It all starts with one of them casually stating, “Write what you know” — it may be Mark McKinney, slightly leaning back in his chair and staring at the ceiling, or it might be Bruce McCulloch, who’s wandering around the conference room, checking his phone as it charges and idly munching on a pastry. Whoever said it first, it’s definitely Kevin McDonald who quickly jumps in and, as if on cue, immediately chants, “Write what you know!”Dave Foley then joins him in repeating the phrase. “Write what you know!” “Write what you know!”McKinney grins and McCulloch starts singing along with each other: “Write what you know! Write what you know! Write what you know!”Scott Thompson is so busy laughing that he can’t even begin to harmony. He eventually regains control of his emotions, clears his throat, then bellows out with the most operatic tone possible. “Wriiiiite! Whaaat! Yoooouuuu! Knoooooowwwwwwww!!!”
Minutes earlier, the famous sketch-comedy quintet the Kids in the Hall were arguing amongst themselves. This is a form of inter-group theater bloodsport which quickly pings between affectionate and mortally wounded, then (usually), back to affectionate at dizzying speeds. Spend even a small amount of time with the Kids as a collective, and you will see them engage in this type of barbed back-and-forth — less competitive oneupmanship and more whydontyoukindlygofuckyourselfship. When you’ve been together for over three decades, and know every person’s pressure point and remember every well-nursed grudge and have maintained the ability to hit the jugular vein with pinpoint precision, as well as how to make those who aren’t the target immediately take your side by cracking them up, it’s impossible to resist falling into a comfortable, well-honed attack mode.
You will also be able to see how Foley, McCulloch McKinney, McDonald’s, McKinney, and Thompson can work together and become a single-minded, five-headed comedy troupe on a dime. This is evident by the way one offhand comment becomes an impromptu group singalong. (There’s a suggestion that this was part of a sketch that didn’t make it into their live show, which still doesn’t make witnessing it in real time any less awe-inspiring.) They regularly finish each other’s sentences. Two or more Kids will immediately add to a joke made by someone else. And they are fiercely protective of each other, they way that soldiers who’ve experienced trench warfare together or siblings are. “It’s what families do,” Foley says, then mock-sighs — or perhaps very-real sighs — “and, sadly, we are a family.”Thompson views it differently: “Attack one of us, and five of us attack you.”
Seven years after their last tour and several years later, the Kids in the Hall returned with a new series as well as a documentary. Although the TV show itself, which begins streaming on Amazon this weekend, doesn’t feel very new at all — if anything, the eight episodes are a near-perfect continuation of the original 1990s sketch-comedy series that ran on HBO and the CBC, right down to the updated black-and-white opening credits, a re-recorded version of the theme song from Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, and the exact same subversive sensibility. The belated finale of the original series will bring back fond memories. “sixth season”(A better description than “reboot”) begins. Familiar, fan-favorite characters return for encores. A few original sketches were also included, including one that involved a restaurant staff member reacting to the fancy dessert being called “a” “pie”The haunting bits that Foley plays as a postapocalyptic D.J. feel like they could be lifted from the original backwards-in-the day run.
Yet Children in the Hall: Comedy Punks the doc that accompanies the new sketch series, gives you a sense of how unlikely their return to TV, much less return to form, was in the face of the group’s long, storied and extremely mercurial history. An extension of Paul Myers’ 2018 book Children in the Hall: One dumb guy,This portrait documents the rises, fall, stumbles, conflicts and near-death experiences of the Kids, since their formation in Toronto in 1980. You get a 360-degree overview of how their career-making run at the Rivoli Theater led to Lorne Michaels becoming their patron saint, how fractured they’ve been over the years, how every triumph seems to be accompanied by pitfalls, failures and/or or tragedies, and how they’ve managed to still keep coming back to reassemble, Voltron-style, into a peerless comedy troupe. The five men, who are all now in their 60s, are mellower, more witty, and still very smart. They are unstoppable together. sui generis juggernaut.
Below is an interview conducted in the Hall with the five Kids. Rolling Stone offices on the eve of their new show’s premiere; we’ve attempted to keep the chaotic, cross-talk-filled, impossible to-control conversation as close to how it unfolded in the room where it happened on the page. It has been reduced to a manageable size and edited for clarity. During the creation of this article, no heads were broken. No names have been changed in order to protect the guilty. They were all hurt but not the ones who survived. They don’t seem to have lost any of their edge. They have lost their humor, in fact, it has become sharper with age.
