Last week, The Onion A.V. Club featured interviews with Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, two members of the groundbreaking Canadian sketch-comedy troupe The Kids In The Hall. The five-man team, which formed in Toronto in the mid-'80s, was behind the 1989-94 cable-TV staple The Kids In The Hall, as well as the 1996 feature film Brain Candy and several reunion tours. Following A&E Home Video's DVD release of The Kids In The Hall: Complete Season 1 1989-1990, The Onion A.V. Club spoke with all five members of the troupe individually. The KITH retrospective concludes this week with Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, and Bruce McCulloch.
When The Kids In The Hall was first getting started onstage, Mark McKinney spent a year writing for Saturday Night Live; after KITH ended, he temporarily returned to SNL as a writer-actor. McKinney became active on the New York theater scene, and also appeared in a variety of films, including Bruce McCulloch's Dog Park and Superstar and the SNL spin-offs The Ladies Man and A Night At The Roxbury. Most recently, he starred in Guy Maddin's film The Saddest Music In The World and in the Canadian TV series Slings And Arrows.
The Onion: How did you get involved with Guy Maddin and Saddest Music?
Mark McKinney: A friend of mine who's a producer had done Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin. He had the script for Atom Egoyan, but then Egoyan made Ararat, so he approached Guy Maddin. Guy and his partner did a draft, and that's when I saw it, read it, loved it, and sweated the three months they took to decide whether to use me or not.
O: Was there any audition process?
MM: Kind of. I met Guy, and he knew Kids In The Hall and was familiar enough with me as an actor to get a feeling about how I'd fit. We had a lot of talks about how to play the character. Then he took me to a room and took one of those springy lamps and moved it all around my face to see how I'd photograph. And that was it.
O: Apart from Saddest Music, and the other obvious stuff like Kids In The Hall or Saturday Night Live, what have been your favorite projects?
MM: I really liked doing Dog Park with Bruce McCulloch. I do this series in Canada called Slings And Arrows, which I write and act in. That turned out really well.
O: Spice World not really up high on the list?
MM: Actually, I was going to start with Spice World, because it's a great call to get. [Adopts British accent.] "Would you like to come to London and make a movie with The Spice Girls?" It's just so impossibly glamorous. That was kind of fun. And weird. Very movie-starry. That was probably my maximum movie-starry experience. Of course, I wasn't the star; they were. I'm really talking about the canapés and the business class on the way over, not anything about the art. But I did get to play a few scenes with Richard E. Grant, who's like a personal hero.
O: Do you prefer projects where you're writing as well as acting?
MM: Not at all. If something is really well-written or interesting, or being done with a good group of people, I'm not going to go off and continue my one-man show. I wish I were a better writer–by that, I don't mean that I don't have good ideas or know how to execute them–but I'm really a kind of undisciplined, ADD-affected person when it comes to churning out a script. So I tend to be a good collaborator, but I'm trying to do it more on my own. That's the acid test of writing.
O: What kind of material were you doing before The Kids In The Hall got together?
MM: We wrote sketches in Calgary at the theater company we belonged to. The space was empty on Saturday nights, and myself, Bruce, and three other guys who ended up writing for Kids In The Hall at some point or another started to form the nucleus of a late-night sketch-comedy group. The great thing about being in Calgary, as opposed to L.A., is that you kind of do art for art's sake, and comedy for comedy's sake. A lot of our stylistic ideas came out really early, and the show grew, very quickly, into a sold-out situation. That gave us the gumption to go to Toronto. So we were writing the same sort of stuff. It was in us from the beginning, I guess.
O: So the Kids didn't really change your writing habits or your comedy style?
MM: Well, we spent the first year beating our stage instincts out of ourselves and learning to write for TV, because the camera and editing do things for timing, and stuff like that. There are a few really lumpy sketches in our first season, because we couldn't believe that this great sketch that wowed them for 12 minutes at the Rivoli Club wasn't getting its due in front of the TV camera. We were obstinate. So it did change our writing styles a bit. When we first got the order for the show, we thought we would get three half-hours, or six, but we ended up getting 20. That sort of rocked us back on our heels and jump-started us to a new writing dynamic. It became more aggressive. In the second and third year, we hired a couple of our friends to come in and help, because we had so much to do.
