It starts with one of them casually saying, “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!” He says it again, at which point Dave Foley joins in as well. “Write what you know!” “Write what you know!” McKinney and McCulloch, both grinning, start singing along as well: “Write what you know! Write what you know! Write what you know!” Scott Thompson is too busy laughing to harmonize at first, until he finally composes himself, clears his throat, and then beautifully bellows out, in the most operatic tenor imaginable: “Wriiiiite! Whaaat! Yoooouuuu! Knoooooowwwwwwww!!!”
Minutes before, the legendary sketch-comedy quintet the Kids in the Hall had been arguing among themselves, a sort of inter-group theater bloodsport that quickly pings from affectionate to snarky to mortally wounding, then (usually) back to affectionate, with dizzying speed. 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.
But you will also see the way that Foley, McCulloch, McDonald, McKinney and Thompson can sync up and turn into a five-headed, single-minded comedic organism on a dime, as evidenced by the way one offhanded comment turns into an impromptu group sing-along. (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. When someone makes a joke, at least two other Kids will instantly add on to it. 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 puts it a slightly different way: “Attack one of us, and five of us attack you.”
Seven years after their last big tour, and several years after a few very brief, scattered residencies, the Kids in the Hall have returned with both a new series and a new 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. If you remember how their original series finale ended, you will be extremely happy with how this belated “sixth season” (a more accurate description than “reboot”) begins. Familiar, fan-favorite characters return for encores. And several original sketches, notably a set piece involving a restaurant staff reacting to a fancy dessert being referred to as a “pie” and a haunting series of bits starring Foley as a postapocalyptic D.J., feel like they could have been lifted from the original back-in-the-day run.
Yet Kids 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 Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy, this portrait charts the rises, falls, stumbles, conflicts, near-death experiences, personal detours and various reunions of the Kids since their formation in Toronto in the mid-1980s. 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. On their own, these five gents are now a little older and mellower, still funny, still caustic and still extremely smart individuals. Together, they remain an unstoppable, sui generis juggernaut.
The following is an interview with all five Kids in the Hall conducted in the 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 condensed and edited for clarity. No heads were crushed during the making of this article. No names have been changed to protect the guilty. No one got out of it unscathed. They have not lost their edge. If anything, their sense of humor has become sharper and deadlier with age.
How long had you been contemplating doing another TV sketch series?
Kevin McDonald: We were always thinking about the possibility of going back to TV — it was always in the back of our heads. In fact, the 2015 show we did in Phoenix, we had a long meeting about how it might work. Dave shocked everybody by saying, “We could do whatever we want. We don’t even need the Shadowy Men theme music….” And everybody 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 Town in 2008, which was not really embraced. 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. When were asked what we needed, I said “a new Shadowy Men song.”
KM: Right, it was just 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 Candy and stuff like that, where we all ended up knife-fighting each other over a plot and what was our 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: Again with this?!?
KM: He’s been saying this all morning.
MM: Fuck all of you!
ST: Can you 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 we can get back to doing live pieces again.
DM: [snotty falsetto] Some of us didn’t want to do live pieces…
KM: There was a debate! You’re rewriting history. It was almost 50-50 as to whether we should do a mix of live and film, or just film. And then the virus answered that question for us.
ST: Kevin, you didn’t want live, right?
KM: No, I wanted film.
ST: And Dave didn’t want live. I think only you [points to Mark] and I did.
MM: I wanted live. When we had that meeting in the hotel conference room, we agreed on live…
DF: No, you think we agreed on it…
MM: No, but didn’t we all agree? Scott?
ST: [condescendingly] Yes, we did, Mark! Way to go, Mark! [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.
So the show was something generated with you five? It wasn’t pitched to you?
DF: What happened was that I called up 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: And they said, “Who’s this?” [laughs]
DF: And now, four years later, we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary. Late. In classic Kids in the Hall fashion.
When did you start writing together again?
ST: About three weeks before the pandemic.
DF: Basically, we all had condos in a building together, and there was an office there, where we were all writing.
KM: Except for Mark.
DF: Mark was still working on Superstore at 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 while. Of all the new writers that came on, she seems the most like the sixth Kid in the Hall.
BM: There were a bunch of great new writers that came on. [Pause] We are, of course, better than all of them
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: But we also did a thing 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. I pitched it to the troupe and luckily, they took to it. We did a whole bunch of new material.
DF: So we knew we could still write sketches together …
ST: And quickly!
DF: We were performing these new sketches and going, “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,” for example. [A sketch in which McCulloch plays a superhero whose super power is to get super drunk.] That quickly became a staple of the show.
ST: That one and the “Pie” sketch…those were from tours.
Was there a particular sketch that you wrote for these new episodes where you felt like, “Ok, this feels like the old Kids in the Hall, but also what makes sense for the Kids in the Hall right now?”
KM: There was a piece that Mark wrote 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 I thought, Ok, this is the Kids in the Hall nowadays. 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: Can you please not print that? 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 is he saying right now? Is he still talking?
DF: I also think the opening of the first episode…
ST: Yes, the opening!
KM: It feels 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: When I saw that, that was the moment when I went: This might work. Because 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 the movie and the sketches together. And it looks splendid. [Pause] I just said “splendid,” didn’t I?
BM: You did.
KM: It’s more of a “gumbo,” really … [Laughs]
ST: It’s prog rock.
