The Kids in the Hall's Scott Thompson on Why Their Comedy Is Timeless
The Kids in the Hall (from left): Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson.
Courtesy of Celebrity Theatre
If you were to compile a list of the greatest sketch comedy shows of all time, there are a few obvious choices that you'd want to include. Naturally, Britain's influential Monty Python's Flying Circus would probably top the list, followed closely by the equally iconic Saturday Night Live and SCTV, with Mr. Show, In Living Color, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, Chapelle's Show, and even modern-day favorites like Key & Peele somewhere in the mix.
One entry you should definitely include, and probably would want to rank fairly high on said list, would be the Canadian-born sketch show The Kids in the Hall, which ran on television both in the Great White North and here in the states for six or seven seasons and had a definite influence on comedy in the late '80s and early '90s.
The often-absurd and decidedly hilarious show – which featured the members of the Canadian comedy troupe of the same name – is sometimes overlooked compared to other sketch heavyweights like SNL (both were created and produced by Lorne Michaels) but carved out its own offbeat niche with such unique characters as Simon and Hecubus, Gavin the Annoying Boy, Cabbage Head, The King of Empty Promises, and Mr. Heavyfoot.
And the the five comedians who comprised the Kids in the Hall – Bruce McCulloch, Scott Thompson, Kevin McDonald, Dave Foley, and Mark McKinney – also took a few pages from its major influence Monty Python, featuring both absurdist material and the occasional jag of cross-dressing performances.
While Kids in the Hall's sketches were ultimately a product of its era, its also been a bit timeless that has lived on decades after the show went off the air in 1994 via reruns on Comedy Center for many years and (of course) on YouTube. Despite the fact that the troupe's members all went on to other projects after the show ended and a follow-up movie (1996's Brain Candy) was released, they had a followup miniseries in 2008 called Death Comes to Town and have occasionally done reunion tours, such as their current jaunt across North America that will visit the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix on Thursday.
New Times got a chance to interview Kids in the Hall's Scott Thompson via telephone about the tour, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the troupe's founding in 1985, and discussed the timeless nature of its comedy, as well as Thompson's most famous character from the show, Buddy Cole.
The outspoken queen and bon vivant, who's catty and cutting monologues were one of the hallmarks of the show, gave Thompson (who is outspokenly gay himself) a chance to needle the sexual politics of both the LGBT and straights alike. We spoke with the actor and comedian about Buddy's viewpoints back during the show's heyday and what the character thinks about today's world, as well as how Thompson enjoys working on the NBC crime show Hannibal as FBI crime-scene investigator Jimmy Price.
How did this tour come about?
Well, about a year ago, we decided that we wanted to start writing new material, so we basically rented a theater in Toronto and we did about four or five nights and we did all brand new material and then we did a little mini-tour a year ago where we tested it out. But it was all planning for a larger tour when we were all free. So its been in the works for almost a year because this is the time when we're all free. And so that's what it was, so the tour's a mix of that material, and some material from other tours, and some stuff from television.
How much is new material and how much is classic Kids in the Hall bits?
Well, I'd say about 40 percent of it, no one's ever seen it. And then about 25 to 30 percent is stuff that's new and has never been on television and maybe a third of it is stuff that people will be familiar with. So there's about four or five pieces that people will recognize.
Will there be any sketches with Fran and Gordon?
Yes. There is a scene for them.
Is it the classic one about a certain salty ham?
Yes it is. We have a new one for them, but it wasn't in the right shape. And, actually, we didn't do it, even thought I love it because it ends up with me fucking [him] really hard. So we couldn't do that twice.
We were going to do this new Fran and Gordon piece, but it's Fran and Gordon now having older-people sex and we didn't do it because it's not quite in the same shape as Salty Ham, and then we'd have two pieces where I'm in bed with two of them. There's another piece we're doing from the show where Kevin and I have sex, and we thought, oh it's too much of me having sex with them as women. So we decided to do Salty Ham. And it's weird because with Salty Ham, we're pretty much the same age that those characters were when we were kids doing them.
So does that make performing it all these years later seem weird at all?
It makes it really comfortable. We did it yesterday for the first time and it was kind of freaky. It felt real to me. I mean, they always feel like real people to me but if felt like now I look like that person. It was pretty exciting. And also, we're better performers then we were, we're better actors then were then, so we can inhabit the characters in a deeper way.
A lot of the Kids in the Hall sketches were ultimately a product of their era. That said, do think that some of the humor is timeless?
Yes, we are finding that. One of the smart things we did, I don't know if we thought it through, is that we never really addressed what was happening in the world at the time. So our stuff sort of exists in a vacuum and is sorta timeless. Because human nature doesn't change and that's what we're most obsessed with. So I think, in a way, that was a very smart move for us to do because people won't go, 'Who's Joyce DeWitt?" or "What was that joke about?" because we rarely mentioned anything that was happening in the real world. Even though we came of age in a very tumultuous time, there's very little of that. Some of the Buddy [Cole] monologue's address the world, et cetera, but generally they don't.
Those sketches about Toronto Blue Jays winning the World Series aside.