O: More than the other Kids, you seem to have a penchant for extreme, bizarre characters and single-character-focused sketches. Are you conscious of having a different comedic sensibility than the other guys?
MM: Everyone's got his area. It's like a Venn Diagram: circles within circles, area A, area B. I like actor-y kind of stuff. When I did a character, I wasn't looking for a beat or a punchline. Kevin divided it up really slickly when he said that some people say funny things, and some people say things funny. I was definitely in the latter camp, and that's somewhere Scott would venture sometimes. But I also wrote a lot with Bruce, because we had a similar satirical take on stuff. I was aware that I became the character guy, and that I went into deep makeup and had a deep, deep thespian commitment. I always thought that I'm not really a funny person. I don't consider myself a comic. But I am a good comic writer, you know? Like I have a split personality, and I write funny sketches, and I can perform them funny. The trick to it is that I'm not doing comedy, but I'm doing comedy. [Laughs.] Does that make any sense? Damn you and your questions! What a headache! You're all too bright. Motherfuckers.
O: It does seem like that talent set would lead you to be a writer rather than a performer.
MM: I do have a hard time writing, and I'm just figuring out why that is. I have an attention problem. Of course, you can't sit down and write when you find yourself leaping up and standing in a coffee shop, going, "Wait a minute, wasn't I just at my typewriter?" But I love a project, and I love a big idea, and that's why I thrived in the troupe. I was the only one of the Kids who voted to do another year. Whereas they wanted to do a movie, I wanted to keep doing sketches and not leave home.
O: What's your take on Brain Candy these days? How do you feel about it in retrospect?
MM: I look at the plot, which was a very complicated, Ealing Studio comedy plot, like one of those old Richard Attenborough comedies with Alec Guinness. We invented a world, a problem in the world that had almost crime-drama sort of consequences, and was a hard thing to write with five people. Because I think that's the kind of singular-vision story where you need to have one person holding the scalpel. But I think it's still pretty successful as a comedy, just because a lot of the scenes are really great. Of course, we made some incredibly stupid business mistakes. I think we lost the goodwill of the studio when we refused to take out Cancer Boy. That cost us. So it was a typical Kids In The Hall mess.
O: Cancer Boy comes up often when you guys talk about why the film didn't do better. Why was it such an issue for you?
MM: It wasn't an issue for us, but it was for the powers-that-be, the heads of the studio, who wanted it out and then didn't understand why the neophyte comedy troupe from Canada, with only cult appeal, was not listening to them. We thought, "Great, we won the battle, and they're not going to ignore a $7 million movie, are they?" But they kind of can.
O: But why were you so adamant about standing up for it?
MM: I think we've always been on guard, as a troupe, against people who are going to come and take away our mojo. In a way, it was the last thing we needed to worry about, because we were so out there anyway.
O: If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?
MM: I don't know. We didn't really know until afterwards that we had been fighting, through intermediaries, with the very top people at the studio. Had we known that, we might have had a discussion about it, if we'd known the potential impact.
O: What did you see as the differences between working on Kids In The Hall and working on Saturday Night Live?
MM: Well, I was the boss at Kids In The Hall, and I was not the boss at SNL. That made a difference. The great thing about Kids In The Hall meetings was that we'd sit down, read these sketches, and pick which ones we wanted to do. There were obvious ones that made everybody laugh, and then there were ones that needed rewrites, but if you had something that you really believed in, and that you were willing to get ugly about, you could get it done. Some of the best stuff we did came from those very personal campaigns. Then I went to SNL, and the first part of the year was really fun. It was an incredible change, because the Chris Farley-Adam Sandler-David Spade crowd was leaving, and Janeane Garofalo, Chris Elliott, Mike McKean, and all these other people were there. We were all a little lost. And then the next year, the Molly Shannon-Will Ferrell-Cheri Oteri group arrived, and it took off again. It became a different show.
