When it comes to sketch comedy, most people think of the most popular show of all — Saturday Night Live, which has been on the air for more than four decades. Other shows might come to mind, too, like In Living Color or Mad TV. These shows had great moments, to be sure, but there’s another, often overlooked, sketch comedy show that came out of Canada in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s: The Kids in the Hall.
The show was avant-garde and rarely delved into topical humor or current events. Instead, the five actors — Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson — tended to perform sketches where something absurd was happening.
Who Are The Kids?
In the early 1980s, Kevin McDonald and Dave Foley were performing in a comedy troupe called The Kids in the Hall (KITH), along with a few other performers. Later, Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney, who were performing in their own Theatresports (comedy with competition) group, joined KITH after meeting McDonald and Foley in 1984. Finally, Scott Thompson was invited to join the following year.
As far as the name of the group goes, it’s apparently a nod to Sid Caesar, a comedian McDonald and Foley greatly admired. Caesar once quipped that his television program was written by “those kids in the hall” — and since those “kids” were themselves great comedians like Mel Brooks and Neil Simon, the Canadian funnymen opted to adopt the name for themselves.
Lorne Michaels Almost Broke Up The Kids In The Hall
Oddly enough, the same person who helped start their show was also almost responsible for side-lining it. Lorne Michaels, the famed Saturday Night Live producer and showrunner, was considering recruiting Bruce and Mark to be writers on the long-running program. This would have effectively broken up The Kids in the Hall, as the other three members didn’t get such invites.
After seeing the group perform in person, however, Michaels apparently had changed his mind, and helped to produce The Kids in the Hall for CBC in Canada and HBO in the U.S. In 1988, a pilot of the program aired, and in 1989 the show began its first season.
Dressing The Part
The Kids in the Hall was an all-male group, and while they sometimes had extras on the show who were women, this wasn’t always the case. When it came to writing female characters, the guys had a solution: they dressed in drag.
Many of the best gags the troupe put on were while they were dressed in women’s clothes, but the humor wasn’t existent in the bare fact that these were really men dressed as women — the storylines and jokes that they wrote and performed actually drew you in more than the novelty of men being in drag.
The Kids in the Hall had many sketches where they delved into the absurd, but in their humor, there were sometimes bits and pieces of philosophical thought thrown in, too. One sketch, called “Womyn,” showed the gang playing poker one night, during which each member of the group exhibits typical machismo behavior, only to reveal they secretly have a desire to be more feminine in different ways.
According to Paste Magazine, this is one of their best sketches, as it “showcases the troupe’s underlying feminist attitude.” The men close out their poker game by making every card a wild — only, somehow, Dave’s character still loses.
Relying On Each Other’s Strengths
In an interview with Chris Hardwick for his comedy channel Nerdist, Bruce McCulloch explained what each member of the troupe brought to the table. “Mark is a character genius, and thinks about complicated things in a weird way,” he explained. “Dave has a literal comedy brain and timing, as does Kevin,” who McCulloch said was “the biggest joy to work with” because “he makes everybody friends still.”
McCulloch said that Scott is “a madman artist who can’t stop thinking and obsessing” about the aspects of a sketch. And as for Bruce? McKinney answered that McCulloch has the “most ambitious ideas” of the group.
Put Away Your Theories
As the group has aged a bit, they’ve become more reflective about what makes their specific brand of comedy work. That kind of theoretical thinking didn’t help when they were producing KITH back in the day, however. “Whenever we’d have a theoretical conversation about comedy, we’d stop because we knew if we kept at it, we’d break up,” McCulloch said in an interview with Vulture magazine.
What made The Kids in the Hall great was that they liked to go into absurdity, taking normal situations people deal with and changing one aspect of it to be completely out of the ordinary, and see how that would affect the situation.
Written In Haste
In “This Scene Was Written In Haste,” the Kids in the Hall broke the fourth wall, revealing that the writer had, well, written the sketch very hastily. As a result, a boyfriend meeting his girlfriend’s father had a seat in dad’s favorite “chain” (instead of chair) and the daughter offering people a “cop of coffee” — with actual coffee pouring out of a police officer.
