- Susan Messing and Michael McCarthy
- courtesy gregory hollimon
Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Michael McCarthy was the kind of person that could make you feel seen. A quiet and humble legend in the Chicago comedy community, many met Michael at the Second City, starting as an intern then moving on to become a cast member on the e.t.c. and Main stages, others met him as a writer for Saturday Night Live, while and others like myself discovered him during his years as a teacher at the Second City, iO, and DePaul. One thread that runs constant through the recollections of anyone fortunate enough to know Michael: he made people feel like the best possible versions of themselves
Few have the magical ability to immediately disintegrate social barriers and connect on a level of kindness and friendship, yet within the improv community Michael was that magician; a quiet legend full of dry wit and joy who always had a good word of encouragement or light-hearted ribbing. Intensifying his aura, he was matched by his equally kindhearted impishly hilarious wife, the legendary comedian Susan Messing. These two forces of mirth created an indomitable power-couple of happiness in Chicago; nurturing not only their daughter Sofia, but the careers and lives and spirits of countless aspiring comedians together.
After several years of fighting valiantly with Susan stalwartly by his side, Michael sharing the loveliest words of comfort nearly daily to his community on Facebook, he lost his battle with cancer at the age of 61 on April 8. Yet Michael’s sparkling spirit remains vivid within the family, friends, colleagues and students who were fortunate enough to know him. Below are a selection of memories, including recollections of Michael’s humble beginnings at Second City as told by Cheryl Sloane, to the warm experience of witnessing Michael and Susan’s love for each other and the community by Wendy Mateo, and the excitement of one helluva hiking trip with Greg Holliman. Through all of these memories from everyone Michael touched from lifelong friends, to his students, one thing is clear; they all recall him fondly and with love—a testament to a life well-lived.
About 40 years ago I was sitting on the steps of Capitol University in Columbus, Ohio wearing my red satin Second City jacket. I was waiting for the Tourco van. The Second City touring company was performing at Capitol and I was living in Columbus and going to Ohio State. Excited to see my SC family and my mom, who travelled with Tourco at the time, I was unusually early for their arrival.
I look up and see a very blond, college student wearing wire-rimmed glasses with a book bag slung over his shoulder and a pad of paper and pen in his hand. “Excuse me, I see your jacket and well, are you with Second City,” he asks. “Sort of,” I say. “I’m waiting for them to arrive.”
“Wow. Do you happen to know Joyce Sloane?”
“She’s my mom.”
He reaches over, bending his shoulders towards me to shake my hand with both of his. “I’m Michael McCarthy.” He goes on to let me know that he was in a comedy group at Ohio University, he really wants an internship at Second City over the summer, and he made an appointment to meet with my mom and drove in from Athens, Ohio.
The van is late, so I find a payphone and call Second City. My mom answers. I’m surprised and a little upset that she chose to not get in the van and come see me but my conversation goes to “Mom, not only are you not coming to see your only daughter but this guy drove two hours to meet with you and you’re standing him up. How could you do that?” I say in a kind of bitchy college student with a bit of attitude voice. Now imagine Michael. He’s standing next to me listening to me harass my mom for not showing up to meet him. Picture Michael McCarthy frantically waving his arms, mouthing NOOOO, NOOOO. “I’ll drive to Chicago to meet with her. It’s no problem. (looks at watch) I can be there tomorrow by noon…or Monday…or whenever is good for her.”
“Shhh” I say. “Well mom at least you can give this poor guy an internship.” In perfect Joyce Sloane fashion she says,“Just tell him to come to Chicago when school gets out and he can be an intern. Does he need a place to stay?”
That day was the beginning of a love affair. Michael loved Second City with all his heart. He was our first intern. His internship included many tasks including transcribing and cataloguing 20 years of reel-to-reel and cassette audio tapes of Second City shows. On a typewriter. He assisted in rehearsals. He transcribed Bernie’s directing classes. He got coffee and lunch, babysat actors’ children, picked up the furs for the resale shop, delivered cranberries and the like. He did it all with the enthusiasm of a child finding the joy and learning in every task. Always letting everyone know how lucky he felt to be a part of their lives.
Michael- how lucky we were to have you as a part of ours. Your fierceness, your determination, your incredible work ethic, your immense capacity to love and be loved. Your generosity, your wit and your devotion.
Love you and miss you.
- This drawing by Michael McCarthy hung in Joyce Sloane’s Second City office.
