Looking Back at Kids in the Hall

The Kids in the Hall is one of the most influential sketch shows of all time. In terms of importance, I’d argue it’s right up there with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Saturday Night Live. The show pushed the envelope in a number of ways, with its bizarre, surreal sense of humor that hadn’t been seen on sketch shows since Python. Additionally, it touched on sensitive topics like homosexuality that were at the time largely absent from TV shows. I should admit that I am a bit biased when it comes to this show; KITH was one of the first comedy shows I really got into when I was growing up, so it might be hard at times for me to view KITH completely objectively. But I still think the show stands on its own merits objectively, despite my undying love for it.

The Kids in The Hall consisted of five guys — Bruce McCulloch, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson. While performing around Toronto in the 1980’s, the group caught the eye of fellow Canadian Lorne Michaels, who helped them put together their own show for Canadian TV, and later HBO. Although never hugely popular during its run, the show lasted five seasons and influenced an entire generation of comedians.

The Kids were apparently quite competitive and critical of each other. This resulted in a sometimes-tense working relationship but a very high bar for what did and did not get on the show. These were five guys who clearly loved and knew sketch comedy quite well and they wanted to explore new territory. This opening sketch from the second episode comedicaly explains the parameters of the genre, almost as if they were explaining the rules that would later break.

Compared to other sketch shows like SNL, Kids in the Hall generally avoided lampooning immediate current events and public figures, instead focusing on more broad cultural trends and issues. This gives KITH a certain timeless quality, allowing it to age fairly gracefully. There were plenty of themes they returned to again and again, many of them related to suburban, middle class life.

Gordon, Fran and Brian, the family featured in the above sketch, appeared numerous times throughout the show as kind of stand-in for your generic dysfunctional middle-class family. One of the things I love is how it’s written so ambiguously in regards to the tone. Besides a few gag lines, almost the either sketch could have been performed as a drama instead of a comedy. That’s a kind of subtlety that no other show was capable of up to that point.

That is of course Scott Thompson playing the female role of Fran. Kids in the Hall was unique in how it featured extensive drag performances by the Kids, but unlike Monty Python, the mere fact that they were in drag was itself rarely played for jokes, but rather that characters themselves were the source of humor. Probably the most famous drag characters were Kathy and Cathy, the secretaries at AT & Love Inc., the generic corporation where all the business sketches took place.

Gay issues were probably the other major theme the show dealt with, most of which were written by Thompson, who was openly gay. The most famous gay character he played was Buddy, the gay bar owner who made many, many monologues. The sketches that stuck with me though were ones like following. It depicts a homosexual couple in a mundane domestic argument, something you rarely see on TV today, let alone 20 years ago. It manages to get humor out of the characters homosexuality while still respecting it, which is quite an accomplishment.

All that being said, there are a lot of KITH sketches that are just silly and surreal, without any obvious satiric target. Take for example the famous head crusher sketches, about a unusual man who likes to pretend to crush people’s heads with his fingers. Here he faces off against his nemesis, the face pincher.

There’s also this quick, but very weird bit that asks the question, “What if men ran for office that really shouldn’t have bothered?” Men, for example, with raw meat for hands. Sure, it’s pretty dumb, but the Kids clearly realize this too, keeping the whole bit under a minute. Sketches like these most clearly demonstrate the influence Monty Python has had on KITH.

One aspect of the show which I’ve almost never seen on any other sketch program was their extensive use of comedic monologues. The cast members would often address the camera directly with an extended monologue or rant. Frequently these were performed out of character, like this one in which Dave Foley reveals he has a good attitude towards menstruation.

There were, however, plenty of monologues done in character as well. Here, Bruce McCulloch portrays a rebellious young adult bummed about his job at a bank.

After the show ended in 1995, members of the group went their separate ways to varying degrees of success. The group has reunited various times for projects ranging from tours to movies and more. Nothing any of them have done in my opinion has ever rivaled the hilarity of this show, but considering how great these five seasons are, that’s a pretty tall order for anyone.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.

Looking Back at Kids in the Hall