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The Kids in the Hall: Cult classics

Popular culture finally catches up

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The Kids in the Hall may have been kids too soon. Five funny young Canadians – Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson – formed the sketch-comedy troupe in the mid-1980s and enjoyed cult success with their beloved eponymous TV series from 1988-1994. Arguably, however, their humor was ahead of its time.

If some kind of time warp launched the Kids in the Hall 20 years into the future, from the 1980s to the 2000s, their brand of absurdist sketch comedy would practically own the Internet and current "new media." Offices would close business when the Kids' latest viral videos went online. Thompson's gay barfly Buddy Cole would have his own pages on MySpace, Facebook and every other social networking tool in existence. McCulloch's song "These Are the Daves I Know" would be an inescapable ring tone, and a cottage industry would spring up around T-shirts for one-time catchphrases such as, "I'm the guy with the good attitude toward menstruation."

The YouTube generation has been catching up with the Kids, however, who are currently touring with their first stage show since 2002. In a phone interview from Portland, Ore., McKinney marvels at their audience's age range. "We get kids who wouldn't have been more than 3 years old when our show was on the air – who wouldn't have been born when we did our first special. On our last tour, we've had audiences chant along with our sketches, which is a little strange. We still can't believe anyone watched our show."

"Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels produced the show, even though the Kids in the Hall endorsed a sharply different form of sketch comedy compared with the media spoofs and celebrity impressions of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. "We were never interested in that kind of comedy as newspaper, when we'd stick our finger into the zeitgeist of the year. If we do any kind of satire at all, it would be social satire," McKinney says.

In the wake of the 1980s AIDS crisis, the Kids in the Hall were one of pop culture's most prominent means of dealing with gay issues through a comedic prism. Openly gay, Thompson used his Buddy Cole monologues to defuse tensions and point out hypocrisies in issues such as "outing" and "the closet." Perhaps the Kids' defining trait was their approach to drag. They weren't guys who put on dresses for a hoot, like Dan Aykroyd playing Julia Child, but portrayed reasonably realistic female characters.

In general, the Kids took the quirky obsessions of suburban families and office drudges and carried them to hilarious extremes. Their shows featured a rogue's gallery of weirdos – McKinney's recurring characters included "head-crushing" Mr. Tyzik and the sex-obsessed sideshow freak the Chicken Lady – but also included such laid-back scenes as the guys playing poker and talking about how they envy women. (One says he'd like to have a pair of breasts, "to give milk or whatnot.")

Compared with their peers in "Monty Python," "Saturday Night Live" or "Mr. Show," the Kids' comedy always felt more personal. McKinney suggests, "Maybe we're a little more knowable. Our personalities bleed through. I think over 100 episodes, it must come through. If nothing else, the first and last audience that matters to us is each other, so we'd never hesitate to refer to each other."

After the mixed success of the 1996 film Brain Candy, the troupe went their separate ways, and most found some independent success. Foley possibly became the most popular on his own as the central character on "NewsRadio." Thompson was a regular on "The Larry Sanders Show." McKinney spent two seasons on "Saturday Night Live," but was generally neglected (apart from occasionally playing rich nerds such as Bill Gates and Steve Forbes).

McKinney tapped into another passionate following as a co-creator and leading actor on "Slings and Arrows," a darkly comic Canadian TV series about a Shakespeare festival. "Slings and Arrows'" three hilarious seasons have staggering popularity among the theater community, Canadian or otherwise. "I've been getting a lot of feedback on that wherever I go. It's been really gratifying to have this thing separate from 'Kids in the Hall,'" McKinney acknowledges. "At the time we wrote it, I'd done most of my legitimate theater after I was on 'Saturday Night Live,' so my experience came partly from doing plays in New York, and partly from that creative dysfunction of being in a comedy troupe."

The Kids seem to have reconciled with their creative dysfunction, having reunited to write all-new material for their current tour, As Live As We'll Ever Be. "A year and a half ago, we all had a week off at the same time, which is very rare, so we got together and decided to write like we did in our club days: You'd show up on a Monday, and put up everything you'd finished on that Friday. I think most of the material came from that week. We did our 'greatest hits' on our last tour, and didn't want to repeat ourselves."

Not surprisingly, the writer/performers have some different sensibilities in their 40s than they did in their 20s. McKinney, Foley and McCulloch are all dads, which informs the tour's opening sketch, "Hateful Baby." McKinney says, "The other stuff is still pretty anarchic. We tend to find the same things funny, so in that sense, our humor hasn't matured."

The Kids in the Hall's current tour will feature some familiar wigs and funny accents. "We include the appearance of the cherished and beloved older characters to get the audience excited," says McKinney, who adds that it's a little like a rock band including some of their hit songs in their set list while touring to promote a new album. For the encore, the audience can feel free to hold up cigarette lighters and call out "Chicken Lady loves life!"

Click here for a link to clips of the Kids in the Hall's best sketches.

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