- courtesy Cheryl Sloane
Tim Kazurinsky, actor/former Saturday Night Live writer and cast member
I think comedy was Michael’s ministry. He was a deeply spiritual person—but not in a creepy, born-again, evangelical Christian way. He truly believed comedy could heal and redeem. One could argue that true preachers like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin changed the world’s view of racism, sexism, and senseless wars more than bible-thumpers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Michael loved humankind, and he lived that love every day. Although I did find it amusing that after Michael converted to Roman Catholicism, he was cast in a number of TV shows… as a priest.
I always considered Michael McCarthy an academic in the study of comedy. But unlike scholars who spend their careers pontificating to their colleagues about their vast knowledge of their chosen field of expertise, Michael actually created the subject that he was so passionate about. He wrote, performed, directed and produced comedy. And it was all very, very funny.
People were attracted to Michael for his comic savvy. His years of experience at Second City, Saturday Night Live, and producing the Cat Laughs comedy festival in Ireland made Michael the perfect audience to share your creative thoughts and ideas. His circle of friends consisted of many comedians and comic actors, some well-known and others perhaps not as notable, but just as respected by their peers. Regardless of their status, they were always welcomed by Michael and his funny and talented wife Susan into their home.
Over the past couple of years, following the onset of Michael’s cancer, I had the privilege to sit at his kitchen table with some of the funniest people you can imagine. Michael’s friends would stop by to support Michael and that support usually consisted of sharing outrageous personal experiences from film, TV, theater and stand-up clubs. These kitchen conferences often consisted of a random combination of funny people making each conversation unique. The one constant was Michael’s uncanny recollection of the humor that comes from the absolutely brutal process of creating comedy.
Through it all, Michael would sit at the head of the table, and would recall additional facts and historical subtext that enhanced everyone’s story. He would remember things you said or did that you no longer recalled. Often Michael’s family members would be in attendance providing all with a retelling of the McCarthy family history that included growing up in numerous homes and cities across the country and even a stint living in Nigeria. Everyone who entered with the intention to raise Michael’s spirit, would leave uplifted as well. Michael made others feel good about themselves.
Michael’s life experiences, passion and knowledge helped make him an incredible teacher and mentor to students, the perfect cast member and a kind, loving and thoughtful friend. Though he will be greatly missed, his comic spirit will continue to inspire all the lives he has touched.
David Razowsky, improvisor/podcast host/former artistic director of Second City Los Angeles
My memories of Michael have less to do with specific events, but more to do with the kind of a man he was. To say he was kind is a given. He was also one of the most generous of souls. He would give a struggling student great advice not just about whatever she or he was writing, but how to deal with doubt, uncertainty, and a lack of confidence. He was, whether he knew it or not, a protege of Martin deMaat, whose philosophy was when creating “You lose all right to judge yourself.” He was snarky and, at times, angry. He dealt with those demons in a way we all could learn: Thread it into the tapestry of your art. His work at Second City (and later) wasn’t based on how well we all could get along, but rather, “Look at this fucked situation we got ourselves into. Ain’t it crazy?” He was sarcastic, snarky, and human. The Holy Trinity of Great Writing.
Kelly Leonard, executive director of learning and applied improvisation at Second City Works
I met Michael when I was a dishwasher at Second City in 1988 and had breakfast with him a few months ago. The kindness, respect and intelligence that he treated me with was no different today than it was 32 years ago. It is often said that a person’s true character comes out in times of distress or pain. I think that’s largely true and I think it explains who Michael McCarthy was that even in great suffering he remained grateful, thoughtful and wise.
Ron West, actor/artistic associate at the Second City
RIP Michael McCarthy. I’m actually having difficulty looking at your photographs on Facebook, and not because you’ve got more hair than I do.
It’s not because we had a lot of adventures together like that time we met in New York; that time the touring company did Go Ask Alice; that time we stayed up all night at the O’Hare Hyatt to write some stupid industrial show; that time you got electrocuted and had to go to the ER; that time we saw Dead Poet’s Society and you and Jill liked it and Samantha and I didn’t.
(I am aware that the events I’m describing might not make sense to the reader. I don’t care. I’m writing to Michael.)
Like that time we stood in line to get John Cleese’s autograph at the Palmer House; that time we took our tiny audience on a tour of the building and you showed them how you changed backstage; that time you were so nervous about playing the guitar because Todd Rundgren was in the audience; those times the friends of Danny Breen gathered; that time my Dad improvised with us in a wedding scene; that time we COLLIDED in the dark on Mainstage and I had to go to the ER; that time I laughed at you, the serious little boy in traditional Nigerian garb. That time in LA when you helped me when I thought I was beyond help.
Like that time we figured out how to do the medley in Big News; that time we took a train to Budapest, Hungary, on our one free day in Europe, obsessing about what gift we were going to bring our wives; that time you appeared in a movie as Jimmy Brogan, and said, “I can’t get a job as a writer: at least I can play one.” Oh, and that time I didn’t go to your third wedding and brought you Big Luck.
