Saturday Night’s Children: Mark McKinney (1995-1997)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Mark McKinney had the inverse challenge of most SNL newcomers, joining the show after six memorable years as one of the immortal (and also Lorne-produced) Kids in the Hall. Transitioning from a small, tight-knit group of all-male like-minded sketch comics to a scattered and overcrowded post-Hartman cast couldn’t have been easy for McKinney and his softer brand of humor, especially at a time when Chris Farley’s chaotic physicality was in its prime — not to mention McKinney’s fellow newcomer Molly Shannon waiting to fall over her next pile of fold-up chairs as Mary Katherine Gallagher. Despite the challenge, McKinney still enjoyed a semi-consistent presence during his time as a repertory player, but for Kids in the Hall fans, it’s next to impossible to watch his performances without thinking of his days as The Chicken Lady. Especially when The Chicken Lady appeared on SNL.
A Canadian native, McKinney spent much of his childhood traveling due to his father’s job as a diplomat. He briefly studied political science at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1980 before moving to Alberta, where he pursued improv by joining the Loose Moose Theatre Company. There he met future KITH costar Bruce McCulloch, and the two formed a comedy troupe called The Audience then took their act to Toronto, where they met Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, and later Scott Thompson — and Lorne Michaels took immediate interest. Before the premiere of The Kids in the Hall in 1988, Michaels first hired McKinney and McCulloch as SNL writers for his return to the show in 1985. McKinney continued to write until 1990, but he would return midseason five years later, only as a repertory player instead.
With the exception of the frilly Lucien Callow (with David Koechner as his pal Fagan) or the raging Scottish hooligan from the two-timer sketch “Scottish Soccer Hooligan Weekly” with Mike Myers, McKinney’s recurring characters were more back-burner roles than scene-stealers. But perhaps thanks to his KITH experience and natural talent for playing the perfect blank slate, McKinney racked up a long list of impersonations while most of his cast mates were either distracted with personal frustrations about SNL (Garofalo, Elliott) or spreading their wings for bigger stardom (Myers, Farley, Sandler). They included Jim Carrey, Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Al Gore, Steve Forbes, Mel Gibson, and Ellen Degeneres. Comparing the purely Canadian humor of KITH to SNL, McKinney told AskMen:
It was such a different format. It’s apples and oranges. SNL is great; it’s a good newspaper-style format. You get the star of the day, you get to discuss events of the week and you get the top musician. That’s what it offers us. It’s a great variety show. Kids was not a variety show but it had so many upsides as well. Funny thing, when the guys from Monty Python were down in New York for SNL, they did a sketch… to crickets! These guys from Jersey must have been sitting there thinking “I don’t get it, why doesn’t he give him another parrot?”
After writing, shooting, and releasing the the KITH movie Brain Candy up until 1996 while also juggling his SNL duties, McKinney decided to leave the show after the 22nd season. The only other departure was head writer Fred Wolf, who was replaced with Adam McKay and the new wave of players like Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Ana Gasteyer, and Tracy Morgan. Following the release of Brain Candy, McKinney appeared in SNL films A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar, and The Ladies Man as well as his first starring role in Guy Maddin’s surreal opus The Saddest Music in the World with Isabella Rossellini in 2003. He’s also had small parts on Strangers with Candy, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and he returned to the fold of his Canadian brothers with KITH’s 2010 miniseries Death Comes to Town and an award-winning comedy called Slings and Arrows, which ran in Canada from 2003-2006 and on IFC in the states until 2007. He currently lives in New York City, and his younger brother Nick is also a sketch comedy veteran of the troupe The Vacant Lot, having worked on The Daily Show, Insomniac with Dave Attell, The Awful Truth, and The Al Franken Show.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.