“The Kids in the Hall” Stands the Test of Time

“The Kids in the Hall” Stands the Test of Time

The Kids in the Hall Stands the Test of Time

In a recent reboot, the comedy troupe’s work remains as trenchant as ever.


As the saying goes, all comedians really want to be rock stars. Many comics have strived to attain that status, either onstage or on-screen, with varying degrees of success, but the Canadian comedy troupe the Kids in the Hall have arguably been the most successful at resembling an actual band: Five members, each with a unique personality, who connected out of compatible sensibilities and youthful, unchecked arrogance, gain a regional reputation before making it big in America. Their cohesion and competitive spirit kept them funny and fresh until their artistic temperaments catalyzed a rupture. They slowly mended fences and reunited on multiple occasions before releasing a new “album” of sorts—i.e., a new season of their landmark eponymous sketch series.

In The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks, a recent documentary chronicling the group’s history, one of their most famous acolytes, Mike Myers, who performed with the group onstage in Toronto as a young comedian, opines that “they were like a band that only knew three chords, but they were three great chords and had great energy.” He later compares the group’s fledgling years to their later success as “like the difference between early Sex Pistols and late Clash.” Myers’s analogy carries some weight, especially considering how much punk rock (both the music and the posturing) influenced the Kids in their teens and early 20s. However, the troupe feels to me like an indie band that made good by achieving some mainstream success without ever shedding their cult appeal, like Sonic Youth or Pavement. The Kids in the Hall—Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson—garnered their ardent alternative audience performing live shows at Toronto’s Rivoli Theater in the mid-’80s. It was during these years that they developed many of their most popular characters, including Headcrusher (a misanthrope who “crushes people’s heads” with his fingers), Cabbage Head (a misogynistic boor born with cabbage leaves instead of hair), and Buddy Cole (a gay socialite who unapologetically monologues about his sexual escapades).

After a brief hiatus when McCulloch and McKinney joined the Saturday Night Live writers’ room in 1986, the Kids reunited when Lorne Michaels took the troupe under his wing. He moved them to New York City so they could get experience performing in front of American audiences and develop a one-hour pilot. Despite a few hiccups along the way, the pilot was a success and led to a series that ran for five seasons on CBC in Canada and HBO, and later CBS, in the United States. The Kids in the Hall (which aired from 1989 to 1995) was critically acclaimed during its run and garnered a loyal fanbase that only grew when Comedy Central aired the reruns after the show ended.

Though the series owed a debt to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, it specifically offered a sharp critique of North American ’90s mainstream culture, setting its sights on commonplace archetypes and ordinary spaces—the kinds of people and places known to all—only to abstract them and pick them apart. Kids was unabashed in its absurdity and social cynicism, and among other things, was fervently committed to foregrounding queer characters and issues at the height of the AIDS crisis. An exemplar of the Gen X spirit, the series represented a genuine middle finger to middle-class respectability.

The troupe parted ways at the end of the series, citing exhaustion and creative differences. They produced one film, Brain Candy (1996), that was a critical, commercial, and mostly a creative failure, not least because it was created when the tensions within the group were at their height. (The Kids had to sue Foley to ensure his on-screen involvement in the film.) Though they reunited a few times afterward for tours in 2000 and 2008, as well as the murder mystery miniseries Death Comes to Town (also 2008), it wasn’t until Amazon Prime ponied up some dough that the Kids decided to revive the original series this year.

It’s rare for any comedy show revival to be competent, let alone decent—and almost 30 years after its heyday, no less—but the sixth season of The Kids in the Hall is a minor miracle of execution. It’s not just that they haven’t missed a beat; they’ve managed to pull off the feat of deploying their shtick—the offbeat humor, the messy rage at conventionality, the rigorous approach to sophomoric, goofy premises—against the current culture without necessarily updating their worldview. The new season feels relevant precisely because of how unchanged it all seems. As with all staunch originals, the Kids have simply embraced the current culture while demanding that it reckon with them.

The genius of Monty Python was how they used their Oxbridge educations to rebel against the stuffy elitism of their origins, turning to absurdism and satire like an informant would to expose the rot in rarefied spaces. (In other words, they put their schooling to good use.) The Kids, on the other hand, brought a true outsider sensibility to their work. They were sensitive sons of small-minded suburban alcoholics and abusers from bigoted towns who found solace in nonconformists and queer communities—basically anybody who would piss off straight-edge society. The Kids famously and frequently played female characters in drag, but, unlike Python, they were never screeching caricatures; rather, the women were always grounded in specific characterizations and realities, often influenced by or based directly on people from their personal lives. Their satirical targets—be it businessmen, housewives, or cops—were social instead of explicitly political. The Kids were often silly and even juvenile, but their humor was never precious. There was a strong premium placed on an acerbic bite that made even the ridiculous sketches hit close to home.

Despite Lorne Michaels’s tutelage, The Kids in the Hall rarely hinged on topical humor or celebrity impressions. Instead, the troupe imbued mundane situations with a surrealistic streak: a flying pig that entertains people in long lines, a child who tries to keep a businessman as a pet, a sexually aggressive “chicken lady” (half-chicken, half-lady) who wreaks havoc by having violent public orgasms that result in an explosion of feathers, to name a few. The taboos they broke were as much personal as they were cultural. Two of the original series’ most memorable sketches involve drunken, abusive fathers terrorizing their young sons, based on McCulloch’s and McDonald’s real-life childhoods. “Daddy Drank” and “Becoming a Man” ride a very thin comedic line, hinging upon the nasty realism of the situation while also finding humor in the outsize irrational behavior of adults not in control of their faculties.

