Sketch comedy is never as funny as you remember it. Most comes along and strikes the right note with the right people for a time, becoming part of a cultural zeitgeist and ensuring itself a healthy following. But after the political and cultural references have faded, even the best sketch comedy can seem fairly limp. When was the last time you sat down and watched a whole episode of Monty Python or vintage Saturday Night Live? Everyone remembers the Ministry of Funny Walks and the Spam Vikings, but those are just two skits out of five seasons. There’s a lot of dross in the balance.
As you might expect then, The Kids in the Hall is nowhere near as funny 15 years on. Watching these episodes, most of which I hadn’t seen in over a decade, if at all, it struck me that the show’s most notable attribute is that the material was rarely designed to be funny. Certainly, there are a handful of laugh-out-loud moments spread over these four discs, but you would expect as much from even the most woeful sketch show. The Kids, however, seem more concerned with quiet social satire and pointed character interaction, than merely striking the funny bone on any consistent basis. A good Kids sketch might not elicit more than a pleasant chuckle, but there are deeper layers underneath, about the ways we perceive ourselves in the context of social groups.
The satire in The Kids in the Hall is subtle. SNL‘s Not-Ready-For-Primetime Players (or their modern day descendants) might introduce a satirical element as the prelude to physical or scatological comedy. Their criticism of most presidents doesn’t range far afield from the template established by Chevy Chase for use with Gerald Ford: exaggerate a certain set of vocal or physical peculiarities (such as a propensity to fall down a lot), and play it until it hurts. Hence we have hundreds of hours devoted to womanizing, fast-food-eating Bill Clinton and grammatically-challenged George W. Bush.
By contrast, the Kids don’t really do impressions (well, there may be a couple scattered throughout, but hardly more than a handful). Their satire is more thoughtful, even if it is, as a result, less hilarious. Much of the time you get the feeling that the jokes, as such, are beside the point: the Kids are more interested in reflecting and dissecting social mores. One of my very favorite sketches in this set, “Wild Weekend,” isn’t “funny” at all. The skit begins with a group of women at work, discussing their upcoming weekends. Cathy is set slightly apart, unsatisfied and wistful, but unwilling to be drawn into her friends’ plans. Later Cathy walks through an unfamiliar part of the city in the early evening. She finds a new nightclub and enters, only to find it is a predominantly black establishment. Despite some initial hesitation, she is drawn to a handsome middle-aged bachelor. She goes home with him and spends the night, returning to work on Monday refreshed and invigorated, having finally injected a dose of adventure and romance into her previously moribund life.
The only important part of this story that I’ve left out is the fact that the part of Cathy is played by Scott Thompson in drag. How is that funny? It’s not, really—there’s no slapstick or mugging. What it is, however, is an insightful character study, a fascinating look at the ebb and flow of a quotidian life, as well as a sly examination of modern racial mores in terms of the familiar figure of the white “cultural tourist.” The cross-dressing adds a small twinge of absurdity to enliven the satire, but otherwise this could easily be a perfectly structured example of understated melodrama.
There are a handful of traditionally funny skits scattered throughout the set, such as the classic “Trappers,” in which a pair of modern-day fur traders (Dave Foley and Mark McKinney) prowl the halls of corporate Canada, hunting middle-managers for their Armani pelts. “Simon and Hecubus” presents the world’s most incompetent necromancer (Kevin McDonald), along with his familiar, the less-than-convincingly sinister Hecubus (Dave Foley). Even in their most overtly humorous skits, there is something appealing about their character work. The Kids’ steadfastly humanizing instincts go a long way towards rendering their comedy adorably toothless. There’s enough sympathy in even their most witless caricatures to prevent the audience from comfortably surrendering to the urge to laugh at them.
The Kids’ humanism reached its zenith with Scott Thompson’s character Buddy Love. Buddy Love is certainly not the first time that the queer nation had successfully reclaimed and recontextualized “swishy” stereotypes, but this was certainly one of the very first times that such an openly and proudly gay character was featured on national television. Even so, most of the Buddy skits are amusing in a slightly catty way, with all sorts of bad jokes at the expense of defenseless heterosexual celebrities. The majority of the material is devoted to establishing Buddy as a kind of uber-Queer, an avenging angel of homosexuality set loose to wreak havoc upon a humorless straight world.
Buddy Love notwithstanding, the Kids are usually at their worst in the service of ongoing characters, the kinds of characters who, because of their audience-pleasing repetitiveness, would normally showcase a troupe’s proclivity towards slapstick and physical comedy. Thankfully, Mark McKinney’s Head-Crusher only shows up a couple times throughout this season. If you are even moderately familiar with the show, you have probably seen the Head-Crusher—he’s the guy who sits on a lawn chair and crushes people’s heads between his thumb and forefinger. He’s a one-joke character whose inexplicable popularity forced the Kids’ hands in terms of crafting sequel adventures, and the strain shows. Similarly, we have Bruce McCulloch’s Cabbagehead, whose gimmick is that his head is made of cabbage, and he can never get laid. That’s pretty much it. McKinney’s Chicken Lady is actually pretty amusing to look at, but again, once you get past the fact that a six-foot tall chicken woman is really horny, there’s not really very many places you can go with it. (Perhaps they should have had the Chicken Lady and Cabbagehead hook up and produce some vegetable-brained poultry children?)
Those looking for further exploration of the thought processes and work habits that went into creating this material will walk away from this set sorely disappointed. All five Kids do reunite to provide commentary for two “Best-Of” season compilation episodes, but their exchanges are meandering and so poorly recorded that you can barely hear half of what they say. There’s a fairly interesting 15-minute mini-feature on the history of the second season, but it doesn’t provide more than a cursory outline of their working environment and collaborative habits. The lack of extra features is hardly frustrating, though, considering the wealth of noteworthy, if uneven, material. The Kids were at their best putting slightly subversive spins on familiar characters. While they were only ever of middling efficacy as comedians, they remain unexpectedly forceful social commentators.