O: A lot has been said about the Kids' group conflict. What's your take on that?
MM: Well, it's simple. We were really young, abrasive guys–some more than others–when we first met. We were vicious with each other about sketches, and what the points of things were. There was a lot of love, but also a lot of scrutiny of each other. That's where it all comes from, being gnarly men whose tempers were unmitigated by girlfriends or any real, civilized contact with the world.
O: You talked about there being sketches that you had to really go to bat for. Was there ever anything that you just couldn't see eye to eye on with the guys, where you wanted it in but just couldn't convince them?
MM: There were a few. I remember one sketch getting killed by our producer because she was a cat lover, and it involved this guy who was looking for his cat while his cat was bouncing off various windshields on the superhighway. I thought it was really funny, getting snatches of different conversations while this cat gets reduced from a cat body down to a scrap of bloody fur, and cutting it with this guy going, "Where is little Trixie?" But a lot of people found that really cruel. And it probably is.
O: Did you often have to deal with outside censorship?
MM: When I see what happens at the network level, day to day, I'm astounded at how offended we were by what very little censorship we got. I mean, we got away with everything, pretty much.
Scott Thompson has reprised his best-known Kids In The Hall character, outspoken gay barfly Buddy Cole, via a film cameo (Super 8 1/2), a fictional memoir (1998's Buddy Babylon), and a solo comedy tour. He had a regular role on The Larry Sanders Show and appeared in two installments of Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City. And in 2000, he scripted Uncle Saddam, a clandestinely made, eerily personal Saddam Hussein documentary by French director Joel Soler. This year, Thompson has credits in a handful of films, including My Baby's Daddy and Ham & Cheese.
The Onion: When we last interviewed you, six years ago, your book Buddy Babylon had just come out. What was reaction to the book like?
Scott Thompson: How do I put this… Honestly, it wasn't really received the way I wanted it to be, that's for sure.
O: How did you want it to be received?
ST: As a novel, which is what it is. I think critics basically went, "It's a TV guy. Why the hell would I even bother reading this?" I think the literary establishment dismissed it as a puff book. It didn't do that well. I've never seen it in a remainder bin, which is great. I don't know. It was a disappointment, to be honest.
O: You talk briefly on the new Kids In The Hall DVD set about the guy who was the inspiration for Buddy Cole. Did he ever find out about the character?
ST: He died before he even saw it, I think. He was definitely the main inspiration. I met him and I started to imitate him. The reason I found him so inspiring was that he was such an effeminate guy, but he had a lot of sexual energy, and I thought that was an interesting combination. Like a macho queen, if that makes sense. Which is how I see Buddy.
O: He's one of your longest-lasting and most-used characters. What is it about him that resonates for you?
ST: I think he allows me to say things that I can't get away with. I think the voice, the gay accent that I employ, makes people think it's not important, that it's silly. You can slip some real heavy satire and some real insight into things, because people are so conditioned to hear that voice and think "frivolity." But underneath it all, there's something important being said. People don't listen when you lecture. No one wants to be talked down to or scolded. But somehow, they don't mind Buddy doing it. He's just funny. He seems smarter than me, if that's possible—not possible that anyone could be smarter than me, but that a character could. When I do his voice, I feel funnier.
O: Have you ever run into trouble for Buddy's opinions?
ST: Oh, yeah, absolutely. But I just go, "It's a character." This world is filled with five billion people with five billion different ways of looking at things. This is just one person, and it's not even me, it's a part of me.
O: Isn't that sort of blunting the messages you use Buddy to convey?
ST: Well, my thing is, I'm not a politician. My feeling with my characters is that they all have a right to feel exactly the way that they do, so I never censor them. I don't judge them. Buddy is the character I do use to say things. I do want people to laugh, but I also want them to think about what he says. If I went up there and started doing that kind of stuff, a lot of people would just shut down. I think with Buddy Cole, they see somebody who's obviously a marginalized character, who's obviously had a lot of struggles. They can identify with him. He's allowed to go there.