Toward the end of the sketch, things take a crazy turn, as the father character reveals “that’s not my daughter, that’s my wofe!” In a jealous rage, the father goes after the boyfriend with a “kite” instead of a knife.
‘I’m Crushing Your Head!’
The “Head Crusher” was among the most favorite of characters within Kids in the Hall lore. Portrayed by Mark McKinney (and voiced in an accent whose origin is difficult to figure out), the character would go around the neighborhood or to the business district, finding people he didn’t particularly like, and “crush” their heads (in his mind).
It wasn’t reality, but by putting his index finger and thumb up to his eyeball and putting the other person’s head in his line of vision, the character would pretend to “crush” others, calling them “flatheads” after he did so. It sounds weird when you read it, but if you watch the sketch it’s quite comical!
They Made A Film Called Brain Candy
The Kids in the Hall, much like their Saturday Night Live counterparts, made their own movie. Only, unlike SNL, the movie didn’t feature recognizable characters, which, for an American audience mostly unfamiliar with the group to begin with, likely contributed to its dismal numbers.
But those who have seen the film have raved about it, and it’s become a cult classic. The film takes a satirical look at the pharmaceutical companies and supposes what would happen in a world where happiness can be taken in pill form.
Ebert Gave Brain Candy A Thumbs Down
Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert reviewed Brain Candy on their show Siskel and Ebert. Siskel was a big fan of the movie and viewed it as a fresh satirical take on drug companies. Ebert, however, didn’t have the same views that Siskel had.
“I did not laugh once,” Ebert said. “I thought this movie was awful, dreadful, terrible stupid, idiotic, unfunny, labored, forced, painful, bad.” Which prompted Siskel to ask his colleague, “what happened to your sense of humor?” Interestingly, it seems that Siskel’s opinion on the film won out, as he predicted the film would become a cult classic. On Rotten Tomatoes, critics aren’t big fans of Brain Candy, but regular fans gave it a 77 percent rating.
Dave Foley After KITH
Dave Foley has appeared in a number of television and film roles, typically playing quirky or fish-out-of-water characters that others rely on for comedic relief. There was one exception after KITH ended, Foley was the lead role on NewsRadio, a television series about a radio station, starring alongside Phil Hartman. In 2005, however, Foley again went toward the absurd, appearing in the Disney film Sky High as an aging superhero named All-American Boy.
Foley has also performed a number of voice acting roles in recent years, too. He’s been in Monsters University, A Bug’s Life (as the lead role), and most recently performing in a few episodes within the television series Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Kevin McDonald Has A Number Of Voice Credits, Too
After leaving Kids in the Hall, Kevin McDonald has had a very strong career in acting and particularly in voice acting. It’s no wonder that his voice acting career took off– McDonald has a very distinct, higher-than-normal-pitched voice that’s perfect for character roles. Even people who’ve never seen KITH, chances are, they’ve probably still heard McDonald’s voice in some form or another!
After KITH, McDonald performed as Agent Wendy Pleakley in the Lilo & Stitch movies and voiced one of the Almighty Tallest in Invader Zim on Nickelodeon. He continues to act and had a semi-recurring role as Pastor Dave on That 70s Show.
Bruce McCulloch Has Stayed Busy as a Writer
Although he was being considered to join Saturday Night Live as a writer in the late 1980s (along with fellow KITH co-star Mark McKinney), McCulloch actually did write for SNL before Kids in the Hall took off during the 1985-86 season. But he wasn’t particularly thrilled with the professional atmosphere there and left after one season.
After Kids in the Hall, he stayed close to Lorne Michaels, but didn’t return to write at SNL. He did, however, direct the Molly Shannon film Superstar. Beyond that, McCulloch has continued to write, as well as star in other roles, including as a Canadian Mounted Police Officer in Super Troopers 2, and as Tobin in Gilmore Girls.
