After four decades together, the five-man comedy troupe the Kids in the Hall is considered both something of a cult classic and a part of the comedy pantheon.
The Canadian group’s canonization is completed with a new career-spanning documentary, The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks, available on Amazon Prime on May 20. Making the documentary was hardly a given. “Trying to get the five of them to agree on anything is a big thing,” producer Nick McKinney told me over Zoom, describing it as “kind of a process of herding cats.”
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
Consisting of Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, and Scott Thompson, the Kids started in Canada—mainly doing live performances in Toronto’s underground art and music scene—but soon came to the attention of Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels, who green-lit their self-titled series. That show ran from 1988 to 1995 on HBO in the United States (but was also widely seen on the CBC in Canada) and ultimately secured the Kids’ cult status. The music analogy that’s often employed is that Monty Python was the Beatles and Kids in the Hall were the Replacements.
While the Kids (individually and collectively) spent the past few decades cycling in and out of Hollywood, they’ve been drawn back to their early Canadian work like a band reuniting in midlife. The rare pleasure of the film is seeing these young weirdos emerge from regional improv into a genre-defining dream team.
Although its aesthetics place it in the ’90s, The Kids in the Hall series remains evergreen, its visual style and tone creating a universe unto itself. The format is all-encompassing, with songs, monologues, studio sketches, filmed pieces, and grainy 8-millimeter bumpers anchored by the edgy surf rock of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. The short films especially are inspired by the Coen brothers, David Lynch, and Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen.
This was simpatico with the ’80s and early ’90s Toronto new wave of independent film as embodied by Don McKellar, Atom Egoyan, and Bruce McDonald, each of whom made movies far outside Hollywood that would find audiences around the world. The series could also be raunchy and sexually ambiguous, with all of the cast appearing as grounded female characters. The documentary gives particular attention to Thompson’s role as an out gay performer who played characters like “Alpha Queen” Buddy Cole with agency, rather than as the target of the joke.
Comedy Punks director Reg Harkema takes the group’s brilliance and importance as a given: just having Eddie Izzard call them the heirs of Monty Python does the trick. Instead, the documentary focuses on the tense personality dynamics of the five guys. Foley, speaking in the doc about four decades in and out of the group, succinctly encapsulates the core of the film: “The Kids in the Hall is a love story. It’s the four worst people you could ever be forced to love for 40 years.”
Like so many anarchic creative outsiders, getting involved with Hollywood was the breaking point for the Kids. The filming of Brain Candy, their 1996 attempt to follow the Monty Python model (a TV sketch show followed by feature films), proved disastrous. By this point, Foley had been scheduled to work on the sitcom NewsRadio (costarring Phil Hartman and a then-mostly-unknown Joe Rogan) while contractually obligated to shoot Brain Candy. The strain of this led to the major rift between him and McDonald. Around the same time, Thompson’s brother died tragically. While funny, the movie, about an experimental “happiness drug” that takes the world by storm, was made amid much sadness and frustration.
The groundwork for Comedy Punks was laid by Paul Myers’s 2018 group biography, The Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy. A Toronto-raised musician and journalist who signed up for Second City himself, Myers was witness to the earliest incarnations of the Kids’ live show. His sketch comedian/improviser brother Mike Myers also looked up to the Kids and features prominently in the documentary.
Paul Myers, who lives in the Bay Area, hooked up with Nick McKinney, younger brother of Mark and a longtime producer and performer who’d filmed the Kids’ 2015 tour with a documentary in mind. The duo brought on Toronto-based Harkema to direct following the success of his 2014 doc, Super Duper Alice Cooper.
In addition to interviews with the Kids and their biggest fans (including Reggie Watts, Mae Martin, and Julie Klausner), Comedy Punks may feature the longest extended interview (that I can recall) with Lorne Michaels that’s not directly about Saturday Night Live.
Michaels, as befits a self-styled showbiz god with the power to make or break careers, is a recurrent deus ex machina in the film: from plucking them out of Toronto, producing their series, and ensuring that Brain Candy got made, this was a gamble for someone who did not need to extend himself. While he may have been the inspiration for Don Roritor, the capricious, silver-haired pharmaceutical mogul and de facto villain in Brain Candy, Michaels beams with pride at what he helped facilitate with the Kids.
Despite the series, movie, tours, and their individual forays into sitcoms and stand-up, a big part of the Kids’ charm is that they remain outsiders and underdogs. To put it another way, they’re thoroughly Canadian.
As Nick McKinney told me, “Canadians in general have a good social distance on pop culture, ’cause so much of what we got growing up was coming through the airwaves over the border. So we knew U.S. news, we knew what the sacred cows were, we knew what was on TV, we knew what the music was, but it wasn’t ours. So you kind of had the distance to be able to take the piss.”
Comedy Punks does an admirable job condensing the relationships between and among these complex men, keying into the things that make Kids in the Hall relevant and always funny. Their influence is visible all over the culture, with the creators of shows like Portlandia citing it as an inspiration. Ultimately, the movie is an argument for art made for and about outsiders—punks, by any other name.•