There are probably a lot of impatient people waiting for the launch of the new TV series from Canadian comedy legends The Kids in the Hall.
They’re impatient because it has been 27 years since the influential troupe that formed in Toronto in 1984 last wrote and performed in its weekly sketch-comedy show of the same name.
And their two-year wait after the long-hoped-for 2020 announcement that the Kids would be returning for a sixth season—an eight-episode reboot of the original, on Amazon Prime Video (launching on Friday [May 13] )—wouldn’t have calmed their nerves any.
Some fans might also be anxious that the show’s original five cast members/writers—Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, and Scott Thompson—might have lost some of the dark sparkle and edgy writing that made them the most original and prominent Canadian comedy ensemble and TV series since SCTV.
Back in the day, the young improv whizzes who sprang sketches on both delighted and outraged viewers about a cabbage-headed horndog, worm eaters, and a chicken lady with a hair-trigger libido cemented their rep with the Boomers and young Gen-Xers, who made them their own.
But if you’re 40 years old today, you were only about two when the four members (Thompson joined in early ’85) started playing Toronto’s Queen Street clubs and other venues, and you were only 13 when the Kids’ fifth and final TV season ended, in 1995.
So, barring VHS, DVD, or Internet research on their part, there are lots of potential viewers who could be considered merely curious.
For those anxious, impatient, and curious souls, the Straight has previewed the first five episodes of the new season. We also spoke to McKinney about the relaunch.
First off, some reassurance for diehards hoping that the only changes to the show will be fresh material. The half-hour episodes feature virtually the same format as the original, right down to the credits, theme music, video montages (with many visuals updated but virtually identical), and original executive producer (Lorne Michaels).
Even more heartening, some of the Kids’ most memorable recurring characters—including the gruff A T & Love Boss, office temps Kathy and Cathy, Mr. Tyzik (the head crusher), Francesca Fiore and Bruno Puntz Jones, and gay raconteur and bon vivant Buddy Cole—make appearances in those five installments (along with a special celebrity guest in each episode).
In a phone interview, McKinney said the writing process for the new material differed from the old series in two respects. One was that the five of them had already banked some sketches, having gotten together for various projects after the first series ended. “After the 2008 and 2015 tours, we started writing more new material,” he said. “We thought it might appear in a special or something.”
The other was the pandemic. “We couldn’t get together to write, physically, so it was all kind of Zoom and by phone.”
The five familiar faces are plumper, certainly, as are the waistlines (a few of which can be checked out in more detail during a bravely gratuitous scene of full-frontal nudity). But wigs can cover the grey and bald spots, even if Running Faggot might have lost a step or two.
And though some of the younger cross-dressing roles and teen parts the Kids are known for might be denied them now, McCulloch dons the short pants again for a hilariously self-referential appearance as the prepubescent Gavin.
Overall, the troupe’s archetypal, oddball essence survives, perhaps especially so in a Foley, Thompson, and McDonald bit about a doctor who “only” drops 30 percent of the babies he delivers.
Those looking for some of the Kids’ more disquieting material will enjoy a McKinney and Foley two-hander about Shakespeare that is reminiscent of Monty Python’s “Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Salad Days’ ” sketch but with the addition of human internal organs. ”We used 100 gallons of fake blood in that,” McKinney revealed. “I’ve been telling people that I was in a weird mood after shooting that one, and I went home and watched Suspiria.”
Show writer Paul Bellini—seen dancing on the show's "grave" wearing nothing but his usual towel in the last scene of the original series—sets the stage for the relaunch by exhuming the older, still living, and screaming bodies of the five comics and gravely intoning to the camera, "You asked for it."
But that's more of an apology than a threat.
The element of shock was (and still is, to some extent) a mainstay of the show, not so much for the sake of gore or prurience or titillation—what's so arousing about having sex with a chicken or a horny guy with a cabbage for a head?—as for being among the first to venture into new territory for television. That it was often also funny as hell was the icing on the salty ham.
McKinney's Chicken Lady, known for her stylized feathery, explosive, and very public orgasms (even while on a coin-operated kiddie ride at the mall) is a good example of that. For McKinney, it was all in service of the character. "It's really not about 'issue X'; it's really about the Chicken Lady," he said.
During an interview that aired on CBC recently, most, if not all, of the cast seemed to be in agreement about contemporary TV standards trending toward more culturally sensitive, less pejorative material. Two expressions that came out of that discussion were "satire deficit" and "context embargo".
McKinney said that because the interview was done back while the series was shooting, he couldn't remember exact words used, but he emphasized that any restrictions encountered while putting together the relaunch were solely the result of self-censorship. (And he said that most viewers seemed to love their earlier work, noting that most of their critics “just used to be angry religious people on the Prairies”.)
“Sometimes people have an issue with something, and you debate it, and some win and some lose,” he said of the Kids' working process. “It’s always a little bit arbitrary and a reflection of the moment. A clumsy joke will be scratched, and probably should be, for the art.”
He added, “We are in a more sensitive time, for sure. I think it will change and...I think the temperature will abate. I think people’s attitudes toward comedy and censorship, it waxes and wanes.”
To illustrate that "plus ça change..." aspect, McKinney reached back for an example from the troupe's heyday. He said it involved a sketch with Thompson wherein the defiantly queer cast member wanted to feature a "cum shot" in one scene. It happened “around the fourth season or so, and we were feeling pretty full of ourselves”, McKinney said.
Thompson's justification for the explicit shot? "He said, 'But it's the stuff of life!' " McKinney exclaimed, chuckling at the memory. "And, quite rightly, they turfed it.”
McKinney—the originator of such Kids mainstays as Darrill the waiter, Satan, the head crusher, and the aforementioned avian free spirit—was reluctant to speak about which of his characters not appearing in the first five episodes might pop up during the final three. “I don’t know that I should be saying that. The way we approved the characters was ‘as needed’,” he said by way of explanation.
Simple logistics and the shooting schedule put the kibosh on one bit he worked on: "The sketch I wrote would probably have taken two days to shoot,” he explained.
But he held out hope for any disappointed fans: “If we’re invited back for a few more episodes…”
As a fitting finale, a question concerning a new Kids sketch about a corporate Zoom meeting that deteriorates into a group masturbation session prompted McKinney to quip, “Yeah, I’m glad we’re not on Zoom right now, looking at each other with some grainy pictures…”More