The Persistence of Buddy Cole: Scott Thompson Discusses His Most Iconic RolePhoto by Bruce Smith, courtesy of Guinivan PR Comedy Features Scott Thompson
Scott Thompson is back on the road, engaging with comedy in a way that almost no one can. He’s touring in character, as a character that debuted in 1989, and using that character as a shield to deflect from the fear that he sees as holding other stand-ups back. The Kids in the Hall veteran has brought back his signature and groundbreaking maximum offender Buddy Cole: a chain smoking, outspoken antagonist who defined Thompson’s career. To celebrate his return to form, Thompson has re-released Buddy Babylon: The Autobiography of Buddy Cole, a mock memoir that was first published twenty years ago, with new material added in. Thompson hopes that the world is ready for Buddy Cole now, and so far audiences are proving him right.
We sat down to discuss the book, his tour, The Onion Comedy & Arts Festival, the trails of Scott Thompson, the state of comedy, and some heartbreaking regrets about a career well lived.
Paste: What do you do on your tour days off?
Scott Thompson: I pick a random day and I don’t answer the phone. I do a lot of napping and I go to old bookstores. I buy a lot of first editions of sci-fi novels. My most prized first edition is probably The Man in the High Castle. It’s not the most valuable but it is the one I love the most. I have a first edition I, Robot which is pretty damn cool. That’s probably worth more.
Paste: What’d you think of the High Castle TV adaptation?
Thompson: I never really got to see it. I don’t have Amazon. Television today is easy to forget. There’s so much stuff now and so many great shows get lost.
Paste: I’m plagued by how little breaks through these days because of how much is out there. I came up as a Kids in the Hall fan because the show was on Comedy Central every afternoon. In the YouTube age, would I have ever found you?
Thompson: I get that. When am I supposed to find time for something like The Americans? You think of all these hundreds of people doing their career highlights and no one notices. I worry for them. The things that get attention are the things that push the right buttons at the right times. We always pressed the wrong buttons at the wrong times. That’s our secret. As Bruce [McCulloch] always said: everything we touch turns to cult. Nothing any of us have ever done has gone mainstream. In a weird way, that’s kept Kids in the Hall vital. Nothing the five of us have ever done—the closest has been Dave [Foley] in Newsradio, which was itself very much a culty show. It wasn’t Big Bang Theory. It’s a curse to always live just under the radar. But that means we’re all still hungry, and we’re far hungrier than men our age should be. It is a little embarrassing.
Paste: Cult fandom isn’t all bad, it just means you find appreciation down the road. For example, you’re re-releasing a book you first put out twenty years ago.
Thompson: The reason I did this is that Buddy Babylon was released into a chorus of nothing. No one talked about it and no one reviewed it. People were terrified of it for so many reasons. And people were terrified of the thing I am so proud of. It broke my heart that no one paid it any attention. Twenty years later, I think the world is ready for it? I think it will finally get a review and people will know they missed something good. The literary establishment ignored me because comedians couldn’t possibly write a book! And people didn’t want to be too gung-ho about gay things because that would reflect badly on them. “It’s too gay!” And then it was also Canadian. People didn’t want to look up what the word “poutine” meant. And Canadians were mad about it. “How dare a comedian write a funny book. Our only books should be about suicide or genocide; how dare he!” And the gay press didn’t touch it because, “How dare a gay man write a book and not be a prostitute! How dare this faggot do something other than work on his abs!” But it is a real novel and no one gave it any attention, and they called it racist and homophobic, and twenty years later I thought the world will give us a fair shake. And I don’t mind being called a “Canadian racist homophobe” but the book is just pure funny and I couldn’t understand what happened. And there’s a section that was taken out because the book was too long for the publisher, about how Buddy Cole was a supermodel in the Philippines who inadvertently launches the People’s Revolution. It’s a forty page chapter and they took it out, but now we get to put it back in. It needs to be back in. My dream is that it gets a New York Times review. I know that’s very Legacy Media. I’m an old guy. I like Legacy Media. I believe the newspaper is going to have a resurgence. We shouldn’t trust anything online anymore. Newspapers have the benefit of time and vetting. I trust it. When someone at a hotel offers me a USA Today I stare at them with such contempt. “I didn’t ask for a napkin! Or a rag! I asked for a paper!” Give me a USA Today if there is a spill.
Paste: Here is my line-in to Buddy Cole. I grew up in Central Kansas, in a church that was particularly not keen on inclusion, and I remember seeing Buddy Cole in episodes of Kids in the Hall and being… I don’t know? Afraid? Upset? Pretty sure that this was the version of gay people that my church wanted me to believe that all gay people were? Again, I was an idiot kid, but Buddy Cole took a number of years to contextualize and understand. And I feel like perhaps I cracked what made Buddy when, at the time my only familiar performance of a gay man came from the cast of the film version of La Cage aux Folles? I dunno. Maybe where I’m going here is to ask how often people tell you that Buddy was their first interaction with gay characters in pop culture and/or how that usually went? Where does Buddy exist in the history of comedy but also culture.