Yeah, there are those, but aside from that, very little. Like, you would never know that the Berlin Wall fell when we were taping our show, things like that. But at the same time, a lot of those giant world events that were happening when we were on television absolutely did affect us. And I think that we came to television when the world was going through a bit of a paradigm shift and, when that happens, a lot of weird things slip through the cracks and that's what happened to us.
Looking back, would you say that some of the sketches have aged well 25 years later?
Yeah. I'm surprised at how well some of them [have aged]. Like we're doing this one piece, it's an older piece, called "Country Doctor" and in it, we do this whole thing where Bruce [McCulloch] is a little boy, but my character is the farmer who's in a delirium and keeps referring to his little son as a girl. And it's interesting that now, 20 to 25 years later, it looks like it's maybe a little transgendered kid. I wouldn't have thought of that before, but now I went, "Oh, that's kind of almost like prescient in a weird way." It was just a dumb joke and we didn't mean anything by it, but it somehow has made us look a lot smarter than we really are.
Is A.T. & Love [the show's fictitious mega-corporation] still around these days?
Well, the company's still not and we're not doing any businessmen characters, no. And that's the thing, when we started, that kind of thing — straight white males in suits — was very much the thing you pictured when you pictured the mainstream and business and et cetera.
Like yuppie types.
Yeah. And that's not remotely the way the world is today. So maybe subconsciously we didn't really do that [for the tour] because it's like, the idea that "the man" is the enemy is so old-fashioned. Straight white business guys in suits are hardly the enemy anymore. I mean, the enemy comes in many different forms now. It's very difficult, you always have to be on guard and figure that the enemy is basically people that don't want to change.
The state of sketch comedy and comedy in general has changed a great deal since Kids in the Hall aired, as evidenced by shows like Key & Peele, Broad City, Workaholics...
Oh god. . . or Amy Schumer or anything like that. Yeah, it's a whole different world now. And I think we'd still do great. I'd love to have another limited series [like Death Comes to Town]. That's what I'm hoping. I would love for that to happen.
Do you think you guys would be just as edgy and fearless, Standards and Practices being what it was then and is now?
I think we were always fearless, actually. I think we would do what we thought was funny. I don't think we pushed things for the sake of doing it, we just always thought it was funny. I still think we would cause Standards and Practices to have conniptions. I really do, because there's nothing that makes us happier than a really dark joke. And it's interesting because, nowadays, people are so much more thin-skinned and everyone's constantly ready to be outraged, so I think it would be perfect for us right now. Because we would be like, "We're not going to apologize for anything," and that makes us different than most people today. We just wouldn't bother.
One of the most controversial bits from Kids in the Hall was, of course, the "Dr. Seuss Bible," which we don't think most people would bat an eye at that sort of thing these days.
I don't think so. No, they wouldn't bat an eye. So it would have to be "Dr. Seuss' Quran." Definitely. [Laughs]
Even then, that's not too out there.
I'd think that we'd get into some trouble. That actually is a good idea, just thinking about it.
Is there going to be a Buddy Cole sketch as a part of this tour?
Yes, absolutely. There's a brand new Buddy Cole monologue. I think it takes a position that will make some people very uncomfortable. It's a monologue about the transgendered movement and bullying and the coddling of children today. . . things of that nature. That's basically what Buddy takes on in this tour.
In this day and age there's no shortage of material for Buddy to use.
Oh god, yes. Every day there's something outrageous happening where I go, "God, I wish I had a TV show." For me, I've used Buddy as something where when people say "You can't talk about that," I say it's a job for Buddy.
Was Buddy Cole a barometer of not only LGBT politics but sexual politics as a whole in that era?
Yeah, I think so. I think Buddy took a lot of heat. Yeah, a lot of heat. It was a very polarized time back then. You look at gay issues then and now, it's so different that it might as well be a different planet. It's hard for me to even appreciate it. Sometimes I wake up and I go, "Is this really happening?" You know what I mean? It's so fast that it worries me that it won't stick. I think that people were very upset with Buddy because they felt that he was a stereotype and he leaned towards negative connotations, et cetera, and I think it's nonsense.
You look at television today and it's filled with queens. Filled. Stuff like lifestyle shows, talk shows. . . everywhere. But none of them are as smart as Buddy. And the whole idea that Buddy was homophobic is nonsense. Lots of men act like that and a male acting feminine is not a bad thing. Buddy's smarter than anyone.
Do you think he was also a barometer of sex in general in the early-to-mid '90s?
Yeah. Buddy was definitely my tool, my scalpel, and I used him to say things that I would say, things that I wouldn't probably be able to do. But I think the difference between Buddy and the other queens is that he was a very alpha queen and he was always in charge. And he was a very sexual queen and that's very different, because you look at most of the queens on television today [and] they're all neutered. That's part of the deal that gay people have made, in a way, to be accepted. You know what I mean? There's been a bit of a castration that's gone on in order to be accepted by the mainstream, and Buddy would never have any of that.
Gay characters have evolved since the mid-90s, not just in comedy but in all sort of scripted programming.
