Judge Bill Gibrons loves this landmark Canadian comedy series.
Our reviews of The Best Of The Kids In The Hall: Volume Two (published September 5th, 2007), The Kids In The Hall: The Complete Second Season (published December 1st, 2004), The Kids In The Hall: The Complete Fourth Season (published May 10th, 2006), The Kids In The Hall: The Complete Fifth Season (published November 22nd, 2006), The Kids In The Hall: Complete Series Megaset (published May 18th, 2011), and The Kids In The Hall: Death Comes To Town (published May 18th, 2011) are also available.
"I'm crushing your head! I'm crushing your head!"
When Monty Python's Flying Circus first blasted onto PBS stations over 30 years ago, no one had ever seen anything like it. Offering irreverent skits containing incongruous ideas hurled at one another (sometimes in the same sequence) and utilizing darkly comic animation that linked the lunacy into unbridled streams of comic genius, a new standard of sketch comedy was born. Like The Beatles before, the men of Monty Python arrived on American shores like conquering heroes and completely shook up the landscape of humor and the very foundations of popular culture. Prior to Python's advent, television wit was derived from either old burlesque and vaudeville scenarios or stock characters tossed in clichéd conventions. There was very little that was new or inventive; throughout the medium's infancy, only Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs managed to create something that people considered classic. Once Terry Jones, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam entered the arena, all bets were off, and the benchmarks were redrawn forever upward. After their brief stint in the spotlight, the Pythons retired to the realm of legend…and the occasional hit film.
Since then, entertainment has been seeking a new set of sketch comedy kings to inherit Python's place on the lampoon throne. The original Not Ready For Prime Time Players from Saturday Night Live always get a mention, and indeed, as time has passed, they have earned their spot in the holy hilarity hierarchy. SCTV also commandeered a place at the foot of funny, creating its own fractured universe of clever characterization and small-world sarcasm.
But since the mid-'80s, the schism between good and bad sketch shows has grown even wider. Mad TV is an only occasionally farcical fiction, never rising to the level of its classic cracked namesake magazine. Comedy Central has tried to launch several static series, unfunny fiascos with names like Exit 57 and the Upright Citizens Brigade. But the true heirs to the Python throne were waiting in the wings of the Great White North, hoping for a chance to expose their manic mantle to a waiting public. HBO became the home for the next generation of great sketch comedy when The Kids in the Hall debuted in 1989.
Thanks to A&E, we now have a chance to revisit the brilliant boys and their half-hour of hilarity. The Kids in the Hall: The Complete First Season is a great way to remember the humble origins of these now-knighted members of the court of sketch comedy kings. The show is still as fresh and funny today as it was when it first aired over 15 years ago.
Facts of the Case
The five very talented individuals who make up The Kids in the Hall are Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson. Most began their career as improvisational actors in the second-tier nightclub scene in Canada. At one point, Lorne Michaels (Mr. SNL and a card-carrying Canuck comedy legend) caught their act and brought The Kids to New York, in hopes of securing a television deal. Eventually, both HBO and the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) expressed interest, and a skit series classic was born. On this DVD, you get the following episodes (information content taken directly from the DVD press kit):
• Episode 1: Call Girls; The Eradicator; Ballet; Crushing Your
Head Part 2; Cause of Cancer; Pear; Kathie and the Blues Guy; Crushing Your Head
• Episode 7: Hotel La Rut; Plummet; Hotel La Rut 2; First Poem;
Fletcher Christian; Hotel La Rut 3; Joymakers
• Episode 14: Editors Intro; Editors (Film); Break Up; I Lied;
Dull Death; I'm a Cat; My Routine; Schoolroom; Editors Finale
Sketch comedy can be gauged by several standards to determine its success. First and foremost, is it funny? Does it make one giddy with delight or stunned with stupidity? The next value is one based in character. Does the show or skit manage to create classic personalities that become instantly recognizable and memorable? And do the non-specialty personas offer humorous homage to obvious everyday personality types, or are things just too weird and obtuse? Then there is the performance prerequisite. Comedy cannot connect if the acting is off or the timing is muffed. So all the talent involved must be able to rise to the occasion and deliver the delirium with skill and panache.