O: How have reactions to the character changed since the 1980s?
ST: People have gotten a lot hipper about it, and a lot less defensive. Buddy Cole was born in the mid-'80s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, so there was a real resistance to him. A lot of gay men were very upset by the character, because they felt that he was a stereotype, and all that sort of thing. My thing is, "Well, you should listen to yourself." A lot of gay men are in delusion if they think they're super macho. I certainly exaggerate with Buddy Cole, but there's a truth to the way he behaves and the way he talks. Generally, people don't attack me anymore for Buddy—except for what he says—but I'm very rarely attacked for how he behaves. I think the queen [as a gay stereotype] has become very mainstream on television. The difference between Buddy Cole and all the queens on TV today is that Buddy Cole is sexualized, and all those men running around telling straight people how to dress are castrated. That's a key difference. Buddy is not castrated.
O: It seems like in your career you've taken flak from one side for being openly out, and from the other side for nonconformity. Which is worse? Would you rather offend one side than the other?
ST: It changes all the time. I think they're both bad. But I reacted much more personally to attacks from the gay side, or whatever you want to call it. I took it personally at the beginning. I don't any longer. I felt for years that the gay community never gave me my due. Now, I don't give a shit. You know, it's an immature community, and immature communities don't like the truth. When a community is trying to get accepted by the mainstream, they don't like people inside that group to show the ugliness, to lift up the rocks and show the worms underneath. I think Buddy did that, so I was seen as somebody who didn't fit into the agenda. Like I was a negative influence.
O: Apart from Buddy, did you have a favorite Kids In The Hall character or concept?
ST: Yeah, like Kevin and Dave doing the Sizzler Sisters. To me, that is a mad creation—it makes no sense. On paper, you would never believe these characters in a million years, these escapees from a mental institution who run around in cheap wigs and talk in ridiculous voices. I thought that was just genius. I also love the Chicken Lady, which I wish I'd done. That was one of the most original things I'd ever seen in sketch comedy. But not much of my own. [Laughs.]
O: You've toured with your own one-man comedy show. What's it like going from working with a troupe to working solo?
ST: Less people on stage! Well, if you bomb, there's no one to pick up the pieces—that's the scary part. When you're in a group, there's a real sense of power, because you know that you can have a bad day and someone else will be there. When you're alone, you can't have a bad night. I mean, you can, but it hurts. In a weird way, comedians love to bomb. But they have to bomb really dramatically. Bombing with five people is kind of fun, but bombing alone is not.
O: Do you see a significant change in the tone of your comedy between when you're working alone and when you have other people to play off of?
ST: When I'm with the group, I listen. When I'm by myself, I don't. I mean, you really can't. Well, you can, but when you're alone onstage, you have to be the master. You have to be in control. Performing is not democratic. The person onstage has to have that audience under control, and they'll sense it if you don't. And they'll attack you. They'll kill you. It's just human nature, I think: You see weakness, and you pounce. You can't show it.
After The Kids In The Hall, Bruce McCulloch returned to Saturday Night Live for a year as a writer. He subsequently wrote and directed the feature film Dog Park, and directed the SNL spin-off Superstarand the Jason Lee/Tom Green comedy Stealing Harvard. He's also released two comedy/rock albums: 1995's Shame-Based Man and 2002's Drunk Baby Project. McCulloch is currently working on a number of film and television projects, including an HBO series developed with Kevin McDonald.
The Onion: How did you get involved in film directing?
Bruce McCulloch: Well, I did do some short films for Kids In The Hall. It was one of those things where I knew I would eventually lose my looks to the bottle, so I'd have to do something else. And I did some short films for Saturday Night Live. Clearly, I haven't done that much acting since the end of the show, relative to the other guys. I've always enjoyed writing more, and picking the music, and picking the weird-looking extras, so that's why I wandered into directing. Of course, after several years of it, it feels like I should have done more performing, because it's fun.
O: You've said that you consider the other Kids In The Hall guys more "actorly." In what sense do you mean that?
