Kids in the Hall on Lorne Michaels' "Muscle," Hollywood Homophobia and Their Monty Python Obsession
In a rare group interview, the hugely influential sketch-comedy troupe reveals how the 'SNL' mogul discovered them (then almost split them up), how they'd feel about a Netflix revival and how their careers took hits for being too gay-positive. Says Dave Foley: "Sometimes Scott would angrily explain to us that we were heroes."
On a recent Friday afternoon, five men — Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson — staggered out from under a scorching October sun and into the lobby of a nondescript building in Burbank. No sooner had their eyes adjusted than the kibitzing and catching-up began. And who could blame them: These were the reunited members of Kids in the Hall — the legendary Canadian comedy troupe discovered in a Toronto rock club by Lorne Michaels back in 1987. Their groundbreaking series of the same name, which ran on HBO and CBS from 1989 to 1995, produced some of the strangest, smartest and most subversive satire ever seen on mainstream TV.
Nearly 30 years later, the show's influence can be felt in every corner of the comedy universe — from the films of Seth Rogen (the Steve Jobs star has called them "the benchmark of Canadian comedy") to descendants like Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer. Even Michaels' crown jewel, Saturday Night Live, in whose immense shadow the Kids have long stood, has borrowed increasingly from their playbook — most recently with the casting of Good Neighbor's Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett, who mine the mundane for a similar strain of surrealist humor.
In a little over 24 hours, these Kids — now actually 50-somethings with seven children between them and the dad-bods to prove it — would be stuffed into wedding dresses and performing for several thousand rowdy fans. The venue: Festival Supreme, a comedy Coachella curated by Jack Black held at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium. (Other headliners this year included Amy Poehler, Kristen Schaal and Dan Harmon, all of whom draw inspiration from Kids in the Hall.)
It's been three months since their last live performance in New York, so the guys, now scattered between L.A., Toronto and Winnipeg, have assembled at an acting studio on Magnolia Boulevard for a last-minute rehearsal. But rehearsal can wait. Right now, they are more than happy to reminisce for a rare group interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
"Lorne basically just muscled us onto television," says the 56-year-old Thompson, fresh off a stint playing a forensics expert on NBC's stylish (but canceled) Hannibal.
"And kept us there," Foley says.
"I think we're kind of his mistress," Thompson adds.
The Toronto-born Michaels, it's worth noting, isn't the mistress-having type. Sure, he'll throw his weight behind proven SNL alumni — Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey, to name two — but any grooming of newcomers tends to serve a singular purpose: feeding SNL's ever-rotating roster.
And so it began with Kids in the Hall. At first, Michaels chose two of the five to be SNL writers — McKinney, now 56, and McCulloch, 54. But neither flourished inside the show's famous pressure-cooker environment. "I thought all these amazing brains would be there," McCulloch recalls. "And there were some funny people there — but I realized they weren’t my people." During production breaks, McCulloch and McKinney would sneak away from 30 Rock to rejoin their sketch-comedy family up in Toronto. Michaels, meanwhile, "somehow caught on to our weird, parched, sad-dark thing," McCulloch says, and set about launching their own series. "In Canada, you can’t really succeed unless the Americans say you’re OK," Thompson says. "[Lorne] said, 'These guys are the future.' "
As usual, Michaels' instincts were right. The show grabbed audiences from the very first sketch: a pitch-black scene in which five men share fond memories of a dead mutual friend named Reg — whom, it turns out, they strangled for kicks. A parade of indelible characters followed: the horny Chicken Lady; pop-star vacuum Tammy; flaming raconteur Buddy Cole; Gavin the latchkey kid. Foley, 52, particularly relished pushing the envelope. He once delivered a monologue, as himself, extolling the virtues of menstruation. The CBC, which aired the series in Canada, banned several of his sketches, including "Dr. Seuss Bible" and "Jesus, the Bad Carpenter."
The Kids are quick to cite Monty Python and SCTV as their central influences, though Python's pull is undeniably stronger. Says McCulloch: "Their brain spoke to us. We liked SCTV, but their ideas didn’t obsess me the way Python’s did."
Like Python, they were also prone to playing women. "But we made it a rule that they were never supposed to go for a laugh in the hair or makeup or wardrobe," Foley says. Instead, the comedy flowed out of smartly observed characters like Cathy and Kathy, two gossiping secretaries, and Melanie, a gawky hormonal teenager. McDonald, 54, says walking a mile in another woman's pumps had a positive, if impermanent, effect: “Like the movie Tootsie, I became a better person for five minutes after playing a woman."
They were similarly fearless about tackling gay issues. In one sketch that aired in 1994, a group of gay men debate same-sex marriage on the steps of a Toronto coffee house. ("What is so complicated about basic human rights?" McDonald's character asks.) Thompson, the group's sole gay member, admits the sketches came out of "an agenda. ... I was angry."
"Sometimes, Scott would angrily explain to us that we were heroes," Foley says.
Thompson grows momentarily serious: "I think they all paid the price, actually. I should pay the price, but they shouldn’t have had to pay the price. Their careers took hits. I'm really grateful for that. I think it's quite amazing. I'm going to start crying. I was very naive. I didn’t realize how homophobic the world was."
With their North American tour — their first in seven years — now put to bed, the troupe once more heads its separate ways. Foley is currently occupied with a recurring role on ABC’s Dr. Ken while McKinney is busy shooting the upcoming NBC sitcom Superstore — but all five say they have the time, interest and energy for producing the kind of limited series that has revived the likes of another HBO sketch-comedy favorite, Mr. Show With Bob and David.
Netflix, are you listening?