The Kids in the Hall: Better Together

Comedy Features The Kids in the Hall
The Kids in the Hall: Better Together

Get all five members of The Kids in the Hall in the same room to talk about their particular comedic voice, and it becomes a matter of show and tell. Their telling becomes a show. “My wife says everything we touch turns to cult, which I don’t know is a compliment,” Bruce McCulloch says earnestly. Dave Foley immediately follows with a wisecrack, “My wife says, ‘We’re divorced, stop calling me your wife!’” Scott Thompson serves as the proverbial cymbal to complete their rimshot, “And my wife says, ‘Why can’t you get it up?!’”

The troupe riffs. A lot. Kevin McDonald’s answer becomes Mark McKinney’s line becomes Thompson’s bit and then suddenly a sketch is born in a matter of seconds. They’re quick-witted, aptly progressing off one another in the direction of funny. It’s this kind of improvisational play, and the complete freedom to go where the comedic wind takes them, that continues to make KITH such a lasting voice. “I actually think we all are kind of punks,” McCulloch says. “Were and still are. Obviously we think the world is kind of silly and fucked, and all that, I guess, comes out in our stuff.”

KITH, that darling cult comedy group from the Great White North, just can’t quit one another. It’s been over twenty-five years since their eponymously named TV show debuted in Canada and the United States. Despite solo careers that have taken members Foley, McCulloch, McDonald, McKinney and Thompson in different directions, they continue reuniting. Foley laughs, “We can’t get past it.” The plain truth remains that these five operate as a powerful comedic vehicle, one that functions better together than apart. “None of us are super successful on our own,” jokes Thompson. Foley offers a quick rejoinder, “I was moderately successful and I came back.”

Currently on a tour spanning both states and provinces, KITH are not onstage reinvigorating dead comedic careers, nor are they being trotted out to rehash old sketches and bask in their glory days. They are not content to hang on their laurels. All five exhibit sharp minds, poised and ready with something to say about these modern times. As it turns out, that something is as refreshing as the sketches they first produced when they started performing in the mid-1980s.

“We’re kind of really the only troupe around,” Foley says. “And we like to work as a group,” McDonald adds. McCulloch takes a more philosophical approach about why they continue working together. “I kind of think of it as almost a blues tradition, which is that you’ve gotta lay it down,” he says. “I remember when I saw Mavis Staples and she was almost 75. She said, ‘We have CDs for sale in the lobby,’ and I thought that is so cool, she is still out there worrying about her CDs and she’s Mavis Staples. So, for me, if we think we’re one of the best comedy troupes there is, we have to do it, and we have to get out there.”

kids-hall-paste-cover.jpgTheir story by now seems akin to a sound byte, a ten second summary glossing over years of difficult work and struggle. McCulloch and McKinney met and performed together in Alberta, Canada, before making the trek to Toronto, where they met Foley and McDonald. The four started KITH, performing at The Rivoli in Toronto. Thompson, once an audience member, soon joined them onstage to form the quintet they are today. After hearing about the troupe, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels tapped McCulloch and McKinney to write for the show. It didn’t work. After a year, Michaels realized the troupe worked better as the sum of its parts, a fact all five willingly admit to this day. Thompson, ever the opinionated one, says, “There are lots of other funny people. Sadly not as funny, not generally.” Foley qualifies that statement, “As a collective.”

“You know, people keep saying ‘Is it going to be the original cast?’” Foley remarks about their current tour. McCulloch takes on a mocking tone, “No, there’s three young ones and two old ones, who aren’t quite as funny anymore.” McKinney, quietly observant while the others quip and quip and quip, chimes in, “We can merge with someone and be Earth, Wind, and Kids in the Hall.”

Contemplating the beginning from the vantage point of their wisecracking present doesn’t change the fact that their time onstage at The Rivoli didn’t exactly go well at first. “We did the show for a long time where nobody came,” says Foley. The troupe’s nuanced comedic style didn’t jibe with the major Toronto comedy scene at the time, led by Second City. Foley recalls, “I think we thought we were more mainstream than we were.“ During their brief time at SNL, McCulloch and McKinney learned the same lesson. Sketches they wrote didn’t fit SNL’s voice. In McCulloch’s recently released book, Let’s Start a Riot, he recalls writing an outline for “Thirty Helens Agree” (a popular sketch for their eventual show), which raised eyebrows with senior writers and producers who didn’t quite get it.

Part of KITH’s eventual success could be attributed to the fact that they never stopped to reflect on what exactly they were doing. There was never any time. “There was too much work,” Foley says. “We did a new [Rivoli] show every week for about four years. Everything was about just jamming together enough material for that Monday night show.” As a result, the troupe wasn’t able to get in its own way by pausing to look at the bigger picture they were painting.

