100 jokes

The Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson Used Gay Provocateur Buddy Cole As an Essential Megaphone

Illustration: David Perezcassar

Buddy Cole doesn’t care about what you think of him. Played by actor-comedian Scott Thompson, Buddy’s one of the most famous characters to come out of the Canadian sketch-comedy troupe the Kids in the Hall, and he’s provocation made manifest. Buddy is a world-weary gay man, utterly unafraid to offer his dry takes on the most incendiary topics. For about 30 years, Thompson has been creating and performing monologues as Buddy for stage and screen appearances, and though the character’s effeminate mannerisms and cultural interests are influenced by generations of gay performers like Paul Lynde and Liberace, Buddy was something unique: He was explicitly sexual.

Thompson felt that those queer forebears in comedy history had been, as he puts it, “castrated” — they could be cheeky and suggestive, but they weren’t allowed to actually be textually gay, and god forbid they should actually talk about having sex with men. Thompson wanted to build a figure who stepped over that line, much as he himself had done by being openly gay on television many years before Ellen DeGeneres’s famed coming-out. Buddy became a staple for Thompson not only on the show but in the Kids’ periodic reunion tours, a mock autobiography, a brief correspondent gig on The Colbert Report, and a series of video blogs.

Thompson’s had a rocky few years in the recent past, having battled lymphoma, as well as seeing his most recent high-profile role, as CSI Jimmy Price on Hannibal, cut short when the show was abruptly canceled. Nevertheless, he’s pressing on and contemplating a return to his most iconic character. Vulture included Buddy’s Kids in the Hall monologue about racism and stereotypes in our new list of 100 jokes that changed comedy, and we caught up with Thompson to talk about why the monologue only works if a gay man is delivering it, how he feels that he’s never developed a gay following, and the subtext of Buddy’s experiences with AIDS.

Let’s talk about the racism monologue.
That one was a big one for me.

Why did you do it?
It was during a very polarized time and it was around a very hot discussion of race, it was around the time of the Jean-Philippe Rushton controversy [about the intelligence of different racial groups]. I remember the monologue came quickly to me, like it was dictated. I wanted to play with the idea of stereotypes and then undercut them as they went along. Mark McKinney helped me with it. It was a controversial one. It really freaked people out.

How so? What kinds of responses did you get?
All kinds of responses. But I mean, you can’t really argue with funny. There has to be something to it, if people laugh. I really like comedy that makes you uncomfortable. It was definitely hotly debated within the group.

What were those debates like?
I mean, we were always fighting over everything, and there were some members of the group that thought it might be a little too dicey. But I stood my ground, and we had an unwritten rule in the group that if someone really, really believed in something, then we had to let them do it. At the time, I guess I wasn’t very cautious about anything. I was very much like, Dive in. It’s an exciting piece to perform because you’re dancing on the edge of a knife, and I find that very exhilarating.

It’s difficult for white people to talk about race. Especially white liberals. They don’t think they have a right to talk about race. But we’re all racists! We all have a right to talk about race, that’s my belief. Racism is human nature. I don’t believe remotely that it’s a white thing — that, to me, is another very racist idea, that whites are the only racist people. It’s probably the most racist idea we’ve ever come up with.

I mean, you travel into the world and you realize very quickly that racism is everywhere and that all human beings assign different qualities to other people as the “other,” and human beings are always trying to find ways to make it look like their group is better. That’s just human nature, and it’s got nothing to do with Caucasians. And I don’t think that monologue would ever have worked if it wasn’t done by an effeminate homosexual.

Why does it matter that an effeminate gay man is doing the monologue?
Because it’s a minority speaking. A straight guy doing that monologue, the audience would not hear it. The way Buddy speaks, that accent, whatever you want to call it, it makes the audience listen because they hear it and they immediately understand in maybe a subconscious way that a person like that has experience with prejudice. It therefore gives the speaker more of a right. And human beings are very conditioned to hear that voice and not take it seriously, too, and to think of it as a figure of fun and silliness.

So Buddy Cole uses that as a weapon — that faggy accent makes people go, Oh, this person is silly, all they care about is hair and makeup and clothing and silly things. Right? And then Buddy delivers very deep things and hard truths and difficult concepts. Buddy Cole is a stereotype doing a monologue about stereotypes — not just about racial stereotypes, but all kinds of stereotypes. The idea that there aren’t men like that is ridiculous, and gay men have a delusional view about the way they present to the world. A lot of gay men think they don’t read gay, but they do. So Buddy’s accepting of all of it — he’s accepting of who he is, where he stands in the world.

It’s interesting that you mention the voice, because I’d argue that the key line of the whole monologue is when Buddy briefly turns it toward himself and says, “People make fun of me because I lisp. Really! Such a lot of fuss over a few extra s’s!”
That’s because human beings can’t handle ambiguity. We want things to be black and white, we want men to be this way, we want women to be this way. Buddy rejects all that. The politics of the gay community at the time were very much about rejecting that and going, No! Men aren’t necessarily super-masculine, and sometimes women are super-masculine. Also, for me, it was a personally powerful because I had a lisp growing up. I had speech therapy for years. Doing Buddy was, subconsciously, me becoming my lisp.

