Looking back at the Kids in the Hall

In anticipation of the cult comedy troupe's new Amazon sketch series, author John Semley—who developed a 2013 cover story into his first book—talks everything KITH

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      By Glenn Sumi and John Semley

      When the legendary Canadian sketch troupe Kids in the Hall announced recently that they had begun shooting their new Amazon TV show, I immediately thought back to one of NOW Magazine's most memorable cover stories: John Semley’s 2013 oral history of the troupe.

      The 5,000-word story was tied to a series of shows at the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, but it wasn’t merely a “here’s an interview with these guys about their new show” piece, which was essentially what my own January 2000 cover on them amounted to. (My NOW comedy beat predecessor, Darryl Jung, was famously not a fan of their work.) By asking the five members, and others in the local comedy scene, about their early days, Semley, NOW’s former online editor, created something timeless. The cover eventually formed the basis of his first book, This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall.

      “Back then the oral history was very en vogue,” says Semley, who’s now based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “In journalism there’s this misconception that oral histories are easier to do than regular articles, but I don’t think that’s true. You have to do so much reporting, which is way harder than writing, and then build the story just through quotes and stuff.”

      The troupe members were excited about the oral history angle, Semley says. He talked to them all separately, and then a bit later, during David Hawe’s brilliant “dysfunctional family” photo shoot (which would remain the Kids’ publicity shots for years), he talked to them together.

      David Hawe’s brilliant dysfunctional family portraits – complete with matching turtlenecks – became the Kids’ publicity photos for years.
      Original photo by David Hawe

      David Hawe’s brilliant dysfunctional family portraits—complete with matching turtlenecks—became the Kids’ publicity photos for years.

      “For some of them, we had fun outings, and others were phone calls,” Semley says. “I remember talking to Kevin McDonald while he was stuck in traffic in L.A. But then I went to the Ripley’s Aquarium, which had just been built, with Scott Thompson for a whole afternoon. And Mark McKinney and I went to Spin, the ping-pong bar owned by Susan Sarandon, and we talked about stuff while playing table tennis, which I’m terrible at. He kicked my arse while I was trying to ask him stories.”

      Others, like original Kid Luciano Casimiri and Rivoli co-owners Dave Stearn and Andre Rosenbaum, were happy to chime in.

      “People loved the show and they love the Kids in the Hall so much that it was easy to get them to enthuse about them,” Semley says. “It’s always easier to get people to talk long and enthusiastically about things that they like than about themselves.”

      Organizing the hours of interviews and finding some sort of structure proved challenging.

      “One aspect about oral histories is you have conflicting accounts of different things,” Semley says. “People remember things differently, and here you’re talking about five very intense and sometimes very abrasive personalities. So sometimes things come out that might not be the most complimentary to someone. But then as the author I could be, ‘Well this guy just said that, I’m merely transcribing it, right?’ I have no opinion one way or the other.”

      As he did the interviews, the story and subjects revealed themselves.

      “It was almost like making a movie,” he says. “Sometimes the plot lines don’t emerge until you have all the stuff in front of you, and you realize, ‘Oh, these guys all have five different stories about why nobody liked their movie Brain Candy’. And you think, ‘Okay, that would be an interesting section because they all kind of have a sour taste in their mouth about it, but in different ways.’ So the editing of it became the writing.”

      Semley admits he’s always been a fan of the sketch troupe, even though he says fandom has lately become such a toxic concept.

      “I fundamentally like them and basically like everything they’ve ever done,” he says. “Their work means a lot to me personally. At the same time, I had to ask hard questions. I couldn’t shy away from one of them saying something bad about the other, because I think that’s part of the Kids in the Hall. There’s a certain level of bitterness or almost hostility between them at times. But it’s interesting to see how they can put that aside and do stuff that is still really funny.”

      In the eight years since the story first came out, a lot has changed—in both the world and the comedy scene—in terms of diversity and representation. Now more than ever the Kids’ cis male whiteness stands out.

      “You watch it now and there are some sketches with blackface and brown face and things that wouldn’t necessarily track that well,” Semley says. “But I think a lot of that is similar to them playing female characters. When I talked to them about that for the piece, they explained there were so few women in the comedy scene that when they joined the troupe they would immediately get snatched up for a bigger gig up or get an offer to join Second City.

