Mark McKinney falls into characters. It’s what made him a standout on Kids in the Hall, it’s what kept him afloat during one of SNL‘s more difficult periods in the mid-’90s, and it is that which makes him a perfect part of NBC’s Superstore. In the big box retail workplace sitcom, McKinney plays Glenn, a deeply religious yet widely accepting general manager who gets more affection than respect from his employees due to his well-meaning nature.
We spoke to McKinney about playing such a unique character on a network sitcom, connecting with his Superstore co-stars, the end and the re-birth of Kids in the Hall, and lessons learned from two stints with SNL during the mid-’80s and the mid-’90s.
Before Man Seeking Woman [which McKinney is also on –ed.], Simon Rich wrote on SNL and he’s written these acclaimed short story collections. Justin Spitzer, before creating Superstore, worked on The Office. Are you looking for a certain kind of pedigree when you’re trying to find a project?
It comes through. There’s that old saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” The scripts have been unbelievably consistent. I’m in awe that they… because I think they got the order for the 11 [Superstore episodes] in like June, and we were shooting by August. And I kept expecting some kind of drop-off, and there really wasn’t one.
So, yeah, it wasn’t as if I sort of go, “Oh, what is your pedigree, sir? Have you been to Harvard? Did you write for the Crimson?” You know? Funny is funny, they could come from anywhere, but the bench strength in the writing room is awesomely deep. In fact, the second episode was written by a personal hero of mine, who I’d never met before, Matt Hubbard, who wrote my favorite episode of 30 Rock ever, which is “Anna Howard Shaw Day.” I don’t know if you’ve seen that one.
I wouldn’t know it by title. I’m terrible with stuff like that.
No, it’s okay. I only memorize it because I’m such a geek. It’s the Valentine’s Day one, where Liz has to go to the dentist.
Let me ask, the chemistry with the cast is really impressive. Were you guys all brought in at the same time? Were you on the show before the rest of the principal casting was done?
Ah, no, everybody was there. I found out I had the part, which was fantastic. And then because I was in Toronto rehearsing the Kids in the Hall tour, I then flew in to do the pilot, or to read, I think, for the pilot, and then start that whole process. And we were all put in a room on the day that we were going to read it for the network, everybody having been cast, and it was astounding how fast the chemistry developed. It was right there in the room, from the very first moment. Sort of like a collective hive mind of exactly how we were going to attack these stories, what scale to play the characters at, and who we were. It’s really really one of those comedy miracle days, I thought.
Now when you find out that you got the part, do you start doing any kind of research into that retail world? Which, I don’t think that it’s been fully dissected on TV or film before. I’ve got experience working in a big box store, you guys really get it down.
I actually did go wander a few Wal-Marts and stuff like that. To get a sense of them. I went on sort of a road trip through Montana, and I ended up looking in on some of them.
The authenticity of the show is really just amazing, just the way they cast it. The customer interactions and the camaraderie between the co-workers is really off the charts.
Various degrees of resignation and surrender.
Yes, exactly. Can you talk to me a little bit about if we can expect to see Glenn assert his authority a little bit more on the show?
From the jump, I think he does strike a paternal, benevolent pose, that no one respects or often recognizes. So that does come out, and he continues to grind against his nemesis, Dina. He prays for her. The fabulous Lauren Ash, who I get to improv with before they call “Cut.” So yeah he does try. Of course, for the sake of comedy, it can’t work out in any neat way, but yeah, he does. Without spoiling it.
Faith is such a huge part of Glenn’s character. I’m sure there are challenges in playing a character whose conviction might offend some people. Does the fact that he’s so well-meaning undercut that?
Yeah, completely. I have no problem with faith, it just depends how it’s applied. And he’s got a strong humanitarian streak. He sometimes is maybe a little bit of a literalist, but I think he comes across as incredibly well-meaning and likable.
Are we going to get a chance to see Glenn’s home life, or is the show mainly going to stay centered within the store?
It stays pretty much in the store for this first season, because there’s so much low-hanging fruit in that world. There’s a reference to a wife named Jerusha. I can’t wait to meet her, if they decide to have her. And his many, many foster children, some of whom — if you can see from the pictures on his desk — aren’t as enthused about him as he is about them.
There have been tours, and there’s always the hope for more Kids in the Hall on a screen. Can you talk about whether there was a time when you thought, “I’m probably done making comedy with these guys?” And then a time when that changed, when you thought there might be a chance to do more with them?
