Cast of Thousands

updated 05/06/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/06/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

MARK MCKINNEY'S NEIGHBORS MUST think his apartment is haunted. Voices—some with weird European accents, others squawking like chickens—resonate through the walls of the two-bedroom place the Saturday Night Live regular shares with his wife, Marina Gharabegian, and their infant son, Christopher, on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "They're all these different people who live in Mark's head," explains Gharabegian, 28, a former caterer who married McKinney last September. "Mark will start talking to me in a character's voice, and a few days later it will end up on television."

Using that method, McKinney, 33, created the Chicken Lady, a shrill featherbrain he first played (in beak and dress) as one of the Kids in the Hall, the celebrated troupe of Canadian sketch comics who performed from 1984 to 1994. McKinney's most recent character is Don Roritor, the villainous drug-company tycoon he plays in Kids in the Hall's first movie, Brain Candy, which opened nationally on April 12.

Today, though, McKinney is speaking for himself. Very softly. Christopher Thomas Russell McKinney, born on March 4, is napping in his nursery, and his puffy-eyed dad (who has been getting by on five hours of sleep) is determined not to wake him. Fatherhood really isn't much of a change, McKinney insists: "You just have to make this adjustment to go without sleep."

McKinney could have used a nap after shooting Brain Candy last summer. The movie, with Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch and Scott Thompson, showcases all five in multiple roles. Besides evil executive Roritor—who is marketing a feel-good drug called Gleemonex as if it were a Snickers bar—McKinney turns up as a dopey cop, a Croatian cabbie, a nerdy chemist and a talk show diva. "Mark is like Peter Sellers," says McDonald. "He can do accents at the drop of a hat."

McKinney has heard a lot of exotic speech patterns firsthand. His father, Russell, is a retired Canadian career diplomat, and his mother, Chloe, is an architectural writer. "I was a diplomatic brat," says McKinney, who was born in Ottawa but moved with his family—including sister Jayne (now 39 and a children's shelter manager) and brother Nick (27 and also a comedian)—to postings around the world. He went on to study at Memorial University in Newfoundland in 1980. "I was not a serious student," he says. But before flunking out in his freshman year, he worked at the campus radio station, where he had his first brush with comedy. "I did funny voices for commercials," he says.

Moving to Calgary, Alta., in the late 1980s, he hooked up with McCulloch and Norm Hiscock (now an SNL writer), and the three formed a comedy troupe, the Audience. Then, in 1983, McKinney and McCulloch set out for Toronto, where they teamed with Foley and McDonald, who called themselves the Kids in the Hall. Their name came from a famous Jack Benny aside, "I got that one from the kids in the hall"—a reference to the gag writers who hung around outside his office.

Benny, presumably, would have blanched at these Kids, who deal in dark humor (one sketch has trappers slaying yuppies, then selling their Armani "pelts") and often dress in drag. By 1989 the Kids had become a national phenomenon, and SNL producer—and fellow Canadian—Lome Michaels signed them to a CBC series that began that year. (The show is now in reruns on Comedy Central.) They taped their last show in 1994 and have begun to prosper on their own. Foley now stars on NBC's NewsRadio; McDonald was in National Lampoon's Senior Trip; Thompson is a regular on The Larry Sanders Show; and McKinney, hired as an SNL regular in January 1995, survived last summer's cast purge to emerge as one of this season's stars. "His Steve Forbes impression," Michaels says, "is brilliant."

Forbes agrees—with the possible exception of McKinney's manic giggle. When the publisher announced his presidential candidacy, his daughter Moira told him her greatest fear was that he would be parodied on Saturday Night Live. Forbes appeared as an SNL guest host himself on April 13. "I assured her this was progress," he says.

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
MARIA SPEIDEL in Manhattan

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