The Kids in the Hall were very nearly not the Kids in the Hall. As Mark McKinney recalls in the two-part documentary “The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks,” he pushed for the Audience, the name of the group that he had performed in previously with Bruce McCulloch. “Thank God I didn’t win that fight,” he says.
The name that won out — a reference to the joke writers who pitched gags to Jack Benny — worked on several levels. In a sketch-comedy world of “Saturday Night Live” and sundry Waynes and Garths, they were undersung upstarts. And even at the height of their 1990s fame, with their self-titled show on the CBC, HBO and CBS, their absurdist comedy felt peripheral — to get to it, you had to step out the door and take a left.
It is, however, maybe not a name you choose anticipating the passage of several decades. “Comedy Punks,” now on Amazon Prime Video, shows it to have taken on a patina of irony. In the file footage, including rare clips of the group’s formative gigs at the Rivoli in Toronto, the Kids are all brash energy and suburban rebellion. In the present-day interviews, the five — McKinney and McCulloch, plus Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald and Scott Thompson — are droll, avuncular and comfortable. Punks? These look like personages.
But appearances are deceiving with this group. As the documentary lays out, the Kids’ baby-faced playfulness belied their often dark, macabre material that drew on personal pain. And a new eight-episode season of their sketch series, also on Amazon, shows that the group has mellowed only on the outside.
“Comedy Punks” is in some ways a typical hortatory rise-and-fall-and-rise promotional narrative. We get the early underground years; the Kids’ discovery by the “S.N.L.” producer Lorne Michaels; their TV glory days (and creative struggles with HBO); the end of the series and the disappointment of their cult film, “Brain Candy”; and their on-and-off performance history leading to their reunion. But underneath, there’s a thoughtful treatment of their comic philosophy and elliptical art.
What was punk about the Kids? Their aesthetic, partly: the nervy theme song by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, the grainy interstitial film between sketches. But also their attitude. Punk is about dissonance beyond sound, the determination not to be easily embraced and therefore co-opted.
The Kids had an outsider spirit, an ambition to unsettle the audience and not be, even in success, too easily palatable. “Love and Sausages,” a McCulloch-directed short from Season 4, resembles a David Lynch film more than a sketch. “They were kind of the only group that reflected Gen X,” says the comedian (and former punk drummer) Fred Armisen in the film.
Technically, the Kids are Boomers (Foley, the baby, was born in 1963). But comedy tends to age down. One of the group’s most famous early TV sketches might be the essential comic distillation of Gen X’s brand of internalized rebellion. McKinney plays a misanthrope who lurks in an office district, using pinching fingers and the trick of perspective to “crush” businessmen’s heads as he cackles gleefully. His attacks are both hilariously futile and a kind of perfect crime. No heads are actually crushed, after all; like Daria or Veronica in “Heathers,” he is armed only with his disdain.
Most blatantly, the group rebelled with its flexible use of gender and sexuality. Thompson, an out gay man, brought his identity into his act and made it part of the group’s attitude. For the Kids, Thompson says, homosexuality was “a weapon to bash squares.” Their most powerful cudgel was Thompson’s catty barroom raconteur Buddy Cole, a trash-talking one-man pride revolution in an ascot.
Even at the time, Buddy was criticized for embodying a swishy cliché. But the Kids’ comedy often embraced stereotypes, the better to smother them. For Thompson, the character was — in an era of gay-panic gags and Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” — a rare instance of a gay actor’s being allowed to own his sexuality and femininity. “Buddy is an alpha queen,” Thompson says in the documentary. “He is never the butt of the joke.”
And could he ever dish it out. In one sketch, Buddy incinerates the homophobic comedy of Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay (whose act, he says, is like someone took your non-English-speaking grandmother, “taught her to swear phonetically” and gave her an HBO special).
The comedy of these five men had a spirit of pushing back against what the world said men had to be. Sometimes they made the point through repressed, soused male characters, fathers in particular. Julie Klausner, a producer of the new season, calls the original show “a cavalcade of bad parenting.”
More often, they did it by playing women. When the Kids played female in a sketch, the wardrobe wasn’t the joke. As McCulloch puts it, they saw a distinction between doing drag and “playing a woman.” Their women were simply characters, and some of their best-realized, from the office mates Cathy and Kathie to Thompson’s Queen Elizabeth II.
The original “Kids in the Hall” series included five seasons and ran from 1989 to 1995.Credit…Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star, via Getty Images
The new Amazon season could have, like many streaming-enabled reunions, stuck to playing the hits. But if there’s nostalgia in the new “Kids in the Hall,” it is mostly served twisted, and in reasonable portions.
There are some reprises and call-outs: The head crusher returns, as does the self-styled squash-playing menace the Eradicator. Buddy Cole makes particular sense aged into a regal elder-gay — the way, Thompson has said, he envisioned the character decades ago — and both of Thompson’s signature queens reappear in a sketch in which Her Majesty dedicates a risqué monument to Buddy’s beloved old bathhouse.
Sometimes, the new bits lean on the aging gags too obviously, like a painful sketch about 60-year-old male strippers. (There is a healthy amount of nudity in the season, more gainfully deployed in other segments.)
But the most surprising thing about the season is how much it tries to evolve the Kids’ comedy and take it in new directions. This is not simply the “The Kids in the Hall” the group would have made had it stuck around for a sixth season in the 1990s. (They briefly reunited for 2010’s “Death Comes to Town,” a comedy serial made, the documentary notes, when Thompson was seriously ill with cancer.) If the five were once cheerfully riotous kids, they’ve become gentlemanly comic assassins.
Some of the best sketches, whether silly or savage, have a tinge of horror. Foley plays a morning radio host five years after the apocalypse, spinning Melanie’s 1971 earworm “Brand New Key” over and over, his upbeat patter contrasting with his dead eyes. A Shakespeare aficionado wishes that his bust of the Bard would come to life, and it does — horrifically, since it has no arms or torso.
And in the dreamlike, expressionist “Flags of Mark,” McKinney spins a fantasy about his devoted friends using flags — depicting him riding a dolphin under a rainbow — to find each other amid a faceless, masked crowd while his disembodied face floats above them, laughing at their dedication and distress. It’s a fun-house portrait of egotism and a kind of book end to McKinney’s famous early character: He isn’t crushing your head, his head is crushing you.
Depressingly often lately, seeing your favorite comics get on in years means watching them turn into cranks, repeating themselves and bemoaning how nobody can take a joke anymore. But for the most part, the group has handled aging well — maybe because it was always a little ahead of its time, maybe because its comedy always had more than the usual quotient of memento mori. (The final credits of the show’s original run, after all, had the quintet being buried in a common grave.) Even punks get old. But you never stop being a Kid.