BM: Well, I'm an okay actor, but for, say, Mark McKinney, it's his first skill. My first skill, I think, is my weird ideas. We're all different in that way. Plus, I couldn't audition to save my life. My life has been defined by the fact that I won't audition for something. I'll do something like Gilmore Girls because they phoned and asked me if I wanted to do it. But I couldn't be in the waiting room beside Jay Mohr, or something. It's not who I want to be. My reason for being on this world is to have my weird ideas and see them to fruition. I've done a few things—I was in that film Dick, with Will Ferrell—but it's just not what I really want to do.
O: So how did you originally get into sketch-comedy on stage?
BM: I think when you're a young, weird cat, and the clothes you wear are your creative outlet, you're looking for something else. So I did stumble into improv, and I do like to perform—when we do [KITH] tours, I love it. It's fun, but as I joke, "Actors can't be choosers." I think I used to love it more. I do one-man shows and stuff like that; that's fun performance. But seven days on a big American film where I play the weird guy answering the phone, and get cut out of the movie? Fuck, I don't want to do that. It's like being a football player. When he's young, he just loves the feel of the football in his hands. Then, as he gets older, he realizes that football is all about grid systems and reading the defense. The fun of it goes away a little bit.
O: You've done stage acting, stand-up, writing and directing films, and your albums. Do you have a favorite medium?
BM: My records have been my almost-favorite experiences, because they're fast and creative, and you can get your friends together for a week and go somewhere. If someone wanted to know what my comedy was like, I'd tell them to listen to one of my records. You could read one of my scripts, but that would be different, because they're so collaborative. So that's probably the most fun, but you can't make a record every week.
O: You seem to have more of a musical focus than the other Kids. Do you have a musical background?
BM: Oh, no. I'm the shittiest bass player in the world, and I'm the shittiest guitarist in the world. But I did grow up with rock music, with my parents. The other guys will talk about how they'd watch Saturday Night Live and Monty Python. I didn't watch any of that shit. I was getting drunk and listening to rock music. That was my sexual and rebellious energy, and music was a big part of my earlier stuff, at least. Now that I'm a bit on in years, I don't sit around listening to Deep Purple records.
O: Your skits and spoken-word pieces about music tend to have a sarcastic edge. Does that come out of the same self-critical attitude that makes you say you're a shitty guitar player, or is it a broader attitude toward rock fans?
BM: I think it's both. I did a thing about being a Doors fan, and people don't know if I'm actually a fan. They'll come up to me and go, "I hate The Doors, too," or "I love The Doors, too," so there's an open interpretation. I think I feel both, and it comes out. I like The Doors, but I think they're idiots, too, the way they prance onstage.
O: Do you think rock musicians are inherently pretentious?
BM: No, I think I missed it, and maybe I'm jealous. But I did see my friends carrying amplifiers when I was 15, and losing money on their gigs, and I thought, "That doesn't look fun." I didn't grow up with people like Billy Bragg—or maybe I did and just didn't know it—who had their own point of view that wasn't "Look at me!" I like Keith Richards, but I'm not a big Mick Jagger fan. There's a big difference.
O: Would you trade in your career today if you could have been the next Jim Morrison instead?
BM: Fuck, no. I like being the little weird-idea guy, or whatever I am.
O: Your albums do seem like the most direct way of getting those ideas out, because there are so many fewer limitations.
BM: Yeah. I mean, I've done a couple of studio movies, and they take two years to do, and every frame of the film is discussed to fucking death, and by the end, you can't remember what you liked about it at the beginning. Even doing something like the Kids In The Hall tour a few years ago, it's so good to remind myself how things can be fun. The most severe end of it is that I've done a couple of rewrites for studios that no one will ever read, but we talked about it a lot, and it paid well, and it seems like a lot of fun at the time. But then you go, "Oh, where's that thing?" But a record, you can do in a week, and it's actually done, and it actually exists. That's the reason I'm doing some TV again, because I'm missing the idea of doing things fast, or faster.
O: As a comedy veteran, what's it like dealing with up-and-coming comedians like Will Ferrell or Tom Green?