Like that time a few days ago when we Facetimed and you were still on this plane. I thought maybe you had fallen and broken a tooth, but it was just the angle of the camera. You said, “I’m always interested in hearing what you’re doing.”
No, I’m having trouble looking at your picture for selfish reasons: I couldn’t have possibly been as good a friend to you as you were to me. I know you are in a better place now, writing songs with George Harrison and John Lennon.
- Gregory Hollimon and Michael McCarthy with other Second City cast members.
- courtesy Gregory Hollimon
Gregory Hollimon, actor/comedian
The year was 1993, I was 36 years old. Mike was 33. He and I, we were driving together across the country from Chicago to LA. And before our big exodus had gotten underway Mike says to me,”Hey—should we go see the GRAND CANYON?” I replied: “Sure . . . Hell yeah . . . Let’s do it man.” I’d never been to the Grand Canyon before and now . . . Well, now this was going to be a real adventure!
So—off we go—and after some days later we ARRIVE at the Grand Canyon. First, I gotta tell ya’—and pardon my non-French—but that Grand Canyon is effin’ huge! Mike and I, we were just standing from the observation point—looking at it. I mean to be honest, we may as well have been looking at a postcard. It was so huge and vast—It just—It just didn’t seem real.
So after ten minutes of being stymied and in awe at this wonder of nature Mike says: “Do you want to walk to the bottom of the Grand Canyon?” I look at Michael like he’s crazy and I boldly say: “Do I wanna walk to the bottom—DO YOU wanna walk to the bottom of the Grand Canyon?”
You see, at the time I was a bit haughty because there were only a few things in life that I genuinely took pride in. One was my dancing ability and the other was my rollerskating ability. And the other my ability to walk long distances. You see, before I became an actor/artist I read electric meters for the light company—I did that for 12 years. I walked all the time through rain, sleet, and snow, and sometimes I’d walk literally ALL DAY LONG.
But, more than that—I had toured with Michael and in ALL my years of being around this man, I had never ONCE observed him doing anything remotely physical. Not only that, but at that time, Mike was also a smoker. HE DIDN’T SMOKE LIKE A CHIMNEY—BUT HE SMOKED. But I never KNEW that McCarthy had ran and hiked. I never saw the man jogging before.
Now, to say Michael was a great human being is an understatement
He was compassionate, empathetic, intellectual, intelligent, wise, and funny. On this day, I discovered a few important lessons. The first was: anyone can walk down into the Grand Canyon. The second was: walking out of the Grand Canyon is a totally different story. The third discovery I made was: I didn’t really know Michael McCarthy like I thought I did. In a nutshell: Michael McCarthy got me out of that damn canyon.
See—as I was slowly coming up and out of the canyon I found myself doin’ a lot of stopping. In other words, taking a lot of unnecessary breaks. Stopping to rest after only going just a tenth of a mile. You can’t do that—you gotta keep putting one foot in front of the other. I was a walker—I knew the rules—you got to keep it movin’. Frankly, my friends, I was starting to get nervous and I really didn’t know if I was gonna make it, going up was waaaay harder than going down. And on top of that, once it got dark, you couldn’t see the trail. And a badly misjudged step and it’s a 6,000-foot drop to Splatsville.
But Mike had a great idea—he suggested we run lines to this two-man show we’d performed in Ireland at the Dublin Theatre Festival. It was called The R.I.C. Show (Revelations, Indictments & Confession) and we were directed by the great Nate Herman.
It was in the running of our lines continuously—speaking our staged dialogue—back n’ forth that ultimately took my mind off of the walking.
And soon, I fell into a rhythm. Otherwise I’d still be in the f*cking Grand Canyon right now tryin’ to get home.
Now before McCarthy even did ALL of that—before he saved my life by getting me to recite our entire show (about three times) in the course of our ascension to the top—a prior situation of epic proportion occurred as we were steadily descending into the canyon. I had with me a tiny red ghetto blaster (it belonged to Michael), and I’d Purchased a cassette tape in the Grand Canyon gift shop entitled Music To Walk and Listen To The Grand Canyon By. It was a very orchestrated music tape. It was done in a PBS-, National Geographic-style . . . You could hear the sound of a mild bamboo flute.
But, after an hour or so, well frankly, it got kinda boring. And dude, it took about three hours to get to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and I needed something a bit more lively to listen to. So, after an hour, I switched out the cassette tape and popped in a Michael Jackson cassette tape featuring the song “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.” I mean, who didn’t like Michael Jackson in 1993.
