Though it’s been nearly 20 years since its aired, The Kids in the Hall stands as one of the most traditionally successful sketch-comedy programs ever. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, its most obvious ancestor, had a BBC-ready production schedule and only ran for 45 episodes. Saturday Night Live, on the other hand, has produced over 700, but of spottier and more ephemeral quality by design.
Other sketch shows only manage a couple of seasons before cancellation or more ambitious projects turn up. The Kids in the Hall stayed on the air for five seasons and just over 100 episodes, a surprisingly normal and syndication-friendly run for such a pointedly bizarre enterprise.
Now all of those episodes have been boxed up together, again. Like their Monty Python packages, A&E’s The Kids in the Hall Complete Series Megaset affords fans the opportunity to observe the work of a sketch troupe—some 800 sketches in all, according to the box copy—as a cohesive whole. It’s a daunting task, and one that makes the Kids’ decision, as related on the Season Two oral history included here, to include recurring characters (initially forbidden by their purist natures) more understandable. How could we begin to understand the psychology of these Canadians without Gavin, the head-crushing guy, or the Chicken Lady?
What stands out across the 102 episodes and 20 discs that hold them is the show’s consistency. Not every sketch works fully, to be sure, but even the thinner Kids in the Hall bits are executed with an energy and economy lacking from many sketch shows, and sketches that could be one note—like the one where a man at a dinner party gets “comfortable” by removing his pants and coming on to his friend’s wife—have the pacing, writing, and performances to be considered classical rather than simplistic. Eschewing celebrity spoofs or political humor, the Kids excel at portraying weird minutiae: awkward domestic situations; irritatingly inquisitive little kids; the drudgery of office life.
Unlike some repackaged full-series sets, this Kids in the Hall box doesn’t try to upstage past season-by-season collections and goad fans into re-buying them as a deluxe edition: the best-ofs, commentaries, and brief oral histories all appear in past season sets. The most notable new material is the inclusion of Death Comes to Town, the eight-episode miniseries the Kids produced for Canadian TV in 2010 (and it’s also available separately; opportunities for double-dipping, price-gouging, and ripping off have, by all evidence, been strenuously avoided).
Death Comes to Town, while available separately, may prove the most attractive element of the set, simply because it’s fresh Kids in the Hall material that hasn’t yet run thousands of times on Comedy Central, increasingly late at night and/or early in the afternoon. As such, comparisons between the reunion series and the original episodes may become unavoidable, even though the miniseries doesn’t aim for the same quick, big laughs as some of the original sketches.
Similarly unavoidable is the fact that the Kids of Death Comes to Town don’t look much like kids, although their mileage varies: McDonald, eyes often harried and worried, looks closer to his old self than the rounder and less boyish Foley and McKinney (in the unkind but wise words of one of the Kathies: the cute don’t age well). True to their commitment as performers, though, the aging process opens up further comic possibilities in terms of the roles they can comfortably inhabit. Foley in particular takes advantage of his new form as the mayor’s permanently sloshed middle-aged wife Marilyn Bowman: like so many Kids performances, it’s simultaneously wicked and oddly believable.
It’s the death of Marilyn’s husband Larry (McCulloch), the mayor of Shuckton, Ontario, that kickstarts the story of the miniseries, as the town’s residents become suspects as Death himself (played by McKinney, with shades of the grumbly, marble-mouthed Satan he played in a Season Two sketch) lurks in the background, waiting for more victims to pile up, particularly the overweight, housebound Ricky Jarvis (McCulloch again), who endeavors to solve the case. Death Comes to Town proceeds as an oddball murder mystery, and though the Kids seem to feel at home with the episodic structure, with plenty of time for sketch-like digressions and oddball side characters, it lacks the satirical punch of Brain Candy, their semi-maligned 1996 feature film.
The lack of Brain Candy itself in this DVD set is understandable—it was released by Paramount, while A&E has the home-video rights to the rest of the material—but lamentable all the same, since Paramount let the disc go out of print, anyway (as such, even used copies of the DVD will set you back $10 or $15). Brain Candy was one of their most ambitious undertakings; it has broader, more specific cultural satire than many of the sketches, skewering the pharmaceutical industry as well as humanity’s desire to achieve personal happiness at any cost, all in a suitably Pythonesque fashion.
Death Comes to Town reunites the troupe with the same director, Kelly Makin, who also worked on many of the original series segments, and maintains the movie’s casting of the Kids in the majority of the roles, with other non-troupe actors filling in the occasional bit part. But, perhaps chastened by the failure of their feature, the technique is applied to smaller characters and smaller ideas; indeed, the Kids seem excited at the prospect of bringing to life the Canadian version of a backwoods town (mercilessly and amusingly characterized as such by Bruce McCulloch’s preening big-city lawyer character, one of McCulloch’s trademark blowhard grotesques). Death Comes to Town has some brilliant sidebars and riffs, like McDonald’s scenes as a lawyer driving himself to ruin by keeping his thirty-year-old cat alive, but it’s largely a collection of amusing character sketches.
Given that skill with character work amply displayed in Death Comes to Town, the commentary track on the final episode of the miniseries is a bit disappointing: Foley and McCulloch, who have the writing credit for the finale, goof around and make self-deprecating remarks about their characters, joking about how some of them are defined principally by physical props or tics. The self-effacement is amusing enough, but it doesn’t feel particularly honest—rather, it may be a comedian’s easy, joshing dodge.
In an earlier oral history, the Kids and their associates discuss their penchant for cross-dressing, and how they try not to construct jokes around the idea of men in drag, but rather attempt to play their female characters as “real” as if they were playing men. You can see this attention to detail throughout the series, and in Death Comes to Town, too—even if they won’t admit to it.