A Leak in the Ship: Mike McDonald Talks Comedy, Homelessness and Charity

If you’re familiar with the history of Boston comedy and its bricklayers, you’ll know that Mike McDonald is a pretty big deal. He’s from the same stock that molded legends like Barry Crimmins, Steve Sweeney, Lenny Clarke and Denis Leary, and in terms of popularity around New England, McDonald’s “legend” status is nothing to scoff at, either.

The Hartford, Connecticut, native, equipped with his gut-busting topical wit, started out in the comedy business many moons ago, but his stage persona and humor have transcended a generation of comedy lovers and are still very relevant today.

On Feb 12, McDonald will host his 15th annual Comedy “Xxtravaganza” at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, featuring stand-up comedy by the ever-hilarious Nick Dipaolo, Christine Hurley, Paul D’Angelo and Graig Murphy. As a token of gratitude to the Portsmouth community’s gracious hosting of this event every, McDonald has made it an add-on to the evening to give a part of the proceeds to Seacoast Family Food Pantry and Crossroads House, a transitional housing program for the homeless and impoverished in the Seacoast community.

“I went to a Jazz Festival [at the Music Hall] and really thought about putting a comedy show together, and assembling an ‘A-team,’ where we would all be headliners and see what comes of it,” said McDonald.

“I mean, it’s fifteen years later, and they still haven’t caught on,” he added with a chuckle, “but it’s still very well-received, and Portsmouth is a great town that has been very good to me, and because of that, I’ve always tried to hook the show into giving a little bit back to the community, from a charity standpoint. One consequence of doing this show is that someone gets a bed to sleep in and gets fed.”

And while McDonald and his Xxtravaganza friends have tender hearts toward those in need, he always wants to make sure the money is going where it should, by vetting each of the causes he gives back to.

“The more you end up doing benefit concerts, the more you think to yourself ‘where is this money going,’ and too many times, in too many cases, I’ve gotten involved in causes where the people running the show are eating shrimp puffs afterwards, and only a small percentage of the money is actually getting to where it was said to be going,” he said. “Part of even having an association with these places is to continue bringing awareness past Christmas, when everyone is feeling all good and jangly about helping people out,” he continued. “It’s funny how the holidays pass, and then people are like ‘ahh, ya know, I have other things to do now.’”

Aside from discussing a stand-up career that spans over three decades, including a stint hosting “The Cable Comedy Show starring Mike McDonald,” the Emerson graduate has a lot to say about how the homeless and impoverished are treated, and with his pet parrot Nicky perched shoulder-side, McDonald spoke at length about the problems he sees with perceptions of the homeless community.

“There’s a leak in the ship,” said McDonald. “Where local government used to be able to handle these issues, that’s kind of out the door now. There is still government funding for some things, but you can also see that there is a need for other ways of raising money, and the comedy community has always been a safety net in that way,” he continued.

McDonald remembers a time, about two years ago, when he was grocery shopping at a Stop and Shop and had an interaction with a produce employee, which has stuck with him ever since.

“This kid’s job was to shuck to corn, to make it easy for customers to get their produce, and as I was walking by him, I noticed he was throwing away hundreds of ears of corn. His reasoning was that customers were only going to get the prettiest ears of corn, and the ones in the barrel were not pretty enough, so they were just throwing it all away. That kind of stuff just galls me,” said McDonald. “They weren’t donating it to a homeless shelter or a food pantry somewhere, where it would benefit someone by feeding them, and that mentality in the United States is what causes people to go hungry and go homeless,” he continued.

“That right there shows that something like trickle-down economics doesn’t work, because if it did, then places like Whole Foods, Stop and Shop and DeMoula’s would be on board with it. Every single store would be giving their produce away through the proper channels to make sure that it gets to people who can’t eat,” said McDonald. And for him, it all comes down to just being aware of what’s going on around you.

“All you have to do is go outside on a February day where it’s eight degrees out, and you can see a little kid who is stuck in a bad spot and can’t get out of it,” he said. “That’s when I say ‘open up your closets and see how many coats you have and how many coats you need,’ because I, myself, must have twenty-five coats! Most of them were given to me as gifts and I think they’re all fantastic but am I really going to use all twenty-five coats?”

“When you’re down on your luck, people don’t know how to treat you,” said McDonald. “They’re not able to wrap their heads around it because it’s not a pretty little flower. It’s a distinctly difficult problem that takes more than money. You need people working with that money and doing something good with it,” he continued. “The homeless don’t appear in three-piece Brooks Brothers suits, they aren’t ‘pretty’ enough, much like the corn at Stop and Shop, and so we just walk by them, because we can’t wrap our heads around solving it sometimes. The difficulty of the problem hurts our brains.

“The homeless are the great unwashed and people will complain about them being dirty, but they never offer them a free shower. I just like to think when someone is judgmental toward the homeless, ‘What were you doing with your hands ten minutes ago? Don’t look at me weirdly because I shook this guy’s hand.’ I’m not f—ing Mother Theresa, but these people don’t have the plague, they aren’t lepers.”

McDonald sums it up pretty quickly by bringing it back to the question: “What if this happened to you?”

“Those who have money and family have no idea just how close they are to being just like that guy on the sidewalk. What happens if the grid gets knocked out? Electro-magnetic pulse runs through everything and you’re left helpless. You are going to deteriorate pretty quickly and become what you just feared a little while ago.”

The 15th annual Comedy Xxtravaganza will take place on Friday, Feb. 12, at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, with proceeds going to help out Seacoast Family Food Pantry and Crossroads House. Tickets are still available!