From 1989 to 1994, The Kids In The Hall was about the best thing going in sketch comedy. The series' five-man Canadian troupe first formed in 1984, when Second City alums Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, performing as Kids In The Hall, merged their group with Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney's troupe The Audience; Scott Thompson joined separately in 1985. Other performers came and went (at one point, KITH had eight members), and the individual Kids still had their own projects—McCulloch and McKinney spent a year on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live, while Foley took small roles in films and Thompson and McDonald toured with Second City. But by the time SNL's Lorne Michaels stepped in as producer, The Kids In The Hall was an established unit. The Kids In The Hall aired on Canada's CBC network, as well as on HBO and CBS in the U.S., but it came into its own on Comedy Central, where frequent repeats brought it to a faithful and growing audience.
In 1994, the Kids ended the series and began work on the feature film Brain Candy. The production was troubled—media reports of intragroup conflict and a face-off with Paramount about the film's controversial Cancer Boy character didn't help the film's reputation or its distribution. After the film opened to disappointing reviews and box-office, the troupe members went their separate ways. Nonetheless, they reconvened for a couple of stage tours (the latest was in 2002), and individual members still work together on a variety of projects, while debating the possibility of a second film.
Shortly after A&E Home Video's DVD release of The Kids In The Hall: Complete Season 1 1989-1990, The Onion A.V. Club spoke individually with each of the group's five members, discussing their current projects, their memories of the KITH days, their thoughts on Brain Candy, and their plans for the future. This week, The Onion A.V. Club presents interviews with Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald; Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, and Bruce McCulloch will appear in next week's issue.
Immediately following The Kids In The Hall, Dave Foley went on to star in the hit comedy series NewsRadio. He's since appeared in a variety of films and TV shows, including Will & Grace, Monkeybone, A Bug's Life, and Celebrity Poker Showdown, which he began hosting this year.
The Onion: How do you look back on your Kids In The Hall days at this point?
Dave Foley: Nostalgically, like any old man does on their youth. I mean, Kids In The Hall is the reason I have any career at all. It's something I'm really proud of.
O: Are you actively interested in more tours or revivals?
DF: It's something we don't like to do too often, but when we do it, we enjoy it. When we were performing in front of an audience, it was the one time throughout our careers together that we didn't fight. So it was a nice release. Even when we were doing the TV series, if we had a week off, we'd go out and tour for a week, just to remember that we didn't hate each other all the time.
O: You've said in the past that the troupe didn't get along very well offstage. Was there any particular reason?
DF: Yeah, because we're all bastards, really. It's a very opinionated group: Everyone felt that the other four were crazy and stupid. So there was a lot of fighting. You had to fight to get your stuff through the filter of the group and convince everybody that what you were doing was funny.
O: How do you think that affected the final product?
DF: In a lot of ways, it was good, and in a lot of ways, it was bad. It made it harder for us to make group decisions about a lot of things. We never had a mechanism with each other for compromise, which I think people like Monty Python had, and which made it easier for them to get stuff done. But it meant that you really had to work and make sure your stuff was good for it to get passed.
O: How did solo pieces work? If somebody wanted to do a monologue, did it have to be vetted by everyone else?
DF: Yeah, we had read-throughs every week during the writing sessions, and everyone got to give notes on everything. It was a group decision as to what got produced and, once it was produced, what got into the episodes. Even after you produced a piece, you'd go in with your cut of the piece and everyone would give notes on the editing. We were constantly reviewing each other's work, which was a great process, because everything got tighter and better. But it definitely could be grueling, and very confrontational.
O: Before you were on TV, there was a point where the troupe had eight members. How did the group dynamic work then?
DF: Pretty much the same. A lot of fighting. That's why it stopped being eight: Some people just quit because the fighting was too much for them. A lot of competition—collaboration, as well—but we were always a very volatile group with each other.
O: Have you seen similar dynamics on your other TV shows and movies?
DF: It seems to be fairly common in sketch-comedy groups, and also in rock bands, I guess, where you've got creative people working together for long periods of time. I heard the Pythons fought constantly, and had huge fights with furniture broken, and still have bad feelings.
O: Python gets pointed out as an obvious influence for you guys, partially because of the format, but also possibly because Kids In The Hall did so much drag. How much of a connection do you think there is?
