Michael Clayton McCarthy achieved the comedy dream and proved you could do it going in the opposite direction.
McCarthy (no relation) became a staff writer for Saturday Night Live at age 24 in 1983, followed that up with two years writing for Sesame Street, and then went to Chicago, where he’d perform for six years in various capacities with The Second City, and follow that up with many years teaching future comedy greats at Second City and improvOlympic.
He died April 8 from cancer, after having moved out of the hospital to hospice at home in late March. He was 61.
Originally from Cleveland, McCarthy went to high school in Akron, then studied at Ohio University’s College of Communications, School of Radio and Television, where he graduated in 1981. In addition to writing for SNL (1983-84 season) and Sesame Street (1985-87), he also wrote episodes in the 1990s for The Drew Carey Show and Suddenly Susan.
McCarthy wound up in Chicago, though, and by 1987, he had begun his longtime affiliation with The Second City. By his own count, three shows with the main stage, two shows for ETC, and a year and a half of touring.
He also picked up occasional acting gigs, more often than not portraying a priest. Credits include episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, According to Jim, Gilmore Girls, Spin City, Freaks and Geeks, and Coach. At Second City, McCarthy started the Training Center’s writing program; while in Hollywood for acting gigs, he started a second writing program for the former iO West program. Teaching Second City in the 1990s meant many comedy greats of our generation learned from McCarthy.
You can see and hear McCarthy talk about comedy writing, from this 2012 writers conference at DePaul University, where he also taught.
He also managed to start a comedy festival in Ireland, helping create and executive produce the first few years of Kilkennny’s Cat Laughs, bringing along his Chicago and Second City comedy pals, including George Wendt in 1995, and Bill Murray and his brothers Brian and Joel the following year.
In September 2012, he married Susan Messing, a founding member of The Annoyance Theater. Messing remained both a bedrock of Chicago’s comedy scene as well as McCarthy’s support throughout his ordeal with cancer.
iO founder Charna Halpern posted on Facebook, via Tara DeFrancisco:
I was going to write a tribute to Michael McCarthy but Tara posted something that was so great that I copied part of it and pasted it. She spoke of a night when Michael taught her the phrase PIL SUNG which he learned in Tae Kwon Do. I reposted this instead of writing something because this philosophy was clearly followed by Michael and embodies the way he was. Please read it and you will know Michael.
“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.”
To which DeFrancisco replied: “He is this, so clearly. I wouldn’t have written it had it not been in my phone/so fully been what he was – especially what Susan shared about how he lived, and still somehow continues to be this. Indomitable Spirit. It’s like it was written about him.”
McCarthy’s contribution to The Second City’s 50th anniversary in 2009 gets the last word.