Review of “The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks”: the best Canadian comedy
Viewers before them had first-generation “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV.” But five Canadian guys turned out to be “sort of the only comedy group that reflects Generation X,” as fan Fred Armisen puts it in “The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks.” Reg Harkema’s documentary is an airy and worthy glimpse into a collective career now approaching its 40th anniversary.
Although best enjoyed by already converted, it provides enough showbiz information and interpersonal drama to keep newbies entertained. It will provide both camps with an appetizer for the kids’ limited-run reboot of their original sketch series, new episodes of which (featuring an array of named guest stars) will launch May 13 on Amazon Prime, followed by this doc. a week later (on May 20).
When they were all in their early twenties, Mark McKinney and Bruce McCulloch met in 1981 through a Calgary comedy improv group, as did Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald in Toronto the following year. By 1984, the two units had heard enough about each other to meet and then begin performing under the name “Kids” (borrowed from Jack Benny patter). Their ranks were rounded out in 1985 by Scott Thompson, a drama student who “wanted to be James Dean”, but quickly revised his goals after seeing the other four. “By the time they invited me, I wasn’t going anymore,” he says in recent interview footage shot with the quintet at the Rivoli club in Toronto.
It was there that they scored a residency, honing their number for a paltry audience over several months. Picking up the best accumulated material for a refined show, they suddenly find themselves sold out every night. A rave review from “Globe & Mail” caught the eye of an “SNL” talent scout. After producer Lorne Michaels had them do a lot of hoop jumping, it eventually led to the debut of their self-titled show on HBO and CBC in 1989. Despite the praise, it was actually canceled at the end of the first season. — until a well-timed CableACE Award provided Michaels impetus to overturn that decision.
“The Kids in the Hall” immediately kicked TV comedy up a notch, feeling both laid back and surreal, clannish and lovable. Unlike the contestants, he was not interested in current political events, pop culture riffs, or much scatological humor; his nervousness seemed less indebted to the stand-up than to the ironic, sad and absurd banter between friends.
Favorite personalities emerged, such as McKinney’s berserk “Chicken Lady” and misanthropic “Headcrusher”. But the show didn’t trade catchphrases or trending gags so much as ridiculous but often oddly poignant character dynamics, emphasizing human failings — a “cavalade of bad parents,” alcoholism, l ‘homophobia, etc., behaviors rooted in members ‘mainly suburban circles. Paul Bellini, contributing writer, said, “They wanted to make a comedy that both upset and please people at the same time.”
This extended to using “homosexuality as a weapon to hit the squares”, as gay member Thompson put it. This manifested itself most outrageously in her celebrity-obsessed barfly, Buddy Cole, an “alpha queen” whose supreme self-confidence turned the stereotype into a sign of freshness. Such inclusivity allowed the group to incorporate even risky topics like AIDS, because they laughed at the taboo, not the topic itself. Among the many comedians interviewed here citing the Kids as inspiration are comedic women who endorsed the group’s myriad distaff roles, which were funny without making the femininity itself “the joke.” “They just played the women as characters. They were real, they were grounded,” Lauren Ash says.
“Comedy Punks” marches methodically through the next four seasons, growing in strength and (increasingly expensive) imagination. But the airing of 20 half-hour episodes a year, along with live broadcasts and other obligations, began to stir up discord as well as exhaustion within this “comic arm of the grunge movement”. They decided to call it quits, but then got a late and unexpected go-ahead for the 1996 feature ‘Brain Candy’ – an unfortunate experience for all, in part because Foley had already abandoned ship for the ‘NewsRadio’ sitcom. . It was also not a commercial or critical success, despite building a cult following since.
However, after each turning in different directions, the Kids realized that they all missed working together. This, combined with the growing popularity of Comedy Central reruns, led to reunion tours, the 2010 miniseries “Death Comes to Town” (a sustained mock murder mystery tale), and current activities. Indeed, they seem so happy in each other’s company now that it’s hard to believe they’ve ever hit on each other’s throats.
While we hear of some collaborators (notably the no-frills Michaels), the main voices here, aside from the Kids themselves, are fellow performers. Some, like Mike Myers, have actually eclipsed their fame, but all remain hugely impressed with the troupe’s innovation and skill.
The fast-paced doc enjoys access to plenty of archival footage beyond the original series, dating back to videotaped club performances in the early ’80s. so short that they only elicit acknowledgment smiles – such character-based situational humor doesn’t really play ideally out of context. But then many viewers will remember that background, and the documentary will surely send back more than a few for marathon re-watches.
Currently premiering at Hot Docs (and in its previous premiere at SXSW) as a feature, “Comedy Punks” will be available on Amazon Prime in two separate parts of the same total length.
“The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks” will be available exclusively on Amazon Prime starting May 20.