Have you ever thought about doing another TV sketch show?
Kevin McDonald: We were always thinking about the possibility of going back to TV — it was always in the back of our heads. We actually had a lengthy meeting about the possibility of it, at the Phoenix 2015 show. Dave’s shocking statement that, “We could do whatever we want. We don’t even need the Shadowy Men theme music….”All of them just went [meek voice] “No Shadowy Men theme music?!?”
Dave Foley I think that was partially in response to…we did a show called Death comes to townIn 2008, it was not really accepted. And I thought, well, it was great to do that, but let’s go O.G.Let’s go back to the sketches. Listen, I love Shadowy Men! I didn’t wanna get rid of them. I didn’t want to get rid of them when they asked me what we needed. “a new Shadowy Men song.”
KM:It was only an example of. “There are no rules.”
Scott Thompson: We all agreed that it’d be more original to Not change anything — to continue the old seasons like barely any time had passed.
Mark McKinney Because we’d done single narrative things with Brain CandyWe all got into a lot of knifefights over plots and our respective take. Unfortunately, we didn’t do the Python thing where it was like, “Do the Bible. Find a children’s fable and riff on it!”
KM: “Let’s go get the Holy Grail…”
MM: So the strongest idea really was to go back to the original … guys, I’m going to say it. Begins with a G, ends with an O…
DM: Oh, no.
Bruce McCulloch: God! No, Mark!
ST:You’re going to love this??
KM: He’s been saying this all morning.
MM:You can fool everyone!
ST:Are you able to say bouillabaisse instead?
MM: The Kids in the Hall always worked best as a contrast of styles — it’s Kevin working with Bruce, it’s me working with Scott, Scott working with Dave. To me, that’s what the show is! It’s live pieces played against tape pieces. Although unfortunately we couldn’t do live pieces this time. I hope that we can return to live pieces.
DF: [snotty falsetto] Some of us didn’t want to do live pieces…
KM:There are Was a debate! You’re rewriting history. It was nearly 50-50 on whether to mix live and film, but just film. The virus finally answered our question.
ST: Kevin, you didn’t want live, right?
KM:Non, I wanted film.
ST: And Dave didn’t want live. Only you can make me happy. [points to Mark]And so I did.
MM:I wanted live. We had a meeting in the hotel conference hall. Acceded on live…
DF:You are correct. Think we agreed on it…
MM: No, but didn’t we all agree? Scott?
ST: [condescendingly]Yes, Mark! Mark, you are a great leader! [everyone laughs
DF: [to interviewer] And you’re now witnessing how the real creative process of the Kids in the Hall works.
BM: He’s not joking.
The show was created with five of you? It wasn’t pitched to you?
DF: The result was that I called Broadway Video in 2018, and said: “You know, next year is our 30th anniversary. It would be great to do something to commemorate it.”
MM:They said: “Who’s this?” [laughs]
DF: And now, four years later, we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary. Late. In the classic Kids in Hall fashion.
When did you first start writing again together?
ST:Three weeks before the pandemic.
DF:In essence, we had condos in the same building and an office that we used to all write from.
KM:Except for Mark.
DF:Mark was still working. SuperstoreAt the time. And then we started hearing something about this here pandemic thing…. Then it kept building and building, and people who were going to come up to work with us didn’t…
KM: Julie Klausner came up.
ST:She stayed for a time. She seems to be the sixth Kid in Hall, out of all the new writers.
BM:There were many great writers who came onboard. [Pause]We are better than them all, we know that.
DF: In terms of coming back and writing together…I feel like we’d jumped that hurdle with the live shows. We did a thing in L.A., two weekends at the Steve Allen Theater, where we said we’d try to write like we did for our Rivoli shows. We’d come in with nothing, give ourselves three days to write, a few days to rehearse, then put up a show.
KM:Like the Stooges. [Laughs]
BM:We also did something called Rusty & Ready, where the concept was, we’re going to do a 500 seat theater for five nights, and we’ll rehearse for five days. The troupe accepted it and I was very happy with their response. We created a lot of new material.