Mark McKinney, A Store Manager You Might Recognize
Mark McKinney, much like his co-star Bruce McCulloch, also wrote for Saturday Night Live before The Kids in the Hall got its televised start. But unlike McCulloch, McKinney returned to SNL — not as a writer, but as a cast member, from 1995-97.
After his stint at SNL, McKinney appeared in a number of films, including Saturday Night Live-produced ones like A Night At The Roxbury, The Ladies Man, and Superstar. McKinney also had a role in FXX’s Man Seeking Woman. Presently, he’s on the cast of the NBC program Superstore, as store manager Glenn Sturgis, a character he has played since 2015.
Scott Thompson is the only openly gay cast member of The Kids in the Hall. He played a recurring role on the show, Buddy Cole, who gave prolonged monologues as the “alpha queen.” Thompson also frequently played Queen Elizabeth II on the show, a role he played again in Brain Candy.
After KITH, Thomspon delved into reality TV for a while, hosting a show called My Fabulous Gay Wedding. In 2014, he reprised his role as Buddy Cole for a series of episodes on The Colbert Report for the 2014 Winter Olympics. He’s also appeared on a number of other television shows, including Reno 911! and voiced a man named Grady on a few episodes of The Simpsons.
Death Comes To Town
Brain Candy wasn’t the only project that the Kids in the Hall put together outside of their eponymous television series. They also starred in another film, released in 2010, called Death Comes to Town. The Mayor of Shuckton (a fictional Canadian town of 27,000) is killed after they lose the bid to host the Summer Olympics.
While some believe a small-time criminal is to blame, another member of the community thinks something else happened and tries to get to the bottom of who actually killed the mayor. Meanwhile, as all of this is happening, the personification of Death awaits to collect souls at a nearby hotel. As is typical of a Kids in the Hall production, humor is found in the absurd — such as the meteorologist delivering news on the murder while simultaneously talking about weather conditions as if it weren’t a big deal.
Another popular character from the show was the obnoxious “Cabbage Head,” a man with a cabbage for a head (some of the characters on Kids in the Hall were pretty straight-forward, including another one called the “Chicken Lady”). Played by Bruce McCulloch, Cabbage Head would frequently interrupt events and speak in a chauvinistic manner.
When his come-ons were rejected, he automatically assumed it wasn’t his demeanor that was the problem, but the fact that he had a cabbage for a head. No, it couldn’t be his rude commentary, his sexism, or the smoke from his cigar that was the problem…
Controversial ‘Cancer Boy’
A character played by McCulloch in the show, and reprised by him in the film Brain Candy, caused a small bit of a stir. Given the character’s name, it’s no wonder: he went by the name “cancer boy.”
The boy was seen either in a wheelchair or in a hospital bed, and exhibited signs of cancer. For some, this was making fun of people who were afflicted with illness, but the Kids in the Hall stand by the statement that the character was supposed to make. “Cancer boy” was often seen meeting with celebrities, and it was that notion — that illness-stricken people are used by famous people with different PR motivations — that the troupe was trying to be critical of.
If you’re a parent to a child, you know that your special person has wonderment about the world that is equal parts cute and annoying. Always asking questions that seem irrelevant, and telling long-winded stories that don’t seem to go anywhere.
That’s Gavin, in a nutshell — another one of Bruce’s characters. Wearing a light jacket, a backpack, a baseball cap, and glasses, Gavin waxes on about a girl in his class with false teeth, what ingredients are in hot dogs, and the fact that some bugs only live for one day — so if they missed breakfast, he says, they had a bad childhood.
One popular sketch that didn’t feature any of the cast members from Kids in the Hall was entitled “30 Helens Agree.” Thirty women appeared on screen, and a voice read out the words that they agreed about.
Sometimes it was something simple like that 30 Helens agreed that comfortable shoes were important. Then several of the Helens would tell you basic adages about their shoes, and why comfort is a good thing. The joke here was more or less about the fact that they got 30 women named Helen together — with such similar viewpoints (except when one of them disagreed).