      “There’s no way around it—the Kids are five white guys,” he continues. “But there’s a queerness to them, certainly with Scott Thompson, that I think is essential to understanding them. I think they speak to their experience in a way that is critical and with a sharp eye—they make fun of whiteness and straightness all the time. They remind me of John Waters. I watched Female Trouble last night, and it’s got this tongue-in-cheek contempt for everything about the straight world—both literally, the heterosexual world, and figuratively, the world of so-called normalcy. I think the KITH have that same kind of element going on. So even though it’s five white guys, there’s not this jockishness or anything about them.”

      Semley paraphrases Chuck Klosterman’s quote stating as long as there are teenage boys, there will be Led Zeppelin T-shirts and teenage boys wearing them.

      “I feel the same way about the Kids. As long as this attitude of sneering disdain and irony is in circulation, then I think that the Kids in the Hall will have an audience.”

      The Amazon series will consist of original sketches. Local director Reg Harkema is making a documentary about them at the same time. Semley says it’s inevitable that people will make cheap shots about the Kids’ ages, calling them the Middle-Aged Men in the Hall. When taping commenced, Foley even tweeted: “THE SHOW YOUR GRANDPARENTS WOULDN’T LET YOUR PARENTS WATCH IS BACK!”

      “If the name of the troupe wasn’t the Kids in the Hall, critics would have a lot less ammunition,” he says. “They’re still funny when they’re together. It’s like when a band breaks up and members go and do their side projects. You can like this thing or that thing. But they’re never better than when they’re all in sync together. So I’m optimistic about the series. It’s easy to sneer at reunions. But at least it’s a reunion where they’re making new stuff and not just like sitting on a soundstage reminiscing with James Corden.”

      Original photo by David Hawe

      Hall Pass: An Oral History of the Kids in the Hall

      By John Semley

      The Kids In The Hall informs my entire world view. A late-20-something Canadian white male, I was weaned on those after-school reruns. There’s always a sketch, a bit, a joke that relates to any issue. Rob Ford denying the laundry list of bad behaviour charges is just Bruce McCulloch as an aloof greaseball pathologically denying to his girlfriend that he’s married, and acting like the allegations will just wick off him if he keeps his cool.

      When I was growing up at the southern tip of the Niagara Peninsula, the Kids’ TV show expanded my conception of Toronto, which at the time basically amounted to a big highway leading to the SkyDome.

      Watching them—not as Chicken Ladies, Head Crushers or Kings of Empty Promises, but as themselves—flitting around the city in their show’s credits and black-and-white interludes between sketches—made Toronto feel like a place where people hung out and goofed around. The Kids in the Hall made Toronto seem cool.

      So it’s fitting that Kids return to Toronto with Rusty And Ready, a run of five shows presented by the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, conceived as a sort of testing ground for a potential 2014 live tour. Though three of them (Dave Foley, McCulloch, and Kevin McDonald) have settled in L.A., the troupe’s as fundamental to Hogtown’s cultural DNA as Broken Social Scene or the Blue Jays.

      It’s not just McCulloch and Mark McKinney’s sluggish OPP officers or the show’s minting of the phrase “took me to a Leafs game” as a euphemism for gay sex. It’s the attitude.

      By pointedly satirizing the staid norms of Canadian politeness, skewering broad cultural and sexual stereotypes and, most of all, moving into outright silliness and the surreal, the Kids captured the shifty anxiety and patent absurdity of living in a place that struggles to define itself, a place that sometimes feels like no place at all.

      This is the story of the Kids in the Hall in their own words: about their beginnings as guys brought together by a shared sense of outsider humour, the success of their CBC/HBO sketch show, the stress, in-fighting, and animosity that drove them apart and that special chemistry that keeps drawing them back together.

      The Toronto (and Calgary) Kids

      The five-headed mutant of funniness that is the Kids in the Hall began as two troupes: McCulloch, McKinney, Norm Hiscock, and Gary Campbell formed the Audience after meeting at TheatreSports competitive improv nights in Calgary; and the Kids in the Hall (McDonald, Foley, and Luciano Casimiri). There’s also a dark horse: a stage actor named Scott Thompson.