Then there is the final piece of the puzzle, a far more elusive element—a mysterious X-factor that can best be described as a spark of brilliance. It's not something that can be crafted in a computer or conceived on-set. It cannot be sense-memoried or improvised into being. Indeed, it seems that this enigmatic attribute derives from an odd cosmic coming together of personality, persistence, promise, and productivity. Add in a little essence of excited ephemera and some good old-fashioned karmic magic, and something special can grow. As much as people want to argue that hard work and talent are enough to create a classic comedy, the dozens of non-clever corpses littering the avenues to entertainment nirvana are too numerous and odiferous to count. No, the X-factor needs to be there to generate the genius, to help the extraordinary stand out and get the recognition it deserves.
The Kids in the Hall is such a work of X-factor genius. Managing to mesh divergent talents and ideals into a cohesive whole is one thing. But The Kids also find a way to make the difference distinct and delightful. It's hard to imagine how sarcasm can intermingle with a flamboyantly gay dynamic and some throwbacks to slapstick and the family situation comedy to create their merry chaos. Yet The Kids make it work—doing so without relying on many of the sketch comedy conventions to cement their laughs. You will see few celebrity impressions here, even fewer out-and-out parodies, and their lampooning is directed at types, not titles. Later in the show's run, they would come to play the personality card, giving the Queen and her clan a royal waxing. But the First Season is an opportunity to see a group of gifted performers finding their voice and honing their skills.
This is why The Kids in the Hall: The Complete First Season is so eclectic. Where else would you find a lisping homosexual opining on the facts of queer life along side a music video homage to guys named Dave? The first series was a chance for The Kids to experiment with characters like the Head Crusher and the unhappy married couple Gordon and Fran. It was an opportunity to create ridiculous recurring roles (the secretarial pool, Mr. Cabbage Head) and flesh out old stage ideas for the ever smaller screen. These shows set the foundation for such future flights of funny as Gavin, the know-it-all savant of the strange, the devilishly demonic Sir Simon Mulligan and his impish manservant Hecubus, and the New Age numbskull Darrill. Season One is pure Kids in the Hall, taken from the improv club and conformed to television's delicate demands. It would also be the last time their vision would be untainted by the tools of technology.
Like Python and SNL before it, the show managed to tap into its time—in this case, the post-avarice hangover of the 1980s—and comment directly on the growing disenfranchisement in the social norm. The emergent homosexual agenda and the further fracturing of the nuclear family were also hilarious hot-button issues. But in a similar vein to SCTV, The Kids also relied on a stable of consistently used, well-imagined and complex characters to satisfy the desire for an element of recognizability to the series. That is why the show is far more verbal than visual. Many of these early sketches relied on verbal humor to establish their excellence, and where there is writing, there is in-depth personality development and backstory. The Kids also utilized a tried-and-true element that Python (through Gilliam's animation) and SCTV (through the TV station foundation) made famous to make the wildly varying tone of the sketches seem like part of a complete and total enterprise. That is why the "30 Helens" sequences or the Head Crusher vignettes are so important. They help link the material together, giving the show an outward face and unified style. There is also a reliance on the comic monologue, the chance for a single cast member to take center stage, stand before the audience and bare his soul (or completely lose himself in character) for a thoughtful bit of wit. Perhaps the best way to describe the success of The Kids in the Hall is to look at the comedy itself and try to decipher what made their brand of ballyhoo so memorable, especially as the work of other wannabes came up so ludicrously short.
Certain themes pervade the skits of The Kids, ideas that aren't usually explored in sketch comedy. A great amount of Season One's silliness is derived from businessmen and the corporate infrastructure. The networking suit-and-tie crowd is constantly roasted and toasted. Yet the gang behind the CEO scenes—the vigilante secretarial staff (personified by the wonderfully funny and dead-on accurate "Two Cathys" segments)—is also given moments of true-life laughter and human-based bickering to highlight the hilarity. Sex and dating are elements one expects from a group of young males, but The Kids manage to accurately incorporate both the masculine and the feminine point of view into the show. Drag is an institution in sketch comedy, but the group here manages to find a fresh way with a wig and a skirt. Their female façades are never meant to be outrageous, over-the-top shrews (like Python's peripatetic Pepperpots), but subtle recreations of the ladies in their lives (mothers, sisters, girlfriends). And frankly, The Kids make great women. Occasionally, you forget these gals are being played by men—and completely buy the pretty premise.