Way off in the noticeably far distance there was a group of Germans hikers on another trail, and (I think) one of the hikers just didn’t Like Michael Jackson (or maybe he didn’t like me). But this one hiker yells at me across this huge and vast canyon: “HEY BLACK MAN—TURN OFF THE MUSIC!”
Now, I’m not gonna say that the German hiker sounded like a racist when he yelled: ”HEY BLACK MAN—TURN OFF THE MUSIC!” In all honesty, I can’t say that. The larger point is he could have left my chocolatey technicolor out of the equation and shouted something sike:
”HEY YOU WITH THE MARVELOUS HEAD OF BONE TURN OFF THE MUSIC!”
But he didn’t, he said: “HEY BLACK MAN—TURN OFF THE MUSIC!” And before I could say: “Is he talking to me?” Michael Clayton McCarthy’s whole body physically vibrated as he yelled out in a clear loud voice that rang out clear across the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon:
( ( ( ( ( ( BLOW ME !!! ) ) ) ) ) )
If you listen real hard you can probably hear those two words
bouncing throughout the walls of the canyon today. And that my friend is one of a myriad of reasons why Michael Clayton McCarthy is my forever homey dawg!!!
Wendy Mateo, actor/writer/producer
To be loved by Susan Messing is to be loved with fierce kindness, loyalty, and a side of biting wit.
We have gotten to experience not only her artistry but her friendship.
When she met and married Michael, he was all in. Everybody Susan loved, he loved with fierce loyalty too. He took care of them because SHE cared for them. The love between them would always make me choke up, it was #couplegoals for me, mixed between being so happy that she had found her soulmate. Their love was palpable and funny and charming and being around the both of them was a gift to all in their presence.
When Dominizuelan was first gaining some traction, there were a lot of people telling us what they expected of us, what they wanted to hear or see from us, what we “should do,” with our career. We had taken the time to figure out who we were on stage, but when we thought about how we would interpret that in TV, we couldn’t find our footing.
Michael was the first in this industry who told us, who DARED us to believe that simply being US, was enough. He encouraged us to write our own TV pilot, taught us how to do it, and even had us to take his class for free (sorry not sorry Charna).That class will always be a huge part of our journey and it’s because of that one gesture, that four years later we were able to write and direct our short film and are on track to developing our first feature.
We will never ever forget Michael and Susan’s love, nor Michael’s kindness and thoughtfulness. They will always have a place in our story. From the tributes I have read from folks over the last few days, it seems he had the same effect on a great many people. It speaks to his beautifully authentic nature.
Today, we paid a little tribute to Michael outside of their home. With the help of my beautiful theater community, I was able to connect with Academy of Irish Music.
I couldn’t bare the thought of his spirit going off without music. If you followed his posts, you would see how much he loved music and how connected he was to his Irish ancestors, these young women played beautifully. The sun shined on my dear Susan’s face while we listened to music 6 feet apart, thought about Michael’s spirit and I whispered in the language of my own ancestors “Luz y progreso para tu espiritu.” [Light and progress for your spirit, dear Michael].
See you on the next plane.
Tara DeFrancisco, actor/comedian
I don’t know that there is a greater tale of love than the one between Susan Messing and Michael Clayton McCarthy—not only the way and path to which they fell so madly in love but in the way they loved each other every day thereafter.
As with all greats, instead of asking for comfort, he seemed to comfort those losing him through his incredible attitude and thoughtful writing and words. Last night, a few of us raised a glass to wish comfort in his journey and talked about their life together.
One time, when Susan and I were about to do a fun show together, he said casually that we were “Pil Sung.” Not knowing what it meant, I looked it up, and the tab to its definition is strangely still open on my phone. Roughly, it means “a sure thing” or “to be confident of certain victory”—a Korean tenet of Tae Kwon Do. I loved it. knowing that Michael was a black belt (a fact Susan was super hot for), I appreciated it doubly. Reading it further tonight, I was struck to see how very much this thorough, longer entry seems to truly embody HIM as a human—it’s as if the definition in term is who he was, in retrospect showing his cards on how he lived. it’s a bit of a read, but worth it, and I put this forward as my prayer for my dear friend Susan and the journey of her beloved partner traversing worlds, in all things.est in peace, dear Bobcat.
Pil Sung translates as “I am confident of certain victory.” It is not a phrase expressing violence, but rather a statement of personal dedication and challenge issued by an individual to put forth his maximum effort to the limits of his abilities towards his own personal mental growth, spiritual development, physical health, or any other goal to which he may aspire.
To fully grasp this concept, one must realize that it is an embodiment of the five tenets of TaeKwon-Do: Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self Control and Indomitable Spirit. Learned and practiced together, they make an entire way of living. And so it is with “Pil Sung.”