      “I started doing stand-up at Yuk Yuk’s as a teenager. Then I took Second City classes. At my first class I met Kevin McDonald. We were paired up by our teacher to do the mirror exercise, which is lame. But he made me laugh all the way through class, then asked me to join his troupe with Luc Casimiri.” —Dave Foley

      “Kids in the Hall was my name. We were called the Mixed Nutz, with a zed. A producer at Global told us about how Sid Caesar used to have gag writers who were waiting to feed lines to him, and they were called ‘kids in the hall’. But there was this double meaning—in school, the bad kids get sent to the hall.” —Luciano Casimiri, founding Kid

      “That’s cited as the foundation of the Kids in the Hall because we’re the ones who called ourselves the Kids in the Hall. Logistically, Mark and Bruce met a year earlier in Calgary, but we never talk about that because it’s boring.”—Kevin McDonald

      “Bruce and I kind of hit it off. But we kind of didn’t. We would get in arguments. I remember Bruce screaming at me onstage when. I was rehearsing a sketch he thought was going too long. It was all ego stuff.”—Mark McKinney

      “For me, Toronto was the place where the Damned and the Viletones played. That was part of it, too. My best friends moved out to Toronto before me for musical reasons. It was natural for me. I saw opportunity. Mark wanted to check out Vancouver, then check out Toronto, and I was like, ‘No. We’re moving to Toronto.' ”—Bruce McCulloch

      “Everyone thought there’d be competition between their group and our group. But we were all booked for a late-night show up on Eglinton: Kids in the Hall, which was Kevin and Luc Casimiri and myself, and Bruce and Mark’s group, the Audience. We thought we should all be doing shows together. We merged that week.”—Foley

      “Thank god we took their name. I fought it because I thought of the Audience’s name, and thought it was so clever. ‘Ladies and gentlemen…the Audience! Get it?!'” —McKinney

      “The Audience is a terrible name.”—Foley

      “We only became a truly integrated entity when the ferocious Scott Thompson arrived.”—McCulloch

      “I was going to be a theatre actor, a real actor. Then I met them. I went to a midnight show at the Poor Alex with my friend Darlene and was just blown away. I remember being in the audience, and they had donuts taped under the seats for a sketch later and I found the donuts and started whipping them onstage. I just needed them to know I existed. I wanted to send them a message that I was soon to be in that troupe.”—Scott Thompson

      “Scott embraced the idea of entertaining the audience more than we did. The audience was almost incidental to us; it was more about the ideas. He was an actor, which is why Kevin and I fought against him being in the group.”—Foley

      “I thought about character. Sketch is usually so caught up with caricature. So that’s something I brought. That and a bag of wigs.”—Thompson

      Nobody likes us

      In a mid-'80s Toronto comedy scene dominated by tourist traps like Yuk Yuk’s and Second City, the Kids in the Hall wanted to do something different. They weren’t sure what, but they knew there had to be another way. It was that outsider mindset—frequently combative, always original—that drew its members to one another and kept them together (more or less) for the past 30 years.

      “I always say that the Kids in the Hall were the five losers that couldn’t get any work.”—McDonald

      “We all come from troubled childhoods. A lot of our dads, mine included, were alcoholics. We exploded from the suburbs, saying, ‘Fuck this shit!’ I guess that’s what people connected with. There is that outsider thing, which is still what we’re doing now. There are a lot of us out there who think family isn’t such a good thing. But that was the anger of getting over our childhoods. Now we’re quite happy guys.”—McCulloch

      “We were just born rebels. We wanted to change things. I guess we felt that Second City had gotten stale. Not SCTV. But that was the way it was; we just thought there was another way to do things. I don’t think it was conscious. We decided to write about things they weren’t writing about. I got fired [from Second City] because I’d take my clothes off a lot. They didn’t like that.”—Thompson

      “You’d go to Yuk Yuk’s and one person would be fantastic and four people would be horrible. Then there was Second City, which I didn’t viscerally relate to—all those songs and stuff. Then there was some weird fringe stuff going on at the Rivoli. Briane Nasimok was curating a show. And we sort of took it from him and made it our own, which was a prick thing to do.”—McCulloch

      “Yuk Yuk’s. atthe time was the only game in town, but it was closed Mondays. So I think they saw it as an opportunity to do something alternative.”—David Stearn, co-owner, the Rivoli

