Comedian Mike MacDonald remembered for gut-busting mental health advocacy
Red Deer Advocate - 3/22/2018
If laughter is the best medicine, then standup veteran Mike MacDonald was a healer in the minds of many Canadian comedians.
Members of Canada's comedy scene were remembering MacDonald on Monday, not only for his ability to bring down the house with laughter, but also for the way broke down barriers by making wisecracks about his struggles with drug addiction, mental health and liver damage.
MacDonald died Saturday of heart complications at the Ottawa Heart Institute, according to his brother J.P. MacDonald. He was 62.
"There was always some kind of lesson buried in his comedy," said J.P. MacDonald, who is also known by his stage name Johnny Vegas. "It was more about the message, and sort of wrapping it in a joke."
After kicking a drug problem, Mike MacDonald started joking on stage about his struggles with bipolar disorder around the early 1990s, his brother said.
J.P. MacDonald said the decision temporarily deflated Mike's career, but the comic "groundbreaker" persisted in using jokes as a vehicle to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental illness.
David Granirer, founder of Stand Up For Mental Health, said Mike MacDonald headlined shows across the country to support the organization that teaches people with mental illness to perform comedy.
Granirer said MacDonald would spend hours after his shows helping amateur comedians hone their humorous takes on personal hardship, a technique he helped pioneer.
"Mike's legacy is that he opened the door for a lot of other people to talk about mental health through their comedy acts," he said. "Just the fact that someone with his stature was doing it certainly … inspired (our comics) to be able to tell their stories in a more direct way."
Coming up in Ottawa comedy clubs, comedian Ben Miner said MacDonald was a hometown hero and often credited as Canada's first standup star, having appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and the "Arsenio Hall Show" as well as several CBC and Showtime specials.
While MacDonald had a larger-than-life presence on the stage, Miner said his ability to be vulnerable allowed him to connect with audiences on a deeper level, and in some cases, even help save lives.
Miner, 37, pointed to a 2016 interview in which MacDonald told CBC's "Mainstreet P.E.I." that a member of the audience approached him after a show to tell him he had decided against committing suicide after laughing at the comedian's jokes on the subject.
"You're never going to get a better reaction from an audience member than somebody saying, 'Your words saved my life,'" said Miner. "Everything that he lived through, it's like he went up and made sure that other people could live through it in an easier way than he did."
Other fans told MacDonald that his public battle to get a liver transplant in 2012 after being diagnosed with hepatitis C inspired them to register as organ donors, Miner said.
Brendan Mertens' upcoming film called "The Mike Stand" documents MacDonald's struggle to regain his footing onstage after his transplant surgery.
Mertens said he is figuring out his next steps to complete the documentary without MacDonald's input, but said one of the benefits of working with a "legend" is that his impact will live on through the generations of standups who have inherited his unbridled style of comedy.
"He opened the door and paved the way for other comedians to do this," said Mertens. "He's not really going to be gone, because we're always going to be talking about him."