I think the time where we were sorta like most blown apart was after Brain Candy. Cause it got sort of a weak release, and didn’t blow up into a string of successful comedies. Which was our plan, by the way. [Laughs.] And during the filming of that, Dave was angry with all of us, and Scott’s brother died, and everybody had, sort of in a way, departed for other pastures. Yet we were still making this movie. And then we kinda didn’t really hang out very much as a group for a while. And in the meantime, while we were busy not talking to each other or getting together, you know the show was on three times a day on Comedy Central, and the same up in Canada. So when we kinda thought maybe, we’d like to… We always loved performing live, if there is kinda something that we do as well today as we ever did, it’s that. If anything it’s better. We kinda got more stage-craftier, I think. We put the word out that we were doing a tour, and the response was absolutely, insanely overwhelming. And that sorta knitted us together, wounds were sorta like papered over. That was a treat, to get together. That’s life. How old are you?
33. Okay. So that’s about the age we were when the TV show ended. And then like by the time we were 43, we were starting to knit back together. And now it’s like we’re, it’s just like… We toured in the spring — to be able to go out and do a tour, I realize how insanely rare that is. How even if you have a successful career, you might not have a great comedy troupe to go back and play with, like I do.
There’s very little antipathy left. And we recognize our fights, even when we have them, as being basically ridiculous. [Laughs.]
It gets more mature as you get on, I guess.
You guys are about to see, I think, an uptick in awareness with the NBC streaming service Seeso releasing classic Kids in the Hall content. When you see Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the success that they had on Netflix with their new show, is that something that kinda drives you guys more to even do bigger things? To go beyond the stage?
I think we want to do something, even if it’s just more touring. It’s just we want to be able to do it well. Ya know? There’s no point in just, like reassembling to do something that’s in a hurry. There’s been an active conversation about this. I definitely, in this particular moment, don’t feel like our creative life is over, as a group.
You were a writer on SNL in ’85. You joined the cast again in ’95 after Kids in the Hall ended. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between doing the show at those two different points? Just in your career and in the life of the show. Not too many people come to the cast as a known quantity. Was it easier to get into the rhythm of that unique world in ’95 vs. ’85 when you were a complete unknown?
No question for me, the ’85 experience was way more valuable, in terms of it being the place where I learned a tremendous amount. If you look at the writing staff from that year, they were all gods. It’s George Meyer and Jack Handy, and just a murderer’s row of great comic minds. And it wasn’t a very successful year, initially. That was Lorne’s first year back after his seven-year hiatus, six-year hiatus… whatever it was. But that was more useful.
When I went after Kids in the Hall, I sort of arrived with Chris Elliott, Janeane Garofalo… Michael McKean was there. Do you know what I mean? And we were all sorta people who had been important, hadn’t auditioned, and I think we all kinda didn’t grab the brass ring. All for the same reason, which is that our sorta style had been established elsewhere.
On Kids in the Hall, as we moved through the years, you know our film bits got longer and longer, our characters got more complex, and they were very good from a Kids in the Hall standpoint. But SNL is a big tent show. I hadn’t learned those chops when I was there.
A lot of the biggest sketches in SNL history, you’ve really got to dig to find out who wrote them. When you’re a writer in the room, is that crushing that you don’t get that name recognition on those? Is it a bummer that there isn’t a specific writer credit for each sketch?
Oh, for me at the time, no, not at all. And certainly the people who sorta became identified with their material there, like Jack Handey with the “Deep Thoughts,” ya know. Or the political stuff that [Jim] Downey did, and later when Smigel had been around for a while there were those great big sprawling Smigelesque sketches and he got to do the animation thing — “TV FunHouse.” People put in the time to carve out that territory. I was there for a year. It didn’t bother me one bit.
It’s such a weird thing to me that you don’t see, like even a credit on a sketch. But it’s also a hugely collaborative effort, I’m sure. So, I guess it makes sense, in that way.
It is. It’s not really a hairshirt, don’t share the page, kind of environment, ya know? It’s a place where you write like a monk until Wednesday, and then, as Lorne famously put it, “then you get f*cked over by the actors,” who will bend the scene so that they can score, ya know? So it’s a wrestling match. And then you’ve got to cut a minute with 20 minutes to go before it airs live for the country. It’s not fine sculpture. Lorne has also been oft quoted as saying, “The show doesn’t go on at 11:30 on Saturday night because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”
It’s one of my favorite quotes about the show.
Isn’t that a great quote? It’s so true.
It is, because in any kind of creative endeavor, people really need to kinda adhere to that, at times.
You need that deadline. And you know that fabulous thing after you go, “Oh, I guess I’m not Picasso because I’ve got to hand it in.” That’s when you actually start working.
Superstore airs Monday at 8PM on NBC.