      “Alternative comedy at the time was just aggressively weird. Now I’d call it ‘cable comedy.’ It was just doing your own thing instead of jokes about the post office.”—McKinney

      “We did a sketch—oh my god, it was so stupid in retrospect—called The Gun Store: a gun store being robbed by a guy with money. So…the reverse.”—Casimiri

      “We always felt like underdogs. That’s our common bond. When we first started as a stage troupe, we’d get better when we hired directors we didn’t like; we could all meet after rehearsal and talk about how much we didn’t like them. We got stronger when it was us against them. I don’t know if that’s a positive thing that makes your life happier.”—McDonald

      A date with destiny

      A compressed narrative of the Kids in the Hall goes like this: troupe forms, takes the stage at the Rivoli, gets tapped by Lorne Michaels, gets TV show, history. “Print the legend”, sure. But it omits all the hard work and suffering the Kids went through to establish themselves in Toronto, and all the months with no audience and no press. Heck, even NOW slept on them during the '80s! Their big break came when a well-timed positive review brought them to the attention of Saturday Night Live creators and fellow Canadian Michaels.

      “The cool people in the city did not like the Kids in the Hall. We were too successful. We were males. And I wasn’t the right kind of homo.”—Thompson

      “For the first couple of years at least, we’d play to 10, 15 people every week.”—Foley

      “For a while, they did every Monday night. They’d write new material, rehearse material; there was a lot to do. They started losing their audience because it was getting kind of thin.”—Stearn

      “We were on the verge of breaking up because nothing much had happened. We were having fun but couldn’t get people to show up. Then in March of '84, we thought we’d do a best-of show. The Rivoli, god bless them, gave us three or four nights in a row. And on a weekend. Suddenly it was on.”—McKinney

      “We told them to do less improv. They were very good at improvising. But when they took the time to write down and hone their skits, they were smart, it was funny and it was more dramatic.”—Andre Rosenbaum, co-owner, the Rivoli

      “This might sound arrogant, but I honestly knew the first time I saw the Kids in the Hall that they’d be very successful. The moment we started performing, I thought, ‘You can not not notice us.”—Thompson

      “We got a good review in one of the daily papers the day the SNL talent scouts were in Toronto for one day to look at Second City performers. So they saw the review and figured they’d have to see us, too.”—McKinney

      “There were no jobs really in comedy. So Saturday Night Live coming was huge. It was in the press. It was like a huge hand coming down and picking us up.”—McCulloch

      “I think it comes down to Lorne loving comedy more than anything else. He saw the group as something that was special and didn’t want to break us up. He thought about bringing us down, and thought we’d be assets to Saturday Night Live. But what I’m told is he thought we worked too well as a unit to break us up.”—Foley

      “When someone tells our history, it’s always, ‘Oh, Lorne Michaels discovered us and we got a show!’ But they forget the nine months of pain previous to that. The bullet points make it sound like everything happened fast, but every hurdle we got over, we just got over it. Our bellies were hitting the hurdle.”—McCulloch

      Screw you, taxpayer!

      For five seasons between 1988 and '94, The Kids In The Hall aired on CBC in Canada and HBO in the States. One typically confrontational sketch actually mocked the public funding structure of Canada’s national broadcaster, smashing expensive props, and goading the audience into yelling, “Screw you, taxpayer!”

      For the CBC, a network that these days seems allergic to taking chances, their provocations were unprecedented. Has any show used the word “fag” so liberally? The Kids were adamant about doing what they wanted, even if it involved overindulging their weirder urges. And Michaels, the show’s veteran comedy producer, backed their right to be themselves.

      “If there was a milquetoast virus that could have diluted what the Kids in the Hall did, it couldn’t get past the other players.” – McKinney

      “We had an American hammer to smash the CBC with. You need an American hammer. That’s a sad statement about Canada. It’s such a colonial way to behave. We were constantly being monitored, censored, constantly being advised not to do things. We just did it anyway. The truth is, a lot of those fights were fun.” – Thompson

      “I remember Scott getting upset that he couldn’t show cum on TV. ‘But it’s the stuff of life!’ ‘Yes, Scott, but we still can’t show it on TV.' ”—McCulloch