DF: So we knew we could still write sketches together …
ST: And quickly!
DF:We were going through these new sketches. “These are as good as anything we’ve ever done. It would be kind of nice if we could get these captured for posterity…”
ST: There were a bunch of sketches in this new series that we wrote and developed on the road…
BM:Like “Super Drunk,”Take, for instance. [A sketch in which McCulloch plays a superhero whose super power is to get super drunk.]It quickly became a trademark of the show.
ST:This one and that “Pie” sketch…those were from tours.
You felt that there was a particular sketch you did for these new episodes. “Ok, this feels like the old Kids in the Hall, but also what makes sense for the Kids in the Hall right now?”
KM:Mark wrote a piece for the series called “My Card” [a sketch in which McKinney plays an early 20th century gentleman whose personal card keeps showing up at murder scenes]That was my thought. ThisToday, the Kids in Hall is called the Kids in The Hall. It’s so well written, so well performed, it has the spirit of the old Kids in the Hall while also being sorta different. It’s like I always say: If we used to be punk rock in the 1990s, we’re more like prog rock now.
DF: Oh, I wouldn’t watch that that. [Laughs]
BM:Please don’t print it. I’d like people to actually watch the show.
MM: [in exaggerated carnival barker voice] PROG rock? Prog ROCK!
BM: Never fucking say fucking prog rock again, Kevin.
KM: No, no, hear me out, because we take our time, there’s a chord change that doesn’t make sense but makes sense eventually…
ST: [to Mark]What’s he talking about right now? Is he still speaking?
DF: I also think the opening of the first episode…
ST:The opening is indeed possible
KM:It’s like the sequel to Brain Candy.
MM: Hmm. I don’t know if I’d call it a sketch, but it’s a very, very canny link back to then and now…
ST:It was then that I knew it would work. It felt perfect. Everything from the garage sale to us coming out of the grave…it was everybody’s ideas all together, it was a group thing, everybody was in it…
DF: It mirrors the ending of the final episode of the series…
ST:It ties together the film and the sketches. It looks amazing. [Pause]I just said “splendid,” didn’t I?
KM: It’s more of a “gumbo,” really … [Laughs]
ST: It’s prog rock.
KM: [in whiny, high-pitched Kevin McDonald voice]You can trust me, that was a positive way of saying it! Genesis, Peter Gabriel…
MM: We’re Canadian, so you’re contractually obligated to say Rush…
KM:Yes. Rush. The Good prog rock.
MM: [in Lorne Michaels voice] Um, Kevin, your sketches…they are SoKing Crimson!
Scott, you recently said that we’re living in a “satire-deficient era”Right now. So what’s it like trying to write comedy that might have a satirical bent right now?
ST: It’s difficult. It’s always been difficult to do something satirical, but now…. When we first came to the United States, the country didn’t really understand satire. I think that’s why Brain Candy did so badly. Over the past 25 or 30 years you began to understand satire. Then the young generation decided it was time to destroy the things they had created. They decided to destroy what they had built, right at the moment they understood satire. “We don’t like it.”Even though they were able to understand it.
BM: Well, there’s South Park which is still…
MM: Right, but that’s animated.
ST: Live-action satire. I’m pointing at myself right now, just to make sure you know I’m Not a cartoon…I’m real, I promise you. But I do think people are terrified of satire right now, because there’s this kind of belief taking over in culture, which is that to portray something is to agree with it. And people are losing that idea that, No, that’s notThat is the point. That is a little concerning.
MM: I don’t think it’s that organized…I think what happens is you have people who wouldn’t crowd into a comedy club, who aren’t fans of the medium, being presented with literal transcripts of satire, and then they react to it. It’s like they’ve never been asked to engage with satire or comedy before, and now they’re being forced to engage with it in this white-hot time, based on a sentence that’s been pulled from a sketch or a stand-up routine. There are people with good intentions. There are also people who just want to cause havoc and attack someone in bad faith. Comedy fans are still comedy fans. They just have people looking at them with flashlights, inspecting every little thing.
ST: Well, society seems to have been given over to people who are constantly outraged, and they’re now allowed to dictate culture.
MM: That bad faith thing…it’s just too exhausting. Did you ever have to keep a lie alive? Or, perhaps, you have to live a lie.
