By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Folks who spent part of their college years watching Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson every Friday and Saturday night on HBO, and then CBS, can easily become confused about whom they actually hung out with back then. In my addled memory, when a couple of pals and I sat in front of the TV with a selection of favorite intoxicants, we were also toking with Bower, being pestered by Gavin, sipping martinis with Buddy, moaning the blues with Mississippi Gary, lamenting the work week alongside Cathy With a C and Kathie With a K.
These and countless other characters in The Kids in the Hall pantheon recurred so often in the Lorne Michaels-produced Canadian sketch show they seemed like the friends you didn't mind coming over unannounced and uninvited. Dropped into one fractious situation after another like parachute pilots escaping a downed plane, they wielded their neuroses valiantly in everyday dealings with business executives, waiters, high-school guitarists, babysitters, drug dealers, whores, and, occasionally, Satan and the Queen of England. When they landed like comrades in my Denton apartment, we cheered.
"I understand that we were gang-watched a lot," says Mark McKinney with a chuckle. He's just flown back from auditioning for the role of "a big ol' Texan" in the new Farrelly Brothers movie, an addition to the already hectic flight schedule for The Kids in the Hall's first North American tour. With no new TV shows produced since 1995, the Kids have to pursue their own careers while they re-form for these live performances. "I had a similar experience with Monty Python and Second City, cheering them on with my friends on the couch. You felt perma-bonded with your favorite characters."
Certainly, other troupe members have gone on to bigger post-Hall success: Dave Foley on NewsRadio and a recent six-figure production deal with NBC, and Scott Thompson on the dyspeptic and quite brilliant The Larry Sanders Show. Mark McKinney has had some unfortunate and unfunny Saturday Night Live exposure and supporting roles in such film comedies as Spice World, Dog Park, and Superstar (the last two films were directed by Bruce McCulloch).
But McKinney has always been my favorite Kid on the playground. Much like Foley, he was less memorable for signature characters (the one that comes closest, the Head Crusher, he all but disowns now) than for the way he slipped into small, one- or two-time roles with equal intensity and devotion to each. With the possible exception of Thompson, McKinney is far and away the best pure actor among the Kids -- his presence inevitably gave gravity to even their weaker, more tossed-off material. Among his best: Jeremy, star of the Broadway musical Uzi, who thinks he's still in the closet; Tanya, the "slut temp" whose entire life has seemed like a temp job ("I live in a sublet, I'm seeing a married man, my father's on a respirator"); and the sweet, crossword-puzzle-doing, unnamed matron who's just sick that you can't use old-fashioned words like "gay" ("what's wrong with pervert?"), "fisting" ("it used to be a quilting stitch, and a very difficult one"), and "cunnilingus" ("my father proudly drove the first one off the lot") anymore. All are distinct and nuanced creations of the imagination in a world where TV comic actors usually just play their own smug selves for the camera. (Norm McDonald, stop blushing).
McKinney will bring his prowess to American concert stages for the Comedy Central-sponsored Kids in the Hall tour. The idea began percolating about two years ago, when the troupe received an invitation to perform at the Montreal Comedy Festival. Conflicting schedules kept delaying it, though McKinney insists the Kids are never far from one another. "Two or three of us are always in touch at any given time," he says. "I see Scott when I'm in New York and Kevin when I'm in L.A. I've worked with Bruce on his two movies. We have a lot of the same mutual friends."
Thanks to Comedy Central, The Kids in the Hall has a huge posthumous presence and proves itself as relevant -- and, occasionally, as revolutionary -- as ever. What four straight guys and one presciently out gay man did has still never been repeated -- create hetero, homo, and ambiguous characters who weren't harnessed by cultural and subcultural rules. You could call the humor gay, but the show's prime mascot for that, Scott Thompson's bar owner Buddy Cole, was conceived to make gays as uncomfortable as straights with his flagrant advocacy of drugs, booze, porn, and anonymous sex. (His credo? "Moderation, but only within reason.")
Thompson, ever the curmudgeonly contrarian for all things lavender, would just as happily (and accurately) play a meatheaded construction worker or grizzled suburban dad. He would not be confined to "the gay sidekick"; hilariously, the only gay Kid is the least believable in a dress. Meanwhile, in wig and frock, the very hetero McKinney and Foley make scarily convincing women, but rather than hanging quotation marks around these characters, they embraced the opposite gender so hard that it got bent beyond repair. Even at the start of the millennium, where multi-media genderfuck is commonplace, you might declare the Kids brave for the way they flaunt their girliness...if it didn't come so naturally and unself-consciously.