Michael McKean brings 20th anniversary of ‘A Mighty Wind’ to SF Sketchfest

To hear Michael McKean describe Jerry Palter — the character he created for the beloved folk mockumentary “A Mighty Wind” — one would assume that the role was meant to blend into the background and fade into oblivion forever.

“He reminds me so much of the openers I would see for folk acts like Dave Van Ronk,” said McKean. “They would all perform kind of competent cover versions of traditional songs, but they were usually not very good. And that’s what I think of Jerry. He just has this very white bread kind of look. He’s kind of a cornball, really.”

Yet 20 years later, the images of the milquetoast folk singer masterfully played by McKean still linger and “A Mighty Wind” remains a beloved piece of comedy. With his classic deadbeat delivery and masterful appropriation of Boomer-era mannerisms (and skillful musicianship), McKean created a physical manifestation of an NPR morning show in Palter, a harmless man with slight delusions of grandeur.

On Saturday, McKean reunites with longtime collaborators Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer — the trio behind such classics as “This is Spinal Tap” and “Best in Show” — for a 20th anniversary celebration of “A Mighty Wind” as part of SF Sketchfest. That threesome are joined onstage by fellow character actors Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Kevin Pollack and many others for a screening of and conversation about the endearing film.

McKean said the roots of “A Mighty Wind” can be traced back to the days of “This is Spinal Tap,” the 1984 smash hit that skewered the excesses of classic rock.

“The three of us were doing a Spinal Tap photo shoot for Rolling Stone magazine, and afterward they took a picture  of us in our civvies, without our wigs on, and we all thought we looked like a washed-up 60s folks group,” said McKean. “And so, we all kind of went, “ding!” — ‘we are so doing that.’”

Following that moment of inspiration, McKean, Guest and Shearer created The Folksmen, a fictitious group that made its debut on Saturday Night Live in 1984. Nearly 20 years later, they would reprise their role as one of the central storylines in “A Mighty Wind.” 

McKean and his wife Annette O’Toole were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song from the film, a Folksmen tune titled “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow.” (The group also specialized in joyless rock covers, which include the least-sexiest version ever recorded of the Rolling Stones classic “Start Me Up.”)

McKean said his father, who grew up in the same Louisiana town as the legendary Leadbelly, was a big jazz and blues fan and helped instill a love of music. He started playing guitar at 14 and the instrument has been a major part of his life since; he’s starred in two of the most well-known music films of the past 40 years.

“I started writing songs as a teenager,” said McKean. “Even though I loved music, I kind of always knew I wanted to go to school to study acting and pursue that career. But I always enjoy incorporating music into acting when I can.” 

While McKean has won legions of fans for his hilariously nuanced portrayals of aging (and clueless) musicians, the venerable actor is known for so much more. He launched his comedy career portraying slicked-back truck driver Lenny Kosnowski in “Laverne and Shirley” back in the mid-70s and eventually landed as a cast member on Saturday Night Live.  

He’s had memorable roles as an overzealous immigration agent in “Coneheads” and a spineless radio programmer in “Airheads.” His career took on even greater resonance due to his recent performance as Chuck McGill, the doomed older brother of Jimmy McGill, the (future) titular character of the award-winning AMC show “Better Call Saul.”

“I consider myself very fortunate to have this kind of career,” said McKean. “I’ve met so many amazing people. And I’ve been lucky to work with the same people over and over again, which is nice, since I don’t have to learn too many new names.” 

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