Time Only Makes the Cult Grow Stronger: Kids in the Hall’s ‘Brain Candy’

Brain Candy is considered the "darkest" chapter in Kids in the Hall's story. But dark is a part of their comedy and their appeal, so now's a good time to look at this film in a new light.

In 1994, Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall had just finished their successful sketch comedy show, Kids in the Hall. Their original characters, their clever lines and groundbreaking themes, and their ability to play realistic women (along with their willingness to kiss each other) surely meant they would go down in comedy history. (The kissing thing might have just been me, but I don’t think I’m alone in my admiration.)

So naturally it would make sense that they would carry that success on to a feature film. In 1996, they unleashed Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy, the story of a pharmaceutical company that creates the world’s greatest antidepressant. Like the show, it relied on the troupe members playing multiple roles (many of them women), and some of the show’s characters even made appearances. It was in parts satirical, in parts utterly silly, and also featured an excellent soundtrack — all things that had made the show great.

And yet, it pretty much bombed.

It was a box office bust, and most (but not all) reviews were quite harsh. Siskel & Ebert had a “wildly” split vote, with Gene Siskel defending it to Roger Ebert, who did not mince his words: “I did not laugh once, I thought this movie was awful, dreadful, terrible, stupid, idiotic, unfunny, laboured, forced, painful, bad.” He didn’t even want to finish their conversation about it.

There were numerous reasons given for where it all went wrong. One review said it was just a “sloppy showcase for the group’s costume-changing tricks” (Janet Maslin, “Cross-Dressing and Happiness Pills“, The New York Times, 12 August 1996) while others found the plot line problematic. Some thought it was too limiting while Entertainment Weekly thought the story had potential but was spoiled by the Kids’ “smug, toothless camp” and gave the film an “F” (Owen Gleiberman, “Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy“, Entertainment Weekly, 19 April 1996). Ouch.

The Kids themselves had their own issues with it. Dave Foley said the writing process was a disaster: “the way we made Brain Candy was not the way we should have made a movie … we wound up in a situation where we had a production date to start, but we really didn’t have a script, even though we’d been trying to write it for months and months” (Tasha Robinson, “The Kids in the Hall, part 1“, The A.V. Club, 30 June 2004). Mark McKinney agreed: “I look at the plot, which was a very complicated, Ealing Studio comedy plot, like one of those old Richard Attenborough comedies with Alec Guinness. We invented a world, a problem in the world that had almost crime-drama sort of consequences, and was a hard thing to write with five people” (Tasha Robinson, “The Kids in the Hall, part 2“, The A.V. Club, 7 July 2004).

Interestingly, of the five names given screenwriting credits, Foley’s name does not appear (Norm Hiscock’s was the fifth). In the middle of writing it, Foley quit the troupe, yet another strike against Brain Candy‘s success. Foley was, however, contractually obliged to be in the film, so his manager came equipped with a list of his demands (no dressing in drag was one of them). Kevin McDonald quite poignantly discussed (and took the blame) for the disintegration:

Well, I’m the one that caused it … one of the things [Foley’s] manager said is, “He won’t do the movie if Kevin tries to talk to him about anything.” That was one of the provisions, and I had to agree that during the movie I wouldn’t talk about what we were going through … Dave and I were the best friends in the world, and suddenly we weren’t talking. So the first day we ever shot of the movie, there were several big talking scenes the whole day between Dave and I, and for the first time ever there was no chemistry between us … It was the first day of shooting and I thought, “Oh, what an omen. This is going to be a horrible movie.” Dave and I — the best comedy team of the five of us, in my opinion — couldn’t do anything comically right. It was stilted. We were both trying, but it was pretty stiff. (Sean O’Neal, “Random Roles: Kevin McDonald“, The A.V. Club, 20 August 2010)

And then, of course, there was Cancer Boy.

Cancer Boy was a character who had made a brief appearance in the sketch show — in the final episode in fact, as part of a selection of sketches McDonald and Foley claimed had been censored by the network. In Brain Candy, Cancer Boy appears twice. The character, played by McCulloch, is pretty much what his name implies, a boy suffering with cancer who, thanks to the antidepressant, now has happier parents and eventually goes on to star in his own music video. The New York Times review cited Cancer Boy as the film’s worst character and an example of “atrocious taste” (ibid. Maslin at The New York Times). The studio had wanted Cancer Boy cut, but the troupe fought for him to stay in. McKinney felt that fight cost them the studio’s goodwill, but McCulloch has said the real cost was the slashed advertising budget they received (ibid. Robinson at The A.V. Club).