BM: First of all, I'm sequestered in my hut here. I don't ever see anyone other than the mailman. But I think people like [KITH] because we're not Adam Sandler or Mike Myers in fame, financially or in terms of success. We're a cool band. We're not U2; we're Wilco or something. For that reason, I think people tend to give us pretty good, as you kids say, props. And the good part about the people who are doing films now, Ben Stiller or Jack Black or whoever, is that they're all friends, or peers. So we know each other's stuff. At a studio level, they sometimes don't know what to think of me.
O: What was your original experience writing at SNL like?
BM: It was good. Obviously, I was a young asshole. I just thought we could do anything we wanted that was weird. I didn't understand, really, how it worked. I learned to write there, in the way of how the camera saw it and how you had to work with people, and how staying up all night didn't mean that much. It was about how well-written it was, and if people liked it or not. I wasn't very happy there, but I learned a lot.
O: In your experience, what's the hardest part of directing comedy?
BM: Don't get caught trying to be funny. We've realized from being on the floor that the funniest thing is someone going "Oops," or that some reaction shot is going to be the biggest laugh in the film. That never comes across in a script. So I think the hardest thing is the gulf between words and what the scenes actually are like. Another hard thing about films—and TV, too—is that you're discussing character forever. It's like, "Fuck, can I just cast them and I'll show you what it's like?" You need to beat out discussion and actually do it.
O: Your own comedy, on Kids In The Hall and in Brain Candy, has an element of pathos. Your characters are often very focused and obsessive, but forlorn at the same time. Is that something that you consciously work for?
BM: No, I'm just forlorn. It's kind of a faggy thing to say, but I'm a humanist. You don't just do jokes that are going to be funny. I'm interested in how people make sense of their world. A person in over their head is a lot more interesting to me than someone who's on top of the world. That's what I can write.
O: Where does your character Cancer Boy fit into that thought process?
BM: Cancer Boy was, arguably, what kind of financially killed Brain Candy. I love Cancer Boy more than anybody. I was tired of the way that little kids with cancer were used by celebrities for photo ops. If the kid goes into remission, does Wayne Gretzky still visit him? It was about how cheery a sick little kid could be, and he was worried about everyone else around him. And, of course, that pissed off a lot of people, even though it was only a cameo.
O: How did the Cancer Boy thing in Brain Candy affect the dynamic between you and the other members of the troupe? It comes up a lot as the reason Paramount spiked the film, but the other Kids always go to bat for the character.
BM: Everybody did stand up for it, and it was just one of the things that we thought they'd end up not letting us do. I found myself fighting for it and fighting for it. [The studio heads] thought there was something about the character that crossed some line separating fun comedy from weird, fucked-up comedy. The advertising reflected that. Brain Candy was a weird film. We probably had a film in us that was really fun, and that could have been a big hit, but we just followed the film that we were writing wherever it went, and that's where it went. It was kind of weird satire, which is not what we did, but we all liked that we did it the way we did it.
O: What's your take on the conflicts within the troupe?
BM: I don't think there are any, now. When you're five men in your testosterone 20s, fighting for your piece of cheese, and you're all creative, you're going to have some fights. But we all get along great now. There's no reason not to. Our livelihoods don't depend on each other, and our lives don't, so when they intersect, it's good.
O: How do you look back on the Kids In The Hall days now?
BM: I was probably the one in the troupe who had the least fun doing it. Kevin and Dave enjoyed themselves immensely, and they'd go, "Yay! We got that scene! It was great!" And I'd come off after having done a scene and say, "Okay, what's next?"
O: Were you just taking things too seriously?
BM: Oh, you know, only a hick would be celebrating his success—that kind of fucked-up thing. With the tours, I was like, "Wow, what a great scene I just wrote," as opposed to "Yeah, so what, I've got another one to write." I think it's been a reminder to have more fun, and to be less serious about my life and career. So I look back on it fondly. I was out for dinner with Scott and Kevin last week, and we were reminiscing a bit, which we never do. Because that's the epitome of old guys. But I think it's in a quite comfortable place for all of us right now.