An Epiphanical Conversation with Mark McKinney - Complications Ensue
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Monday, June 15, 2009

Mark McKinney is one of the luminaries of Canadian television. He started his career as one of the iconic KIDS IN THE HALL, and then graduated to writing and performing on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. He has written (and acted) for Aaron Sorkin on two shows, SPORTS NIGHT and STUDIO 60; he is one of the creators (and actors) of the brilliant series SLINGS AND ARROWS. He is currently showrunning the funny and touching LESS THAN KIND for CityTV/Rogers. Created by Marvin Kaye and Chris Sheasgreen, the show follows a dysfunctional family in Winnipeg that runs a less-than-successful driving school.

Thanks to the Banff Worldwide Television Festival's wonderful Juli Strader, I had the great fortune to get to sit down with Mark McKinney and pummel him with questions. He in turn pummeled me with words. You would not believe how fast this man speaks. I wound up with six pages of half sentences, and I type pretty fast when I'm not trying to spell.

And he used the word "epiphanical." Correctly. More on that in a bit.


CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: LESS THAN KIND is billed as a comic drama. Is that accurate? And would you say there's a qualitative difference between comic drama and comedy? Does it deliver different goods?

MARK MCKINNEY: Good question, man. What we have is a truly [air quotes] "situational comedy." It's not a three camera show. We have a crazy dad, narcissistic brother... everyone does their little comic bit to create a hysterically funny scene. Can it be as funny? I hope so. But the tone is qualitatively different from a sitcom.

Is there a qualitative -- I don't know, are we overthinking it here? There's a consistent lightness to the themes you introduce in a comedy. Ours is more to the WEEDS end of the spectrum, seriocomic. The themes themselves can change from comic to serious.

CS: In Canada we do sketch comedy and faux newscasts, and we do single camera comedy. Why don't we do seem to do full out multicamera sitcoms in Canada?

MM: I think it's a challenge to put together a writer's room and populate it. A sitcom is really labor intensive. You need ten to fourteen bodies. And you need some gag guys and some structure people, and somebody who can step on the floor and showrun. A sitcom is a big beast. And all those people need to be experienced already. We have some people like that, but not a full room.

I hope one day we'll be able to do that. If we can repatriate the great comedy talent that's working in LA. There are some really good writers down there. For example, Gary Campbell, he's back now. He might intuit how to do it. Rob Sheridan is a state of the art -- one of the world class funny guys. If he wants to do three camera, maybe he'll figure out a way to do it. But you need a critical mass. You can't cheap out. You can't say, "We'll get an experienced comedy guy, and the other four from DA VINCI'S INQUEST.

CS: You've worked with Aaron Sorkin on two of his shows. What have you learned working with him?

MM: Certainly that I'll never be able to replicate what he does. He told me a story from deep in his childhood, listening to the neighbors argue. Fascinated by the sound, not the words. Absorbing the rhythms--

CS: --the music --

MM: -- the music, yeah. And that's how his ear is so acutely tuned, because it's musical. That's how he has such interesting varied dialog, going from banter to witty to semi-serious to semi-sweet.

We have a lot in common, and I like his shows. When I'm writing, I'm not aping it. But I think my span is wider. I can go from the darkest KIDS IN THE HALL idea up to two friends hugging in the moonlight, with a guitar, turning on the tear taps.

He uses a writing room in a different way than I do. On STUDIO 60 we pitched story. He was hungry for story, he'd come down to the writing room and we'd pitch him the beats, something he could latch onto, something he could run with. We'd pitch plot lines, present a resolution -- then he'd go away and, I think without any editing at all, write the episode.

And I understand why he had to do that, because for him it's about the music.

When I'm doing a show, I would never dare write the whole thing. We have writers, and they do their thing. Of course, you have to rewrite for tone all the time.

CS: (Realizing) My god, is LESS THAN KIND the first time you've actually run a show?

MM: I've sort of done of it all along. On KIDS I was participating -- there were sort of 15 of us showrunning. And SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was entrepreneurial. If you wrote the sketch, you ran it. You worked with the costume designers, you were on the floor. This is the first time I've taken the title.

CS: So that answers a question I'd planned to answer about what were your personal and creative criteria for taking over LESS THAN KIND rather than focusing on developing your own shows, or working in the States...

MM: I read it, and I got invested in the material. I met with Marvin and Chris, had a long coffee with them, liked what they saw in their show. It was the family that was interesting. It just smelled right. And they wanted to do the same kind of show -- no-joke comedy [which I unpack to mean: comedy based not on a funny line or gag, but on the situation as the whole], actor-based casting--

CS: -- is that --

MM: -- maybe that was more me. A lot of writers and directors don't understand what actors can do. When you have Maury Chaikin, you change the way you write the role. You write to the actor.

CS: You experimented with an interesting narrative technique of having a voice over describing everything that was happening on the screen. Is this a new narrative technique so the show can simulcast on radio?

[A bit of background here. LESS THAN KIND aired amidst a comedy of errors any one of which, in the States, would have got people fired, and any three of which would have provoked an LA jury to bring in a verdict of justifiable homicide. Shows aired late, cut off early, aired in the wrong aspect ratio. One episode was heavily promoted and then pre-empted. The show aired repeatedly with the "second audio programme" turned on -- a voice-over provided on an encrypted second channel so blind people can follow the action.]

MM: That's an Ira Levy phone call. We had too much stuff to worry about.