ST: Yes. Yes, Mark. YESSSSS! [Everyone laughs]
Maybe it’s a course correction from years of comedy that punched down, and…
ST: Oh, please!
DF: That’s based on a misguided notion, I think, that comedy punches anywhere. Comedy doesn’t punch.
ST:Perhaps it is a punch in every direction. Let’s face it. Who decides whether it’s up or down?
DF: There’s always an element condescension in deciding who’s down…
ST: Exactly. Like you’re the expert?
MM: I like Dave’s quote — I’m going to paraphrase a bit here — “Just because you’re down doesn’t mean you’re not an idiot.”This makes it perfectly appropriate for satire.
DF: I think there’s a generation that stupidly believes they should never be yelled at by their boss.
ST:Or you may have no disagreements.
DF:My conviction is that everyone should be made to work for a boss who is cruel. Because you can learn a lot. You learn how you can deal with difficulties. You are able to function in the real-world.
MM: “I was regularly beaten at boarding school, and I turned out fine!” [Laughs]
BM: Maybe it’s because I was a complete animal in the early days of the troupe, but I actually love being in an environment when nobody can yell at anybody anymore. It’s a wonderful experience. Are people sometimes a bit too soft? Yes. But I think people are happiest and being their best selves when they’re not in a volatile environment. Because I’m somebody who was always so quick to anger, that I don’t think anger should be allowed anymore. I really don’t.
DF: I think it’s terrible for people’s personalities and growth if they don’t learn how to deal with that, though. Comfort does not produce any quality.
ST: You can’t produce a pearl without a bit of grit.
MM:Can comedy work without bombings? I don’t think so. What is more bombing than negative feedback from a hostile audience
KM:Bombing can actually teach you a lot.
DF:Learn EverythingFrom bombing
MM: It’s essential.
ST: Like Bruce said, you don’t need to yell at people. There are other ways you can seriously harm someone. [Pause]Bruce, you were referring to the exact same thing. [Laughs]
MM: [laughing manically] Hahahaha, I mean we’re not looking to Damage people, don’t print that, hahahaha!
Is this the idea of “we have to watch what we say and how we say it now” play into some form of self-censorship when you’re writing?
ST: There’s no self-censorship during the creative process. The censorship follows.
DF: We’ve never been nice to each other, so it’s not a problem. [Laughs]
KM: We’re more polite now that we’re older.
MM:We are we?
DF: The kinds of things that we would say to each other — the freedom we have to call each other out on being hypocritical or stupid — I’ve done that with other people I’ve worked with and they’ve been hurt. Whereas we’d say it to each other and laugh at it.
ST: There are probably not writers’ rooms now where people go, “That’s the worst fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”We said that all the time to one another.
DF:I love to hear, “There are no bad ideas. Except that one.” [Laughs]
ST:Dave, what were you most fond of saying? “What’s it like to be so wrong??”
DF:It was Mark.
MM: [Proudly]Yes, it was me.
BM: “What is it like to be so exactly wrong?!”
MM: “Does your head hurt? Do your eyes bleed? Does it result in some sort of skin condition?”
KM: “That’s a good point, Mark — too bad it’s on your head!”
BM:Mark said that Scott was diagnosed with cancer when he was 21. “Scott does not get to win a comedy argument just because he has cancer.”
ST:He said that to him! He asked me that question after Farrah Fawcett’s death. “Do you feel like this is stealing your thunder?” [Laughs]
Speaking of cancer…
Behind-the scenes footage includes footage of you during your illness. Death comes to townScott, that’s what you see in Comedy Punks.The interviews from the film show that everyone still feels raw about this experience. You’d all gone through your past and that experience for Paul Myers’ book. Did doing that make it easier to deal with those moments — and the low points of the group’s history — when it came to time to do the documentary?
BM:Non, not at all.
KM: Seeing a lot of that stuff again…people have said this word a lot, but it was moving. Even for us. ParticularlyWe are here.
BM: The scenes when Scott was fighting cancer…I mean, of course I remember Scott when he was going through that, but I’d forgotten so much else around that period. I used go into Scott’s trailer quite often during the shoot. There was a lot of. “Can he shoot today? Can he not shoot today? Does he need an hour? Does he need three hours? Does he just want to go right to set?”It was difficult. And then seeing that again was…the modern term for it is “triggered.”I felt as if I was back there.