When I first started speaking as Buddy, it was difficult for me. I’d always seen actors have their different voices, and back then, they all had their “gay voice,” and I would do never what I considered a stereotypical gay voice. I felt like if I did, Oh my god, it would take control of me and I’d never speak — I know this sounds awful — I would never speak straight again! But I think that joke is basically that there are differences between people, but they’re minor and they don’t matter, really. It’s about, like, What the hell’s wrong with you? Why do people hate the effeminate male? I don’t quite understand it.

And I honestly believe it’s still that way. We may have found ways to pretend that it’s not, but I do believe, deep down, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. That’s the most egregious type of homophobia and it’s the truest form of homophobia. The prejudice towards masculine women is not even comparable. It’s about faggots. Buddy knows that, everywhere he goes, everybody knows what he is. He has to have an armor, because he understands that, once you get outside your liberal bubble, it’s a very different planet.

That’s one of the reasons it was so fitting that you brought the character back to do foreign-correspondent work at the Sochi Olympics for The Colbert Report. Buddy’s showing that the fear of effeminate men is everywhere, even on the other side of the planet. Why didn’t that feature continue on the show?
Oh, I would have loved it! Maybe if the gay community had noticed it, it might have. But they’ve never noticed me.

I have no gay following. You’d be shocked. It’s a heartbreak for me, but I’ve made peace with it. My whole career has been ignored by the gay establishment. I’m not even being bitter. Oh, I was bitter. I’m now being matter of fact about it. It just speaks to the incredible self-loathing of gay men.

How does one make peace with something like that?
Age. The last few years, I’ve had a lot of things happen to me that were really ugly and really earth-shattering. I just had to go, I gotta make peace because I can’t continue to be angry at the gay community for not acknowledging me. I mean, I’ve never been mentioned by GLAAD, ever. My entire career. Never. Buddy Cole, my stand-up career, my book, my graphic novel, Larry Sanders, nothing. Coming out on television, you’d think, maybe. But nothing.

Well, Hannibal fans love you for your role on that show.
Yeah, but no one cares. Back in the day, early in my career, there was a brief flurry of press, but then people realized, Oh, he’s a real comedian, not just an activist making us feel good. Then I was written out and that was the end of me. So my whole thing now is, I like people that love comedy. Comedians are my people. That’s my tribe. That’s the only tribe I want to identify with. I’m pretty proud of being Canadian, but that’s about it. [Laughs.] I feel like identity politics has hit at a wall. It’s nonsense. We’ve got to keep stop slicing ourselves into thinner and thinner slices. It’s getting us nowhere.

How do you feel about Buddy now? Have you been working on new Buddy material?
No, because I embraced stand-up the last six or seven years. I wanted to get good at that. Buddy Cole, in many ways, was my stand-up voice in a time when I could not be myself. But there was a tipping point when I realized, Oh, I don’t have to be Buddy Cole. I can be myself. So that’s what I’ve been doing. But there are some topics that I think I’m going to write for Buddy. There’s certain topics that are so incendiary that I feel like, maybe the only person that can handle this is Buddy. Society always has taboos, on the left and the right, and Buddy Cole ignores all those things. He doesn’t see left or right. He just goes, “It’s all nonsense. We’re all the same. We all screw up.”

What’s also remarkable about Buddy is how he’s a counterweight to the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy vision of homosexuality.
Please, don’t … ugh.

Those depictions have historically communicated that being gay means a million different stereotypical things having to do with fashion and decorating and lisps and all that bullshit. But, in reality, the only definitional aspect of being gay is attraction to men. In an infuriating irony, that sexual impulse is the one thing those kinds of characters aren’t allowed to talk about.
Totally. And it castrates us. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was part of the castration of gay males in the last 20, 30 years. In order for us to be accepted, we had to give up our dicks. You can dress it up all you like, but deep down, that’s what being gay is about: fucking. Even our move towards gay marriage is a weird trade-off. When people said, “Love wins!” it’s like, no — sex wins. Love did not win. Fucking won. You’ve always been allowed to love whoever you want. You have not been allowed to fuck who you want. I’m going to get in trouble for saying that, but that’s the truth.

Right, and that gets at the most important subtext of Buddy, which is the legacy of the AIDS plague. Male-on-male sex was stigmatized for gay men of Buddy’s generation because of this societal narrative that it was an act that literally killed people. Buddy lived through that plague. He’s seen more death than his audience can imagine. As a result of that, he’s somewhat fearless.
Absolutely. Buddy was forged in a very, very tough time. As you said, death was everywhere. I believe that my generation of gay men went through a war. Went through a war in a society that was at peace. Society ignored our war. They did the wrong thing. So Buddy, and that’s me by extension, there was kind of a crust. Like a war vet, people give him latitude because they go, That guy’s seen shit. I think of my generation of gay men as PTSDivas.

What a term!
[Laughs.] It’s a good one, isn’t it? I’ve never said it before, but I like it. But yes, gay men between 40 and 60, I don’t believe we’re ever gonna be truly whole. I see Buddy as a warrior. He’s first through the gate. There are many ways to be brave in this world, and he’s my bravest character. He’s smarter than me, braver than me. He’s better than me.

Scott Thompson On the Impact of Gay Provocateur Buddy Cole