a great quote: "Stand-up is like confessional: You're telling secrets in the dark to strangers with alcohol on their breath." After a somewhat pale tale of needing to be inebriated to fly, he launched into a funny takedown of, of all things, Dutch tourists. He recounted finding a stash of porn as a kid with a bunch of pals and being found out by Father O'Brien. Like animals in the wild, the prey scattered and the predator, O'Brien, zeroed in on the weakest of the pack—McDonald circling his head to indicate who that weak one was—who ended up hiding on the church roof. Where the tale led from there was quite funny and not very printable.
McDonald's father was exceedingly droll and his mother was a total character with a dark humorous streak and deep fear of cats. Yes, cats. This led to two stories: one of clearing his mother's path of felines as they walked to church and his mother's bravery when visiting his Hollywood apartment where he has, yep, cats. The climax to the latter story was, well, a climax. Let's just say parts of the male genitalia look far too much like a furry mouse to a cat cooped up on a balcony for a few days while ailurophobic mom was around.
Shopping at a medical marijuana store was great fun to hear about. McDonald's tale of being accosted at a bar to do his Stuart character was a clever way to trot out his most famous character so attendees could be satisfied that they go to see him do the man-child with the odd wispy voice. Short traditional stand-up bits on standards like smart phones that linked the stories were solid material, but didn't seem to stir any passion. Except for the zingers about celebrities like Tracy Morgan. You could tell he was being nice and holding back. The bits reminded one of Kathy Griffin and made you wish to be a fly on the wall when these two get together.
The two most stellar stories were complex, true, unique to a Hollywood life and unlikely to be told by anyone else. Noting that "when I think I'm too cool for school, life hands me a crap sandwich," McDonald launched into a tale of being picked up for a fancy Hollywood show by an antique limo driver with poor navigation skills and even worse eyesight. And the final story of being in a foul mood and encountering a terminally ill fan on a Hawaiian beach, well if you didn't love him after hearing that one you simply had no heart.
McDonald travels with his opening act, Jason Downs, an unkempt bear of a man who knows how to tame a comedy-club crowd. He kicked off his long set with a booming voice and plenty of sex and drug talk so the guys in the crowd liked him right away. Yet the deeper into his act he went, the deeper he became and you started to realize that this was an exceptionally smart, well-read guy in spite of proclaiming to be "a basic guy with basic cable."
Not too many comics get little sleep because they stayed up all night watching Schindler's List, going all Wiki on World War II history and Polish culture like "studying for a test I'll never take." Downs pulled out plenty of guffaws with scenes from Las Vegas—the employee cafeteria in the morning is not a pretty site—and explanations of why gays rates 5 stars in Yelp. But outtakes from a European vacation included a trip to the Vatican (!), complete with ruminations on what happened to the rock hard penises that a pope had removed from all the statues, and a tour of Amsterdam, not for the pot but for the Anne Frank house where he suggested that her heroine figurines be reconfigured to make shushing sounds.
The Improv crowd was classic date night. Many McDonald fans were on hand, but most were folks showing up at the club to see whoever was on stage. Listening to them afterward, it was clear they had a good time—they remembered all the bits involving sex or embarrassment—but I suspect few understood just what an exceptionally high quality comedy show it was they'd just seen. They just knew they laughed a lot. Not too far down the road, McDonald will be a stand-up voice to be reckoned with and definitely keep an eye on Jason Downs.
◊ Here's a video excerpt from the Showtime special Model Citizen: