Appropriately enough for a comedy troupe that loved probing the weird mysteries of everyday life, the Kids in the Hall seem to embody a mystery themselves: How did Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCullough, Scott Thompson, Dave Foley, and Mark McKinney get to be as good as or better than many American comedians yet, in spite of their excellence, never break through and achieve U.S. success? Their eponymous television show had more opportunities to crack the American market than any of their contemporaries, appearing on two high-profile U.S. networks with the backing of expatriate superproducer Lorne Michaels. But Michaels is the exemplar of the Canadian who made it down south, while the Kids will always be the Canadians who just missed.
Of course, they only missed when it came to fame and money. In influence and staying power, the Kids were huge. They were comedians’ comedians, whose admirers included the likes of Judd Apatow, the writer and director Paul Feig, and the creators of television shows such as Mr. Show with Bob and David, Portlandia, Key and Peele, and Baroness von Sketch Show. And they had the kind of cultural influence that goes beyond making people laugh. Not only was The Kids in the Hall one of the few mainstream shows of its time with an openly gay cast member, but all five members were comfortable playing non-caricatured women and gay men—an unusual thing for comics who started in the 1980s, when performers from Eddie Murphy to Andrew Dice Clay perfected a style of male comedy that traded in gay-panic jokes and a sort of macho cruelty.
Throw in the fact that the Kids are still being watched and enjoyed today, thanks to their frequent reunions and the availability of their complete series on DVD, and it’s understandable that there have been two in-depth books about them published in the past two years: Paul Myers’s The Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy, out this fall, and John Semley’s This is a Book About the Kids in the Hall, issued in 2016. Neither book reads like a nostalgia piece, or as a look back at a bygone era of comedy; they both seek to answer the question of why the Kids remain relevant when most comedy of the same period, Canadian or otherwise, is forgotten.
The two books take different approaches to answering this question, though both inevitably cover much of the same ground. One Dumb Guy, billed as an authorized book, offers an in-depth linear history of the team, with lots of new interview quotes from the Kids and many of the writers, directors, and executives they worked with. Myers also gets some testimonials to the Kids’ impact on comedy from stars such as the television host Seth Meyers (who wrote the foreword), the director Apatow, Bob Odenkirk, and, not surprisingly, the author’s younger brother, Mike Myers. No one analyzes the troupe’s work in much detail, though descriptions such as “the Devil becomes fixated on stealing Bobby’s guitar prowess in a scene loosely inspired by the Ralph Macchio film Crossroads” arguably speak for themselves.
This is a Book About the Kids in the Hall, while drawing on the author’s own oral history of the Kids, mixes in more personal analysis of their comedy style, sometimes verging on self-indulgence, but at times more tonally appropriate for a book about comedy. Semley’s description of the famous “Screw You, Taxpayer!” sketch, where the Kids made fun of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and viewers who objected to their presence on tax-funded TV, manages to convey, in a way that a more objective description can’t, why it was funny. Declaring that it “undermined the legitimacy of both the network itself and (in a way) the entire nation of Canada” is hyperbolic, but so is the sketch.
Both authors, in their different voices, freely admit that they are writing about an acquired taste. The Kids in the Hall have always inspired comparisons to Monty Python or Canada’s other breakout sketch series, SCTV, but only Foley ever achieved a level of U.S. fame comparable to much of the SCTV cast, and only briefly. This can make the story of the Kids a strangely frustrating read: despite all their accomplishments, there are many other achievements deferred, a perpetual sense of waiting for a big break that doesn’t happen. Lorne Michaels managed to force the world to like his other protégés, such as Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon, but somehow it was beyond even his power to take the Kids mainstream.
It is not instantly clear why the Kids should have been inaccessible in America. Some of their Canadian contemporaries were really too Canadian to travel, such as CODCO, the show’s frequent time-slot partner on the CBC, which Myers cites as fellow rebels against the conservatism of Canadian television. But that notorious “Screw You, Taxpayer!” sketch aside, the Kids usually avoided CODCO’s region-specific jokes and focused on suburban life, the workplace, and the family, hardly unfamiliar themes south of the border. The typical Kids in the Hall sketch involves a scene in which a seemingly bland situation turns weird and dark: one of their most famous sketches, where a man has sex with his host’s wife after dinner, includes the line “Surely we’re all hip enough to recognize this as a classic burlesque of standard social interaction,” and that pretty much sums up most of their work. Why wouldn’t that have worked in the States, which was ready to embrace a similar approach in a contemporaneous drama like Twin Peaks?
