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."
The Kids in the Hall
The Bronco Bowl,
2600 Fort Worth Ave.
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.
"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.
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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."