Meet Lenny, er, David, er, Michael

Growing up, one of my favorite shows was “Laverne & Shirley,” and as an adult, nothing pleases me more than the comedies of director Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, Waiting for Guffman).

The common denominator there happens to be Michael McKean, whom I had the great pleasure of chatting with in advance of his appearance April 15 in Berkeley. Here’s the story.

Michael McKean doesn’t know exactly what he’s going to talk about at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, but he has a pretty good idea.

McKean (make sure you get all three syllables in there: muh-kee-ahn) is appearing as part of Cal Performances’ “Strictly Speaking” series, and his audience can be sure of a couple things.
First, McKean will talk about his life as an actor. He’s probably best known as Lenny Kosnowski, the taller half of the Lenny and Squiggy team that provided such consistent comic support on “Laverne & Shirley” from 1976 to 1983.

A younger generation might know him best as David St. Hubbins, lead singer and co-lead guitarist of Spinal Tap, the best fictional metal band ever. Still others may recognize him as part of the fictional folk trio the Folksmen from Christopher Guest’s mockumentary, “A Mighty Wind.”

However you know him, you know him because he’s been in hundreds of TV shows and movies for the last 30 years.

But what McKean is really keen to talk about on Sunday is what he calls “the re-branding of so-called reality.”

On the phone from the Los Angeles-area home he shares with his wife, actress Annette O’Toole, the 59-year-old McKean says the word “reality” has gone the way of “genius” as a “completely devalued word. It doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean.

“My basic premise is that fakery is more real than what is called reality now.It may be improvised fiction if properly and honestly approached, but it leaves so-called reality programming in the dust,” McKean says. “In this modern life, you have to keep your eyes open for unintentional satire. God knows Washington has give us 6 1/2 years of truly unintentional satire. I’d like to make sure people are alerted to the absurdity of human folly and how you don’t really need to watch something called reality programming.”

As something of a specialist in “improvised fiction” — This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind were both improvised films — McKean knows what he’s talking about.

“I think there’s also a sense that people watching TV feel their lives are equal to the people — the characters — they see on these allegedly real shows. And these viewers are starting to live like they’re on TV. Cell phones have a lot to do with it, and all the public conversations, the breakups, the settling hash with each other in full view. We now overhear what used to be private and secret. The line is sufficiently blurred.”

Of course McKean is aware that his audience knows him primarily as a comedian, so he promises not to get too heavy.

His wife will reportedly be joining him during his Bay Area jaunt, and if the audience is really, really good, McKean might pull out his guitar, and the two might sing “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” the Oscar-nominated song they wrote for A Mighty Wind.

McKean is a music fan from way back. His father worked for Decca, Columbia and RCA, and McKean began playing the guitar at age 14.

He still keeps up with music — during a recent theater stint in London, co-star Cillian Murphy introduced him to Amy Winehouse: “When she’d sing live, either she’d be phenomenal or it would be someone get this girl some coffee” — but his all-time favorites remain Randy Newman, Elvis Costello and Noel Coward.

“All those guys are capable of making me laugh or cry. I’m in awe of those people, of people who can really craft songs,” McKean says.

Though he keeps busy with TV and movie projects _ he’s shooting a political-themed pilot directed by Guest called “The Thick of It” — McKean has been busy in recent years with theater.

He made his Broadway debut in Rupert Holmes’ musical Accomplice, then he took over for Harvey Fierstein — in full drag — in Hairspray. Fresh out of the dress, he landed in Woody Allen’s non-comic play A Second Hand Memory, and then was back in a musical _ the Harry Connick Jr.-led Pajama Game revival.

Fusing his love of music and theater, McKean is collaborating with O’Toole on an original musical. He’s keeping the details to himself, but he says the show is proceeding nicely.

“We see a lot of musicals in the course of our lives: classics that aren’t so classic, supposedly groundbreaking stuff that doesn’t break more than wind. And we thought, `We can do that,”’ McKean says. “We’ve written about a dozen songs, and we need to write a few more. Every day we get closer to putting it all together.”

After hearing that the Bay Area has launched such successful musicals as Wicked and Legally Blonde, McKean says maybe they’ll try out their show here.

“I’ve always wanted to do theater in San Francisco,” he says. “Always wanted to.”

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