DF: Well, they're a major influence in that they were a comedy show that I watched as a kid, and they changed the rules for how you do comedy. In fact, they got rid of all the rules for doing comedy. We wound up going back to an older, more structured style of sketch comedy when we started doing it, because we wanted to avoid trying to be like Python. The drag thing was mostly because we couldn't get any women to stay in the group.
O: Did working with a troupe significantly affect the way you approached comedy acting?
DF: It completely shaped it. Our style developed working in the club together, and it came out of not wanting to do comedy that we thought was square. At the time that we started in Toronto, everything was kind of a rip-off of the Second City theater group, which itself had become a little stale at that point. It was all these groups doing song parodies about the mayor, and the piano player doing sound effects. Between scenes, we didn't have piano music; we had Sex Pistols blaring away. We wanted to do a more aggressive style of comedy. If you did something that seemed square or easy, the other guys would tear you apart. So whatever that style is, it came out of not wanting to do something old and boring.
O: How did the act change in the process of going from stage to television?
DF: It really changed in the writing. In the first season, I think we learned how to write for TV, and learned that a lot of the stuff we did on stage that we thought was great maybe wasn't so great, because it didn't work on TV. So we made that transition to writing stuff specifically for the show. We got better at that, understanding how the production works, how the camera works, and how you can build your jokes in editing. There's a big difference. Probably some of the raw energy of the live show got lost.
O: How did you feel about making the transition from being a troupe member to being a solo actor?
DF: In a lot of ways, it was a huge relief, not being a member of a troupe, being able to make your own decisions and kind of live your own life. I went straight to NewsRadio, which was going to work with another really good ensemble, and it was a lot less work. It was a pleasant transition, once I had work.
O: Did you miss the variety once you settled down to play the same character for four years, or did you enjoy the opportunity to explore a character in depth?
DF: I like the sitcom, as a structure. It was nice to watch the characters develop over the years, and the different rhythms between each character. I still do miss the freedom to play any kind of character I wanted to play. If I wanted to be a gangster, all I had to do was write a gangster sketch. Whatever I wanted to be, I could play it. Whereas the rest of your show-biz career, you pretty much get hired to look and sound exactly like yourself.
O: You have a tendency to play the comic straight-man roles. Did that develop through Kids In The Hall, or precede it?
DF: I think that that's something, as a group, we all had high regard for—doing the straight parts well. We all understood that that was the backbone of any comedy, the person who sets it up and maintains the reality of the sketch. Otherwise, it all falls apart. A bad straight man will just kill any comedy. We'd watch other comedy shows and talk about whoever did the straight part, and if they did it right or not. It's something we all took pride in.
O: You've said that your NewsRadio role was written specifically with you in mind. How did that come about?
DF: [NewsRadio series creator] Paul Simms was a Kids fan, and in fact, it was a sketch where I was the straight man… He saw the first Chicken Lady date sketch, and he liked the fact that I was getting a lot of laughs off deadpan responses. That's what he wanted as the center of his sitcom—someone who could get laughs off of reactions to the crazy characters. Which, if you go through sitcoms, is basically the job of the central character. That's what Bob Newhart did, and Jack Benny did it on his show for, what, 35 years?
O: You were the only member of Kids In The Hall who didn't have a screenwriting credit on Brain Candy. How did that happen?
DF: I'd quit the troupe in the middle of writing it, after several months of writing. It was back in the time when we weren't getting along very well, and we got into one fight too many while working on the script. I just said, "I'm going to leave now. I don't want to do this anymore."
O: But you ended up in the film.
DF: Yeah. The truth of how that happened is that we didn't have a contract to make the movie, and I didn't want to be in it. At the time, the script wasn't in very good shape, and I didn't think it was going to get made, and my managers didn't think it was going to get made. [Laughs.] And they said, "Look, can you just sign the contract so the guys can get paid?" So I did the movie basically because I was contractually obligated.
O: Are you interested in making a second Kids In The Hall movie?
DF: Yeah, I'm interested. I think everyone now agrees, in retrospect, that the way we made Brain Candy was not the way we should have made a movie. We kind of lost control of the thing as it went along.
O: What would you do differently next time?
