A growing underground comedy scene has been blossoming in Steel Town with names like Jason Rouse, JR Digs, Manolis Zontanos, Patrick Coppolino and more getting national and international attention spotlighting Hamilton’s dark, twisted, goofy and funny character. This weekend, Zak McDonald, one of the newer additions to Hamilton comedy, is set to take some of the darkness of his life and shine a new light on it as he headlines a comedy/variety/fundraiser event for a national motivational tour.
“When I was in high school, I actually wanted to be a rapper — I was super obsessed with Eminem,” confides 23–year–old comedian Zak McDonald. “We sort of had similar upbringings but then I found out it was super hard to become a rapper. I was a class clown and joking around in school and I became obsessed with comedy, especially people like Bill Hicks, George Carlin and Richard Pryor — these guys that were talking about really important things and using comedy as an avenue to do that. I realized I was funny and I could do it so right out of high school I signed up for an open mike at Yuk Yuks Comedy Club and I started doing comedy. I knew I would suck at the beginning but I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
“I think some of my comedy does go philosophical or intellectual,” adds McDonald. “Carlin was an observationalist that talked about the things going on around him outside of his life; I talk about the things going on in my own life. I see the funny things that happen in my life and I tell the funny parts on stage. I try to make my comedy conversational, engaging and in the moment — and I want to have fun and express the positivity I have in side of me. I want to be like an optimistic Bill Hicks.”
With a harsh upbringing in poverty where as a kid sleeping in the car on the street in the east end of Hamilton was a regular occurrence, McDonald pulls no punches on the dark realities of his own life but has already learned to look at it from a different perspective. During one of his performances, he tells the audience, ‘People ask me why I am so happy? and I just say, ‘well, for one, I’m not sleeping in a car anymore’. And it’s as simple as that to sum up McDonald’s positivity.
“I grew up really poor,” says McDonald. “I grew up in a single parent household and the parent I lived with went through drug and alcohol addiction. We lived in a car in the welfare projects and I had to make my own meals every day. It was definitely a bit of a bummer. Eventually when I was 12, my father and step–mother sold their house to get custody of me and my sister but by my teens, I started dealing with the demons of my childhood and that stuff started really affecting me. I became really angry and was diagnosed as clinically depressed at 17 years old. I started drinking and smoking cigarettes and that anger showed up in my comedy in the early days. I was the angry guy.
“For so long, I let my crappy childhood define who I was but eventually I got tired of it,” adds McDonald. “A couple of friends – Melissa Marchese and Mike Chetcuti from the band Weekend Riot Club – introduced me to a lot of eastern spirituality that I related to. I really took to it, started doing yoga daily, went vegan and I was sober in a month. Then I started doing a lot of work on the inside of myself and I really started to dig deep and figure out why I was so angry. Last December, I called my mom for the first time in seven years. I told her I forgave her and that I loved her and everything has been different for me since then.”
McDonald’s smile beams when you meet him. He radiates an unquestionable happiness that is infectious — a factor McDonald admits has contributed to his dramatic growth.
“I have two sides to me now — I have this new age, yoga, meditation positive side to me but I also have the I–lived–in–a–car–in–the–east–end–of–Hamilton guy in me,” reasons McDonald. “When I’m on stage I am super optimistic but I am also really honest and even dark at times. I’m still influenced by Hicks and Carlin and Hamilton people like Jason Rouse and Manolis Zontanos. I’m dealing with these huge issues that made me upset but I’m looking at it differently now. Earlier in my career, I looked at it from a place of anger but now I’m talking of situations we can all relate to and I’m doing it from a place inside of me that’s really good and healed.
“I’ve done a lot in the last four years,” adds the comedian. “I starred in a comedy film with another comedian Anthony Mlekuz, called ‘The Store’ directed by Craig F. Watkins and through that I was nominated as best actor at the Hamilton Film Festival. We went on tour with The Store on the whole east coast of Canada. That experience inspired me to approach what I did with my career differently. A lot of comedy follows the beaten trail and you try to get torches that are being passed down to you but I decided to go a different route, cultivate my own fanbase and make myself a headliner regardless if anyone else wants me to do it or not.”
Booking his own shows at novel venues has garnered enough attention that has precipitated more opportunities for the young comedian. McDonald’s positive comedy seemed a perfect fit for motivational speaking.
“Live Different is a non–profit organization that does motivational presentations at high schools across the country,” explains McDonald. “[Former Canadian Idol winner] Brian Melo has been on tour with them. They have musicians and people involved with arts talk to kids and so I’m going to be talking about my story through standup comedy to high school and junior high school kids all around the country for eight months. It will be motivational in the way that they want, but my stuff will be fun, legitimate, and not taking ourselves too seriously. We’re not pounding kids with negativity but showing them real positivity. That’s why I love Live Different. They’re not saying, ‘you’re bad people, stop being bad’. They’re saying, ‘you’re amazing people, continue to follow your dreams like all of the people involved’. My story is not a look–at–how–bad–my–life–was story; it’s an I–did–not–let–my–circumstances–define–me story. I still went out to make something better of myself and I worked really hard to do this.”
As a send off and fundraiser to offset the costs of his Live Different tour, McDonald has organized another comedy variety show in a very novel setting that is a bit of a homecoming.
“This is totally a coming home for Zak McDonald,” smiles McDonald. “There are a million places I could have chosen for this event but I specifically chose 541 Barton even though they’ve never had a live performance there. I chose them because it’s in the neighborhood where I grew up, in the shadow of Ivor Wynne Stadium. They opened up to rejuvenate that area of Barton Street.
“I have a bunch of my really amazing and funny friends on this show and me, I’m going to present something real to you,” he adds. “When I do comedy, I’m trying to have fun and make people laugh but I’m giving everything I have to this. I am baring my heart and soul. I’m working so hard to make this a unique experience that you’re going to leave one of my shows feeling better about the person that you are. Doing standup comedy, and particularly sharing my story, has brought me more joy than I could have imagined. It’s amazing to me that I get to do this. Every time I do a good job, I think I’m getting way more out of it than anyone else is. To be able to share in that has been the most profound experience of my entire life.” V
Zak McDonald performs this Saturday August 9 at 541 Exchange and Eatery (541 Barton St. E.} with Anthony Mlekuz, Mayce Galoni Mike Chetcuti, Matthew Surina, Michael Moses, and more. Tickets are available for 15 dollars at zakmcdonald.brownpapertickets.com livedifferent.com