Saying Mike MacRae is an impressionist is a bit like saying Michelangelo painted ceilings. MacRae’s Don Draper impression is spot on but the routine is more than mere mimicry. His Draper delivers a pitch that ultimately breaks the fourth wall to reference the bit itself before folding in on itself in a surprising way. His comedy is smart, thoughtful, and most of all hilarious. Ask any comic in Austin who their favorites are and MacRae is often at the top of the list. So when I heard Mike was putting together a podcast where he interviewed rock legends and would be playing every single character, I was intrigued. I spoke with Mike about his first time performing, performing for Letterman, and why he decided to focus on classic rock.
What can you tell me about your first time on stage? What kind of comic was young Mike MacRae?
I used to bring my “act” of teacher impressions to the assembly stage in high school and in college I would do whatever my post-adolescent conception of what stand-up was at campus events at Rice and U of H (tapes of both exist, locked away forever in that warehouse at the end of Raiders of The Lost Ark), but I suppose you mean the first time in a proper comedy club. That would be the Monday night open mic night at the Houston Laff Stop on West Gray. It was either the last Monday of October or the first of November, 1999 – it was also the first time for my dear friend Sarah Tollemache, and we both never could quite remember which it was. Once and I was hooked. The first few times on stage I was presenting my college act, which got some cheap laughs from the crowd but garnered nothing but scorn (rightly so) from the local comics, who, naturally, I wanted dearly to impress. Eventually I came to the realization that I could get away with doing impressions if 1) I did ones that people were not used to hearing, and 2) couched them in a genuine joke or otherwise funny concept. The structure of my act was forged in the crucible of the scrutiny of my soon-to-be peers. And I’m glad for it.
You started out in Houston doing shows at the now defunct Laff Stop. What do you remember about the scene? Any favorite stories?
As a young dope interested in stand-up, I could not have walked in to a more fortuitous place and time than the Laff Stop in 1999. Then-manager Mark Babbitt had admirably groomed the already hoary venue to be one of the premiere comedy clubs in the country. Louis CK (among many others) chose to record his first CD there; you can hear all of us laughing in the background. Babbitt joined his mission of booking original and fearless yet warhorse-funny headliners with an almost zealous preoccupation with cultivating the local “scene”. His favorites were given ample stage time in front of some of the hottest crowds in the country. He even changed the show format to have occasional split-feature sets (one doing 10-15, the other 15-20) so we could work on honing a solid road-worthy 30. That was the goal back then: travel, the road. Making people laugh for a long amount of time. Looking back, it was ridiculous the stage time that I and others got WAY before we were ready. But it helped develop us. Then everything slowly went to shit, like it does.
As Letterman inches closer to retirement, what do you remember about your appearance on the show?
What can I say? It was great, nerve-racking, a monumental headache getting the final go-ahead (wanna know how much “same-day” Fex-Ex from Louisville, KY to NYC costs? No, you don’t), and the greatest sense of accomplishment when it was over. Also, David Letterman is painted traffic cone orange and it’s weird when he walks up to you. Eddie Brill told me after my set that Indiana native Dave asked, “that guy, was he a Midwesterner?”, Eddie asserted yes, and Dave said, “I could tell. He clearly has our sense of humor”. I will always be very thankful to Eddie for telling me that. As a kid growing up watching Late Night I always marked that Letterman was from the same region of the country as I was. I think there is a certain sense of humor that comes from growing up where everything is kind of boring.
What people can expect to hear on your podcast? How did you come up with the concept?
Well, it ain’t for everybody, that’s for sure. It’s pretty niche. But hey – that’s what podcasts are for, in my opinion. “Legends of Rock with Mike MacRae”. Yeah, so I’ve always liked (for lack of a better term) Classic Rock, but also found it – and the culture surrounding it – to be very amusing. I’ve always have had bits about it here and there over the years; I had a track on my first CD called “British Invasion Bands”, there was a bit about why Southern Rock bands had like 12 people in them (that only Henry Phillips liked), and I did an Ozzy Osbourne impression (going back to the Laff Stop days, my Kurt Loder interview with Ozzy was my first “signature bit”). But since I grew up steeped in the culture of midwestern classic rock radio, with the Sunday night obscure album shows, the retrospectives, “Rockline”, plus the remastered CDs with bloviating interview tracks that I’d actually listen to and liner notes that I would assiduously study in the pre-internet age, I have much more of a “nerd” pre-occupation with the topic than what could elegantly inform a functional stand-up act. This project is an outlet for all of that stuff. It’s basically a fake interview show where I (as an eponymous character, a la Colbert) interview David Gilmour, Ian Anderson, Lemmy Kilmister, Robert Plant, Gene Simmons, etc., but, you know, it’s all me. Just a bunch of fake bullshit. And interspersed with other bits, conversations with Musical Director Pat Dean, fake commercials, and other fun stuff. I hope people like it. My goal is to make it amusing for people who aren’t necessarily well-versed in the subject matter, but not at the expense of making it really something special for Classic Rock boneheads such as myself. We’ll see. Either way, it will be done season by season. We’re gonna do about 7 or 8 and if people like it we’ll be doing a second batch. It all depends on the schedule of my trusty EP Dustin Svehlak. He’s got his hands full dealing with that diva Norman Wilkerson.
Listen to a preview of the podcast below and follow Mike on Twitter.