The Strange and Lasting Comedy Genius of the Kids in the Hall

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The Kids in the Hall (from left to right: Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, and Scott Thompson). Photo: Maury Phillips/TBS/Getty Images

It’s been 30 years since the Kids in the Hall came together, and 20 since original episodes of the Canadian comedy troupe’s cult sketch show last aired. But rewatching the quintet’s old sketches — in advance of their first North American tour in seven years — it’s striking how ageless the material feels. The Head Crusher, who loosed terror on yuppies via the magic of visual perspective, or Buddy Cole, the king of the queens, to name just two examples, would feel adventurous even in the age of Tim and Eric. The Kids were one of the rare sketch groups who took a form typically considered a disposable means to a more lucrative end (a sitcom, a movie deal) and made it into a platform for lasting genius.

In advance of the reunion dates, I spoke with Mark McKinney and Bruce McCulloch, the first two members of the group to meet each other. In the early '80s, they formed a sketch group, the Audience, which became a fixture in the miniature Calgary comedy scene before they moved moved to Toronto, where they hooked up with Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald and, finally, in 1985, harangued Scott Thompson into joining. 

Despite comedic results that suggest the contrary, both McKinney and McCulloch were loath to say that the Kids had anything like an auteur approach to comedy. (Chalk their dismissals up to northern politeness.) In fact, during the ’80s and ’90s, when the Kids were a full-time concern, they strenuously resisted interpreting their own work or assigning any subtextual spin to the oeuvre. “There was always a pooh-poohing of theoretical discussions,” McKinney said. And McCulloch remembered that “whenever we’d have a theoretical conversation about comedy, we’d stop, because we knew if we kept at it, we’d break up.” The five made a strange concoction together — the heat of too much scrutiny might have spoiled it.

Nonetheless, it’s clear there was something more to their work than just the jokes. The Kids had that essential kernel of artistry: an actual point of view. It was never explicit but clearest in the way they acted their broad range of characters, from Simon the hapless Satanist to Gavin, the curious boy who never knows when he’s overstayed his welcome. Often, the more outlandish the character, the more committed and lived-in the performances. Conversely, the more a character resembled a type one might actually encounter in the real world, the more arch and stylized the performance. Take McKinney’s most notorious creation, the Chicken Lady, a sex-crazed circus freak: In his hands, it was hard to tell whether she was most unsettling for her half-poultry appearance or her wild nymphomania. McKinney truly inhabited her, and gave her a deep backstory — a repeat viewer could be forgiven for imagining that somewhere, the Chicken Lady was really out there, desperately trying to get laid. Yet the scenes with the Geralds, for instance — two businessmen who supersaturated every interaction with business-negotiating jargon (“Perhaps we can accommodate the obvious interests of your client: How about this? A six-date schedule with possible sexual intercourse on date six”) — the harder it became to fathom the true existence of people who actually went out and got MBAs. Their freaks were real, and normalcy became the ultimate drag.

For his part, McKinney insisted “there was no Dogme manifesto,” and credited any larger artistic point of view contained in the sketches to the crucible of their early days performing in Toronto clubs rather than to an explicit comedic agenda. The Kids started a bare-bones act, writing and staging a completely new sketch show each week at a Toronto rock venue, the Rivoli. They had no sets and barely any costumes, but they were determined from the beginning to bring their most outré ideas to life. McKinney reflected that “committing to those more difficult characters was something we had to do to bring the audience along when all we had was a wig drenched in flop sweat.” They also had only themselves to fill each week’s performance — “every week, if somebody had a sketch that works, it was like, oh, thank God” McCulloch remembered — so there was plenty of stage time for their weirdest concepts.

Just as important as the fact that the group couldn’t expect audiences to sit through skits like “Naked for Jesus” (a filmed monologue where a nude McCulloch earnestly pronounced he wasn’t just naked, he was naked for Jesus!) if they were performed with anything less than fanatic commitment, was the notion that all five members shared a profound alienation from the pale middle classes from which they came. Dave Foley was a high-school dropout, McKinney flunked out of college, and Scott Thompson was kicked out of Toronto’s York University. Surveying the wreckage of their collective adolescence and young adulthood, McCulloch noted, “We all grew up as unhappy young men, or young men who hadn’t found their place. We were of the suburbs. We were of parents that were always getting drunk and/or having heart attacks. We grew up going, It doesn’t have to be this way.” Sketch was an outlet for the impulses that otherwise had no place — McCulloch remembered that when he stumbled upon a comedy club as a Calgary teenager, it felt as raw, immediate, and freeing as punk-rock.

These two pillars of the Kids’ sensibility — conceptual adventurousness and social alienation — were formed in Canada, far from the Los Angeles–New York comedy-industrial complex. SCTV and Dan Aykroyd notwithstanding, it was almost unheard of for Toronto comedy groups to have their stars poached by talent scouts, which meant that the Kids stayed intact for years before they made any money. This allowed them to cohere as a group, since, in McKinney’s words, “we went through this period as single guys with no lives and terrible jobs where sketch was all we did, for five years. It was the reason to get up in the morning.”

The Kids’ TV show was eventually ushered onto television by their fellow Canadian, comedy power broker Lorne Michaels. But nothing could be further from the Kids than Michaels’s Saturday Night Live, the standard-bearer of American sketch, with its fresh-from-the–Harvard Lampoon writers, reliance on pop culture and political impressions, and revolving door of cast members. “The SNL people felt like they were in a limo you wanted to get in. We ain’t that,” McCulloch said. “We’re guys hanging around at home, saying weird shit.”

All this raises a question for a fan who sees that McCulloch, McKinney, McDonald, Foley, and Thompson are touring again, nearly 20 years after the troupe’s acrimonious breakup during the filming of Brain Candy, their infamous flop of a feature film: If what made the Kids great was their enthusiastic weirdness, youthful alienation, and distance from the comedic mainstream, what sort of juice will these shows hold now that the group has firmly entered legacy territory?

The momentum of their unlikely rise during the '90s undid the Kids, but the course of the intervening years may have brought them together. Their careers have progressed solo, and that’s also how they’ve experienced their various periodic professional and personal ebbs and flows. As McCulloch put it, “because we’ve all been successful and had our asses kicked, we realized [The Kids in the Hall is] an important thing to have in our lives. The show is a home.” Mark found that as even as he went on to projects like the beloved CBC TV theater comedy Slings and Arrows, “there really is only one true comedy experience that’s available to me — one that’s about sharing and battling.”

It’s encouraging to hear that this tour grew out of a comedy Miller-Urey experiment, which attempted to re-create the primordial ooze out of which life first emerged on Earth rather than something more crass or cozy. After completing Death Comes to Town, a one-off miniseries for Canadian television, the Kids decided to try to replicate the creative constraints of their bygone Rivoli days: They booked five nights at a 500-seat theater in Toronto and gave themselves a week to write and stage each show. The best sketches to precipitate out of this reactive atmosphere made it into the current touring production, alongside some old favorites. “It just gathers every so often, says McCulloch wryly about the Kids' return, "like a terrible storm on the horizon.”