When Michaels decided that he was ready to get the Kids a show, he brought them to New York City to work on a potential pilot for HBO and to get them used to working in a tougher market than they were used to. Before they had even made the pilot, Rolling Stone wrote them up in an article titled “Is America ready for the Kids in the Hall?” But it never quite was. Their future at HBO was uncertain until the CBC stepped in as a partner. The subsequent series, whose five seasons form the core of the Kids’ comedy legacy, mostly had a marginal cult status in America, first on HBO, and then, after that network pulled out, on CBS’s then-new late-night comedy lineup. The show was a genuine success in Canada—but that would not have been enough to keep it going without a partner in the United States to pick up part of the generous budget.
Apart from having the money to support the Kids’ work though, the Americans also had the money to poach their talent whenever they felt like it. Before he decided to give them their own show, Michaels temporarily split up the team by hiring away McCulloch and McKinney for his Saturday Night Live writing staff, though it’s made clear that he didn’t want to break them up permanently. Later on, when Dave Foley was offered the lead role in the sitcom NewsRadio, his fellow Kids tried to get him to turn it down because it would interfere with their live tour. You’re reminded of stories of great minor league baseball teams whose fortunes declined when the major leagues bought up their best players.
The Kids were clearly not minor league, though, so what kept them from that big breakthrough? It may be that even at its darkest, the Kids’ work confirms the stereotype that Canadians are too nice to catch fire in America; Mark McKinney tells Myers that two recurring characters were “decidedly Canadian policemen, always trying to do things by the book.” And after the series ended, they may have been stereotyped in other ways; Thompson tells Myers that their careers were hurt by “all of the gender bending and homosexuality,” and he laments to Semley, who considers him the best actor on the show, that for many years he could only get hired to play token gay characters.
Like many great cult artists, the Kids also had a pattern of mild self-sabotage. When the CBS deal gave them a shot at a broader U.S. audience, they concentrated on elaborate filmed pieces and produced what McDonald calls “the worst year for live studio audience sketches.” When Lorne Michaels got them a deal to write and star in a feature film, they came up with the clinical-depression extravaganza Brain Candy, perhaps the bleakest comedy ever released by a major U.S. studio. There’s no sense that they were consciously trying to be uncommercial; their instincts just led them there.
But those instincts, that inability to play by the rules of the U.S. market, may provide a clue to how the Kids surpassed their American competitors artistically. The vastness of the U.S. show business machine, and the suddenness with which it embraces and discards trends, makes it difficult to work on something new for very long without getting absorbed into the machine. Foley notes that the Kids’ early comedy seemed “aggressive and dangerous” compared to the more conventional work they saw when Michaels gave them their first taste of New York. A running bit from The Kids in the Hall, where thirty women named Helen express agreement on some banal topic, was rejected as too odd for Saturday Night Live. Like all sketch comedies, The Kids in the Hall had its good and bad sketches, but it was never imitating the latest comedy style.
Both books are at their most interesting in the pre-success chapters, telling how the Toronto-based Kids in the Hall merged with a Calgary group called the Audience and found their path to comedy greatness. We get a sense of the institutions they intersected with, such the Theatresports improvisation competitions that helped them hone their style, and the Rivoli, the Toronto venue that remains legendary as the place where the Kids learned to work together.
This part of the story demonstrates a strength of Canadian comedy: it takes itself seriously, and it’s competitive and rigorous, challenging comics to improve their material and build an audience. There are regional clashes, with the Calgary comics learning to blend their style with the Toronto comics, and establishment figures to rebel against, like Toronto’s Second City, whose style was too rigid for the Kids members who briefly worked there. There is never a sense that Canadian comedy is minor league, and the storyline suggests that Canadians excel at comedy because we have an infrastructure that encourages excellence.
The problem is that that ability to remain Canadian and do big-league work didn’t fully exist in Canadian television. So although The Kids in the Hall was more successful on the CBC than on HBO, it was HBO that picked up the ethos of the Kids, the idea that television shows should strive to appeal to a few people who get it instead of being watered down for the broadest possible audience. Everyone can cite examples of fine television in English Canada—one of them, the drama Slings & Arrows, was co-created by McKinney—but The Kids in the Hall remains a bit of an outlier. That may be why we can’t forget it. The story we take away from the books is that of the making of an accidental Canadian masterpiece: a show with the resources and show business confidence of American television, but which still belongs to Canada alone.