While working on Kids in the Hall, Canada provided them with a similar bubble. Located away from the mainstream entertainment industry, KITH were allowed to develop their unique humor more fully. “I think that it was taking place away from everybody,” McDonald says. “All we had was the show and each other.” Imagine it. No internet, no smartphones, no easy access to competition that could produce comparative frustrations. Their geographical isolation aided their ability to push the envelope, producing characters, situations and sketches defying more normative sketch comedy. McCulloch says, “We weren’t jaundiced by, ‘Oh, Sting’s in the dressing room. He’s a big fan.’ It was just us and the CBC people who got to work on our show, and our four friends who were the same the entire series.”

Ask most fans today what exactly makes KITH so funny, and the answer inevitably leads back to the troupe’s offbeat sense of humor. To put it plain, it’s weird, a term that wasn’t the compliment it tends to be today. “When you’re 22, you don’t have the confidence. They tell you you’re weird, but you think you’re bad. You don’t know yet,” McDonald says.

Weird isn’t bad. It’s just not a mainstream voice representative of wider, more general, swaths of the population. KITH’s brand of weird looks beyond the glossy exterior most everybody wears on a daily basis. It prods that surface for a different kind of reality, one truer because of its ludicrousness. While the troupe doesn’t see itself as absurd, what they portray is exactly that. By taking sketches to extreme, usually unexpected, ends, KITH reveals their irreverent perspective on life.

“Whenever we write, whatever it is, it’s still going to be our obsessions,” McCulloch explains.

“We still find the same things funny that we always found funny,” says Foley.
“Hypocrisy!” Thompson shouts.

“We love to pop those balloons,” Foley says, as if he were narrating their life story, “hypocrisy.”

“Don’t leave your sacred cow on our farm,” McKinney wisely adds.

“But we will milk it. We’ll take care of it,” says McDonald with his trademark sincerity.

“Right, we don’t want it to explode,” Thompson says. “When it’s old enough we’ll slaughter it and eat it. And then we’ll post a picture of it and Ricky Gervais will shame us. I’m sick of him. He makes me want to hunt.”

“Ricky Gervais, he is funny. We do really like him,” says McDonald.

“We love funny twats!” Thompson cries.

That kind of dialogue, a hodgepodge of opinions and wisecracks and observations, forms KITH’s comedy backbone. To this day, their partnership appears closer to a marriage, wherein the five partners go off to find themselves but eventually return home to the safety the troupe as a whole offers.

Forget for a moment the props, the sets and all the window dressings that give each sketch show its distinctive appearance. What sets KITH apart from their comedy peers comes down to their character work. Besides a few topical references like Queen Elizabeth II, the characters that move in and out of each scene are freed from any particular temporal reference. There’s a timeless quality to them. “Human beings don’t change at all,” Thompson notes.

Rather than make their focus specific pop culture references, KITH adeptly reveals the theatre of the everyday. The sketch “Salty Ham” from the first season gives a glimpse into a late night argument taking place between Gordon and his wife Fran. Having been awoken by an insatiable thirst, Gordon blames the particularly salty ham Fran cooked for dinner. Cursing the meat as “salty bloody ham,” “goddamn bastard brine” and “voodoo pork,” Gordon’s exacerbated disgust is offset by Fran’s refusal to engage at his emotional level. She’s seen this shtick before and won’t give into his grief. The sketch peels back the wall on a marriage, showing it at its most normal and therefore most absurd, thanks primarily to the characters. Fran and Gordon would continue appearing in skits together as the series progressed. The troupe still performs “Salty Ham” live much to audiences’ delight.

It makes sense that out of their barebones Rivoli productions, characters needed to have the biggest impact. Rewatching Kids in the Hall episodes, it’s easy to lose sight of the actors behind the masks they wear so well. All five slip into a character’s skin, embodying and personifying their foibles for laughs to the point where the actor disappears.

KITH easily dissolve themselves into their characters, especially when it comes to the different women they perform. Notable for being a comedy troupe that donned drag to portray a range of female characters (young, old, single, married, mother, daughter, wife), all five wore their wigs purposefully. “We tried as much as possible to eliminate any laughs that came from just us being in drag,” Foley explains. They told the makeup and hair departments, “Do it like it’s serious. Try to make us look as good as you’d try to make a real woman look, and we’ll get the laughs with the dialogue. Our goal was always that people forget we were men in drag.”

They take their female roles as seriously as they do all others, so much so that a discussion of who played the best woman inevitably leads to some kickback.

“Dave looks the best. In terms of inhabiting…” McKinney trails off momentarily, interrupted by Thompson.

“That doesn’t mean the best woman,” he asserts. “Like an unattractive woman’s not a woman? Think about it.”

Mark responds, “It’s between Scott, Dave or I. I’m talking about who inhabits vs. who looks. Dave clearly we know looks the best, but who inhabits?”

“I think Dave was maybe the most beautiful woman, but I think that’s a sexist thing,” Thompson says.

“Why are you so prejudiced against me just because I’m beautiful?” Foley quips.

