The first book to explore their history, legacy, and influence
This is a book about the Kids in the Hall the legendary Canadian sketch comedy troupe formed in Toronto in 1984 and best known for the innovative, hilarious, zeitgeist-capturing sketch show The Kids in the Hall told by the people who were there, namely the Kids themselves. John Semley’s thoroughly researched book is rich with interviews with Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, and Scott Thompson, as well as Lorne Michaels and comedians speaking to the Kids’ legacy: Janeane Garofalo, Tim Heidecker, Nathan Fielder, and others. It also turns a critic’s eye on that legacy, making a strong case for the massive influence the Kids have exerted, both on alternative comedy and on pop culture more broadly.
The Kids in the Hall were like a band: a group of weirdoes brought together, united by a common sensibility. And, much like a band, they’re always better when they’re together. This is a book about friendship, collaboration, and comedy and about clashing egos, lost opportunities, and one-upmanship. This is a book about the head-crushing, cross-dressing, inimitable Kids in the Hall.
About the Author
John Semley is a writer living in Toronto. His work has appeared in The Believer, The New York Times Magazine, Salon, Esquire, The A.V. Club, The Walrus, Reader’s Digest, and a whole bunch of other magazines, newspapers, and websites. He is a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and the Toronto Star.
Read an Excerpt
This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall
By John Semley
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2016 John Semley
All rights reserved.
The shared dream of the "beautiful day you beat up your dad"
If you fought your dad, how would you do it?
Don't pretend like you've never seen your old man laid out on the chesterfield after 11 p.m., face bathed in the putrid neon light of a local news broadcast blaring on a too-loud television and imagined just — BLAMMO! — socking him in the face. Then he wakes up and you pull his sweat-misted T-shirt over his head like a hockey goon jerseying another hockey goon and — BIF! BLAM! ZIP! ZORK! KAPOW! — you throw a flurry of jabs into his compromised, middle-aged dad-gut. And then, as he's curled on the ground, out of breath like he's been run over by a twenty-tonne truck made out of pure, industrially wrought, nail-hard SON, you take a sip of his premium domestic beer sitting coasterless and half empty on the coffee table, wink at him, and goad, "Who's the dad now?!"
Is that how you'd do it? It's a question at the heart of one the quintessential Kids in the Hall sketches. It opens with Mark McKinney reading a newspaper. The headline reads PARENTS DISAPPOINTED WITH THEIR KID, over a photo of a dopey child. The troupe is gathered around a table, performing in character as versions of themselves, preparing white bread sandwiches and talking about Shelley Long, when Scott Thompson asks the question, "Hey, any of you guys ever beat up your dad?"
They're all taken aback at first. Beat up your own dad? Lord, no. But ... sure. Maybe they've thought about it. I mean, who hasn't? Before long, they're laying out their own intricate fantasies of paternal pummelling. McKinney would take on his dad drunk, at a wedding. McCulloch would hide in a tree, and get the literal drop on his dad on the way to work, then club him with his own lawn. Foley would get his while his dad was watching TV. "I'd wait till he's in the den, watching ALF, eating off a TV tray, wearing those slippers," he says. "Then I'd blind him with salt, bash him on the head with the channel changer, and — and then I'd take down that big marlin over the bar. You know that stuffed marlin I've been staring at all my life? I'd take that baby down and, well, no more ALF today, daddy!"
McDonald, well, he says he'd let his dad beat him up — then let the guilt eat away at him. "Passive-aggressive," McKinney chimes in, "that counts!" As for Thompson himself? Well, he couldn't do it. He loves his dad. The rest of the troupe chirps up. Sure, sure, they all love their dads. But have they ever told their dads they love them?
"If you had the guts," Thompson follows, "how would you do it?"
McKinney pipes up first. "Drunk. At a wedding ..." And so the cycle begins again.
* * *
Issues with dads, stepdads, and de facto father-figures constitute a major theme of The Kids in the Hall. There are countless sketches on the subject. Beyond the one recounted above, there's one in which a churlish father (McCulloch) takes his son into the woods on the occasion of his thirteenth birthday, so he can watch his dad get "dead drunk." "Take off that party hat," McCulloch warns him in the car. "You won't need it where we're going." There's also McCulloch's loathsome mutant Lothario, Cabbage Head — who is just what he sounds like: a man with a cabbage for a head — who consistently attempts to excuse his shabby, sexist behaviour by shrugging and offering, in a shrill sing-song apology, "I haaaaaaad a baaaaaad chiiiiiiildhoooood."
