Comedy is like rock for nerds. If the members of Monty Python are the Beatles of sketch comedy, the Kids in the Hall are the Clash, less wildly popular, equally beloved by rabid fans, and less important in the grand scheme of things. The Kids even formed in a manner commonly associated with rock bands: they met doing improv with different comedy groups, eventually formed their own collective, and when extra members gradually dropped off, the Kids as we know them were formed.
This backstory is illuminated in a series of individual interviews with all five Kids — Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, and Scott Thompson — on the extras disc of A&E’s new DVD set, covering Season One of their TV show. You also hear from their producer and sketch-comedy guru Lorne Michaels, who is most famous, of course, for running Saturday Night Live. His decision to take on the Kids as a separate entity (rather than recruiting some of them for SNL, which he nearly did) seems like a whim. He says he liked their chemistry, and suddenly they were on HBO.
In fact, this brief oral history tends to highlight minor confusion about how this whole Kids in the Hall thing came together in the first place. Details are especially fuzzy concerning the all-important phone call informing them that their pilot had been picked up. McKinney remembers that he was the default handler of business affairs and was forced to take the nerve-racking call; but McCulloch also says he took the call and spread the good news. Whether this is a genuine conflict of memory or someone’s sly little joke is difficult to tell (the Kids all crack low-key jokes from time to time during interviews; even apart, they’re engaging performers).
Putting sketch comedy on DVD underlines its similarities to pop music; the history stuff is like Behind the Music, with a lot less strife. The extras disc also includes a couple of “greatest hits”-type sketch compilations from the first season, with commentary by the Kids, which is a welcome distillation of the commentary process (I appreciate the efforts of The Simpsons and Futurama to include commentary for every single episode in a given season, but it often leads to some wandering and/or repetitive tracks).
The other three discs provide the episodes themselves. These follow the rich sketch tradition of hit-or-miss, but the Kids are notable for some of the most fascinatingly experimental misses in comedy history. One bit that stands out is a short film featuring McKinney in a cycle of waking from dreams in bed with different people until he finally wakes up next to some peaches. How confident must a comedy team be to include such an involved non-sequitur (or at least, what seems like a non-sequitur; any interpretations of this sketch are welcome) not only in their first season, but early in their first season?
More accessible and recognizable Kids routines show up in this season as well: McKinney’s “crushing your head” man; McCulloch’s vulgar cabbage-head; Thompson’s flamingly caustic monologist Buddy Cole. The DVD set includes solos (monologues from all), duets (Foley and McDonald’s Citizen Kane argument), and brilliant full-group performances (all five play poker and discuss how they’d really like to experience menstruation).
Although the Kids came together in specific, vaudeville-style pairings — Foley with McDonald, McKinney with McCulloch — everyone displays flexible “chemistry.” McDonald in particular is lauded by his colleagues for his ability to make anything funny, as in a sketch where he plays a harassed diner worker opposite McKinney’s oddly ’50s-style tough. No Kids sketch depends on just one joke, unlike so many SNL bits.
Just as the Kids echo Monty Python (not the least in their talent and enthusiasm for cross-dressing), this DVD set is instructive in the ways a cult show can influence both the mainstream and the underground, from some of the admirably strange impulses of Saturday Night Live (where McKinney did eventually and briefly find a home in the mid-’90s) and Newsradio, an NBC sitcom on which Foley starred and, even as straight man, imparted a certain surreal Kids-like aesthetic; to recent troupe-driven cult films like Wet Hot American Summer and the burgeoning experiments in improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Manhattan. There have even been a few recent Kids in the Hall reunion tours, and talk of a second feature film. Longer-lasting than some of their musical counterparts, the Kids continue to rock on.