From 1989 to 1995, discerning comedy lovers in Canada and the U.S. were treated to The Kids in the Hall, a TV show that featured some of the most outrageous, inventive, and hilariously memorable sketch comedy since Monty Python's Flying Circus, SCTV, and Saturday Night Live.
Troupe members Mark McKinney, Dave Foley, Scott Thompson, Kevin McDonald, and Bruce McCulloch, Canadians all, entertained fans—singly, in pairs, and together—performing improv, Theatresports, and making Toronto club appearances before getting their same-named television launch to stardom.
In Canada, the series ran on CBC TV for its entire run (in the U.S., KITH appeared on HBO, CBS, and Comedy Central) and introduced such favourite characters as Buddy Cole, the Chicken Lady, Cabbage Head, Gavin, the Sizzler Sisters, Hecubus, and Mr. Tyzik, otherwise known as the Head Crusher (see an account of his origin below).
Biographer (and former Georgia Straight contributor) Paul Myers has written the just-released authorized biography of the acclaimed troupe, The Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy. Myers became friends with members of the nascent group of comics while studying improv in Toronto in the 1980s and was a devoted fan and audience member during their Queen Street club days and television tapings.
Following is an excerpt from One Dumb Guy:
In the ’50s and ’60s, the Brill Building had been the home of Tin Pan Alley music publishers and era-defining hit songwriters like Neil Sedaka, Carole King, and Leiber & Stoller. By the 1980s, its eleven storeys housed the offices of photographers, theatre producers, and Lorne Michaels’s company Broadway Video. On a typical day, it was not unusual to spot New York celebrities such as Martin Scorsese or Michaels’s friend Paul Simon by the elevator banks. Yet inside the Kids’ cramped little writing office, the most glamorous people they interacted with were the two accountants who shared the space.
“The accountants were presiding over a routine audit of Broadway Video the whole time we were writing the pilot there,” says McDonald. “They were there before we moved in, and they were still there when we left. Whenever we thought of something funny, we’d look over and see the auditors giggling into their calculators.”
As was typical, Bruce McCulloch’s impatience returned as the process seemed to stretch out, yet he admits that the Kids’ struggle to prove themselves in New York—strangers in a strange land—brought them closer together.
“Sometimes we felt very untalented because it took us a while to come up with some strong new material. Eventually, though, that Brill Building office was where we first wrote up sketches like ‘Cabbage Head’ and ‘Head Crusher.’ ”
Had it not been for McDonald, Mark McKinney says he might never have thought to create his beloved character Mr. Tyzik, whose catchphrase “I’m crushing your head,” has since become one of the Kids’ most quoted lines. When McKinney was a child with poor eyesight, he would often compensate by peering through the spaces between his fingertips, putting them around cars and objects to focus on them better. Years later, the “finger view” gag became a kind of low-laughs party piece.
McDonald insists that McKinney pulled out the head-crushing gag during a “double date” that had turned awkward and uncomfortable, despite McKinney having no recollection of it.
“To break the tension,” says McDonald, “Mark started pinching his thumb and finger together, saying, ‘I’m crushing your head! I’m crushing your head!’ The girls stormed out, but it made me laugh. Mark doesn’t remember it, but the story is absolutely true. I swear to God!”
Up in their Brill Building office, McDonald suddenly remembered McKinney’s crushing hand gesture and it gave him an idea. Their work to date had been tailored to the so-called “black box” stage—specifically, the dark, square, and largely unadorned performance space at the Rivoli. Now, Lorne Michaels was urging them to think outside that box, to generate the kinds of kinetic and visual ideas better suited to television. McDonald pictured the camera’s point of view looking through McKinney’s two fingers, as McKinney’s character crushed the heads of all those who offended him. Agreeing that it was a good bit, McKinney felt that he needed a solid character on which to hang the comedy and thought of a curmudgeonly Eastern European man who had once lived across the hall from him at a Toronto rooming house.
“I’d hear this old guy, probably Yugoslavian, yelling at the hockey games all the time,” says McKinney. “So, I started doing a version of this guy in what I call my ‘Standard Foreign Voice,’ and Mr. Tyzik was born. I think what we both loved about Mr. Tyzik was that his crushing heads device was such a fabulously deluded way of fighting back at power, a more passive-aggressive way of giving someone the finger.”
Excitedly, McDonald told McKinney that Tyzik was exactly the kind of visual gag that Michaels had asked them to bring to the show. “I swear to God,” says McDonald, “I told Mark if he did this on TV, college kids would be doing it all over the country one day. And I was right.”