The Kids in the Hall was the best sketch comedy group of the early 1990s. Sure, Saturday Night Live had Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, Norm Macdonald, and Janeane Garofalo — and sketches like Celebrity Jeopardy!, Phil Hartman’s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and Motivational Speaker Matt Foley. But there were plenty of duds, too, like The Rickmeister and the ESPYs.
The Kids in the Hall was less loud and more intelligent than SNL. They took more risks with sketches like the prescient Politically Correct Art Class, and no one skewered corporate culture better than the Kids (see Not Working Out and Can I Keep Him?). There were absurd characters like the Chicken Lady and the Sizzler Sisters, but their best sketches were the ones they played straight, like Parenting and Salty Ham. Then, of course, there were pieces like Things to Do, Groovy Teacher and Bobby versus Satan. SNL could be good, but the Kids were more consistently funny.
The Kids in the Hall ran for five seasons in the late 80s and early 90s. Now it’s back for a sixth season on Amazon Prime, which is also running a two-part documentary about the troupe — Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks. In the documentary, we learn that Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney met each other at Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary and began working together in a troupe called The Audience. Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald met at Second City in Toronto. The two hit it off immediately and McDonald asked Foley to join his comedy troupe, even though he didn’t have one. When McCulloch and McKinney came to perform in Toronto in 1984, the two pairs joined forces, with Scott Thompson joining the group in early 1985.
The group performed regularly in front of small audiences at Rivoli on Queen Street in Toronto, which was the center of the downtown punk scene. Later SNL star Mike Myers performed with them at Rivoli on occasion. “I always aspired to be in The Kids in the Hall,” Myers says. “They were like a band that only knew three chords, but they were great chords, and they had great energy.”
That’s not quite right, but they were a troupe whose comedy dealt with everyday and family life. Unlike SNL, they avoided politics and headlines. They didn’t do imitations of politicians or celebrities. Instead, they did sketches like “Daddy Drank” and “Running Faggot.” Both McDonald and Foley grew up with alcoholic fathers. Thompson’s father beat him for being gay.
The documentary makes the group’s decision to play women characters into some feminist or transgender statement, but it seems to have been more of a convenience than anything else, and the Kids were good at it. They avoided the easy stereotypical sexual jokes one often gets when men play women characters today. With the Kids, the women characters were natural.
In Toronto, the troupe eventually caught on and a raving review in the Globe and Mail caught the attention of Lorne Michaels’s talent scout. McCulloch and McKinney were asked to join SNL as writers, and it looked like that was the end of The Kids in the Hall, but the two hated it at SNL. “It was all awful,” McKinney recalls, “torturous, agonizing, nerve-wracking, exhausting, but it really wasn’t funny.” The two decided to leave SNL, but Michaels, in turn, decided to give the five a crack at a show of their own. The CBC decided to invest as well. The first recording of the pilot in 1988 was a disaster, but the second was nearly perfect, and the rest is history.
Now the Kids are back with eight episodes. They’ve brought back many recurring characters and bits — Cabbage Head, Gavin, the Police Department, the Sizzler Sisters and so forth. There are some good sketches, and they still push some boundaries (there is a lot of old-man nudity), though they are clearly much safer today than they were in the 90s.
Fans, of course, will still enjoy the new episodes, but the documentary is more interesting. It has a ton of archival footage of the Kids doing early performances at the Rivoli and of their first year in New York, and features all five members sharing memories from the early years. It becomes clear that the Kids will always be a comedy troupe of the 90s. No other time could have given us something so bizarre and anarchic.