KM: [in whiny, high-pitched Kevin McDonald voice] Listen, I meant that in a good way! Genesis, Peter Gabriel…
MM: We’re Canadian, so you’re contractually obligated to say Rush…
KM: Yes, and Rush, yes. The good prog rock.
MM: [in Lorne Michaels voice] Um, Kevin, your sketches…they are so King 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. And then over the last 25 or 30 years, you guys began to understand satire and got really good at it, and then the young generation decided to destroy what they built. At the very moment they got satire, they decided, “We don’t like it.” Even though they understood 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 not the point. I find that a little disturbing.
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. Look, some people have good intentions. And there are other people who are just firestarters and deliberately want to attack something in bad faith. But comedy fans are still very much comedy fans. They just have people with flashlights looking over their shoulders and scrutinizing every single little detail.
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. Like have you ever had to maintain a lie? Or, like, 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: Or maybe it punches in every direction? But come on. 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.” And therefore, completely worthy of satire.
DF: I think there’s a generation that stupidly believes they should never be yelled at by their boss.
ST: Or have disagreements at all.
DF: I sincerely believe everyone should be forced to work for a boss that is mean. Because you grow a lot. You learn how to handle adversity. You learn how 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. I really love it. Can people be a little too soft at times? Yes, of course. 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 produces nothing of any quality.
ST: You can’t produce a pearl without a bit of grit.
MM: Can comedy be any good without bombing? I don’t think so. What is bombing but negative feedback from a hostile audience?
KM: Actually, you do learn a lot from bombing.
DF: You learn everything from bombing
MM: It’s essential.
ST: Like Bruce said, you don’t need to yell at people. There are lots of other ways to seriously damage someone. [Pause] That was what you meant, Bruce, right? [Laughs]
MM: [laughing manically] Hahahaha, I mean we’re not looking to damage people, don’t print that, hahahaha!
Does this notion 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 comes after.
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: 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.” And we said all the time to each other.
DF: I like to say, “There are no bad ideas. Except that one.” [Laughs]
ST: What did you always like to say, Dave? “What’s it like to be so wrong??”
DF: That was Mark.
MM: [Proudly] Yes, that 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: When Scott got cancer, Mark said, “Scott does not get to win a comedy argument just because he has cancer.”
ST: He said that to me!!! When Farrah Fawcett died, he asked me, “Do you feel like this is stealing your thunder?” [Laughs]
Speaking of cancer…
There is behind-the-scenes footage of you when you were ill during the making of Death Comes to Town, Scott, that shows up in Comedy Punks. And judging from the interviews in the film, it seems like everyone in the group still feels very raw about that 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: No, 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. Especially for us.
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 to go into his trailer a lot during the shoot and 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 so tough. And then seeing that again was…the modern term for it is “triggered.” I felt like I was right back there.
ST: I could not watch the whole documentary until we were all together in a room. I needed them there. I would watch stuff up it until it got heavy, then I just had to turn it off. I didn’t see the whole thing until Austin. [The film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in March.] But it was cathartic to finally see it with everyone around me. Very cathartic.
BM: I made the decision that I would not give any notes. And Reg [Harkema, the director] went, “Great, you have no notes!” And I said, “Because I’m not going to watch it.” [Pause] I mean, I have a ton 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 lessons from those Rivoli days have informed what you do now?
MM: The lesson we took from the Rivioli days, I think, is: This is a way that kind of works, and that allows us to work un-self-consciously. Because we only really refer to each other as a 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. If you work it right there, 90 percent of your job is done.
And the validation of doing that — we were such incredibly foolish young men. I have such admiration for us back then. I have much less so now. [Laughs] I see our decrepit faces now, and I am reminded of every single shitty thing that our crappy lives has handed to 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’ll 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 has a saying: Everything you touch turns to cult, Bruce. [Laughs] But if the documentary shows you anything, it’s that we failed a lot. Yet we somehow kept going. I know we haven’t been active for several years at a time, but we kept going. Even though we continually failed.
MM: We failed at clubs. We failed at SNL.
KM: We failed at movies.
MM: We failed at TV — we got cancelled after our first season!
ST: We failed at our solo careers.
KM: We’re failing at this interview right now.
There’s a Rolling Stone piece from 1988 that quotes one of you saying, “We liked ourselves more than we liked anyone else.” And when you did the panel at SXSW this year, one of you said something to the effect of, “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: For me, being the underdogs is what gets the comedy made.
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 go after one of us, five of us will go after you.
KM: If Mark and I were fighting about something, and then an executive came in and said, “You know, Kevin is right….”? My immediate response would be, “No, fuck you, Mark is 100 percent correct here! You can’t say that to him.”
DF: it’s what families do. And [sighs] sadly, we are a 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 hate suits. Anyone who tells me what to do becomes my enemy. I’m the coward of the troupe, but I still think that. I look for reasons to disagree with whoever is in charge. It’s immature…but it’s fuel! At least we were like that in the 1990s.
You’ve all had solo careers, done sitcoms and one-man shows, written books. And you all still end up coming back together to do the Kids in the Hall. At what point did each of you realize that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts?
DF: I think I knew we were stronger together as early as the Rivoli.
KM: I suspected it then. 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?” And I figured out that Ok, this is bigger than me. This is bigger than just one-fifth of something on its own.
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 sound 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?