Mark McKinney (above right) spent last Saturday night onstage at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theatre with his fellow Kids in the Hall: Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald and Scott Thompson. The Canadian comedians were the deserving subjects of a SketchFest tribute.
Though he’s best known for his Kids characters — the Chicken Lady, the “I’m crushing your head” guy — the 48-year-old McKinney has been racking up some impressive post-Kids credits.
Most notably, McKinney helped create and write one of the best series to appear on TV in a long time. “Slings & Arrows,” the story of a fictional Canadian theater festival — the New Burbage Theatre Festival, to be exact — and its attempts to woo movie stars to appear onstage, to survive in difficult economic times and to breathe some life into Shakespeare.
McKinney also starred in the show as the company’s managing director, Richard Smith-Jones, who evolved over the course of the series’ three seasons from awkward businessman to thriving artist as he discovered his calling in life: to direct of musicals.
The complete “Slings & Arrows” series comes out in a DVD box set on Feb. 5 (Acorn Media, $59.99).
On the phone from his home, McKinney says the “Slings & Arrows” experience rates “really high” in his varied show business career.
“I got to act and write. It was a steep learning curve in every way,” he says. “As a writer I was developing themes about things I’ve always wanted to be creative about. And as an actor, I was playing a straight but comic role.”
The role of Richard wasn’t created for McKinney. He and his fellow writers, Susan Coyne (who played Anna, Richard’s beleaguered secretary in the series) and Bob Martin (who co-wrote and starred in the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone) put the first season together, then McKinney had to audition for the role.
“Our director, Peter Wellington, wanted to see a bunch of people,” McKinney says. “He saw a lot of good actors. There was a lot of competition.”
It’s hard, now, to imagine anyone but McKinney in the role, as Richard takes a roundabout (and very funny) route from business to art.
Each season focused on the theater company’s major Shakespeare production. In the first season, it’s Hamlet (with guest star Rachel McAdams); in the second, it’s Macbeth and in the third, King Lear (with guest stars Sarah Polley and William Hutt in one of his final performances).
“Somewhere there’s a famous romantic trope that you keep youth in the foreground and age in the background,” McKinney explains. “That’s what we did: We completed a triangle. We went from youth to age in three seasons. From the beginning, Bob and Susan and I were ready to tell war stories. We found it was time to ask ourselves: What have we been doing?”
Though McKinney has been busy since his Kids in the Hall days — he was a story editor, then a recurring character on Aaron Sorkin’s NBC flop “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” — he says when you hit 40, you have kids and you’ve “been successful without becoming catastrophically rich,” it’s time for assessment.
“You’re going to PTA meetings, and you realize the sexiness of being the leather-pants-wearing actor has worn off,” McKinney says. “The things that interested you at 20 haven’t all deserted you as you become less nihilistic, but they have begun to be replaced by deeper things.”
McKinney says he and Coyne and Martin would like to collaborate on a new project, but “Slings & Arrows” will always be special.
“This series brought me a lot of rich rewards,” he says. “Some projects are fun and fabulous, but you’re the same person before and after. This one was a life changer.”
Comparing his “Slings and Arrows” experience with his “Studio 60” experience, McKinney says “Slings” was a “life evolution that traversed a whole bunch of personal stuff I was going through and adapted to.” The “Studio 60” experience was “wonderful. I loved pulling up to the Warner Bros. lot every day. At first I was a story editor, then, half-way through, Aaron put me in the cast.”
Fans are still grieving the loss of “Studio 60,” McKinney says. “People come up to me all the time and tell me it was their favorite thing on TV. I apologize for its cancellation, we curse and spit on the ground and grouse about networks and money — mammon. I really wish that show had been on cable. On HBO it wouldn’t have had to capture such a large consensus.”
With the writers’ strike ongoing, McKinney and his fellow Kids in the Hall have talked seriously about a tour in the spring.
“We figure if we wait too much longer, we’ll all get too gouty,” he says. “We got together recently in Montreal and wrote some original material, which scared the pants off me. If we go out on the road, half of the material we do will be new.”
McKinney says the Kids have always loved playing San Francisco: “There are about five cities we do really well in, and that’s one. That first tour, we felt like the fat Beatles.”
Twenty years on, the Kids are all getting along. “When we were younger, we had arms to throw punches around,” McKinney says. “Getting back together in Montreal, we finally had universal appreciation for each other and what we’ve done together. It was fun and really special.”
And now for a treat: My favorite McKinney character is the Chicken Lady (her daddy was a farmer, and her mama was a hen). Here she is at a strip show: