The Kids in the Hall are back. The renowned Canadian comedy troupe comprised of Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson have returned to CBC television with their eight-part miniseries Death Comes to Town.
The Kids are one of the most successful comedy acts in Canadian history. The Kids in the Hall, their groundbreaking sketch comedy series, aired on CBC-TV from 1988 to 1994 (and on CBS and HBO from 1989 to 1995). In 1996, the troupe made their feature film debut with Brain Candy. The movie was a commercial and critical disappointment; in its wake, the troupe disbanded to pursue their individual careers.
The Kids first reunited for a theatre tour in 2000, reprising many of the characters and sketches from their original series, and then again in 2007 for the Just For Laughs comedy festival. Their 2008 North American tour was the first time in more than a decade that they performed new material together. Now, with Death Comes to Town, a murder mystery that finds Death (i.e., the grim reaper) wreaking havoc on the small, fictional town of Shuckton, the Kids in the Hall have returned to their roots. I interviewed two of them at the CBC’s Toronto headquarters on the day of the miniseries’ premiere.
What draws the five of you together?
Mark McKinney: History has a centrifugal pull at a certain point. What draws us back together now is different than what drew us together [the first time], which was the pretty smart insight that we were at least the funniest people in the room, and that we all like doing a type of comedy that was prominent back then. What we did had a certain flavour. As you go on in the industry you can do a lot of stuff, but the only flavour that will ever taste like Kids in the Hall will be the Kids in the Hall.
How does it feel to be back?
MM: When you’re in a band or something similar that spends any significant amount of time together, there must be a point where you cross an invisible line and then you’re linked for life. It never feels like we entirely went away, but we did take a long hiatus from each other. I enjoyed watching the other guys work and seeing what their ideas were.
So, why now?
MM: We wrote original material for our last tour, and we enjoyed doing it. Because we’re the Kids in the Hall, we knew there might be an opportunity for someone to do something — we thought we’d be able to shoot a low-budget independent movie. There was volition to do something creative together again. There wasn’t so much, “Let’s do this in 2009.” It was more, “We’ve still got gas in the tank, you want to do something?” Yeah, yes, yes, yes, yes. Everybody voted and here we are.
There’s been a public yearning for more Kids in the Hall. You’ve been selling out live comedy tours during the past few years.
MM: It’s always been there, but you never know whether a tour will translate into TV because the numbers are different by a hundredfold in terms of success. Is there an appetite for the Kids in the Hall back on television? We’re about to find out.
What was the writing process for Death Comes to Town?
MM: Very eclectic. When we last left [each other], we were writing Brain Candy. That was an in-room process where we painfully went through every beat together: goading and screaming and yelling, and then at various junctures handing things over to a perceived neutral party. It was really about negotiating. This time we knew there was no way we’d be able to get all of us in the same city for four or five months. Bruce came up with the premise for a show around Shuckton, and we let him run with it to a certain degree, along with Kevin and Scott who were around and available. I don’t think we would have been able to do that fifteen years ago: we would have been too jealous, too bitter. But Bruce had written a lot of stuff for our tour, so it felt like, “OK, let’s learn trust.” It was like aliens learning a new language.
Was there much improvisation on the set?
MM: A healthy amount. When we first came to TV we thought: why can’t we improvise? Well, because the camera is there, you know? We were literally that dumb. Now we’ve all worked in television for a bit, so we can fix stuff on the fly in a way that you’d never see happen on a regular TV show. That’s one of the luxuries of being in a troupe that’s been together for a long time.
In the January/February issue of The Walrus, Adam Sternbergh writes about the death of sketch comedy.
MM: He’s absolutely right. If we were just starting out as a comedy troupe now, I think we’d wind up on the internet. I’m working with a comedy troupe in Halifax, trying to get them on TV, but they’ve already become very famous on the internet — you know, four, five, six million hits or something for some crazy-ass commercial parody.
Do you think the hyper-individualism that the internet breeds is helping comedy?
MM: You’re talking about people posting videos of themselves singing Lady Gaga songs in their basement?
MM: It’s probably more material for satire, which is really good for comedians. No, I just think that a great YouTube clip is three or four minutes long, and that’s the length of a good sketch. It suits the form.
Now that it’s possible for anybody to upload anything they like to the net, have we entered the age of post-political correctness?