ST:I couldn’t watch the entire documentary until they were all in one room. They were my only option. I watched stuff up there until it got heavy. Then I had to turn it off. I didn’t see the whole thing until Austin. [The film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in March.]It was quite cathartic to finally share it with others. It was very therapeutic.
BM:I decided to not give notes. Reg [Harkema, the director] went, “Great, you have no notes!”And I said: “Because I’m not going to watch it.” [Pause]That’s right, I have a lot of notes. Now, if he’d like to hear them…
Some of that old footage of the Kids performing at the Rivoli back in the 1980s has been floating around for a while on YouTube and the DVD box set, but a lot of that footage of the group in the early days felt like it hasn’t seen the light of day in decades. What are the lessons you can take from those Rivoli days to inform your current work?
MM:We learned a lot from Rivioli’s days. It is that there is a way that works that allows us to work without being self-conscious. We only refer to each other in the first round. Never really thinking about what the network wants, having a sense of what the audience wants but not playing directly to them — it’s always really about directing it to the other four as a perfect comedy jury. You can do 90 percent of the job if you get it done right.
And the validation of doing that — we were such incredibly foolish young men. We were so admirable back then. It’s much less now. [Laughs]Now, I look at our sad faces and am reminded of all the shabby things that our poor lives have brought us. But back then, to say we’re not going to do Second City, we’re not going to go down the regular path, we’re going to play this club called the Rivoli to seven people in February of 1983 — and we’re going to stick with it? It’s just impressive.
BM: For a group that’s become pretty successful, you know, we’ve never really felt like we’ve been successful. My wife likes to say: Bruce, everything you touch turns into cult. [Laughs] But if the documentary shows you anything, it’s that we failed a lot. We kept going. I know we haven’t been active for several years at a time, but we kept going. Even though we failed many times.
MM:Clubs failed. We failed at SNL.
KM:We were unsuccessful at the movies.
MM: We failed at TV — we got cancelled after our first season!
ST:Our solo careers failed.
KM: We’re failing at this interview right now.
There’s a Rolling StoneA 1988 piece that quotes one of your sayings “We liked ourselves more than we liked anyone else.”You were all present at the panel at SXSW in this year’s conference. One of your comments was, “It’s not like we like each other, we just hate everyone else even more.” Is that sense of five-against-the-world still part of how you function together as a group?
KM:I find comedy in being the underdog.
DF: We’ll fight among ourselves until the end of time, but if anyone from outside the group has anything critical to say, we solidify as a group and collectively go: Fuck you.
ST:If you follow one of us, we will follow you.
KM:Mark and me were fighting over something, then an executive came and said, “You know, Kevin is right….”? My immediate response would have to be: “No, fuck you, Mark is 100 percent correct here! You can’t say that to him.”
DF: it’s what families do. It’s what families do. [sighs]Unfortunately, we are a close-knit family.
ST: There always seems to be people who want to censor free speech and tell you what comedy can or can’t do. So we’ll always have a common enemy to fight against.
KM: I think we have an immaturity that’s still there. We still loathe suits. Anybody who tells us what to do is my enemy. I’m the coward of the troupe, but I still think that. I am open to disagreeing with the person in charge. It’s immature…but it’s fuel! In the 1990s, we were similar.
You’ve all had solo careers, done sitcoms and one-man shows, written books. You all end up coming together to perform the Kids in the Hall. What point did you all realize that the totality of the work was greater than its parts?
DF:I think that I was aware of our strength together as soon as I saw the Rivoli.
KM:It was obvious to me at the time. I didn’t know until later.
BM: I don’t think I really realized that until 2000. I’d gone off to sell projects and develop other things, do other work, and I kept feeling like, “Why am I more myself with the group then when I’m allowed to go off on my own?”This is much bigger than I thought. This is more than one-fifth the size of an individual item.
KM: It’s like being in a prog-rock band.
[A collective groan]
KM: And by us being prog-rock instead of punk, of course, I meant that we just got better at our instruments…
MM:Yes, our Moog synthesziers are better than ever!
KM: I can do a 20-minute keyboard solo now!
MM: Suddenly the gumbo analogy doesn’t seem so bad, does it now, guys?