[Ira Levy is the Toronto producer of the show. I asked him about it, but he grinned and kind of brushed off the question.]

I try to look at it as -- if we had tried to survive a regime change at an American studio -- usually every show greenlit by the previous regime is killed off unless it's a runaway hit. They renewed us for a second season, not even based on ratings, but based on the strength of their own feelings for the show. So I'm grateful to them for that.

[Mark McKinney is a very nice guy.]

CS: We hear a lot about the strengths of the American system and the weaknesses of the Canadian system. What are the strengths of the Canadian system?

MM: We benefit from being under the radar. This is one of the quirkier shows, and whether it would have survived on American TV -- we get to do interesting, different kinds of work. On the other hands the cable shows in the States have caught up. But it's kind of miraculous the shows I've been involved in.

CS: Certainly SLINGS AND ARROWS is as good as anything down South.

MM: We're seeing a maturity to the infrastructure. Our industry is coming up. In Winnipeg there are probably two good crews now, which was not the case ten years ago.

[In other words, you can now have two productions working at the same time, with a full complement of experienced, skilled people on set.]

When I first came up, there was NIGHT HEAT, and you heard stories about how they had to fly in a grip from LA. That will never happen again. Our directors are as good as anybody.

[Ron Moore said the same thing during his talk, that his Vancouver crew was as good as any he's worked with in LA.]

I think we have an opportunity if we can get this government to work with us, to solidify this industry. I've been stepping back and forth between the two countries because I've never felt safe in Canada, never felt like I was guaranteed a living here. They like to take a bash at funding those effete liberals, but it's a billion dollar industry that provides jobs.

CS: So what would make us lose you to the US.

MM: You have to stay an artiste. Working on STUDIO 60 was just a stellar creative opportunity. You mean, what would make me mope like Eeyore back across the border with my busted balloon? In a way, I may be starting to get impervious. I'm very lucky that I've gotten to a threshold where I can piece together enough employment. But it would be disheartening to think that another generation might not be able to trust this country, and then we'll miss this window of opportunity where they are buying our shows.

CS: You wake up and you're the Minister of Heritage for the new national unity government. What do you do to fix Canadian TV?

MM: I don't really-- I've only recently started seriously thinking about these things, so I can't -- there has to be a permanent funding situation. I went to [Konrad von Finckenstein's CRTC breakfast], and he's talking about the YouTubes flying out of control, and my kids show me things with 66 million hits that I've never heard of. The world is changing. We have to have a business plan, to make institutional the support that government has for Canadian drama. And as I say I've just really started thinking about this. So I don't want to misspeak. Is it defending CanCon? Is it limiting exposure to American television -- if you could even do such a thing? How do you take our farflung creative assets and make them work for us, knowing that there is an opportunity to get our share of the American entertainment pie. It will take some tweaking, but also some constancy.

But let's start talking about our ratings. You see people in Ottawa talking as if we're making movies about some obscure event in the war of 1812. People have to understand that Canadian shows are successful, it's a real business, that's it's a really valuable asset. And no one talks about that. Obviously I exclude French Canada; their language barrier serves them well, and everybody knows they have a vibrant industry. But we have one, too. And if we can count on that, then we can silently and stealthily steal back our fair share of the North American TV landscape.

CS: What do you think are the most interesting shows on television for you, as a writer, to watch? Do you watch shows you enjoy, shows you want to learn from, or do you have some other criterion?

MM: Well it all changed with SOPRANOS. That was an epiphanical moment for me.--

CS: (Vaguely chiding) "Epiphanical"?

MM: Yes. (Going with it.) It gave me a case of epiphanicosis. It put me in an epiphanicoma.

It's taken me a while but I've started to be able to watch SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE again, which I couldn't for a long time after I was on the show. And it's amazing. Lorne has got better about maximizing the comic density of the cast. I think this is the best cast ever. I watch it like a fan now. I can watch KIDS IN THE HALL, too.

I watch THE DAILY SHOW and COLBERT. Not really cartoon comedy -- THE SIMPSONS or FAMILY GUY. My favorite shows are complex dramadies. BEING ERICA. MAD MEN.

I'm not really into serialized shows, cop dramas, hospital shows.

I don't really analyze shows, but I can't help watching shows in a slightly different way. It's great, being a showrunner, watching MAD MEN unspool. You see how certain characters flower, and others he lets drop. You can see the grand design.

CS: Thank you so much!

According to the website, LESS THAN KIND airs Mondays at 9 PM on City TV. Or possibly at 9:30 PM. The site says both:

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2 Comments:

This was great, thanks a lot.
I'm a proud fan of STUDIO 60 so this was a little peak of heaven for me...

By Blogger kadgi, at 8:48 AM  

This was a really interesting post to happen upon for two reasons.

First, I was a big fan of Studio 60 and I just thought it was great when I noticed in the credits that Mark McKinney was working as a writer on the show at the same time that he was playing an actor on the show.

And second because there was this talk about what could be done to help Canada's TV industry. The thing about that is, I have been a fan of many Canadian produced TV shows even before I realized that they were Canadian. Like the syndicated Friday the 13th series from the late 80's, to War of the world (tv series) And later with Stargate, Xfiles (sorta) Davinci's Inquest/City Hall and Intelligence. I have seen a quality in Canadian TV that is sorely missing from American TV.

By Blogger Avery, at 8:34 PM  

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