But as with all members of the male species, the testosterone can't be held back for long. With the flood of Freudian fuel comes a lot of deep, distressed darkness. Death and mayhem, brutality and blood rear their redolent heads throughout most of The Kids's comedy, and it may be safe to say that The Kids in the Hall was probably the first splatter sketch comedy series. The troupe definitely utilized that genre's occasional tone shifts and corpse-carving sense of humor to infuse their farce with wickedness. Indeed, The Kids in the Hall were all about anarchy in atrophy, a chance to witness real drollness and intelligence in an unforced and incredibly clever (and sometimes cruel) manner.
The best way to review this box set is to pinpoint classic comedy bits from each disc to indicate the outstanding level of lunacy inherit in this show. Disc One has many such manic highlights. When the squash playing bandito, "The Eradicator," charges onto the screen, Bruce McCulloch's craven cry of cowardice is just brilliant. So is Kevin McDonald's portrayal of a hideously awkward "Ballet" student. In this sketch, the bow-legged lass is up for a dance scholarship, and the contrast between the real student and Kevin's study in stupidity is great. McCulloch shines again in a hilarious music video spoof in which he sings of all the guys he knows named David or "Dave." The nimble-fingered "Head Crusher" makes his first appearances with an act so outrageously simple and yet so purely masterful that you wonder why no one had thought of it before Mark McKinney.
But perhaps the best single moment on Disc One is "Salty Ham," the sketch that introduces us to Fran (played with exceptional understatement by Scott Thompson) and the loud-mouthed man of the house Gordon (McCulloch again). The premise is priceless: Gordon is pissed off because the pork dinner he consumed was too damn salty, and now his need for liquids is keeping him awake. He takes out his frustration on his doting wife Fran, who laces many of her apologies with faint, if pointed, zingers. As the argument builds to a crescendo, we observe mini-moments (the way they touch hands, the use of endearments like "Mother") that hammer home the real-life feeling to this piece. When Gordon asks if there's any Jell-O 1-2-3 left (all those with the knowledge of said dessert disaster are automatically nodding with nauseated understanding), it caps off a true comedy classic (and a crass, cranky couple The Kids would call on throughout the rest of their career).
Disc Two is also filled with fantastic bits. The "Two Cathys" (Scott Thompson as Cathy and Bruce as Kathie) get their first group foray into the everyday doldrums of office life in a stellar bit about the beginning of the work week. The smartly observed details (the coffee fund, the Monday "blahs") are excellent, and showcase just how intricate The Kids's writing was. Another terrific examination of family life going to hell finds Gordon and Fran on their way to a "Vacation" cottage. Their drugged-out, drunken son Brian is introduced (played with a nice wasted wonder by Dave Foley), and the entire family dynamic, from how men travel to how mothers fret, is found here. Clem (played with the right amount of Bourbon bravado by Mark McKinney) is an archetypal Southern storyteller who keeps the gang down at the "Barbershop" entertained. But when his haircut is over, it's impossible for the next man in line to provide the same gift for gab. The saga of "Skoora!" the gentle shark is told to a tourist by the mangled and mutilated citizens of a small New England town. The tales of the untold carnage are always tempered by the guilty conscience of the maudlin marine animal. Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald turn a couple of complete clods whom "Nobody Likes" into a duo of loveable losers. But hands down, the best skit from Disc Two is the "Teddy Bears Picnic." Scott Thompson is a small child listening to his father's factually inaccurate bedtime story. Turns out, the deceptive Dad has been using outlandish fairy tales to confuse his family and hide his "extramarital" activities. Not only is the acting great here, but there are dozens of memorable lines ("Mmmm…soup!," "She's a magical goat!") to match the inspired idea.
Disc Three finds The Kids expanding their video vocabulary, relying more and more on the fantasy elements of the television format (blue screen, special effects) to broaden their humor. Still, it's interesting to note how Fran's visit to her almost-divorcee sister Barbara (played by Mark McKinney) doesn't need a lot of technical frou-frou to shine—just some very "Stinky Pink" hair. "Compensation" outlines how construction workers can suckle at the sweet teat of mother workmen's comp, if only they are brave enough to accept potential disfigurement. And Scott Thompson's hilariously flaming monologist Buddy Love has his final, fantastic wrap-up for Season One when he discusses his Canadian heritage.