There's a "Police Department" sketch in which McCulloch talks about never telling his dad he loves him (because he doesn't love him). There's "Weekend with Daddy," in which McDonald plays a borderline catatonic father barely taking care of his two children following a devastating divorce. There's the tenuous fighting between scrappy rebel teenager Bobby Terrance (McCulloch) and his stern father (McKinney). There's "Daddy Drank," a sorta- autobiographical piece in which McDonald recounts his father's (played here by Foley) misadventures in alcoholism and how they tortured McDonald through his youth. There are all kinds of deadbeat dads and philandering husbands and, generally speaking, very little in the way of positive male role models.
It's a theme that the Kids (McCulloch and McDonald in particular) have further pursued in their solo careers. A second-season episode of McCulloch's sitcom Young Drunk Punk sees title teenager Ian (Tim Carlson) repeatedly antagonized by his hard-nosed father (McCulloch), who's begging for a fight. (Instead, Ian merely stares meaningfully into his dad's eyes, intimacy and emotion proving, as ever, the ultimate weapon against fatherly obstinacy.) The episode seems indebted to discussions, which McCulloch brings up in his book, between friends regarding "the beautiful day when you beat up your dad." "Growing up," he writes, "taking on your own man is practically a rite of passage."
In 2008, McDonald premiered his one-man show Hammy and the Kids at Montreal's Just For Laughs comedy festival. The show saw McDonald working through issues with his two dysfunctional families: his biological one, and specifically his alcoholic father, Hamilton "Hammy" McDonald, and the Kids in the Hall themselves. Promotional material for Hammy and the Kids tried to sell the sad, macabre, semi-therapeutic show with lines like "Drunk dads are hilarious!"
Whether or not drunk dads are actually hilarious — like out there, in life, in the real world — is one thing. My suspicion is that they're probably not. But what matters is that something as tragic and traumatizing as a drunk dad can be made funny. The anguish, confusion, and anger of growing up under the thumb of an alcoholic father is spun into comic gold by some remarkable, Rumpelstiltskinian sorcery. This is what so much of comedy is, and especially what so much of the Kids in the Hall's comedy is: gathering up the slings and arrows of misfortune that life volleys at you and slinging them right back. Comedy is about turning the pain and banality of existence against itself. Comedy is about beating up your drunk dad.
* * *
Kevin McDonald is not shy about it. His dad was a drunk. And the rest of the Kids in the Hall — with the ostensible exception of Mark McKinney — all had dads who were abusive in one way or another. "The four of us had drunk dads, or abusive dads," McDonald tells me. "And we were from the suburbs. I don't know if it's the same thing now, but in the '70s the suburbs really defined you. Living in the city really defined you too, but we were all from the suburbs, even though they were different suburbs. It adds to the chemistry, somehow, that we're all from the same place and we all had abusive dads."
Kevin McDonald was born on May 16, 1961, in Montreal, Quebec, the son of Sheila and Hamilton McDonald. His father sold dental supply equipment. His mother worked at home. When Kevin was a child, the McDonalds (including younger sister Sandra) were uprooted from Montreal to Los Angeles, and then back to Canada, landing in Toronto. McDonald was a chubby, asthmatic kid who spent much of his time indoors, watching television. He loved comedy. Steve Martin and Richard Pryor were his favourites.
One day in grade five, his science class was learning about the pith-ball electroscope, an early scientific instrument that detects the presence and magnitude of electric charges. His teacher asked if McDonald knew where pith balls came from. McDonald responded, "I don't know, Pith-burg?" It was the first time he remembers making other people laugh. Later, while serving as an altar boy in his Catholic church, he slipped and fell, bringing a ceremonial crucifix down with him. The parish priest chided him for cracking up the congregation. Once, while he was in his childhood bedroom, McDonald's alcoholic dad burst in to berate his young son for no reason. "How many girls called you today, Kevin?" the elder McDonald asked. "Zero? How many called you the other day? Zero? You know what zero times zero equals, don't you? Zero!" The incident typified McDonald's youth. It was later the basis for the "Daddy Drank" sketch on The Kids in the Hall — albeit with the punchline juiced up a bit, revising the belittling arithmetic to add further insult to injury. In the sketch, Foley (playing McDonald's dad) adds, "Well, you know what they say, son: zero plus zero equals fag! Zero times any other number always equals FAG! Think about it, ya little mathematician."