Thompson: People are scared of Buddy Cole. Of course you were. Because he’s a warrior and he was the first through the door. It’s a painful place to be. You know who gets credit? The third person through that door. You know, that’s caused me quite a lot of pain over the years. When the history is finally written, I think Buddy Cole will be seen as quite central. Comedically, it will last. Back then, I was worried that I was so early that people wouldn’t get it. Deep down, I wasn’t ready. When Buddy was on TV, I was convinced that for the rest of my life, gay men would carry me in a litter. My feet would never touch the ground. Nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, they put me on a litter, but they dropped me every half a block. And then they dragged me by my hair into a ditch. But that made it easier for other people. I was naive. I was naive about the depths of homophobia. I didn’t quite understand how huge it was and how much hatred there was. All of the Kids in the Hall were. And the other four didn’t know how our work with sexuality and gender was going to hold us back. The five of us have all paid dearly for this. For me, it was my due. I knew it. But for the other four…. I’m so proud of them for doing it. They didn’t have to. They didn’t have to. They could’ve taken a straight guy and become a big mainstream hit. And they didn’t. I’m eternally grateful. Part of me just wants to apologize. “Sorry guys, I had no idea people would think you were all gay!” We had no idea people would assume that, just because we wore dresses and kissed each other.
Paste: You’ve seen so much progress happen over the course of your career. Are you scared, on some level, of what is happening in America right now in terms of social and cultural regression?
Thompson: I think I’m supposed to say “Yes”? There’s so much progress. I think these are glory days. For what my generation went through, this seems like a Golden Age. There were losses along the way and steps backward, but ultimately we’re moving forward. The plight of a young gay person today is so much brighter than it used to be. So I’m quite confident in the future. I don’t buy this Chicken Little sky is falling theory. I’ve seen real darkness, so I’m not frightened by a little bit of twilight.
Paste: Who in comedy have you seen that carries forward your spirit?
Thompson: My favorite comedian at the moment would be Ali Wong. She’s doing work that is absolutely new and riveting. I just love her. Sketch seems to be dead right now. There’s not a lot there. Broad City and Key and Peele were great. The Nick Kroll Show was great. James Adomian is great. There’s so many great gay stand-ups right now. But they haven’t broken through in a way that I find fascinating. Where are the openly gay comedians on Saturday Night Live? I find that quite sad.
Paste: Your tour right now ends at The Onion Comedy & Arts Festival, which celebrates the Onion’s 30th anniversary.
Thompson: The show has six nights there. It’s just going great guns, as a show. I’m a white male, but I’m not a young gay white male. I’m an older gay white male who went through a war. So I have this ability to say anything I want. In a world today that is so timid, when I am Buddy Cole I have a superpower. People have called my show appalling and on paper there’s no way, in this thin-skinned world, that it should work. But Buddy Cole owns himself completely. You can tell by looking at him, you can tell that he’s seen action. That guy has seen some shit, so you have to listen. I also don’t give people time to be offended because the show is a barrage of jokes. And I’m very fair. Buddy attacks everyone and no one is safe. If you’re a hypocrite or a fool, he is after you. So many straight white guys in comedy now are terrified of making a wrong move. I’m not. Who cares? Fuck off. It is comedy for god’s sake. You can leave and go home. But I’m also not worried that comedy is going to die. People are hungry for comedy that just goes for it. I can’t explain it. I guess I should be in trouble, but I’m not.
Paste: I like that you’re surprised by it.
Thompson: My director said that this is the show where someone is going to attack me. But people look around and see everyone laughing, and I don’t think they want to be the dick. When you’re young, you’re very certain of everything. I was always certain and I shamed people and I look at people and say “You know what? I’ve been there.” And Buddy Cole lives in a world with lots of empathy but no time for hypocrisy. And that is me too. I just don’t have time for it.
Paste: Finally, if we get a Hannibal movie, what has Jimmy Price been up to in the intervening time?
Thompson: Looking at a lot of slides. Working diligently. He lives for his work, so he’s been quietly solving crimes behind the scenes. And I hope that it happens. I loved that show.
Paste: What’s the key to being a great Winter Olympics Correspondent, as you were for Colbert in 2014?
Thompson’s Après Le Déluge: The Buddy Cole Monologues Tour runs through June 3 at the Annoyance Theatre & Bar in Chicago as part of The Onion Comedy & Arts Festival.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.