Yet Season One wouldn't feel complete without a sacrilegious razz on faith and the final sketch. "The Dr. Seuss Bible" is the kind of inspired satire that matches the best that Python or SCTV could dish out. Using the language of the renowned children's author, and employing some of the most brilliant costumes and set design the show ever managed, the crucifixion is depicted as a phantasmagoric acid trip, complete with Rube Goldberg contraptions and some searing secular commentary. Dave Foley's inspired turn as a Cat in the Hat-style preacher finds its equal in Scott Thompson's iconic Christ in crisis. They are both blasphemous and brilliant at the same time. For a show that found must of its merriment in the mundane and melancholy, "The Dr. Seuss Bible" signifies the turning point for the series and showcases the edgy, aggressive wit to which The Kids would cater over the next five seasons.
The best thing about this box set is that it allows you to see these shows uncut and without edits. Even long-time fans who first saw these episodes on HBO and memorized them once they came to Comedy Central (as an MST3K maven myself, The Kids always seemed to precede or follow Joel, Mike, and the 'Bots), you'll be amazed at some of the stuff you've missed. Of course there is language—the occasional "S" or "F" word that comes careening out of a character's mouth. Buddy Cole is a "call a spade a spade" kind of comic who employs such non-PC calling cards as "f*gg*t" and "f*g" to get his point across. Indeed, these epithets, now considered cruel, swirl all around the First Season of The Kids in the Hall, indicating either a very enlightened ideal or a bold backwards glance at the attitude surrounding most gay content. Challenging norms was at the core of The Kids's modus operandi. But there are also little moments, insignificant dialogue exchanges or extra exposition obviously removed to add more commercials to the syndicated playback. Still, you'll marvel over the "Sh*tty Soup" sketch, where The Kids use said descriptive term over and over again to describe a particularly puke-inducing bowl of broth, or Bruce McCulloch's expletive-filled volley against his vocation as a bank employee. It is the reclamation of these long-lost sketches and missing sequences that make The Kids DVD box set so special, and why even a casual acquaintance of this series would enjoy this digital presentation.
For you see, The Kids in the Hall is a comic rarity: a sketch comedy show that doesn't grow tired or dated. If one had to hail a holy trinity of such skit showcases, The Kids would be right there along side Python and Second City as an example of how improvisation and originality can lead to classic pastures. It's a true shame that the Kids never broke out into 100% mainstream acceptance after the series ended. Sure, they went on to some individual success (Bruce as a director, Dave on NewsRadio, Mark on SNL, and Scott as a Larry Sanders cast member) but they are not now regarded like the ex-Monty men or the currently-guided-by-Christopher Guest members of Melonville's favorite TV station. The Kids in the Hall is a great comedy series, a vehicle for five unforgettable talents who created some of the most clever and memorable amusement modern television has ever seen. This fantastic DVD package from A&E is a must-own for anyone who spent the '90s secretly crushing heads, looking skyward for the Flying Pig, and wondering why it was terriers, not corgis or retrievers, that Bruce liked so much. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a multi-disc memorial to one of the last great sketch comedy creations.
A&E does indeed do a nice job with this package. While some of the decisions regarding bonuses can be questioned, the overall presentation is reference quality. The Kids was shot on video and the full frame 1.33:1 transfer is incredible. The images are clean, crisp, and vibrant. There is some age apparent, as the shows can look a tad faded at times. And the filmed elements divulge a definite low-budget feel with their Super 8mm grain and grit. But overall, this is the best The Kids in the Hall ever looked, even on digital cable. Soundwise, the Dolby Digital Stereo is fantastic. The series loved using evocative rock music to link skits and scenes, and it's captured here in all its bass and treble terrificness. Indeed, the aural offering matches the visual vitality in quality.
But where A&E really excels (and makes a minor mistake) is in the bonus material. The 40-minute oral history of the group is absolutely fascinating. Each Kid is present to reminisce and recall (and man, have they aged since the show started 16 years ago), and their stories of starting out and finding initial acceptance are extraordinary. Here's hoping that if A&E releases the remaining seasons on DVD, they continue with this enlightening and engaging documentary. As part of this discussion of the past, there are clips from The Kids's now classic shows at the Rivoli Theater in Canada. Somehow, about 30 minutes of this material has been unearthed and those sketches are included here. In these boisterous blasts from the past, a mother—during family hamburger night—tells how she screwed Jimi Hendrix, while a stupid guest arrives at a toga party, only to learn he has misunderstood the invitation. There is a lot to like here—hilarious highlights from the gritty origins of the group. We even get to witness the stringbean Kevin McDonald in full fatso mode (he lost 60 pounds right before The Kids hit it big—and has kept it off) as he takes a curtain call.