* * *
Deep in another Toronto suburb lived another would-be Kid in the Hall, raised on TV comedy and emboldened by his own wisecracking. David Foley, born January 4, 1963, was raised in Etobicoke. Then its own municipality, known for its ethnic diversity and suburban sprawl, Etobicoke was dissolved in 1998 when the City of Toronto amalgamated its outlying suburbs into the "Megacity." For a particularly dark period in the early 2010s, Etobicoke was the heart of "Ford Nation"— the hyperconservative base of bumbling, drug-smoking, controversial Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his bullying brother, city councillor Doug Ford, both proud sons of Etobicoke.
Foley — the son of Mary, a homemaker, and Michael, a pipe-fitter — was raised on reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, his head filled with idle fantasies of his own future in show business. The young Foley's interest in comedy was nurtured by his parents, who exposed him to the major concerns in both American and British comedy. "I grew up with everything that was good on the BBC in Canada," Foley says. "My parents used to keep us up late to watch Python. I didn't understand it, but it was cool. There were boobies in it!"
Foley was terminally shy as a boy. He read the dictionary for fun. According to Mary Foley, he was known to run away whenever someone produced a camera. Foley and his parents figured that instead of taking his bow before the camera, he'd end up as a writer — less Dick Van Dyke, more Carl Reiner. He remembers his classmates lighting up when he'd read his funny stories in class. In his youth, Foley harboured ambitions of writing comic novels. "I realized how hard it was," Foley told me. "I mean, I have to write as part of what I do. But it's a terrible job. Writing? It's just an awful thing to do. Hard, hard work. Not fun, in any way at all."
Foley was a little bit dyslexic. And a lousy student, known for his chronic truancy. High school did nothing for him. Neither did the alternative school he enrolled in, in Toronto. So, at age eighteen, Dave Foley dropped out to pursue a different kind of education. First, he took an improvisational comedy class at the Skills Exchange, an adult education co-operative that operated in Toronto from 1977 to 1986. Then, at the prodding of his teacher, he enrolled in a Second City comedy workshop.
* * *
"My dad was a boozer and a salesman," writes Bruce McCulloch in his 2014 memoir Let's Start a Riot: How a Young Drunk Punk Became a Hollywood Dad. The book is loaded with stories about Ian McCulloch's drunken, deadbeat parenting. "For me," McCulloch told the Globe and Mail around the time of his book's publication, "the traditional dad is a guy who drinks rye and ginger and watches the TV and screams at it."
From age eight onwards, Bruce McCulloch and his older sister played a game called "Find Daddy's Car": where on the streets of Edmonton had their father ditched the family auto during a long night of drinking and carousing? In 1971, when he was ten, little Brucio was tasked with driving his dad — "lit like a firecracker" following a Grey Cup (1) party — home in the family's old Chrysler Cordoba. One summer, at the family cottage, McCulloch Sr. lost his false teeth in the lake after executing a cannonball, and offered five bucks to whichever neighbourhood kid could successfully fish his dentures out of the cold water.
And, yes, one cold wintry day in Edmonton, Bruce McCulloch claims, he tried to clean his old man's clock. A twelve-year-old McCulloch swung a bag of garbage at his shirtless pop. But he missed, falling into a snowbank. Soon after, in the autumn of his thirteenth year, McCulloch made another attempt to wallop "ol' Ian" (as Bruce refers to his father with mock affection in his memoir), planning to knock him out with a TV tray. Instead, they ended up bonding over the Who bassist John Entwistle's playing on the record Quadrophenia. "By the time I was old enough and strong enough to trounce him," McCulloch writes, "I didn't want to anymore. I was busy. Anyway, as it turned out, life ended up doing it for me."
As depicted in Let's Start a Riot, Ian McCulloch is almost a parody of mid-twentieth-century fatherhood, when dads only spoke to their kids to offer world-weary advice. When a dad would never dream of telling his kids he loved them, even if he did. McCulloch's dad is also, unsurprisingly, the apparent prototype for most configurations of fatherhood that crop up again and again in the Kids in the Hall's comedy. When he died, only a handful of people showed up to the funeral. "There were six people there, including him," McCulloch told me. "Because he was such a prick."
