Patrick McKenna drops knowledge on Writing Humour class

Red Green Show star offers comedy writing tips

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Patrick McKenna

Jon Purdy

BUT UNCLE RED, YOU CANNOT MAKE A FINE QUALITY LAGER USING KOOL-AID TECHNOLOGY! Canada's own Patrick McKenna spoke to Writing Humour students this past Monday.

“Believe it or not, there are few people who just don’t think making love to a donkey is funny,” Canadian comedic actor Patrick McKenna told Western’s Writing Humour class this past Monday.

McKenna is best known for playing the neurotic Harold Green on the television series The Red Green Show, as well as Marty Stephens on Traders, in addition to a long list of guest appearances.

The Hamilton native is renowned for his sense of humour. Chief among his achievements is his membership with Toronto’s Second City comedy group and his win for Best Actor in a comedy series for The Red Green Show as well as Best Actor in a Drama for Traders in the same year, becoming the only actor in Gemini history to do so.

“Sitcoms generally follow the four Cs: conflict, comedic technique, commitment and character. Add a few archetypal characters and there you have it,” McKenna said. “Keep the plot simple and the characters complex.”

McKenna took suggestions from the class on specific programs, breaking down popular shows and their characters piece by piece, putting a difficult subject into an easy context.

McKenna also addressed various humour writing issues and techniques and educated students on the ins and outs of the business.

“The actors can really sell it, but it’s what you do with them that makes it interesting,” McKenna said. “Writers define the boundaries of their characters, whether it’s the lovable loser like Ray Romano, or the neurotic Larry David.

“In addition to being a writer, you also have to find your sales persona,” McKenna said. “Be ready when your opportunity comes.”

The class’ instructor, Mark Kearney, chose McKenna as a guest speaker for many reasons.

“I certainly knew of Patrick’s work, and his name was suggested by someone in Toronto who was involved in a comedy film festival that was happening there this month,” Kearney said. “When we talked on the phone it was clear he was experienced and comfortable doing this kind of presentation to university students.”

Ali Pocock, a second-year student in the writing class, found the lecture instructive.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect before entering the talk, but I learned a lot and I’m glad I went,” Pocock said. “The most interesting aspect was the part with the archetypal sitcom characters; I didn’t know how they wrote for each character to keep them so funny and true to what they’d do, and that helped a lot.”

What’s more remarkable about McKenna is his sense of humility. When he wasn’t sharing critical writing tips or talking about the business side of the entertainment industry, McKenna touched on the difficulties of entering into such a competitive market.

“The suits are there to say ‘No.’ Your job with your writing is to prove them wrong; you have to trust your sense of humour,” McKenna explained. “If an idea doesn’t get picked up, they’re rejecting your product, not you. Your project could be turned down because it’s not feasible; some shows get almost a million to shoot an episode and believe me, it doesn’t go far " not to mention other little technicalities that are beyond your control.”

Does this mean thick skin is a necessity?

“Yes, it’s definitely a part of it, but you shouldn’t look at it that way.” McKenna confessed. “You remove yourself from what you’re selling.”

When McKenna showed the class a clip from The Red Green Show, Pocock had no idea how many jokes were said. “There was a build up to every joke and when you break it down, their jokes were actually really witty and well strung together " so well that I didn’t even recognize them as being separate jokes and just thought of them as being a really long joke,” Pocock continued. “And I didn’t know that most Canadian shows were filmed with only one camera; it was also pretty interesting to hear how the business works if you want to be a writer.”

When asked about the Canadian scene’s direction, McKenna expressed optimism.

“CBC recently shot four pilots and they have a lot more banked so it’s looking good, but tastes change from day to day,” McKenna said.

Students looking to explore humour writing will be interested to know guest speakers will soon be a regular part of the curriculum.

“This is only the second time the humour writing course has been held, but the good news is that it’s going to be part of the regular curriculum in the writing, rhetoric and professional communication program starting in the fall,” Kearney added. “That means the course will run in both fall and winter and I’m looking forward to that.”

Kearney is especially grateful to the Faculty of Arts Student Council for funding the class’s guest speaker.

“Last year, we were able to bring in a writer from the show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and I wanted to up the ante a bit this year. Getting Patrick was a coup and I suspect he will be someone I’ll approach again next year. I’ve also tentatively lined up Tim Long, a Canadian writer for The Simpsons, who’s interested in talking to the class next fall.”

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