Courtesy—or thoughtfulness and respect for others, their needs and rights is as bread cast upon the waters. It floats out only to wash ashore to feed us one day in the future. We sow it; we reap it. The ability to pause for a moment and reflect upon the effects of a spoken word, a glance, or an action, and to graciously concede to the inner need of another is man’s source for inner strength. It is courage at its greatest.
Integrity—or the ability to live each day so as not to hide from our face in the mirror each morning, is the inner voice of conscience that guides men to defend and speak out for that unseen spirit of what is right and just.
Perseverance—is that part of stubbornness in the human spirit that makes a man continue his efforts until he either wins or is beaten. It is endurance when there appears to be nowhere to turn and nothing from which to feed. The capacity to steadily persist in a course of action directed towards a goal, in spite of difficulty, must be developed if a man is to improve society’s errors, or if a student is to master himself.
Self Control—is that function of the intellect which channels the powerful emotions of anger, hatred, love and disappointment into productive energy to create and build.
Indomitable Spirit—that aspect of human soul which goes beyond endurance into eternity. Indomitable Spirit is the silent impetus rising from within courage, that has produced genius out of failure and cities out of ashes. It is the pride and will of a people or an individual that will not allow itself to be subdued.
This difference, this ability to see beyond the present and inspire others and ourselves to heroic efforts, enables man’s fighting spirit to exceed the present into eternity.”
- The cast of America Lite
- courtesy mark beltzman
Mark Beltzman, actor
This is the Second City ETC Cast in 1989 with our review America Lite, directed by Nate Herman in the black and white photo and then at the Second City 50th reunion show in 2009. Tonight we lost a member of our immediate family! Michael Clayton McCarthy HE was a GREAT MAN! I lost a brother from another mother who was such huge part of me! I will FOREVER be grateful for our journey together. Del Close, the Second City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Ireland, the Cat Laughs Festival in Kilkenny . . . TWICE! The Illinois Lotto Ball commercials with Jim Ortlieb! Cubs games! Acting in Bleacher Bums in 89 at the Organic Theater and working at Second City AT THE SAME TIME!!! We would do a Friday night show at 9 PM at the Organic and have a cab waiting for us to take us to Second City to be on Stage for the 11 PM show. On Sunday, a 3 PM matinee, a 7 PM show at the Organic Theater with a cab waiting for us to be on stage at Second City for the 9 PM show, and then the 11 PM improv set. What a whirlwind! We were LITERALLY on stage for nine hours every Sunday for three months!!! I will miss you my friend and I LOVE YOU MORE THAN WORDS! It is SO PAINFUL I will not get to say goodbye to you because of this insane pandemic we are living through! Sending much LOVE & ALOHA to Susan Messing, Sofia Mia, and The ENTIRE McCARTHY Clan, as well as, My entire Second City Family during these challenging times!!! XXXOOO
Sheri Flanders, writer/actor/comedian
I first met Michael through the Monday Night Live show at iO with then new director Patrick Newson. To date it remains one of the most fun performances and show runs I have ever participated in, all because of Michael’s kind easy manner.
I remember that the day of the show I was struggling with my allergies badly at that point and hadn’t found a good solution. A fit of uncontrollable coughing so I made the mistake of taking a Benadryl. It stopped the coughing. But it caused a panic attack that caused me to completely blank on my monologue during the show run a few hours before showtime. I had that piece memorized cold and I couldn’t even remember one word, not even the gist of it to improvise it. It was the first and only time in my acting career I had ever completely blanked onstage and I was freaked out. I was scared. And the cast was scared.
Michael was so thoughtful and gracious and he simply trusted me. Another less great theater maker would have exacerbated the situation and turned it into a lifelong fear, but he just trusted me. And I calmed myself and I came out and ran it during the rehearsal and killed the monologue during the show. And I never blanked on a monologue again.
And to my surprise, he was not only still kind and friendly to me, but he invited me back. We all know top tier theater folks that would be all too willing to blacklist someone after that kind of experience. Michael showed me a quiet grace that I am so grateful to have been blessed with, and this community and this world is so much less for the loss of such a wonderful man.
Patrick Newson, actor/comedian/director
Michael McCarthy taught me many things. Sketches should be no longer than five pages. When you exit the stage, exit left. But most importantly the way to succeed in writing comedy is get over yourself. He said that in the long run the show is what’s important. Rather than let me be understood, let’s get the job done. In the end Michael gave me a formula to be successful in this business. Most importantly the audience deserves respect. Whenever we would do a curtain call, he would take the time to block it out. He would express its importance. The last step of our work is putting in front of the audience. At the end of the day we need them as much as they need us. So, they deserve that moment of our attention.