MM: I’m probably the prissiest [of the troupe] about stuff like that, but even my point of view is politically incorrect beyond the pale. I remember the late ’80s and early ’90s were like, ugh, but we didn’t pay any attention to that.
The ability to get beyond that was one of the things that made the name of the Kids in the Hall. What I’m wondering is whether we’re living in an era that you guys fostered.
MM: So we’re sitting in a swill of our own creation, you’re saying?
I wouldn’t use the term swill. How does it feel to be the representatives of Canadian comedy again?
MM: I don’t know if we’re the representatives of Canadian comedy, but what’s out there right now? You’ve got This Hour [Has 22 Minutes], and that’s like a restaurant with a good location; it still trains people. Rick Mercer’s still funny.
But we’ve lost Trailer Park Boys, we’ve lost Corner Gas.
MM: But Brent Butt’s got a bunch of new half-hour comedies. Maybe it’s like the Olympic torch relay: you get to take it for a kilometre or so, then you have to hand it back.
One of the best things about the new miniseries is that you don’t need to know the history of Kids in the Hall or be familiar with the old series to find it funny. It’s a narrative that the viewer can get right into.
MM: You don’t need to know, but from episode to episode you want a little bit about what’s happened before. That’s why we have the “previously ons” — you know, those thirty-second compilations at the beginning of the episodes. With the sketch comedy of old we never did anything topical, kind of religiously.
The viewer can enjoy the entire miniseries without ever having seen the original series or Brain Candy. Was that a conscious choice?
MM: Yes you can, as long as you know why those hideously overweight men are wearing dresses… You know you have to come in to our world, where some people can make it and some people really can’t. Some people will watch the show and go, “They are so dumb.”
Wearing dresses is something you guys have done throughout your careers, but for a different effect than most other comedians who dress in drag. It’s not for shock value.
MM: No, it’s about character. We’ve always needed female characters, and at a certain point the troupe winnowed down and we didn’t have any women. It was born out of necessity.
OK, last question. I’m curious whether the troupe settled on a small-town setting because there’s been so much weirdness in and around small towns of late. I’m thinking, for example, about the guy who was decapitated on a Greyhound bus.
MM: Save that question for Bruce because he’s the one who came up with it. Croptown was a thirty- or forty-minute play that we did [years ago]. It was set in a dismal small town, people without hope and that kind of stuff, which is a Bruce theme. Just say: “Walk me from Croptown to Shuckton.
What draws the five of you together?
Bruce McCulloch: We can only do this with each other. We can be more of ourselves with each other than we can in our own careers. Certainly, we’ve all done other stuff, but sometimes when I watch Dave in something, I go, “Where’s Kevin? Why isn’t Kevin in this scene with him? Every scene Dave ever does, Kevin should be there.” There’s something about the power of the group that it’s like our band, and we want to come back to it now.
Was that a realization that took some time to come?
BM: When the [original TV] show was over, I was like, “Good, now I can do movies.” But that’s kind of lonely. It’s fun to be in a group. We’ve always worked well together, but with our older, mellower selves, we don’t have to have the fights we had before. We know what everybody does, what everybody wants, and what everybody needs. Add to that the fact that we’re not a full-time troupe, so our lives and livelihoods don’t depend on each other. We can go do other stuff and then agree on these little things we do together.
So, why now?
BM: We’ve been talking about it forever, when we go out for dinner in twos and threes… We [agreed that] there’s enough good will in the troupe that we should do something new. We enjoyed touring — especially the last tour because it was harder; it was all new material — but we also wanted to put something else into culture. You know, not to be the Beach Boys and tour our old songs.
Who approached who? Was it a collective decision?
BM: On the last tour, there was time to talk about everything. I said, “Listen, let me run with this [idea]; I’ll engine it for us.” I don’t think any of us had said that before. Brain Candy was hard because it was a narrative piece with no clear boss, or someone who was accountable for all the little parts. When I said, “Aww, let me do it,” the others said good, good.
What was the writing process for Death Comes to Town?
BM: I did all the work, you can write that down. No, I had the kernel of the idea: Death gets off a Greyhound bus in small-town Canada, and it writes itself. Everybody liked the idea of doing a murder mystery, which is how I conceived it. We were going to do it as a movie; I had outlined some of the beats and some of the characters for that. Then it was, “No, no, let’s do this as a mini-series, because it’s TV, and TV is better.” Somehow.