DF: For one thing, I think we'll write it first. We won't let the deal drive it. We have to come up with an idea we like, and we have to finish a script that we like, before we take it into production. I think [with Brain Candy] we wound up in a situation where we had a production date to start, but we really didn't have a script, even though we'd been trying to write it for months and months. I think I'd spent about six months working on that script, without having a script at the end of it.
O: What's your ideal project at the moment?
DF: I guess the ideal is starring in something I wrote, because that's fun. An ideal situation would be one where I could write whatever I want to do, and perform it. But right now, I don't know what that role is, because I haven't written it.
Kevin McDonald is frequently visible on television, with a recurring role on That '70s Show and a lengthy run of cameos on everything from Friends to Seinfeld to Arrested Development. He's also less visible but recognizable doing cartoon voiceover work for the Lilo & Stitch franchise, as well as for shows like Invader Zim and Zeroman. Earlier this year, he appeared in OutKast's extended video for "Roses."
The Onion: You've been doing a lot of cartoon voiceover work lately. Is there any particular reason you enjoy working in cartoons?
Kevin McDonald: Well, besides the paycheck, it's easy. There are always fun people. Sometimes cartoon people are comic-book people, like the Invader Zim guy [Jhonen Vasquez], who's a comic-book genius. He's 26, and he looks like he's 16. It's usually only an hour or two a day. But I heard this quote from Tom Hanks, who says cartoons are harder than real acting, which I can understand, because you move around a lot. You get more intense. When you're doing it, it's kind of hard. But it's always really fun.
O: Around the time of the last Kids In The Hall tour, it was widely reported that you were living in Los Angeles, working on screenplays, but you hadn't found a market for them yet. Is that still the case?
KM: Yes, actually. Right now I'm working on something with my girlfriend Breanne Munro and Bruce McCulloch, a TV series for HBO, and it's getting pretty far in terms of getting sold, so maybe this will be the one that works. As I write more and more, I never stray from comedy, but the themes are getting more serious. But I find it interesting to write about a serious subject and make it a comedy. The TV show that we're doing is sort of based on my childhood, about a kid growing up with a drunk dad, and some serious, horrible things the dad does. But it's completely a comedy. I guess I wouldn't be surprised if in five or ten years, I wrote something completely serious. Other people might be, but I wouldn't.
O: Comedy does seem to be an outlet for you to express pain and insecurity. You tend to play shy or neurotic characters, and your Kids In The Hall monologues focused on you getting kicked out of the troupe, or being identified as the Kid nobody likes. How did you get to the point where you were comfortable expressing personal, painful feelings in your work?
KM: My girlfriend thinks that I've saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy by writing sketches, even writing the drunk-dad thing. She's surprised that I can talk about my drunk dad in an interview like this, or to a person I'm pitching to, but it's become a form of therapy, in a weird way. By season two of Kids In The Hall, I was running out of ideas, losing my imagination, so I turned to my life. Some of it, I knew, was a little ridiculous, like when I thought for a second that I was the least popular member. Really, who cares? But it's a funny attitude to take. So I wrote a sketch about it, and it became a good source of material for me, because I am a little neurotic, and I am a little shy.
O: What was your early comedy like, back when it was you and Dave Foley as a theater duo?
KM: Oh, we'd write things about people with long beards or one arm, copying Monty Python at first. We were trying hard to be wildly imaginative. I think I find putting the two together—imagination and real life—is when I write my best stuff. But, yeah, Dave and I would do crazy accents. We were struggling to find our voice.
O: How did the writing process work back when Kids In The Hall was entirely a stage troupe?
KM: We had a nightclub show every Monday, so we'd meet every Saturday to rehearse, and everyone would bring their own ideas. We'd pick the best 10 or 12 to go in the show. Writing-wise, I guess Bruce was in charge. He kind of had the best ideas. We'd never write anything down on paper, but we'd improvise them over and over in rehearsal until we were happy with it, or until we ran out of time. I know that I felt intimidated, personally, because everyone else had great ideas. I think as the group became more streamlined, and as I watched them work more, I learned how to write through them.
O: As a shy person, did you have problems asserting yourself in the group?
KM: Yeah, I always do, it's my problem. Even now, writing with Bruce, whom I've known for 20 years, and my girlfriend, whom I've known for nine years, sometimes I don't talk that much. In a group, I tend to go quiet. I don't know why. Maybe I should really see a therapist and not write a sketch about it.
