Mike MacDonald and the Burden of Truth
There are two kinds of comedians, says Mike MacDonald, “diagnosed and undiagnosed.”
That’s in the routine the Ottawa comedian will be doing at the Edmonton Comedy Festival this weekend – part of the act he put together six months after undergoing a liver transplant because when he woke up he couldn’t remember a damned thing he did before. His entire comedy career – gone.
“After the transplant I couldn’t remember a word of my act,” he says in a recent phone interview. “Thank God the new jokes worked 80 per cent right away.” He adds that it’s just as well since he needed new material anyway. In fact, “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The joke above speaks to idea that comedy just might somehow be toxic to comedians. The suicide of Robin Williams brought the discussion into the open. It’s a mystery why so many comedians are troubled by mental health issues, whether they’re troubled already and drawn to the trade, or that it’s an occupational hazard that gets to them later. “Maybe a little of both,” says MacDonald, who talks in his act about his own struggles with bi-polar disorder. Being diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 2011 and subsequent liver failure wasn’t the greatest of his problems. He has attempted suicide in the past.
MacDonald talks about the “burden of truth” that many comedians suffer under. As the public is lied to by politicians, advertising and the media, comedians are under increased pressure to tell the truth – about the world as they see it, about themselves.
“There’s a reason there’s a saying that ignorance is bliss,” he says. “The moment you realize the truth about something is the moment to you realize, oh my God – it’s very troublesome seeing the truth all the time. At best, as comedians on stage, we’re pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. But when you realize the emperor has no clothes, you go, oh my God, we’re in such a sad state. So there’s the worry, the acknowledgement of the bad situation we’re all in, and we have to walk around with that weight. There are people who are happy and don’t want to know anything about politics or about real greed and real cruelty. For people who can see the truth, it’s a burden. I’d much rather not know stuff, but I don’t have a choice.”
On the other hand, there may be a therapeutic value to sharing one’s painful secrets – and making them funny, robbing them of power over you – in front of a crowd of strangers.
“Not only does it help the person telling the joke, I think it helps a lot of the people watching,” MacDonald says. “The feedback I’ve been getting in the last six months has been amazing. Just little things, like I’ve gotten more standing ovations in the last year than the previous 35 years. I must be doing something right. I must be hitting a nerve. So many people come up to me and tell me how grateful they are that I talk about this.”
In fact, he says the greatest compliment he received recently was from an audience member who said he filled out his donor card after seeing the act. “It’s way better than people saying, ‘you’re funny,’” he says.
MacDonald has since recalled much of his older material; going through his old files, he says he’d laugh out loud at some bit before realizing that he actually wrote it. There’s also plenty of archived material on YouTube from his appearances on CBC and Showtime. But several months after his transplant he still hadn’t written anything new – until one day he was watching Family Feud with his wife. He said to her, “The answer to a lot of these questions is ‘dead hooker,’ and I started writing down questions from Family Feud. It’s the first thing I wrote after my recovery. It’s the closing bit of my act now and it just kills.”
MacDonald got back in the game slowly by getting on as many open mic comedy shows around Ottawa as he could, sometimes for audiences as small as 10 people, honing the new material; he was back in form before too long.
“For a good six months I thought I’d never do it again,” he says. “I had these nightmares about having to take a French immersion course so I could get a job in Ottawa being one of these Legionnaire guys in the white hats and black uniforms, telling people not to park.”
MacDonald performs four shows at the Edmonton Comedy Festival, which runs Oct. 15-19 at a number of local venues. Click HERE for details and tickets.