Would you be open to doing another series?
BM: We were asked quickly, do we want to do another cycle of these [miniseries episodes]? And it’s like, “Uhh, no, me tired.” Everything we do, we think it’s going to be our last thing. But every film I’ve ever directed, I’ve thought, “That’s the last time I’m doing that. I’m too tired, it hurts me too much.” Eventually you go, “Well, I have one idea,” and then… But no, we’ve got nothing on the books.
That’s too bad. Was Death Comes to Town inspired by real small-town weirdness? You know, the decapitation on a Greyhound bus and —
BM: No, but there’s probably something in that, and Wiebo Ludwick or whatever his name. [Ed.: It’s Ludwig.] There’s always weird things going on in weird towns. This isn’t Paris, Texas or a piece like that where it’s a weird, weird town.
I’ve heard Shuckton described as Corner Gas meets Twin Peaks.
BM: Which is apt, in a sense. It’s a bit weird and a bit broad.
In the January/February issue of The Walrus, Adam Sternbergh writes about the death of sketch comedy. Do you think the hyper-individualism that the internet breeds is helping or hurting comedy?
BM: I can’t tell. I don’t really know where comedy is right now. The internet’s obviously killed a certain kind of live performance, but it’s creeping back, and it’s creeping back in a way that people like. On the West Coast, people go see things like Mortified, that theatre show where the actors read weird letters they wrote when they were fifteen. People always go away from the theatre and come back to the theatre. I’m asked, could you put something like “Thirty Helens Agree,” which was a piece from our [old] show, on the internet? Would anybody think that was interesting, or does it need to be in a context? Would people pass that around and think it was neat? No. It has to have the other sketches around it.
Could Monty Python have succeeded in this generation?
BM: I don’t know, because they only were then. Of course there’ll never be another Rolling Stones or another Monty Python. And of course we’re Chilliwack in that equation.
Come on, you’re at least Rush.
BM: Oh, we’re not Rush. We might be Streetheart; I’d love to be April Wine. They’re still a great band — a great band — and they’re still fucking packing ‘em in. It’s ten in the morning and they’re out there doing a show right now.
That’s how hard April Wine rocks. While we’re on the subject of Canadiana, Canadian comedy is something that often exists outside of the country. In writing rooms in L.A. and New York, if you don’t have a Canadian, you’re screwed.
BM: One woman, and four Canadians.
Exactly. How does it feel to bring it back home?
BM: Quite good, actually… I thought, fuck, I just want to go back, I want to be in Canada doing this. It’s where we’re from, it’s where we should be. We should be on TV; we shouldn’t do a film.
Do you think we’ve moved passed the political correctness of the ’90s?
BM: Maybe. Obviously we’d never been very PC, and then we ducked out in the late ’90s, or the mid ’90s — whenever we ducked out. I think because of Obama we can laugh at anything now. I’m sort of kidding.
He’s given us that hope.
BM: Of course there are still offensive things. We don’t make rape jokes, you know what I mean? But I think we’re all past a lot of that PC stuff.
Does that free you as a writer, or did you never pay attention to it anyway?
BM: No, we always write whatever we want anyway, and then we’re told we can’t do that [afterward].
One of the most interesting things about the new miniseries is that you don’t need to be familiar with the history of Kids in the Hall to enjoy it. You don’t need to have seen Brain Candy; you don’t need to know the Chicken Lady. Was that intentional?
BM: Yes. We weren’t going to do another sketch show because we had done that before. We would be compared to our younger selves, and we’re not the age of our characters as last seen on TV or movies… The Chicken Lady could live on the outskirts of Shuckton, but we’re doing something else now.
This is a question straight from Mark.
BM: Oh, fuck.
Walk me from Croptown to Shuckton.
BM: It’s thirty miles in the back of a Ranchero. We went through a phase when we were trying to do little plays, it even pre-dated the TV show. We did a show at the Tarragon Theatre; the first half was sketches, and the second half was plays. One of the plays we did was Croptown, which was this weird little place: “No secrets in this town.” It’s probably the great-grandfather of this idea in some way.