During the years I spent as a regular performer in Monday Night Live and POV, I saw many, many displays of Michael’s wit, his intelligence, his humor, his kindness and generosity, his masterful skill in softening the blow of a piece of constructive criticism, the jokes he made at his own expense, and his steadfast conviction that he could make a difference in the world from the stages of a comedy theatre (he was right). All of these memories are outshined by one singular moment.
Near the beginning of a read thru for the latest POV script, Michael paused to tell us that the night before, his stepdaughter Sofia had asked him if he would call her his daughter, and he couldn’t get through saying the words before there were tears in his eyes. In an instant, we were all fighting back tears, too. We had listened to him talk about Sophia during many read thrus and rehearsals, hearing the trials of trying to win over his teenage stepdaughter, always told with love. It was so deeply, heart-wrenchingly beautiful to see in that moment just how much that request meant to him.
This was the greatest part of Michael—his unending love for Susan and Sofia. He felt like the luckiest person on the planet to be with them, and you could see that every single time he spoke about them (which was often). He loved to talk about Susan’s brilliance onstage, her strength as a person, the fact that he thought she was way out of his league, and how grateful he was every day that she chose to be with him.
- Jill Talley, Mark Beltzman, Ron West, Ruth Rudnick, and Michael McCarthy in 1990’s Ameri-Go-Round.
- COURTESY THE SECOND CITY
Preston O’ffill, actor/comedian/director
Michael was an incredible mentor to me during POV, a show that ran at iO for 18 months. I know everyone says this but the team that he created was more than just that, he made a family. That was five years ago and we still are all best friends. If he was here today I’m sure he would hate everyone talking all about him all over, BUT also I have a feeling he wouldn’t mind all the hearts and minds he’s impacted. You are the smartest person I’ve met and you will forever influence my art.
Doug Stevenson, actor
I knew Michael back in the day. I started hanging around the old Chicago Comedy Showcase in that old church on Diversey in about 1980. He was with his group Let’s Have Lunch. Only just met him and soon he was off to SNL to be a writer. I ended up working with a few of his cast mates from that era: Jan Voigts, Tim O’Malley, and Melodie Ranstrom. I also got to know his Ohio college buddy Kevin Burrows who made the trek to Chicago and Second City with him. He began at Second City as their first intern.
I would see him now and again over the years, mostly when our mutual friends were involved. In 2014, I was coming out of a bad patch of unwelcome change, including a protracted stint in the hospital. I needed to get back on stage—to get out and for some much needed “therapy.” I asked Michael if I could be an actor in his staged readings for his sitcom and spec script classes at iO and he welcomed me. I was generally 20+ years older than most of my peers. But I did it, had fun, and often read a variety of interesting characters in one reading—like a sinister mad scientist, a yokel southern governor, and an effete elitist. I made him laugh. He was always complimentary. Once, I read Richard Lewis for a Curb Your Enthusiasm spec script and practiced a little by watching Richard Lewis videos. Michael heaped praise on me at the conclusion, saying that my impression was “uncanny.” He gave me my legs back!
I have been in touch with him and Susan over these last two years. Late last summer I did his mile walk up Lincoln Avenue as part of his support entourage. But things took a bad turn in early February when the drug he was on stopped working. His last post was heartbreaking, as he lamented his difficulty typing through his pain and neuropathy. It was one sentence long. His posts, throughout this ordeal had been priceless. Sad. He was a smart, gracious, good soul who’s kindness restored me.
I knew Michael through a spec-writing course I took with him at iO. He was a great person to learn from for many reasons, not the least of which was he’d actually written on shows; he knew what he was talking about. One night after class a few of us went to see him perform improv with his wife, the inimitable and amazing woman Susan Messing. We spoke with him both before and after the show. He seemed genuinely pleased that we came. He had a great heart and a shining, kind nature.
Matt Hovde, former artistic director of the Second City
He was so strong—as a comedian, as a teacher, as an advocate for using comedy to uplift or tear down as needed. My last conversation with him was about one of his DePaul classes. He was no longer able to attend in person but he was still preparing lesson plans, following up with subs, etc. He just cared so much about his students.
Sommer Austin, actor
I realize that I owe much of who I am today to Michael—his teachings, his kindness, and his modeling of an artistic life. I saved all of my notes from his Comedy Writing program at iO that I took in 2007—I managed to hang onto this big stack of papers throughout all of these years and several moves, I just felt very strongly that I had to, they are priceless doctrine to me.