O: If you were more assertive, you might get more time in, but the tone of your comedy, and therefore your career, would be very different. Would that be a positive thing?
KM: It would change the comedy that I write—maybe for the worse, maybe for the better. If I wanted something in, I could become a sucky-baby and they would know about it. But I had this thing where if it was four of them against one, I would just give up. Whereas with Mark, if it's four of us against him, he sees it as a tie, and he knows that he has to fight for the next seven hours to get a scene in. It's just different personalities.
O: What's a sucky-baby?
KM: A sissy. Like I would cry and whine until I got my way.
O: Would you want to star in or direct the projects you're writing, or are you just looking for screenwriting work?
KM: I would like to do everything. I haven't learned to direct yet, but I'd definitely like to star in them, or with the bigger movies, at least have a good part in them. I'm trying to be the dad in the TV show. I'd also like to produce them. So producing, writing, and being in them is my thing. And maybe one day I'll learn to direct. But I'm a sucky-baby, and you know what that means now.
O: How would being a producer-writer-director-star coincide with being the shy guy who doesn't assert himself? Could you deal with a set full of people arguing with you about aspects of a production?
KM: I probably could, because I'm used to it with the Kids In The Hall. Except now I'd have to be the guy making decisions. But I guess I would learn how to do it. Being the shy guy has kind of held me back from doing that up until this point in my life—probably, to tell the truth, not that this is a therapy session. But hopefully, it would just be something I could learn, just like I learned to cope with five guys all the time.
O: When you're doing comedy cameos, do the writers tend to defer to you, or ask your advice, because of your experience in the field?
KM: Well, one thing is that I'm shy, and the other thing is that I'm sort of arrogant. And I'm lucky enough that I'm from this factory job I used to have called Kids In The Hall that people respect, especially the writers. So unlike other actors I've seen hired to do a show, if I ad-lib something in rehearsal, I usually see it in the script the next day, whether it was good or bad. 'Cause they just think, "Coming from a Kid In The Hall, it must be good."
O: How did the plot for Brain Candy initially come together?
KM: It was Mark's idea, originally. We all talked for weeks and weeks, and Mark came up with this idea that he thought all of us could do. I don't know how he came up with it. Maybe he was depressed. But his was the one that came out as the best after a while.
O: What was the writing process like?
KM: It was hard, because on the TV show, we'd each write our own sketches, or write in pairs, and bring a piece to the read-through, and it was kind of your baby. But with writing a movie, we were all in the same room, and we couldn't turn to the next page until all of us were happy. Like I said, it was four against one, and Mark was the one never turning that page. Some of the others, too… Dave could be like that. So it was very difficult, but very rewarding. Though we never quite cracked the ending, I think we wrote two-thirds of a very good movie. No, three-quarters of a very good movie.
O: How would you do it differently if you had it to do over?
KM: You know, Bruce makes fun of me, because I've been trying to figure that out for the past eight years. And I haven't really figured it out. We're all thinking of doing another movie, and it's hard, because everyone's in different cities, but I think the best thing would be to write the movie first, and then look for the deal. We had a deal to come up with a movie, and when we started shooting, we weren't happy with the ending, but we had to keep shooting.
O: What's your take on the conflicts between members?
KM: We were together 10 years, every day, almost. Like any rock band, kind of. The interesting thing was—except for me, because I'm shy and quiet—every week, there was a different pair fighting, which I think is the dynamic of being a close-knit group like that. Now that we don't see each other that much, we never fight.
O: Some of Brain Candy's peripheral characters, like Bruce's rock star, come across as one writer's personal pet project. But your primary character, Dr. Cooper, is the film's central axis. Was he a joint creation? How did the group work out who would play what was essentially the starring role?
KM: Yeah, he wasn't my baby at all. We were writing the character before we knew who was going to play it. Mark sort of wanted to, but at the last second, we thought that Mark's strength was in playing a lot of different characters. I think Dave would have played the lead, but he wasn't involved at that point, because he was doing NewsRadio. So it sort of fell onto me, because I think I'm the least talented of the character actors. It was really hard for me, because I didn't see it as a funny part. As we had time to rewrite it, I sort of found the comedy in it. I rented Young Frankenstein and I saw Gene Wilder playing the straight part, but getting a lot of laughs reacting to everyone else. That's how I decided to play it, as a modern Young Frankenstein. And we have similar hair.
