Revivals can be a tricky thing. It’s impossible to replicate all the internal and external elements that went into making something a success years after the fact, and over the last decade we’ve seen a number of once popular TV shows return to mixed results. Sketch comedy isn’t immune to those pressures, but it might be less vulnerable due to its very nature. In a way sketch is more like a band reuniting than a TV show—typically it’s a small group of creative partners who have their own process and methods that rarely reflect the nature of a TV writer’s room, all generally writing for themselves and not other performers who might not understand or agree with their ideas.
The list of sketch revivals isn’t deep, but the track record is more successful than with sitcoms or dramas, and the latest example just launched this week on Amazon Prime. The Kids in the Hall are back with a direct continuation of their beloved sketch show, which ran on the CBC and HBO from 1988 to 1995, and aired in repeats for years on Comedy Central; based on the five episodes we’ve seen, it lives up to the legacy of the original. Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, and Dave Foley have often worked together on live tours and other projects over the years, and in 2010 created the narrative-driven miniseries The Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town, but this is their first time they’ve made new episodes of their original sketch show since 1995. And they aren’t shy about explicitly tying the revival to that original series; the credits are an updated version of those from the ‘90s, with the same theme song from surf rock band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, only with the band and the Kids themselves all clearly a few decades older. Familiar characters from the past pop up throughout the run, although not as nostalgia; when the boss and secretaries from AT & Love appear, it’s to comment on how corporate culture has changed since the mid ‘90s, and not just for the cheap pop of recognition from the viewer. The Kids in the Hall have produced a model of how to revive a cult favorite, and the comedy world is better for it.
Paste recently talked to Dave Foley about the return of the Kids in the Hall and what it’s like to work on a new sketch show for the first time in 30 years. Here’s what he had to say, edited lightly for clarity and concision.
Paste: It’s been close to 30 years since the original show came to an end. Why was this the right time for another series?
Dave Foley: In part because somebody let us. That was big, one of the biggest hurdles is getting someone to pay for everything. But a lot of it started because in 2018 I reached out and had lunch with Britta von Schoeler at Broadway Video, and said, you know, it just occurred to me next year, here is our 30th anniversary of the start of the series. And so from that conversation near the end of 2018, here we are in 2022 celebrating our 30th anniversary, which is now three years old.
Paste: I’m guessing the pandemic has something to do with that.
DF: It did. It will do that. And just the usual Kids in the Hall efficiency of making decisions. And then once we finally did decide to get to work, which was in 2021, the pandemic came in and shut us down for a year.
Paste: So how has the process of writing and creating the show changed over the years?
DF: We complain more about young people than we used to. But other than that, it’s pretty much the same. Yeah, it’s very creepy, really, how little any of us have matured or progressed. Yeah, as artists or as human beings. So it felt very much like the old days of just getting together and throwing ideas at each other and, you know, occasionally fighting about what’s the best way to do things. And just being in tears laughing a lot of the time. Because, yeah, that’s one of the nice things about working with the Kids is we spent all those years together.
Paste: I was gonna say, you can tell by watching the new series how easy it is for you guys to sort of slip back into it because it really does capture not just the look but like the whole feel of the original series. But with a lot more nudity. I was—I was surprised by all the nudity.
DF: Yeah, and the nudity on this go ‘round is not coy at all. There’s none of that skirting the issue. You’re just getting—you’ve just got to be prepared for some penises, is what we’re saying, America. And let’s face it, America is not prepared for penises, especially that old man penis. Never old man penis. Like they’re less threatening. Yeah. Yeah, they’re less of everything really.
Paste: So the last Kids show, Death Comes to Town, had more of like an overarching narrative than you typically see in sketch comedy. While the new show, it’s more of a return to traditional sketch, very much a continuation of the original series, with the same music and similar credits. What are the pros and cons as a writer to both of those approaches?
Death Comes came about because we kind of had a policy that we weren’t going to do, we wouldn’t do sketches. We’d done it. And we’ve done it pretty well. So we want to try and do a narrative thing, which was, you know, harder in that you had to find—we had to try and commit to a plot. And then we had to try and find a way to weave characters that we were interested in playing into the plot. So that was challenging. But coming back to sketches came about because we like doing our live tours, but we got tired of doing shows where everybody already knew all the jokes. So we decided we would get together and write all new material for a tour. So we started, we did a couple of tours where we did, we did one that was completely new material, one that was half and a half. And we realized that we wrote some good sketches, sketches that we thought were as good as anything we’d ever done. We thought, well, I guess we still like doing this. And we still have some sketches left to right. And then that kind of led to, well, maybe we could do another show. And the worst thing about sketches is that they are the most labor intensive form of comedy you can do. Because you have to put almost as many resources and almost as much writing and story has to go into a sketch as goes into a half hour or hour. But a sketch only lasts about three minutes. So it’s very wasteful. You know, you can kind of build sets and hire actors and get a crew and at the end of the day, you’ve created three minutes of material. So it’s exhausting. So that’s the downside of sketch comedy, is that it’s the most sort of labor intensive form of comedy and the most wasteful. Yeah, environmentalists should really protest anytime anyone does sketch comedy.
