underrated

Scott Thompson on CODCO, the Hidden Gem of Newfoundland

CODCO at the Algoma Fall Festival.

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underratedwe chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

One of the first monologues Scott Thompson performed for Kids in the Hall centered on his Canadian identity. “Americans know as much about Canada as straight people do about gays,” he purred to camera as his foppish alter ego Buddy Cole. So it’s no surprise that one of Thompson’s favorite sketch troupes of all time, CODCO, also reveled in their regional identity. The members of CODCO were from Newfoundland, somewhere between the Kentucky of Canada and John Waters’s Baltimore. Tommy Sexton, Greg Malone, Mary Walsh, Cathy Jones, and Andy Jones lampooned the Canadian view of Newfoundland: boorish hicks who lived and copulated in the scenic yet economically deprived fishing villages of Canada’s youngest province.

Huge in Canada but relatively unknown in the U.S., CODCO ran for four seasons on the CBC from from 1986 to 1992. They shared an hour time slot with the Kids. Many of the members went on to form the seminal news parody show This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

Thompson has been touring the U.S. as Buddy and promoting the reissue of his book Buddy Babylon. The character, and Thompson’s entire body of work, was deeply impacted by the untimely death of CODCO member Tommy Sexton. Sexton died in 1993 of complications from AIDS. Sexton’s death, and his own cancer diagnosis in 2009, made Thompson realize that his time on Earth was finite, and that he needed to make art while he could. After his cancer went into remission, Thompson, now 58, started performing stand-up. His first album, Not a Fan, is out tomorrow.

Thank you for turning me on to a show I hadn’t seen before.
I was thinking it was a little obscure. You watched it, eh?

Yeah, it’s all up on YouTube.
Oh good! I didn’t even realize.

You can’t help but notice the extremely Canadian content of it all, and specifically the Newfoundland-iness. What is Newfoundland’s relationship to the rest of Canada?
It only came into the confederation in 1949, that’s how young it is. That’s how young Canada is, as a country. Until that time, they were a separate place. They were more linked to England and Ireland in many ways than they were to Canada. They were dragged into confederation; they were the last ones to join. When I was young, they were considered the laughingstock of the nation. When I was a kid, there used to be a thing called a Polish joke. Those were a huge deal with my cousins across the border — everything was a Polack joke. And in Canada, there were Newfie jokes. Those were terms you wouldn’t use now, but that’s what we called them back then. And Newfie was a pejorative term: “How many Newfies does it take to do this?” But over the years, it changed, in my lifetime, to become the sense of humor of the country — it’s gone from being the laughingstock to the engine of Canadian comedy. They consider themselves a little distinct from the rest of Canada, and you can tell. They have the most distinctive of the Canadian accents, really only understood by us. Barely. Did you have a hard time understanding it?

No, but it did sound almost Scottish or Irish.
It’s more Irish. That’s where most of them came from. In many ways, CODCO was ethnic. It doesn’t really cross borders. It’s entirely for Canadians. I don’t think they’re known even in Great Britain or Ireland. In Canada, everyone knows them and the people that came from them. Like Rick Mercer, who was from that world — he was a talk-show host forever. So they’re all over the place, those four: Mary Walsh, Cathy Jones, Greg Malone, and Tommy Sexton.

They ran The Kids in the Hall and CODCO in an hour every Thursday night from 9 to 10 on regular television, almost without censorship. It was quite a thing, an hour of really scathing satire.

Was there a sense of camaraderie between the two troupes?
Absolutely, yes. We were all rebels. We were all tilting against different windmills. Their main obsession was the church. Newfoundland at the time was just coming out of this huge revolution where the church had been shaken by sex scandals. Like what happened all over the place, but it really began in Newfoundland in a place called Mount Cashel, where it was all starting to fall apart. It was a huge, huge deal. And after that, they went from being the most Catholic of all of the provinces other than Quebec to being the least — from the most religious to the least religious in one generation. It was a fascinating turnaround. But they were obsessed, and scathing in their ridicule of the church. Just scathing. And they were always in trouble with censors, just like us. I guess our obsession was more male culture, male business culture, gender roles, that sort of thing. And for me personally, sexuality. That was my thing.

And, like us, they all cross-dressed. Constantly, as we did. That was a really common thing for both of us. They were so brilliant and had such a big influence on us. The Kids were always talking about SCTV and Monty Python, but the third pillar that people don’t talk about is CODCO.

What do you think that CODCO brought to you guys? What did you learn from them?
They went for it. They never hesitated. Their fearlessness really impressed itself upon me. And their energy, their physical energy. I find them a very visceral group. They were very sexual. Both troupes were very sexual. They were more dysfunctional than we were, even though we have this reputation for being a very dysfunctional group. Well, we were. But “dysfunctional” means you don’t get anything done, right? We got lots of things done, it was just that we fought like crazy while we were doing it. The key difference between us and them was they were fucking each other, and we weren’t. So that was a key thing. They were more incestuous that way. They drank a lot more, which is hard to believe. But Newfoundland is a very hard-drinking part of the country. It’s very much that Irish stereotype. And at the time they were all pretty hard partiers. Maybe I shouldn’t be going into this.

They’ve been open about that. Mary Walsh said that her peak alcoholism was during CODCO, and then it stopped around This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
Oh yeah, Mary Walsh was a wild, raging alcoholic, but an incredible woman. She’s a force of nature. Mary Walsh is a very big influence on me. Just a fearless warrior. That was one of her biggest characters, [Marg] Warrior Princess.