      “Scott sort of crystallized the way we do these real, three-dimensional characters. He had a big influence on the way we played women, which is: it’s not a comment. You don’t comment on women. We didn’t have women in the troupe, but we have girlfriends and wives and sisters and moms and stuff, so we’re just going to play it straight as well. It seemed like an interesting ethic.”—McKinney

      “The drag came just out of necessity. We couldn’t get any women to stay in the group. [Prominent Canadian comics Sandra Shamas and Deborah Theaker rotated through the Kids’ ranks.—Ed] Every time a woman performed with us, she’d get hired by Second City. At the time, women in Toronto who could do comedy were at a premium. For every hundred guys, there were one or two women.”—Foley

      “I think a lot of the surreal stuff was my hand. I wanted to get weirder. I love surreal. For a while, the pendulum swung too far that way.”—McCulloch

      “The show reached a point where we got a little too self-indulgent. But by then we were done.—Thompson

      “When we took the vote on whether we should do a sixth season, I was the only one who shot my hand up like, ‘Yeah! C’mon! Hands up, guys!' ”—McKinney

      “You’re trapped with these people in this little office in this thing called The Kids In The Hall. Even the theme music starts to drive you nuts. It’s like being at Disney World with "It’s A Small World" looping over and over. It’s claustrophobic.” – McCulloch

      Huge, huge, immense problems

      Following in the footsteps of Monty Python, the Kids in the Hall parlayed the successful of their sketch show into a film—1996’s Brain Candy. The production was notoriously troubled. Foley had already been cast as the lead in NBC workplace sitcom NewsRadio, and there was a sense that he’d outgrown the troupe. Their long-simmering rivalries reached a rolling boil and, combined with a perfect storm of personal tragedies, ended up driving the Kids apart.

      Foley was stripped of a writing credit on the film, and McDonald assumed the film’s lead role. The dark days of writing and shooting Brain Candy are evident in the film itself: it’s about depression and prescription meds and makes a strong case that the very idea of happiness is the lobotomized illusion of a spoiled culture. Bleak.

      “I felt great pressure playing the lead. It took away what I do best, which is being silly around the main person. The only time you see me alive in the movie is when I play the dad killing himself.”—McDonald

      “By the time we got to making Brain Candy, we were exhausted. Our creative cracks were getting larger. We lacked appreciation of ourselves and each other. We didn’t realize how protected we were by the TV show. When you do a movie, there are more people involved: financiers, writers, and rewriters. It was a terrible time for us. We had a lot of pain. It was hard to make that movie. I feel that when I watch it now."—McCulloch

      “In the period of a month, Dave’s marriage broke up, one of Kevin’s parents died and my brother committed suicide. I was pretty much in shock. My brother died literally a week before we started shooting. All those things conspired to make it a dark time.”—Thompson

      “I quit the troupe while we were writing Brain Candy because I had a fight with Scott during a writing session. I was at odds with the guys about where the story would go. I was tired of being in a group that fought all the time. When all my ideas were getting dismissed, I’d had enough. I got up and left the meeting and said goodbye, and that was it.”—Foley

      “Dave wouldn’t play women. That was the problem. The Americans didn’t think that was smart. They thought everyone would think he was gay. You have to remember: being gay was the kiss of death. Lorne Michaels told me I would not have the career I could have if I came out. He told me that point blank.”—Thompson

      “At the time there was a certain amount of arrogance on my part, where I thought I didn’t need it any more. I stopped valuing what the Kids in the Hall were to me.”—Foley

      “When Python did their first time, they picked something very simple, the Arthurian legends, so they could riff off it. We did an original story. It was the wrong choice, I think. It’s a big—and I’m misusing this word—ontological problem. It’s deep. We should have done Little Red Riding Hood. I’m serious. We could have riffed on it. The wolf would have been a great character.”—McKinney

      “It didn’t do well, which is the blessing and the curse of everything in the Kids in the Hall. Everything we touch turns to cult.”—McCulloch

      Break up, see other people, and get right back together again

      After middling reviews and box office for Brain Candy, the Kids went their separate ways. Foley did five seasons of NewsRadio. McKinney went to SNL (bringing one of his signature characters, braceface teenager Melanie, with him.) McDonald ran the gauntlet of voice work and sitcom cameos (including a memorable turn as Denim Vest, one of Elaine’s many suitors on Seinfeld). Thompson turned in a nice performance as Brian, assistant to Jeffrey Tambor’s talk show sidekick on HBO’s seminal The Larry Sanders Show.

