I love Saturday Night Live as much as the next guy, but as far as I’m concerned Kids In The Hall did much more with much less than Lorne Michaels’s comedy fiefdom.
By Matt Hanson
When I heard that the legendary comedy troupe Kids In The Hall had not only reunited (yes!) but were doing a series of live stage performances, I knew it was something I’d need to see. I got hip to Canada’s greatest comedy export (sorry, SCTV) back in Comedy Central’s pre-Jon Stewart days when the network filled its hours with old SNL reruns, Chevy Chase movies, cheesy standup, and whatever the hell Viva Variety was. Thank god for basic cable in the 90’s. I love SNL as much as the next guy, but as far as I’m concerned KITH did much more with much less than Lorne Michaels’s comedy fiefdom ever did.
For one thing, the Kids stripped away most of the glitz and bloat of television sketch comedy as we’ve come to know it, neglecting the product placement of celebrity hosts and musical guests. The Kids kept it real by keeping it simple: just sketches and monologues, a core cast of five, a live audience, and an endearingly slapdash approach to sets and adlibbing.The inmates were running the asylum, in other words, just as it was meant to be. And they had a way better theme song, too.
It’s true that Lorne Michaels produced and recruited the boys back when they were still fresh out of the Toronto improv scene, but in its best moments (and there were many) the show riffed off of the edgy, subversive, go-for-broke gusto that brought SNL’s early days to prominence in the first place. The Kids’ true progenitor is more like Monty Python, if Python had taken place in the ’80s and consisted of queer-friendly Canadian surrealists with a penchant for gallows humor and drag. Python was never shy about getting up onstage, either, and didn’t lose any of the zest of their television show in the process. I sometimes wondered how the Kids would fare once they got out of pop culture’s purgatory of reruns and box sets and came back in living color.
Luckily for me, they came to the cozy Wilbur Theatre in Boston last Friday for two sold out back-to-back shows. Luckier still, I have the best girlfriend ever and we managed to get seats a good sneeze’s length from the stage itself. Lucky for us, the gang’s all here—Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Kevin MacDonald, Bruce McCullough and Scott Thompson. I was curious to see how time might have changed them. It’s heartening to know that most of them went on to have successful solo careers (News Radio, anyone?) after their comedy program ran its course back in 1995. Now that the Kids aren’t really kids any more, the night was bound to be interesting.
The sketches were a fun mix of old standards and some new bits I hadn’t seen before. There’s Gavin, Bruce’s preteen motormouth who succeeds in being hilarious by being as perpetually irritating as possible (“How much do you think my head would weigh if it were stuffed full of meat?”). Gordon and Fran made an appearance, as did Bruce in one of his patented cynical monologues. Kevin did an amusing song and sort-of-dance number, introducing the whys and wherefores of the group to the people who “were dragged to the show tonight by their friend who used to watch us back in college when he was stoned.” I was sad that Mississippi Gary couldn’t make it, but Simon and Hecubus (“Evil!”) more than made up for it. At one point, attention was drawn to the rather visible bulge in Dave Foley’s tights, and Kevin found himself cupping it, which totally made sense at the time, I swear.
Not to be outdone, there’s also Scott’s Buddy Cole, the fabulously louche martini aficionado and queen-around-town, who gave the appreciative crowd some props for being from an LGBT-friendly town. And, of course, The Chicken Lady made an appearance as well. Call me a snob if you want, but if you can’t get a kick out of a half-human half-chicken hybrid whose horniness is matched only by her sexual frustration and whose catchphrase is “I need to get laaaaiiiiddd!” then there ain’t no home for you here.
The new stuff made more sense when you could make out what the hell they were yammering about. This has got to be one of the drawbacks to doing comedy onstage, especially when it’s sketch comedy and the bits are madcap or text-heavy. The risk is that the performers, if they don’t always project, will not be understood by the crowd. The microphones at the Wilbur got a little dodgy at times, which didn’t help. The Kids always knew that they could make something wonderful happen if a sketch wasn’t working by dropping any and all narrative threads and go the Dada route instead. In some ways, this approach might have been better suited for TV. Sometimes the Kids’ zanier digressions got lost in the shuffle of words and movements.
Thankfully, though, this drawback wasn’t lethal. It was more than made up for by the times when the gags worked, building on their own internal momentum and engagingly loopy premises. I didn’t remember the one about the two lawyers Gerry and Gerry whose negotiations on behalf of their client’s apparently sordid sex lives kept raising the absurd and graphically outrageous stakes to the point of complete profanity which, at least by Kids standards, ranks as an accomplishment. At their best, the Kids didn’t so much push the envelope as fold it into an accordion, play it like a mad hobo, set it on fire, and piss it out while dancing around the scalding remains.
Mel Brooks said of writing and performing comedy that if you’re laughing, then you know they’re laughing. Truer words were never spoken, which is part of the fun of checking in with the boys after so many years. Doing a reunion tour can’t be about the paycheck or a late-career plea for respectability. Every performer craves an audience, after all, and the Kids are no exception. The real joy in watching them careen around the stage is in seeing them purely enjoying themselves. It’s great to see them crack each other up during sketches, which can get annoying when done by lesser lights. I got a special thrill when I noticed Scott Thompson watching his comrades from the wings and doubling over with laughter at jokes he’s probably heard a million times by now. It’s good to know that a couple of decades after their heyday, the Kids are still alright.
Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.