Paste: It’s like the crypto of comedy. Basically.
DF: The carbon footprint of sketch comedy is just enormous.
Paste: One of the new sketches that really stuck out to me was the post apocalyptic radio DJ, where you play Melanie’s “Brand New Key” over and over. I write about videogames too, and that made me think of the videogame series Fallout where there’s always, like, a DJ in a bunker somewhere playing old music in the future, when everything has been nuked.
DF: Oh, I didn’t know that. And I’m in a Fallout game.
Paste: Oh, you are? Which one?
DF: I’m in Fallout New Vegas. I was the voice of Yes Man, the computer.
Paste: Oh, that’s generally the favorite among most gamers. So you picked a good one to get hired by.
DF: Oh, I didn’t know that. And I’ve never played it. Because I’m old.
Paste: But yeah, well, I guess how long have you had that idea about the DJ in a bunker? Like, how did that sketch come together?
DF: Actually I performed it once before—my wife in Los Angeles puts on a variety show several times, she used to do them at the Steve Allen Theater in LA with a ton of performers who come in and do them. And so I was doing that. And this is, you know, in the depths of the depths of my despair about the Trump administration. I wrote that piece and performed it for her show. That’s it, but I only did it the one time, and then when the [new Kids] show came up, I said, well, maybe I can turn that into something. And I sort of expanded it into a runner. And it seemed to fit with, you know, with the mood of COVID. And, you know, for me, just the comic core of it was that I really liked the idea of that transition from from the autopilot of doing the job. And the total despair.
Paste: Yeah, when he’s doing his perfect radio DJ patter and then once the song starts and he just like zones out and becomes the most depressed man on the planet.
DF: Yeah, how we all fall into routines at times when we’re feeling lost, you know, sort of repetitive actions and routines kind of are able to get you through it. At least, you know, what’s a good psychic bandage is just activity.
Paste: I think we all know that feeling after the last few years.
DF: Yeah, and I gotta say I’m startled because I keep hearing an awful lot about that piece. And at the time I thought no one’s gonna like this but me. Sometimes you just think you’re the only one who thinks it’s funny. But I’ve been hearing a lot about it over the last few days. Which is is a nice surprise.
Paste: So at the start of the call you mentioned you’re doing a Q&A with Bob Odenkirk at the City Winery tonight. I just read his memoir, I finished up literally yesterday, so between that and watching your new show I’ve been thinking a lot about sketch comedy. And as someone who’s worked in sketch for decades, but has also done all kinds of other comedy, from sitcoms to film—you just sort of mentioned how intensive creating a sketch can be in terms of writing and production—but beyond that, what does sketch comedy mean for you? How does it compare, as a writer, to other forms of comedy? And why is it something that you wanted to turn into a career?
DF: I started when I was a teenager, at high school I started doing stand-up. And that’s what I thought I was gonna do. And then I met Kevin McDonald in a Second City workshop, and we started doing improv. And then we started doing sketches. And I realized that the real reason, the very selfish reason, was that doing sketches was just a lot more fun. I liked the fact that you’re creating a clear false reality that was honest, and that you’re playing characters, and you’re talking to each other. And it’s clearly a false reality. And I kind of enjoyed the honesty of that more than the pretending to be having a conversation with an audience that you do in stand-up, you know, because it’s good, because you kind of have to make that audience feel like you’re saying these things, because they just occurred to you, and you’re saying it to them, because you want to talk to them. And that’s all kind of, creatively, it’s kind of a lie that you have to pull off. Like, that’s the art form of stand-up is that lie. And so for me, doing sketch just felt much more natural. And, you know, as a performer, it felt like a more honest art form for me.
Paste: That echoes some of what Bob wrote in his book. And you still get that feeling of honesty today after 30 plus years of doing sketch?
DF: Yeah, I do. Well, definitely, you know, when I’m working with the Kids in the Hall, everything comes from a very deep rooted, almost pathological sense of telling the truth about something. You know, and there’s no reason that my sketch company should do that. But in our group, even if it’s a silly, silly sketch, there’s a passion that goes into it and a real obsession with doing something that nobody else would do. Not necessarily to be shocking or anything like that. But the idea that is the Kids in the Hall, if we’re going to do Kids, we can’t do something that somebody else could have done, because we go, well, if that’s an idea somebody else could have done, why would we do it?
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.