Oh, totally. The thing is that now, when they introduce a gay character, the gay character doesn't have to stand for all gay people. They don't have to be positive all the time. And that's quite a relief, because human beings are not like that. And comedy is not about taking the best qualities of mankind and bringing them into the light, comedy is about taking the worst qualities and bringing them into the light. That's why comedy and activism are very uncomfortable bed-mates sometimes, I think.
By pure happenstance, y'all won't be the only comedians with a penchant for cross-dressing performing in Phoenix this week since Eddie Izzard will be in town for two nights before your show.
Is he really? I hope there's a chance we can cross paths. That would be great, because I work with him on Hannibal.
He was obviously very influenced by Monty Python, as y'all were, but do you know if he was also influenced by Kids in the Hall or Buddy Cole in any way?`
I don't know. I'll have to talk to him about it. I know he's a big fan of Kids in the Hall and mostly what we've talked about was our debt to Monty Python. I don't really know. He's never volunteered any information, so maybe. I know he likes Buddy.
Have any of the surviving cast members of Monty Python been fans of Kids in the Hall?
I don't know. I met Michael Palin years ago, like when we were still on television, and he didn't know who we were and that upset me. And I had the chance to meet John Cleese and I didn't, because I was afraid that he wouldn't know who we were and that would've bummed me out. I really don't know, honestly. I'm sure some of them know who we are, but I really don't know.
I'm sure you get asked this, but is there any chance of another Kids in the Hall movie?
I hope so. We're always talking about that. What I would love would be what Mr. Show has now, which is a limited series on Netflix. I'd love to do like six to eight new episodes. That would be really fun. We did one five years ago, Death Comes to Town, but I'd love to do it again. And that was interesting, I loved doing a mini-series, but I would love to do would be more of a limited sketch series, because sketch is the most fun and I love to sketch now at our age. Because, it's funny, sketch has become synonymous with young people and I don't necessarily think that's true. Sketch is supposed to be something you grow out of, like you do sketch comedy when you're young and you don't do it again, but I don't think there's an age limit. It's just a great art form.
How likely is it that Kids in the Hall would get a Netflix series?
There's no likelihood. I mean, if it got offered to us, it'd be good. We're talking about it.
Earlier this year, there was a lot of ballyhoo about Saturday Night Live's 40th anniversary and y'all shared the same producer in Lorne Michaels. Was there any hype for the 25th anniversary of Kids in the Hall a couple of years ago?
No, not really. There wasn't anything.
Was that disappointing at all?
I'm dissapointed now since I never thought of it. [Laughs] I guess it would've been 25 years, wouldn't it? No, we didn't do anything, but this year is 30 years from when we all met since we basically formed in 1985. So that's one of the reasons for this tour.
We don't mean to disparage, but while Kids in the Hall was obviously not as big as SNL...
No, of course not.
...y'all did have a certain influence on sketch comedy.
Oh, sure. I don't think we ever became a huge breakout mainstream hit in the states, particularly. We've always been the group that affects everyone, but never really got quite that level of success. And I think, in a way, it's been good for us, creatively. It's kept us hungry, you know, for that sort of mainstream success which we've never really had. We've never really courted it, we've always just done our own. But sometimes I think that maybe society's changed enough that it could happen to us now. You never know.
Up here in Canada, everyone knows us, but Saturday Night Live's a different animal. I mean, it's not just about sketch, it's about music, it's about the culture, and the times. It's meant to be more disposable. I don't think that their sketches will last as some of ours. Some of 'em will. Our stuff is more timeless. That's what Python was like, too, and that was our main [role] model.
So are you returning for the next season of Hannibal?
Yep, it's already wrapped.
We imagine that a crime procedural like that is a change from comedy.
Yeah, it's very different. The only thing that's similar is the crew is a very fun group. And that was a big surprise to me. I didn't expect all the actors to be so funny. It's a really smart group of people that's very fun. Very fun. Like Mads Mikkelsen, the actor that plays Hannibal Lecter, the moment they call "cut," he's telling jokes. Everybody's funny. It's not a dark set at all. It's very light-hearted. It's actually much more light-hearted than the Kids in the Hall set ever was.
Well, we were the writers and the performers and we fought all the time. And it's just not like that on Hannibal, because you're an actor, you're not the creator, so it's a different thing. But when you're a writer and the creator and the performer, it's a lot different.
But all the drama with the Kids in the Hall, like all the drama that reportedly went on during the filming of Brain Candy, is long gone, right?
Yes. It's long gone. I mean, even when we talk about it today, our blood pressure doesn't even go up, we can actually laugh about it. You just can't do that your whole life. It'll kill you. It's not like we don't fight any more, but we just don't take it as personally. And there's really not much more we can do to each other that we haven't already done.
Are a majority of the fans who come out to your reunion tours people who saw the show on Comedy Central or are they people who've recently discovered it?
It's new people and that's one of the greatest things to discover. It's not just people who watched us the first time, there's definitely that contingent, but there's a lot of young people who are just discovering it, too. And that's exciting because it doesn't feel like we're a nostalgia act, so I love that.
The Kids in the Hall are scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, at Celebrity Theatre. Tickets are $40 to $70.
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