In conversation with Mike MacDonald

Canadian comedy legend on life in the fast lane, his hepatitis C diagnosis, and the miracle he is praying for
OTTAWA, ONT.: MAY 17, 2012 -- Mike MacDonald, a comedian who is suffering from Hepatitis, sits for an interview in his Ottawa home, on May 17, 2012. (David Kawai / Maclean’s Magazine)
In conversation with Mike MacDonald
David Kawai

Mike MacDonald has been described as a “comedy legend” and inspired a generation of Canadian stand-up comedians. He holds the record for most consecutive appearances at Just For Laughs, the Montreal comedy festival. But last year the 57-year-old was diagnosed with hepatitis C, and following a serious infection, his liver and kidneys have shut down. He posted a message on Facebook seeking a live donor with type-O negative blood for a liver transplant. Friends have created an online campaign to raise money for his medical bills and there has been an outpouring of support. It overwhelmed MacDonald, who spoke to Maclean’s from his mother’s home in Ottawa.

Q: Were you surprised by this campaign?

A: It’s been totally unreal. Like I said in my thank-you note, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams and I can dream with the best of them. It’s been less than a week and the response has been amazing. Thank God for Facebook. I have a bit in my act about the top three uses of the Internet: No. 3, hate-mongering, No. 2, the downloading of free music, and the top one is porno. But something like this, this is what the Internet was intended for: to help people, to pass on information, the positive things in life.

Q: Before you had to stop working, how were you doing financially?

A: Well, I was trying to work as much as possible, but for the last two or three years, for the first time in my entire career, I was starting to feel the economic crunch of the time. Especially the corporate gigs, the gigs where sometimes in one night I could make what I could make in a whole month in the clubs. They were dwindling because major corporations weren’t doing as well as they could, so they weren’t having the big celebrations and hiring the big entertainers. And then with the complications of being bipolar and manic depressive, it seemed to go downhill. So financially, we were in and out of debt, with a heavy credit-card debt. To my wife’s credit, she pulled and scratched and crawled our way out of the debt.

Q: When did you find out you had hep C?

A. My father passed away in July after a long bout with diabetes. When I went up there to Ottawa about a month before, I’d displayed some slurred speech, and I was dropping things and tripping, which is uncharacteristic for me, because I’m very physically adept in my comedy. My wife insisted that I check in with a doctor. I checked in with the family doctor in Ottawa, they did some tests, and they said “some of these numbers are a little weird.” They checked it further, I went to a specialist, and they diagnosed it as hep C. That changed everything. Now it’s this situation where I can’t work at all and I’m stuck in Ottawa.

Q: Did the doctors say how you got it?

A: The No. 1 way is intravenous drug use. Going back 25 years, I went through my bout of trying to emulate my heroes like John Belushi and Richard Pryor, getting involved with heroin addiction and cocaine and all that stuff. I got through all that and did anti-addiction documentaries for the CBC, figuring it was the least I could do. I was so lucky I got through all that and I’m still alive. The doctors said my symptoms should have shown up sooner. My friend who went through hep C, when he found out about it, he said, “This is so weird. About nine or 10 other people have popped up from that scene alone who have hep C.” It’s like a generational time period thing, almost a mini-epidemic. I read somewhere that hep C is something that anyone from the ages of 45 to 60 should be tested for, because there’s something about that era.

Q: Do you think comedians take drugs in part to emulate other comedy idols, like Belushi, who died of an overdose, and Pryor?

A: I think that was a factor. I think another thing is that you go back to the hotel by yourself, and you have the choice between picking up somebody else, getting into that debauchery, and using the booze and the drugs to subside the loneliness. It’s all self-destructive. It took me a long time, especially after the drugs, to learn how to be by myself.

Q: Is it necessary for a Canadian performer to move to L.A., or is it possible to make a career in Canada?

