By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"I think we had a discussion for about five minutes back in the early '80s," McKinney says of the Kids' philosophy of transgender comedy. "And then we just played the roles. We never thought about it in terms of 'How does a man play a woman?' If you do that, you get trapped into thinking like a man thinking like a woman. The characters were just women. You have to let the sketch be the star. A lot of us early on wrote pieces about problems we were having with our girlfriends, and someone had to play the girlfriend. In the process, we discovered that we could do it well. Why hide from that?"
In proving that drag doesn't have to be a drag, the Kids also took sketch comedy into a weirder, more claustrophobic world than Saturday Night Live by deliberately eschewing social commentary, political humor, and celebrity caricatures (except Satan and the Queen of England). Just as they never put distance between themselves and their lipstick and padded bras to score satirical points about gender roles, they rarely commented on the real world outside the Hall. When McKinney says you have to let the sketch be the star, he isn't going far enough -- for these guys, the sketch is an unforgiving dominatrix in spiked leather heels, propelling the boys into ever more punishing non sequiturs with wild whip cracks.
The Kids in the Hall was (and, with this tour, remains) a laboratory overflowing with experiments, and like all scientists trying to discover new forms, the Kids sometimes found the harder they worked, the more fruitless was their endeavor. Classic case in point: "What is a Sketch?," in which Dave Foley guides you through the anatomy of the title piece, using the attempts by France and Spain to colonize his scrawny chest as an example. It's just plain not funny, but it is fascinating for the way the piece illustrates how the Kids fetishized comic formulae and prized invention over attitude.
Indeed, their TV work is virtually free of sneers and cynical posturing, which may be one reason the fans can swallow most of their misfires. Their look-what-I-made-for-you sincerity guaranteed that even if the materials they were handed at craft-time came out in a lopsided, baffling construction, you knew the energy and the ingenuity were there. And you also knew you could count on something really clever just around the corner.
Mark McKinney is close-mouthed about who and what will be appearing in the Kids' Dallas show. That's fair enough -- one of the chief pleasures of watching The Kids in the Hall (even in reruns on Comedy Central) is never knowing who among the dozens of characters will appear in any given sketch and in what combination. He does say there is "a surprising amount of new material" that will feature familiar characters, as well as re-creations of "crowd-pleasers" -- direct-to-stage translations of original TV sketches.
"It's been difficult picking our favorites and the fans' favorites for a live show, because some of our best stuff was filmed, not live in the studio," he explains. "And that means camera angles, editing, and effects are necessary to match the material. We've finally perfected one piece for live performance that's had a giant focus problem."
Most of the shows on the Kids' North American tour have sold out -- they've played to crowds as large as 2,000 in Vancouver and 2,700 in San Francisco. McKinney notes that the scale is a far cry from their '80s Canadian days, "playing to the same eight people in a club every Friday night." But it's not so much the experience of performing for a live audience -- "we've always been a live troupe," McKinney says flatly, noting that they've convened on stages in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto since the TV show stopped production -- as the sense of rock-and-roll stardom that hangs around a continental tour of large venues. He sounds as though Rod Torfulson's Armada featuring Herman Menderchuck on guitar has finally made it. And they don't quite know what to do with it.
"For the most part, it still feels like the same hectic scrambling," McKinney confesses. "The 'rock and roll' part comes after the shows, when there are parties and these attractive women come up and start talking to you. That's still sort of a surprise for most of us. Most of the time, it goes over your head. If you're a cock-of-the-walk rock guitarist or a big baseball player, you start with a sense of confidence. But it's different when you're a comic. Often, you start from a point of self-denigration. That's why you became a comic."