Another icon for me was Tommy Sexton. He was the gay one, and openly gay. We both had openly gay troupe members, which was unheard of at that time. Tommy was brilliant. He died very early on, very soon after CODCO finished. Before they morphed into 22 Minutes, Tommy was dead. Nobody was talking about [AIDS] then. Tommy was openly gay, but differently than I was. It had a huge impact on me.

How was he openly gay in a different way than you were?
I don’t know exactly how to explain it. Partly because he was sick from the beginning. He didn’t have the chance that I had. He was open, but he didn’t have that chance to do it — maybe he didn’t have the energy.

He had done a show before CODCO, The Wonderful Grand Band. And Tommy and Greg — they were partners, writing partners. They had a scene called “Kissing Booth” where they played two really trashy Newfoundland women who ran a kissing booth and basically just molested men, and it was hilarious. This was maybe even before I had met the other Kids in the Hall, I remember watching it and going, “They’re gay, they have to be! No straight man would ever kiss a man on the lips.” That was unheard of in those days. And then he died, and it was a huge thing. He never got to fulfill his potential. I never got to work with him. So many of my generation were just taken. It impressed something on me. There were these two troupes, CODCO and Monty Python. They both have openly gay members, Graham Chapman in Python. And they were dead. It really made me go, “Oh, I guess I’m next.”

Did that thought cross your mind when you got cancer?
Yes. Oh God, yeah.

The gay one goes first?
Yeah, I don’t get to live to a ripe old age. The gay one dies young. Absolutely that crossed my mind. It did make me go, “Ahh fuck! Why can’t gay men live long lives?” I know that sounds dramatic, but that’s how I felt. And when Tommy died, I just assumed. There was a feeling at that time that we were all going to get [HIV] — all gay men were eventually going to get it. So why hesitate to tell the truth? What do I have to lose? If I get through this, it’ll be a miracle. And if I don’t get through this, at least I’ll have done the right thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we live in a miraculous age, when AIDS isn’t a death sentence.
Yeah, it’s remarkable. It’s hard for me to even appreciate it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to let go. I don’t think so. I don’t know if that’s possible, if I’ll ever be able to relax. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to believe that these changes are permanent.

You talk about your cancer in your new stand-up album.
I do like 15 minutes on it.

It’s your first album. Why now?
It’s a challenge. I decided when I got cancer nine years ago that if I got through it — and I was pretty certain I would — that when I got better I would become a stand-up comedian. It’s always been this thing that I was afraid of. I consider [stand-up] the high-water mark of comedy for a solo performer. You’re the performer, you’re the writer, you’re the producer. You’re in charge, and you can’t blame anyone. If you get it wrong, it’s your fault. And if you get it right, it’s you.

So I thought that when I got better, I’d probably be able to do it and not be afraid. I’d had people pushing me to do it before. I would dabble in it, but I would never have considered myself a stand-up. I respected the form too much. To really do stand-up, you have to devote years of your life to it. So that’s what I did. When I got better in 2010, I was back in Canada. I had to go home for the health care. I stayed and reinvented myself and worked until I was ready to go back and show off a new skill.

What’s different about doing an hour of stand-up versus a bunch of Buddy monologues in a row?
It’s very different. When I’m doing Buddy for 60 to 70 minutes, I have to stay in character. I have to make sure that every reaction, every gesture is in character. When you’re yourself, you don’t have to worry about that. In some ways, that’s what makes it more difficult. In some ways it’s easier to hide behind a character. With stand-up, there’s nowhere to hide.

It’s only in the last few years that it’s been possible for a person like me to tell their truth comedically. In the ’90s, you couldn’t have done that. There were openly gay stand-up comics, but they never had much success. They basically worked in this ghetto, the gay circuit. It’s only in the last five years [that] a sea change happened, and the majority went, “Oh! Suddenly it’s not right to be openly homophobic.” Whereas before when I was onstage, it was always a battle to show that I was okay, to make them comfortable with what they were watching. But I don’t feel that anymore. I don’t have to do that. And if people are hostile, I don’t really care.

Before, Buddy really was my stand-up. You couldn’t be a stand-up and talk about what I do. The ugliness was so real. You just can’t imagine what it was like in the clubs then. It was a straight white male world, and everybody else just had to live by those rules. There was barely a place for women. There was no place for gay people. Closeted lesbians, there were tons of them, but gay males? God, no. Gay males were like the bottom of the barrel. Every comic did a gay bit, every comic had a gay voice. They made fun of gay men.

Eddie Murphy made his career off it.
Eddie Murphy got a Mark Twain Award for saying “faggot.” And that’s only a couple years ago.

Speaking of there not being a place for women or gay men, CODCO had both. And something I don’t see as much, even in coed troupes, is cross-dressing going both ways.
Women doing men, yeah. The Baroness Von Sketch women, they do it. Cross-dressing now, it’s also very different in the States. In Canada, it’s more of the Commonwealth tradition, where it’s more acceptable for a male to dress as a woman. It’s not necessarily considered gay, whereas here, it’s a more alpha nation. It’s more alpha male is how I see it, and a more strict gender binary. It’s a more homophobic nation, deep down, because it’s a more male nation.

Do you think that’s one reason CODCO didn’t make it over here — because they weren’t alpha male?
I think that’s part of it. I think it’s also the ethnicity. I think they were just too damn ethnically Canadian. Americans just don’t like to have Canadians be a distinct ethnic group. They don’t like it. I don’t have a super-thick accent or anything, but when certain things come out, when I say “a-gaynst,” Americans don’t like it: “What are you doing, you trying to be special?”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Scott Thompson on CODCO, the Hidden Gem of Newfoundland