Michael was such a generous and supportive teacher, he never made me feel condescended to as a student, or that I wasn’t funny, or that my comedy was “bad” ever—and looking back on my comedy writing packet and homework that I turned in, a lot of the stuff I wrote was undoubtedly rough. But Michael was giving us creative space to play, to experiment, to come into our own sense of humor and point of view.
I think one of the most important concepts that Michael instilled in us was that we needed to have a sense of “righteous indignation,” that we must cultivate and never lose this fire within, and Michael modeled that it was possible to be righteously indignant and not succumb to bitterness, that there is a space within us that can hold both this outrage as well as curiosity, love, and gratitude for this precious thing called life. And I, in turn, am eternally grateful to him.
Blayr Austin, actor
Michael made everyone in my screenwriting class feel valuable and that our scripts had potential. I remember him offering extra support to students in need after class. His wry wit about his experience in show business always made us laugh. His kindness will be missed so much.
I was late to the Michael McCarthy party. I was his student the term he was diagnosed, and while I only had him as my teacher for a few weeks, he persuaded me that getting up early and writing before my brain was beaten down by the day was a great idea, so for the last two years I’ve been up at 6 AM reading newspapers and writing jokes. Not sure if I should thank him or curse him for doing that to me, but I can not deny he changed my life. I’d like to think it was for the better, but I’m writing this at three in the afternoon. 6 AM me might be less generous.
It’s rare to meet a person twice. I first met Michael Clayton McCarthy in 2005 when I was living in Los Angeles trying to be a comedy writer. Naturally, I wanted to take a class, and Michael McCarthy was the one teaching the scriptwriting class at iO West. He was kind, knew what the hell he was talking about, and was grounded in reality, which was rare for people in Los Angeles. Shortly after the class finished with our live readings, I had to move back to Tucson. Like many people who move to LA, i had completely run out of money, food, and shelter. Michael was kind enough to mail me his notes and talk to me over the phone about my script and about me and how I was doing, despite the distance.
Jump ahead to 2015. I’m living in Chicago with a new start on life, and decide to get back into writing scripts. I look up the classes on scriptwriting at iO and there’s Michael McCarthy teaching the same class again, except now in Chicago. I take his class and he was the same person, just as kind, just as sharp, just as generous. I didn’t have to leave the city immediately after the class so I was fortunate enough to continue to work with him, writing for his POV stage show, attending his Comedy Salon, taking him up on his offer to see Emo Philips perform for free, visiting his house for barbecues and discussions about writing, following him on his cancer walk, and enough stories to fill several posts. I got to experience so much of this really awesome person.
Michael was a very talented writer who absolutely gave a shit about his craft. He also had an impressive list of credits, from Sesame Street to SNL. More important than that, though, was that he was kind. He cared about other people. He wanted other people with a passion for comedy writing and performing to succeed, and would do what he could to help that along.
He had the best qualities of a human being and a good friend. I will miss him incredibly.
Dan Dore, actor/writer/director
Michael has started the writing program at iO (formerly Improv Olympic). He left and Nate Hermann was his replacement. Michael moved back in 2012 and resumed his post. So, I went through the Pilot Presentation class with him.
We went over good and bad pilots. Cheers is one of the best. We watched a bad/poor one called Eureka. It was all over the place. When I write anything to this day, I know not to do too much, like that Eureka show.
He would put up a one-day workshop on how to find an agent, a couple of times in the following years. He’d try to give everyone insight to succeed.
Then, my best, most influential time with him, he created a show called POV (then PiOV because it was at iO.) A friend of mine told me about the chance to be a writer on it. Anyone could submit. (I qualified as an “anyone.” I was still chasing comedy—I still am.)
So, you could write jokes and/or sketches. You were then invited to the read-throughs, the performance, and the meeting after the show. People could pitch what they wanted to write for next week. And the person running it all was Michael McCarthy. He created this world and opportunity for us. So it was my first chance to be inside some kind of writer’s room.
(Side note: I did ask at one point, who’s directing the show. And he said, almost befuddled: “Me!” So that’s when I found out he was directing and producing or that’s what his responsibility was as a director, running the writer’s room.)
Michael worked on SNL in the 80’s. We all knew that. We’d submit sketches and he would pick them. This would be the same for jokes, but with the sketches, he’d write them on the white board. So, you’d see him in real time pick your sketch. He’d start to write on the board, and suddenly he’d be writing your name. (If you couldn’t make the meeting, he’d send out the script to everyone who made the show. So then you’d scan to see what sketch he picked.)
It was such an honor if he picked it. He was on SNL. Someone who was in the thick of the comedy world was choosing my sketch!
I’m not bragging, and is it a brag, but one show he pick three of my sketches in a row—in one show. Another writer looked at me, and gave me the look—as if to say, impressive. That was a good feeling. It was Michael McCarthy choosing that many sketches. He had faith in me, and shared the same humor.