A: I certainly thought, when I moved there, that it was necessary. There was all that “go to Hollywood” thing in the back of my mind. In hindsight, the only reason to go to L.A. is if you want to be on an American sitcom or in an American blockbuster movie. You can make films just about anywhere. I have bad luck stories about my experiences in L.A. There was an agent who approached me and said, “I always liked you, I thought you deserved to be farther up in your career than you are.” He said, “I just got my two top clients, John Candy and Steve Martin, five years of work, and now I would like to concentrate on you.” The next night, the guy wakes up in the middle of the night, gets a glass of water from the fridge, has a heart attack and dies. I’ve got a million bad luck stories.

Q: Why did you decide to come back?

A: It just feels right. I’m a Canadian citizen. I started here, I’ll end here. I used to exaggerate a little bit with the jokes I made about Americans, but now I don’t have to exaggerate any more. They’re really crazy down there!

Q: Has anyone come to visit you?

A: One or two close friends that I’ve known since high school. But so many people want to come and see me, so many people want to talk on the phone, so many people have offered to drive me to the health food store. When we were in B.C. or Vancouver Island, there were places where you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a health food store. But here in Ottawa, when you start looking for salt in everything, boy, you realize that the salt barons are out there laughing their asses off at the heroin and coke dealers. They run their products with impunity. They make tons more money than anybody else, their product is everywhere. At Tim Hortons the bottled water has five milligrams of salt in it.

Q: Before people started calling and donating, were you aware you had so many friends and admirers?

A: No. There have been people, especially comedians, who I’d met once or twice at Just For Laughs, and I thought there would be politeness, but I had no idea of the deep respect and concern or the outpouring of love and prayers they’d have now. It’s been a humbling experience to say the least.

Q: Have you tried over the years to encourage younger comedians?

A: Not so much, but according to the messages, apparently I have. People remind me of stuff. I would do little things, like have these seminars. I would sign up a maximum of 10 amateurs, and we’d go through their act, examine it, take it apart, and answer any questions. And by a collective think-tank kind of thing, they’d all walk out learning something. To me it was just a little thing. But according to the messages, it was such a big deal. For some of them, it started their careers. But if you’d asked me before all this happened if I had any influence, I’d have said, “I don’t know. Maybe. One or two.” It’s comforting to know that I wasn’t an asshole every second of my life, that at least I did something good. I have a tendency to remember the bad times more than the good. But it’s like one of my favourite song quotes: “Only good people wonder if they’re bad.”

Q: Is there anything you see differently about your life now?

A: Absolutely. This has been a life-changing experience. I have a responsibility, if I get the miracle ending that I’m praying for, to use that gift properly. There’s also the realization that if you touch people in a positive way, you can touch people in a negative way. Let’s say you’re in a restaurant, and the waiter comes over and says, “I’m sorry, I got your order mixed up earlier.” Instead of saying “Well, yeah, maybe next time you’ll do better,” say, “It’s okay, you came with the right order and everything’s fine now.” Maybe he’s had a bad day, and your answer could be what makes him go and be mad at somebody else, to quit his job, to take the drugs that send him into the spiral.

Q: How do you look back on your career?

A: There was a time that I wished I would have been more famous, made more money. But who knows? I could have killed myself with more money and more fame. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that I’ve been most popular in Canada. At my level of fame, people would come up to me, and say, “I loved you on Just For Laughs,” and then they’d walk away. Where I’ve been out in public with friends that are much bigger and more famous and popular than I am, like Tim Allen and Drew Carey. People come up and expect the world from them. And I’m sitting there going, “I am so glad I’m not you right now. Even though you have tons of money, and I’d love to be able to buy my wife a new house, I don’t envy this moment at all.”

Q: Will you keep doing Just For Laughs?

A: They’re arranging a special benefit for the 30th anniversary. Originally, when they asked me last month, I had to turn them down. But lately I’ve been feeling so positive with the energy, that I said that I’m really going to try to at least get down there just for the day. I’ll take the train, because I can’t fly, and try to appear at the benefit, because Montreal’s not too far from Ottawa. My wildest dreams would be to stand up on stage and just do one joke, to get a laugh, to thank the audience for being there and thank the comedians for working for free.