McCulloch's mother worked at the local Woolco, that old chain of U.S.-owned discount retail stores that was ubiquitous in Canada throughout the '70s, '80s, and early '90s. (Woolco went under in 1982, closing over 300 U.S. stores, but it operated for more than a decade thereafter in Canada.) McCulloch describes himself as a "rock music obsessed" kid. He gorged on glam rock records and made strange sartorial decisions — like wearing nurse's pants to school, or several neckties at once. (Adolescence may not have particularly been easy on McCulloch, but he also made very few earnest attempts to make it easy on himself.) The cowboys would hurl homophobic epithets at him, and administer beatings. Yet they couldn't seem to beat the weirdo out of him. Despite his self-styled dorkiness, he was something of a natural athlete. He competed in track-and-field and swimming, winning some provincial titles.
After high school, McCulloch moved to Calgary to attend Mount Royal College. He studied business. But, like Foley, he had no real knack for academics. (Or, maybe, no genuine interest.) He pulled in middling grades and switched his major to journalism, where he discovered his talent for writing.
* * *
Mark McKinney also lived in Calgary in the early 1980s. Before that, he had no real fixed address. Born in Ottawa on June 26, 1959, McKinney spent his youth shuttled all over the globe. His father, Russell McKinney, was a Canadian diplomat. His work took the McKinneys all over. Mark, his father, his mother, Chloe (an architectural writer), and siblings Nick (2) and Jayne, resided in Trinidad, Washington, D.C., Mexico, and Paris. Thus McKinney was never settled, constantly adapting, always trying to fit in.
Years later, he'd call the experience of repeatedly moving around "dislocating." This sense of placelessness would benefit him later in his comedy: ever the chameleon, McKinney can fit into characters (and do foreign accents) with Peter Sellers–like aplomb. Sellers was an early comic idol of McKinney's, along with more refined actors like Rod Steiger and Daniel Day-Lewis — performers who could totally immerse themselves in roles, disappearing altogether. While the other Kids in the Hall suffered childhoods of depression, abuse, or neglect, McKinney's youth was considerably more privileged. "Mark's a different one," Kevin McDonald tells me. "But spiritually, he's the same as us ... Mark's dad wasn't abusive. But he was distant."
"Mark had a more rarefied life than we did," Scott Thompson agrees. "We all felt like outsiders. You don't have to be a gay kid to be bullied. Lots of straight kids can be bullied as fags. Mark's like his own creature. Mark's dislocation, I think, comes from being raised all over the world. It was a different kind of abuse, in a way. Neglect, maybe. Having to always fit in and having to recreate yourself in different places. Maybe that's what gave him his talent, allowed him to become anybody."
McKinney eventually settled in St. John's, Newfoundland, in 1980. He went to study political science at Memorial University — one of Canada's top universities and the largest in the Atlantic provinces. But wouldn't you know it? He too was a bad student. (Years later, he'd be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, which accounts for his inability to focus on schoolwork.) He eventually flunked out of university, but not before logging some hours at the campus radio station. It was there that he got his first taste of making people laugh, performing what he calls "funny voices for commercials."
Excerpted from This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall by John Semley. Copyright © 2016 John Semley. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Five Bassists 01
By Means of an Introduction
1 Archaic Heritage 11
The shared dream of the "beautiful day you beat up your dad"
2 Mirror Game 31
Across Canada, two comedy troupes find each other
3 Mergers and Acquisitions 47
The Kids in the Hall and The Audience join forces
4 Cool, Or What? 61
The Kids in the Hall and the Remaking of Toronto's Queen West Scene
5 How to Break into Showbiz 84
The Kids get their big break … eventually
6 Special Unicorn Anomaly 106
The Kids in the Hall become The Kids in the Hall
7 Screw You, Taxpayer! 134
The Kids get scrappy, brassy, and indulgent
8 Resolutely Unheartwarming 158
In which the Kids' feature film debut tears the troupe apart
9 Kicking and Screaming 177
The Kids break up, see other people
10 Same Guys, New Dresses 202
The Kids in the Hall hit the road again
11 Tours of Duty 221
The Kids enter a new era of peace and reconciliation
12 The Opposite of Life … Town 243
The Kids reunite for their most ambitious project since Brain Candy; naturally, tragedy ensues
13 History Repeating 262
In which the Kids reform, tour, tour again, and remain, forever, a buncha kids
Works Cited 298