I’d pick up on Michael’s humor too. It was more real, with that political tinge. (He was in Ireland, so maybe that Irish/British, subtle humor was in there.) I shared his vision. His humor. Or, it was the Chicago humor. Whatever it was, I picked up on it.
Oh, and editing. People would hand in long sketches, myself included. And he’d say make it no longer than three pages. Get to it quicker. (Another Michael quote here, he said to us all: “Edit MotherF***er”. He said it in a supportive way.)
I’d hand in so much material, or just participated so much, he then asked me to direct. Now that was an honor. He was letting me direct. The same guy who I asked months ago, “Who’s directing?”
He let me be an actor in it too. Even once was an honor there. He let me do every position there, without me even asking for him. He put his faith in me. I got to be his utility man. He gave the same opportunities to others too. It was such a supportive environment. He created that.
This happened for me all of 2016 and 2017. In 2017, he invited the writers and cast to his house, for Memorial Day. That was such a nice time. Now I was invited into his home. You make mental notes along the way. How is this person’s style? How’s he running things? How is he as a person? More and more, you’d see someone you respect, in so many aspects. Going there was one of the biggest highlights for me that year. It was a comedy-thing, but it was a personal-thing too.
During my last couple years in Chicago, Michael created “The Salon.” It was every Sunday at the Annoyance, on Belmont. They let us hang out in the bar area before shows started. Michael was continuing and strengthening the comedy community. He was giving everyone a chance to take ownership of their work, their output, their effort into their writing. It was Michael creating his support.
I always looked at it as someone who from here, went elsewhere and succeeded (LA/NY/Ireland), and wanted to go to the place he liked most, Chicago. He was back, and strengthening his ties. the community, the comedy. He was teaching at DePaul, he was married, he gushed of his wife and (step)daughter. I could see he put in all the work in life, and was just reaping the rewards in his maturing years. That was another great influence, or inspiration, for me.
He told me how he asked out Susan Messing, his wife too. He said he told her to quit “farting around.” I was unsure of this romantic wording, but it worked. I then think to myself, is this how I’m supposed to ask out my future wife? Would I ever choose those words? It worked for him. If something is a success, you have to consider it.
I moved to California in 2018. I went to see a show called Top Story Weekly in North Hollywood. I was told we could submit to that show too, like POV, so I did. I got a joke in on my first submission. I talked to the showrunner, Philip. It turns out Michael McCarthy stated this show! He did it before returning to Chicago. So, now I had this connection with Michael in a different state, and with a different group of people.
I’d keep up on Michael’s health updates over Facebook too, over the past couple of years. He’d share what he was going through. It was inspiring to see that too. I’d see all the updates while I was studying at the Second City in Hollywood. I’d see Michael’s picture on the wall there too.
This year—just this past month, I finally got up the nerve and submitted my own show. I’d put up a weekly, current events show called This Month, This Month (like Last Week, Tonight—in the name). I knew I could do it, because I saw Michael’s process. I saw how he ran things. If I was going to do this—it was because of him. We had the go-ahead, and the first show was set for April 6th. It was the day before I’d head home for the Easter/Dyngus Day break. (Dyngus Day is a thing in Buffalo, NY.)
Well, the show got canceled due to the coronavirus. (I moved the flight too. No Dyngus Day.) When we were preparing for the show, I told everyone, it was because of a guy named Michael McCarthy. So, I thought of him the whole time. There’s no show yet, but we’ll get to reschedule. All of live comedy is being put on hold. We’ll have to wait for a chance to get back out there again. And we’ll get to do it, because of, and in honor of Michael McCarthy.
Thank you, Michael.
Lisa Linke, actor
Michael was one of my writing instructors, and I had the pleasure of working on a weekly live news show with him briefly at iO in Chicago many years ago. He was brilliant, hilarious, passionate about justice, wry and compassionate. It’s such a deep loss to the world that he’s gone.
He had the uncanny ability to give you a tangible framework to accomplish something that seemed insurmountable (writing your first spec script!), and encouraged you fiercely along the way. Often you find artists/teachers who are unwilling to share all of their knowledge. Michael was the antithesis of this—he shared everything he knew freely, even getting his colleagues and connections to help beginning writers understand the terrain of a career in this field.
In no small way, he helped shape the writer and writing teacher that I became—I think of what he taught me any time I approach a script, whether it is my own, or someone else’s. In that sense, his craft will live on forever, though I’d much prefer if he did. v
- Michael McCarthy onstage with his wife, Susan Messing.
- JERRY A. SCHULMAN