      But eventually the Kids in the Hall would find themselves glomming back together, like that metal-liquid bad guy in Terminator reconstituting himself, for a 2000 stage tour.

      Their show’s continuous re-airing on cable networks in the U.S. and Canada ensured a hungry audience ready to receive them. The 2000 tour was followed in 2008 by another run of North American dates, in 2010 by an eight-part CBC miniseries, Death Comes To Town, and, of course, their current Toronto shows and a tentative plan to tour the continent in 2014.

      “I was never hired, ever, as an actor. I was hired as an agenda. I was hired because I was an openly gay comedian-actor. I was not hired for my talents. Well, I was, but there was the liberal agenda at work. My whole career after Kids in the Hall for 10 years, 15 years was, ‘Hire Scott Thompson to show everyone that we’re on the right page socially.’ I got very embittered over that. I felt people were using me.”—Thompson

      “Kevin and Scott were living in L.A. at the time as well. I started calling Kevin up and inviting him over and hanging out with him. We’d go to movies together and became friends again. Then I did the same thing with Scott. We put all the fights behind us. When we’d go out together, we’d see how people were affected by seeing us together, and started thinking, ‘Wow. What we had was something really special.' ” – Foley

      “I knew we were on repeats, but I didn’t think repeats meant anything. We found out that it was the number-two-ranked show on Comedy Central, next to repeats of Saturday Night Live. A cult develops when you see the same thing over and over and you want to keep seeing the same thing over and over. That’s what happened. In four years we developed a devoted base of fans. All of a sudden we were selling out these big theatres. Our tour grossed $1.5 million, which was astounding to us.”—McDonald

      Kids In The Hall was a fairly successful show. We got nominated for Emmys and people liked us. But, wow, put us on Comedy Central every day for five years and you’ll get some fans. That was marvellous.”—McKinney

      “Foley had NewsRadio, and I had Larry Sanders, and Mark had SNL. But those things dried up and we were cast adrift. Our lack of financial success and super-stardom has kept us together. If one of us had become Will Ferrell, we’d never still be together.”—Thompson

      “I wasn’t a great partner all the time during the TV show. I’d say, ‘That wasn’t a very funny sketch, So-and-so’ or ‘If you do an ad parody you’re a hack.’ Death Comes To Town was sort of my apology for being hard to work with during the show.”—McCulloch

      “Every time we do this I wonder, ‘Do we still have it?’ Last time we did. But now we’re all in our 50s. Do we still have it? I don’t know.”—McDonald

      “When we show up, there’ll be stuff that comes out just with us being together. A lot of our greatest stuff just came from hanging out: riffing, partying, being bored. That’s what we’re looking forward to. Those muscles are still there.”—Thompson

      Thank god, it’s never over

      Though the Kids’ post-show fortunes have been varied, their status as one of the most formidable and influential sketch troupes endures to this day. It’s impossible not to see their fingerprints on everything from the defiant fuck-you attitude of HBO’s Mr. Show and the surrealist goofballery of Tim and Eric to the impressively three-dimensional characters of the Kroll Show and the complex racial drag of Key and Peele.

      Their 1988-94 TV sketch show remains exceptional: smart, irreverent, crass, ironic, formative not just for the subsequent history of sketch comedy but also for the sensibilities of the generations that grew up on it.

      But it’s still always exciting to see the Kids in the Hall reunited. It’s like those '90s alt-rock bands that get back together not just to cash in on their legacy but because each of them is at his/her best when they’re together: not so much the Pixies as Dinosaur Jr.

      The comedians may have outgrown the “Kids” name, but their comedy is still fresh. There will always be stuffy social normals to satirize in a Buddy Cole monologue, always a businessman to lampoon. There are plenty of heads left to crush, plenty of empty promises left unkept.

      “When they had their TV show that was popular, people from the States came up to make a pilgrimage to the back room of the Rivoli. These were hardcore fans!”—Rosenbaum

      “We never expected The Kids In The Hall would last. We just thought we’d do it until we could make a living in comedy.”—Foley

      “We lucked out. Luck. It’s that thing you have to be ready for.”—McKinney

      “There’s a chemistry there that’s always there.”—McDonald