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The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks Movie Review

Reg Harkema’s The Kids in the Hall: A Comic Trio is a clear introduction to a far-from-ordinary comedy troupe. Comedy Punks will have old fans wondering where they left their DVDs and newcomers scratching their heads as to how they haven’t heard of these guys; let the rabbit-hole viewing begin. Though the montage is peppered with photos and clips fans haven’t seen before, the montage’s rapid-fire editing ensures we nearly never see enough for a rare clip’s humor to land — instead, the montage convincingly conjures the camaraderie and creative enthusiasm we all wanted to believe in: Yes, these guys were great friends while they were transforming comedy. They weren’t then. They’re back now.

The film begins in Calgary, 1981, where Bruce McCulloch meets Mark McKinney on stage at an improv event at a bar called the Loose Moose, foregoing most of the childhood stuff a documentary may wish to present (later, we’ll hear multiple references to drunken fathers). The next year, Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald met in a similar manner in Toronto. Both couples met while competing in Theatresports, a Canadian-born form of competitive theater that the film doesn’t think has to be explained. The latter duo experienced instant “comedy chemistry,” which they likened to falling in love. “I begged [Foley] to join my ensemble on the spot,” McDonald recalls. And I didn’t have a cast.” As a result, one had to be created.

After forming a quartet and naming themselves (a reference to aspiring comedy writers attempting to sell gags to an established star), they attracted a fifth member who hadn’t planned to be a comedian: Scott Thompson, whose openness about being gay would become a big part of their identity, had hoped to become a serious actor. “I wanted to be James Dean,” he says, but instead he’d be Buddy Cole, the flamboyant raconteur whose flamboyance would alienate both straight and homosexual fans of the group’s TV show. (For the record, Buddy is fantastic.) It was the Chicken Lady who was difficult to bear.)

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For a year or so, the boys played to small crowds at a Toronto bar called Rivoli. They made their debut in 1985, selling out the house and sparking two-hour lines to get in. A rave in the Globe and Mail hit the streets just as SNL scouts came in town for their yearly tour to grab young talent from the Second City. After hearing the anecdote, one person inquired for tickets to see the Kids; Bruce responded that the show was sold out and he couldn’t get them in. (Wait, didn’t they claim Scott was the one with no business sense?)

Fortunately, Lorne Michaels wasn’t the last time they heard from him. Surprisingly, the group survived a brief separation when two members were hired to write for SNL but despised the experience. Sensing that they deserved their own show, Michaels transferred them to Fresh York for a short time, forcing them to do live concerts for audiences who’d never heard of them while they wrote new sketches for a pilot.

The story of selling and keeping the series on the air is just dramatic enough to keep things moving, while Harkema brings in contemporary comedians to testify to the impact of that landmark HBO show. Fans include Reggie Watts, Mae Martin of Feel Good, and Jennifer Whalen of the Baroness von Sketch Show; in a section of the documentary on the Kids’ inspired portrayal of female characters, Martin admits to being “fascinated and bewildered by Dave in drag.” (Foley rightly boasts that he was the show’s sexiest woman.)

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The series evolved in tandem with its authors’ aspirations, yet those ambitions frequently diverged. Interviewed separately (though we see them together on occasion), the men tell how their connections were strained as the show came to an end. Foley’s initial refusal to engage in a feature film exacerbated the situation; the fact that the film tanked could have been the final nail in the coffin.

However, the very successful syndication on Comedy Central offered reasons for the group to reconvene. Big theatrical tours brought them face to face with a massive and increasing fan base, and the two worked together even during Thompson’s near-fatal cancer battle. The last minutes of the film show snippets of a revival series that was announced soon before the outbreak. The new content can’t come soon enough after this amusing, charming refresher course.

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