O: If you're the weakest character actor, what are you strongest at? What's your biggest talent?
KM: [Laughs.] I'm probably the best at being silly. If I have any inspiration at all, it's probably silliness. There's probably a lot more than that, but I can't think of anything else. That's the first thing that comes to mind. I can act enough that… What I try to do is play different attitudes. I can't be like Mark or Scott and play different characters, so I always try to change and do different attitudes. But it's usually me: an angry me, a happy me, a jealous me, but me.
O: Back in your TV days, you all did monologues where you addressed the camera and introduced yourself as yourself. In general, how much do you think those characters reflected the personalities of the people playing them?
KM: Usually, Bruce's, Scott's, and my monologues were just us. Especially Bruce and Scott; they were really them. Sometimes mine were totally me, and, like I said, sometimes it was me with an attitude. I think Dave and Mark would find a funny idea, a funny character, and the hook of the story was this character they had created. If you know them well, you could see how deep down this was really Dave or really Mark. But on the surface, it was more a character connected to what they were saying.
O: In one interview many years ago, you described yourself as "the overlooked Kid." Do you still think that's true?
KM: Did I really say that? Gee, I hope I didn't say that. I probably am, but it's only because Mark was on Saturday Night Live, Bruce was directing, Dave was on NewsRadio… If I am overlooked, I deserve it. It's not bad or anything. I love my life. I do a lot of TV shows and movies. I shouldn't go around saying I'm overlooked anyway. Who cares?
O: You've actually been described in some pieces as being shy about publicity, or being indifferent to it. Do you think that's true?
O: How is that possible in such an ego-driven business?
KM: It's funny. My girlfriend and I are sort of animal rescuers, and we went to a benefit for an animal-rescue group. The publicists were begging me to go through the front on the red carpet, and I just didn't feel like doing it, so I didn't. I think the thing is this: When I was a kid, my dad was a drunk, and he would sometimes try to kill me and my sister. Well, he didn't really, but he said he would, and it scared us. I knew I had sort of a comic talent, comic timing, and I wanted to be a comic actor. When things were bad, I would go to bed crying and think, "I'm gonna be really famous. I'll show him." So I tried to do that, and as a result, I met the other guys. By the time of the TV show, the quest for being famous had melted away, and it became about loving the work. I really fell in love with the work. I learned how to write, and there I was on TV for five years. As a result, I became semi-famous, because I stopped caring about it. I honestly thought that if I kept caring about it, I wouldn't be known. The catch-22 is that I don't care about that now. This is a therapy session!
O: Did you ever have a reconciliation with your father? Or, for that matter, a chance to say, "Look at me, I'm famous"?
KM: Well, I never cared to say that. It bothered him a bit, I think. He sort of liked me being semi-famous, and he was sort of jealous of it. It's a weird thing. He liked it, but he didn't like the work. He comes from a different school of comedy. He hated Monty Python and he hated Woody Allen; his comedy tastes stopped at The Honeymooners, which I do think is a funny show, but your tastes shouldn't stop there. He didn't really like the fact that I wore dresses, and stuff like that. In the very first Kids In The Hall episode, Dave and I did a sketch where we're businessmen going to a gym to work out—except we're not working out, we're getting flogged. In the end, there's a shower scene where there's blood running down the drain, from our backs. So we went to some party for the first episode in downtown Toronto, and when I got home, there was a message from my dad in Montreal. He was drunk, and the message was this: [Adopts hoarse, throaty voice.] "No need to bleed!" Then he hung up. I brought that tape to the office, and we laughed at it forever.
O: Where would you be these days if not for Kids In The Hall?
KM: I might be the manager of a movie theater, because I was an usher during the young, struggling days of Kids In The Hall, and the manager asked me to go to a special training program to become an assistant manager. And I thought that if I did that, I'd be less serious about the comedy thing, so I said no. So I might be a movie-theater manager. Or—every guy says this, even Tony Soprano said it—I really like history. I could have studied history and become a historian.
O: What's your ideal role?
KM: Well, my favorite kind of comedian is the kind of comedian I'm not. It's closer to what Mark is. I think my favorite role is like the Peter Sellers thing in Dr. Strangelove, where you play three or four great parts in a comedy that means something. That would be my favorite. Though Mark is more likely to do that.