The best material is saved for last. The commentaries and the long-lost pilot material are exceptional. The Kids (minus a few minutes of the fashionably late Scott Thompson) provide a non-stop stream of jokes and jibes as they watch a clip collection of material from their first season and their special showcase. After almost 18 years together, the guys have not lost their edge, and this alternative track is incredibly entertaining. Especially amusing is how each Kid takes credit for something that you know another created…and how the originator goes along with the gag. They also offer insight into the origins of some of the more wacky members of their character entourage, and point to problems and material that they don't think works anymore. After watching the 20 episodes on the three discs, the series clipfest is a tad anticlimactic.
But the real find is the pilot episode segments. Some of the sketches here are as comic and classic as the stuff found as part of the regular series. Highlights include a young man trying to pick up his mother's quite elderly friend, the Cabbage Head hoping for a little goodnight nookie, and The Kids sitting around a campfire, celebrating the death of a friend (whose life they may have ended prematurely). With only 25 minutes of what was an hour-long presentation, it would have been nice to see the whole thing. But along with the rest of the bonus material here, the debut delirium of The Kids in the Hall is a welcome addition to this overflowing DVD release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Since The Kids seem to enjoy doing the commentary track on the "Greatest Hits" bonus material so much, they should have been given a chance—a la Futurama or The Simpsons—to comment on regular installments of the show. It would have been nice to hear the boys discuss Gordon and his salt warts, Fran and her frantic fidgeting, or the actual explanation for all those Helens. Sadly, we only have the 50 minutes of narrative here, and the winning, wonderful way in which they dissect their work makes you want more, as does seeing the clips from the pilot—or the "Special," as The Kids call it. Frankly, as a historical document, this show should have been included in its entirety. On a couple of occasions we hear a discussion about an infamous "Naked for Jesus" sketch and are even offered a very quick, tantalizing glimpse. But it, along with the rest of the original show, is absent from this set. Including it would have been a more fan-friendly ideal. So while what we get is fantastic, being able to see the whole show would really put the Kids's craft into perspective. Maybe in future DVD packages we will witness the rest of this Holy Grail to hilarity. But, along with more commentary tracks, the lack of the entire Special drops this otherwise spectacular DVD package down a couple of notches.
It's actually quite hard to understand why, today, The Kids in the Hall themselves aren't something more than just a cult comedy act with a small but loyal group of devotees. They are as talented and tricky as the trend-setting Pythons and ride right along side their Toronto brethren from SCTV on the hilarity highway. Maybe it's the fact that they were stuck on pay/basic cable for so long, not finding a broadcast home (CBS late, late night) until the last year of the series. Perhaps it's because they were rerun into the ground, used by Comedy Central like PSAs whenever they had a hole in their programming. But the real reason as to why The Kids seem lost among the many other sketch comedy shows, and why this DVD box set will help them reclaim their position as a preeminent comedy concoction, may be their subtlety. The Kids in the Hall, for all its craziness and surreality, is perhaps the most reality-based sketch comedy show ever. Monty Python played a Dadaesque deconstructive game with the stiff upper lip lunacy of the United Colonialist Kingdom. Saturday Night Live showed the hippie generation the deep, dark hangover resulting from too much sex, drugs, and Watergate. And then there was SCTV, perhaps the ultimate sardonic lampoon of popular culture, mixing celebrities and situations to create a truly unique form of comedy—call it Impressionistic satire. So with its world of quirky characters drawn directly out of real-life situations and its attention to life's little details, The Kids in the Hall represents the Yin to the rest of sketch comedy's Yang.
Hopefully, A&E will treat us to the rest of The Kids's canon of the crackpot and help re-elevate them to superstar status. It's time to move over, Parrot Sketch. Make room at the table, Johnny LaRue and the Gerbils. There's a group of young men out in the atrium. And they deserve a seat at Comedy's classic counter.
The Kids in the Hall: The Complete First Season is found not guilty on all charges and is free to go. A&E are also innocent and released from custody. Case closed.
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• Commentary by The Kids in the Hall
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