Many female characters portrayed on Kids in the Hall and later in their live shows come across as empowered representations. The troupe had a rather progressive stance towards women and gay and lesbian characters. Thompson explains, “I don’t think we did it on purpose. That’s just who we are. I also think we like to tilt at windmills.” Thompson laughs about his stance, joking, “As a gay man in the 80s, of course I had an agenda…to be a star!” He plays the pause for full effect. McCulloch isn’t quick to let him off the hook so easily, “You know what he said? ‘How can I ride AIDS’s coattail?’”

“Oh and I rode that bitch,” Thompson retorts.

“Hard,” adds McCulloch.

Thompson gets the last word, “Hard. Put her away wet, too.”

It’s a complex approach. To laugh at something while making fun of it while also changing people’s attitudes towards it, but KITH have never shied away from engaging in taboo conversations. “Running Faggot,” a sketch from Kids in the Hall’s first season, which they also do live, perhaps wouldn’t go over so well were it debuted today. McCulloch admits, “I think it’s interesting that we [still do] ‘Running Faggot.’ You can’t say ‘fag’ or ‘faggot’ now, and having lived through grade 6, it’s the only word anybody ever used. Since it’s obviously about a folk hero, we’re fine because we grandfathered that word in.” By changing how they present not only the word but also the character representative of that word, KITH shifts away from the pejorative impact of both. “That was the intention 25 years ago, and it’s even more important now,” McCulloch says.

The troupe pushed itself creatively on TV when members started filming segments, darker comedic sketches that took place away from a live audience and served to round out their voice. “Once we figured out TV, we were happy to go to film, because we realized you could do weird stuff. You could do something black and white or have weird props or music,” McCulloch says. “And you didn’t need as many jokes. You got atmospheric jokes, which for us was wonderful in a way. As the show progressed, they became the treats to ourselves. The live sketches were great, too, but they were also something we had to do to get to our films.”

Even though their TV show went off the air in 1994, KITH continues writing new material rather than relying exclusively on their past work. McDonald explains about their live show, “A third [is] really new, a third [is] from last tour which was never on the TV show, and another third [is ] of only TV sketches.” Honing a relevant voice, one that continues to produce thoughtful comedic commentary, isn’t easy. Nostalgia plays funny tricks on fans’ minds, imbuing the past with heightened powers simply because time and distance keep it out of immediate reach. Being funny once does not mean being funny now. What happens when these five comedians apply their humor to the present?

KITH’s comedic voice exudes such originality, depth and control that seeing them perform live almost becomes a bittersweet experience. It’s thrilling to see these five together again, but their new sketches – about foodie culture, horrible new babies and the power of a wedding dress – only underscore how much more they have to say about contemporary society and its preposterous tendencies. Theirs is a perspective sorely missed.

The Second City performer Jamison Webb, who attended KITH’s May 14 Chicago show, observes, “They never changed their style to fit pop culture trends or catch-phrasey kinds of comedy. They were always striving to develop new characters and new scenes. Comedians are very difficult people, so it’s cool that they all stuck together and are still working together.”

Steeped in live performance roots, taking the stage for KITH seems in a way like returning home. “It feels like you’re being held aloft by love,” Thompson says. “I know that even all the teasing is a form of love, and even when things go wrong, they can always be put back together again. It’s a ninety-minute trust game.” Not every show goes perfectly, and like other proficient players, KITH proves they can still roll with the punches. If one breaks in the middle of a scene, or calls attention to a blatant mistake like a flubbed line, missed cue or mistaken entrance, the audience gets an immediate look at the inherent camaraderie fueling their relationship. It’s like watching the five men suddenly become boys again, ribbing each other and giggling for the sheer hilarity of it all, even while staying (mostly) in character and propelling the scene forward. “I think the imperfection is something I enjoy most about performing live,” Foley says. “I have the most fun the nights when things go wrong, and we just enjoy being with each other. And it becomes a moment when the audience and us are in on the exact same moment.”
What the live shows make clear are how much stronger the members are together than as individual acts. That’s not to say the men haven’t had their successes (and failures) outside of KITH. They’re quick to tamper any egos by teasing each other about poor career decisions, or even personal ones. But together they are a force. Were they one and the same, KITH wouldn’t work, but their minds are distinct enough while still being tuned to a similar comedy channel. It’s a channel for the weird and marginalized, those misfits balking against the established order

The payoff for the troupe comes, in part, by way of laughter. Getting that live laugh contains a power each readily admits, albeit for different reasons. For McCulloch, “Well, they feel like energy, I suppose.” For McDonald, “Sadly, like vindication sometimes. Like revenge, yeah, like revenge! For all the people who didn’t laugh at me in my life, like in high school.” For Foley, “Like a perfectly adjusted shower.” For Thompson, “It feels like being fucked by feathers.”

Amanda Wicks is a name you’re going to know after reading this sentence. She’s a freelance journalist specializing in music and comedy, but never musical comedy. You can follow her on Twitter.

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