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss The Kids in the Hall’s legacy without highlighting Scott Thompson, the openly gay member of the group, who lent the series a political edge by boldly foregrounding his sexuality in sketches. It’s one thing for Thompson to spotlight his identity, and another for the other Kids to also proudly play queer characters without a hint of self-consciousness; there was a profound lack of self-importance to this act. The normalization of queer society in ordinary contexts, elevated by a casual irreverence typically consigned to straight male comedy, still feels radical. Thompson’s monologues as Buddy Cole not only embraced the character’s promiscuity, as well as his casual drug use and insobriety in the face of widespread stigmatization, but also took shots at a homophobic society uncomfortable with such displays. Thompson arguably wrote the funniest AIDS joke in 1992, the year the CDC reported that the disease was the No. 1 cause of death for US men ages 25 to 44: “AIDS was something that happened to other people. But ever since Magic Johnson, I realized, it could even happen to me!” In the new season, he reprises Cole—wiser and not worse for wear—to commemorate “The Last Gloryhole” where his famed bar, Buddy’s, once stood. Locales may come and go, but spirits can never be killed.

Although The Kids in the Hall had its cultural moment, it has become something of a niche property, at least in the US. This could be attributed to its unavailability on streaming platforms (it’s only now available on Amazon Prime), but it’s also likely because of the series’ relatively peripheral influence on modern American comedy. Unlike Mr. Show—the landmark sketch series by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, which incidentally began airing months after Kids ended, and whose fingerprints can be found on almost every bit of worthwhile 21st-century comedy (Arrested Development, Tim & Eric, and I Think You Should Leave, to name a few)—the impact of Kids is a bit scattered. It can be found here and there, as in some 2010s sketch shows like Portlandia and Key & Peele, but otherwise it remained a sui generis entity.

Even so, the Kids have been present in the pop culture of the past few decades in one way or another, through behind-the-camera work, voice acting, or starring in cult properties. Collectively and individually, they represent something of a shibboleth for like-minded individuals in sync with their brand of absurdism and social commentary. Whenever two of the members appear together in a scene on some sitcom, it’s a nod to those in the know. Shows like NewsRadio and Slings & Arrows, which starred Foley and McKinney, respectively, have additional cachet because of their connection to the Kids in the Hall, who are idols to the kind of people who responsibly assumed that idolatry was just another road to ruin. The sixth season of Kids validates this worldview by finding the group refusing to morph into an artificially relevant version of themselves or “evolving” until they’re unrecognizable. They’re the same Kids, deflecting charges of irrelevancy by asserting themselves in contemporary culture without resorting to bitterness or insecurity.

Filmed like a music video, the opening credits to the original Kids in the Hall features scenes of the quintet goofing off interspersed with shots of strangers and locales around Toronto, soundtracked to Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s joy-inducing, bass-heavy rock number “Having an Average Weekend.” One of the simplest yet most remarkable gambits of the new season is that the credits weren’t changed one iota. Instead, they replicate its exact same structure, complete with updated shots of young Torontonians moving through their changing city, while highlighting the late-’50s/early-’60s faces of the Kids—an undoubtedly moving sight for casual and die-hard fans alike, who primarily know the troupe as clean-cut, fresh-faced twenty- and thirtysomethings.

The sixth season of Kids effectively utilizes the troupe members’ age in this manner, mining it for both comedy and understated emotional effect, similar to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. When the Kids are dug up from their grave in the opening minutes of the first episode—they were “buried alive” at the end of the original run—they’re horrified by their visages and hairlines. (“Am I still the cute one?” Foley desperately asks.) Later in the episode, the entire group plays aging strippers in “60 on the Pole,” which acts as a not-so-subtle commentary about older comedians still playing a young man’s game.

The age factor reaches poignant high notes whenever the Kids reprise decades-old recurring characters—although, thankfully, they deploy them sparingly and don’t run old catchphrases into the ground. Nevertheless, it’s affecting to see A.T. & Love secretaries Cathy (Thompson) and Kathie (McCulloch) bid a fond farewell to the company’s fax machine, or the pseudo-European movie stars Francesca Fiore (Thompson) and Bruno Puntz Jones (Foley) go to couples counseling. The characters have remained trapped in amber without feeling antiquated. When Gavin (McCulloch), a talkative, endearing/irritating child who spews trivia and inane questions at any adult who listens, shows up to ask a pregnant woman if she’s a little old to have a baby, she shoots back the obvious: “Aren’t you a little old to be playing a kid?”

But he’s not really. The great thing about the latest Kids in the Hall season is the remarkable consistency they’ve displayed over the years—age has not dulled their acuity one bit. Aside from a couple of sketches that nod at modern times (cultural appropriation, the Jeffrey Toobin scandal, the impending climate apocalypse), most of the sketches feature premises that could conceivably have been written and aired 30 years ago. A chain-smoking obstetrician informs a pregnant woman of his “drop ratio,” or the percentage of babies he fumbles upon delivery. A superhero who can fight crime only when he’s blackout drunk must protect his city while hiding his alcoholism from his daughter. A Shakespeare fanatic wishes that his bust of the Bard would come to life, only to get his wish and be horrified by the results. Watching the new season is to be confronted with a potentially bottomless well of imagination that can only be stymied by a lack of money from the show’s new sponsor or interest from the general public.

Director Jean-Luc Godard once observed that all fictional films are documentaries of their actors. Applying this logic, the original run of The Kids in the Hall was a documentary of five young Canadians poised to take on the comedy world while skewering culture at the tail end of the 20th century. The latest season is a documentary of those same Kids—older, possibly wiser, no less Canadian—confidently navigating the 21st century without any uncertainty regarding whether they still fit in.

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