Reg Harkema’s two-part documentary Kids In The Hall: Comedy Punks, which received its world premiere at SXSW 2022, is a spirited, richly detailed, genuinely revealing and insightful exploration of the four decade history of Canada’s celebrated and subversive comedy troupe. Tracking how they first came together, and went from playing hit-or-miss sets to a handful of comedy-goers at Toronto’s Rivoli, to landing a five season award-winning television sketch show on HBO and CBC, and their careers beyond; it’s a funny, poignant, and fascinating ride.
Wisely, Harkema interviews The Kids—Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson—both as a fivesome, back where it all began at the Rivoli—resulting in some funny moments and lively interactions—as well as individually, which allows room for their slightly different takes on how their careers unfolded. It’s touching to see them reunited, making each other laugh as they reflect on the good times and the bad.
The archive performance clips from their years on stage and television, home videos, behind the scenes footage and photographs, are all cleverly woven in to engagingly illustrate the present day interviews, in a way that feels like they’re actively in conversation with each other. With us occasionally getting to hear Harkema throw questions at the comedians, their answers feel spontaneous and authentic. In fact, there’s a sense that each of them decided to share frank, unvarnished recollections about their experiences for this documentary, including how they look back on their acrimonious falling out, just as they were preparing to shoot their Paramount backed movie Brain Candy (which received a mixed reception, and got a decisive thumbs down from Roger Ebert in 1996). An image builds of a troupe—viewed as “the comic arm of the grunge movement” as Scott puts it, whose post-punk spirit saw them resonate with Gen X—determined not to sell out or repeat themselves. Ultimately their dynamic feels like a fraternal one, with all the associated complexity, disagreements, passion, and love.
Among the documentary’s highlights are the glimpses into their creative process and its evolution. Each of the men came to the troupe with their own uncompromising perspective and strong ideas about what they wanted to achieve. They were all willing to mine personal experiences for their material, with a common thread being their challenging paternal relationships, resulting in what Difficult People creator-star Julie Klausner observes was a “cavalcade of bad parenting” on display in their characters. For Scott, there was an intersection between the relationship with his dad and his queerness. He shares that his father being violent towards him inspired a joke; “He tried to beat it out of me, but all it did was make me like it rough”. A line that encapsulates that edgy, sometimes uncomfortable brand of Kids humour. As the film examines, they would often delve into some dark places, as they did with their miniseries When Death Comes to Town. Ironically it was shot while Scott was going through cancer treatment, or as he puts it: “We were doing a show about Death and I’m being stalked by Death”.
One of the things that made The Kids groundbreaking was their inclusion of queer characters—something that Kevin says helped them to be important—and it’s an aspect that Harkema devotes satisfyingly substantial screen time to exploring. Scott, the fifth and final member to join the troupe in 1985, speaks touchingly about finally feeling comfortable to be himself once he’d met his straight comedy brothers, reflecting that before then, “Every moment of my life as a young person was about concealment.” In the mid-1980s when they were performing at the Rivoli “being gay was the ultimate act of rebellion, there was something actually dangerous about putting a gay subject on stage”, as writer and The Kids’ man in a towel puts it. “We used homosexuality as a weapon to bash squares”, declares Scott. It was an aspect of The Kids’ shows that was hugely impactful on Baroness von Sketch Show’s Jennifer Whalen, as she recalls: “It was my first knowledge of someone being openly gay, doing a character that was queer-positive, that was unashamed. So for my small suburban world that was mind-blowing!”
Once on television, Scott playing gay characters in the late 80s and early 90s, including the iconic Buddy Cole, was even more radical amidst the heightened homophobia of the AIDS crisis. It was something that gave Scott a new drive: “We were making fun of AIDS because all I thought about was AIDS. Do comedy, don’t get AIDS. That was my whole goal.” In the comedy scene at the time, Scott reflects, “You weren’t allowed to talk about being homosexual and that was certainly not allowed in comedy. Comedy was such a straight male world. I guess I was like, ‘I’ll be first, someone’s got to do it’.” Embodying Buddy allowed him to express things he couldn’t say himself, and as a mouthpiece “Buddy became a really powerful weapon” as Scott describes it. Although there was the occasional piece of well-intentioned small screen gay representation at the time, when it came to comedy the laughs were invariably at our expense, sometimes sickeningly so. “If anybody ever played an effeminate homosexual it was always a straight person mocking the behaviour of gay men”, says Scott, “It was never a gay man proudly owning his femininity”, whereas in Scott’s eyes Buddy is an “Alpha queen, he’s never the butt of the joke, he will always win.”
Buddy had his detractors, even within the queer community, with some taking offense at his flamboyance. New York writer Michael Musto recalls not being a Buddy fan at the time, but has since had a change of heart: “If he’s a stereotype, he’s not that far from me and also the things he’s saying are pretty spot on.” While Eddie Izzard remains impressed by what Scott achieved with Buddy: “It’s even still powerful now watching it. Someone being openly gay and having an insane twist on it, the surrealism that would come out of the things he would add into that was beautiful.”
Memorably, none of The Kids were afraid of tapping into their femininity when it came to portraying a plethora of female characters. As Scott quips, “We were all very much trying to prove to our dads that we were men by dressing up as women!” They weren’t men in drag though, instead their approach was more akin to what Louie Anderson would go on to do with Christine Baskets on Baskets; cis men playing roles that happened to be cis women. As with the queer characters, the point wasn’t to degrade women or for the jokes to be at their expense, but as Bruce puts it, “It was to make these women have important voices, the outsiders and feminists, that’s our people”. Who looked the best as a woman? The consensus is that it was Dave. Feel Good’s Mae Martin concurs, “I was very obsessed and confused by Dave in drag and found him very sexy”, while comedian Reggie Watts enthuses concisely, “Dave was hot!”
In some documentaries the contributors look like they’ve turned up to collect their fee and regurgitate their thoughts about a given subject, but that’s definitely not the case here. The impressive array of The Kids’ celebrity comedy fans are bursting to share their personal take. Eddie Izzard, for instance, enthuses, “The Kids in the Hall made me laugh, and almost nothing makes me laugh”, going on to add towards the end of the film that “The Kids were, and are, the successors to Monty Python.” Mike Myers was an early fan, who says that seeing their near-perfect TV pilot sent him into “an existential depression” because it was so darn good. While Mae Martin, who first became acquainted with The Kids during their late 90s Comedy Central marathons shares: “I was a young queer kid watching the reruns…it felt anarchic and rebellious and label-defying. It just blew my tiny mind!” Later, when they had chance to see them perform live, the experience solidified their ambition of becoming a comedian.
As for The Kids’ comedy legacy, for Mae Martin it’s one of “empowering misfits and outsiders, of being anti-authority. They make me very proud to be Canadian.” With pacy editing by Peter Denes and David McMahon, like a good joke, there’s an engaging, energetic rhythm to Kids In The Hall: Comedy Punks. Clearly made with a lot of love, Harkema’s infectious passion for his subject infuses and enriches the documentary. If you’ve never seen a Kids sketch, chances are you’ll be a fan after watching this. The good news is Amazon Prime Video, who picked up this doc ahead of SXSW, have also commissioned a new season of their TV show, so The Kids will be returning to our screens later this year.
By James Kleinmann
Kids In The Hall: Comedy Punks received its world premiere at SXSW on March 15th at 2:15pm, followed by an online screening in the US with a window from March 16th at 9am CDT until March 18th at 9am, and a final in-person screening on March 16th at 2:45pm.