The film was definitely marketed toward those who were already fans. The trailer includes the line “If you know them, you know what to expect. If you don’t, we apologise in advance” and oddly features a number of deleted scenes. The movie opens with shots of unhappiness, not misery per se, just the normal kind of unhappiness: a grumpy cab driver, angsty teens at a rock concert, a closeted man, a couple breaking up — daily, recognisable sadnesses (some played out by recognisable Kids in the Hall characters).

We then meet Dr. Chris Cooper (McDonald) and his colleagues in the lab who may have just discovered an effective medication for depression. Cooper’s motivation for his research was his father’s own suicide (it took him over two hours and multiple gunshots to successfully complete the job), but his greedy boss (McKinney) doesn’t have time for Cooper’s lab to complete the needed tests and pressures him into taking it to market. It starts making everyone happy, and Cooper is quickly seduced by the glitz and glamour (and opportunity to lose his virginity) that his new fame brings him.

Then we discover the drug’s eventual side effect, a ‘gleecoma’ that leaves a person stuck forever in their happiest memory. Cooper realises his mistake and works to right this wrong, but in the end, everyone is happier with the comas than with real life — except for the grumpy cab driver who never took the pill and Cooper and his lab assistants, working underground to bring misery back to the world. (There was an alternative ending, available on the web, which was even bleaker: when Cooper sees he can’t change what he’s done, he voluntarily takes the pill himself and spends the rest of his life just relieving that moment when he thought he’d discover something that could have saved people like his father.)

When I first saw the film, I enjoyed it, mainly because it was essentially a feature-length version of a Kids in the Hall sketch, and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the troupe just yet. I was a card-carrying Kids in the Hall enthusiast, and so the reviews worried me. Was a poorly received film going to be their final legacy?

No, obviously. Of course not.

In 2000, the group reformed for a North American tour (documented in the film Same Guys, New Dresses) and reunited again in 2002 (their Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver show was recorded as Tour of Duty). In 2007 they debuted new material at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival and did another major tour the following year. In 2014, they performed a series of shows called “Rusty and Ready” in Toronto, which led to a short American tour in the summer of 2015. They were also guests at Tenacious D’s Festival Supreme in October 2015. Whether revisiting old sketches or doing new material, the Kids have kept their stand-up audiences satisfied.

They finally returned to our TV screens in 2010’s Death Comes to Town, an eight episode CBC series. Although they again all played multiple characters (including many women), this show differed from the original series because it was based on a longer narrative: the town of Shuckton searches for the mayor’s murderer. It was classic Kids in the Hall: dark and funny, silly and sharp.

Life Goes On

Individually as well, all the Kids have thrived. Dave Foley was the first to really ‘break out’ — his role on NewsRadio made him recognisable to American mainstream comedy fans. Although most Kids in the Hall fans always considered him ‘the cute one’, with his NewsRadio character’s relationship with a co-worker, he was now proper romantic material (which may explain his reluctance to appear in drag in Brain Candy).

NewsRadio ended in 1999, and since then he’s continued to appear on television, in individual episodes of major sitcoms like King of Queens and How I Met Your Mother as well as recurring roles on Will & Grace and Hot in Cleveland. In 2014, he became the star of CTV’s sitcom Spun Out (one episode, Middle Aged Men in the Hall, included the other four Kids as guests). Though Foley was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Continuing Leading Comedic Role at both the 2015 and 2016 Canadian Screen Awards, the future of Spun Out is a little foggy. Foley is now also part of the main cast of Ken Jeong’s Dr. Ken.

Like his now-friends-again writing partner Foley, Kevin McDonald has also been all over the television. In addition to one-off appearances on shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and Arrested Development and a recurring role on That 70s Show, McDonald has also done voice work on animated shows and films. In 2011, he was a writer and star of the web series Papillon, and he currently can be seen in Delmer & Marta, which debuted March 2016 on APTN. In addition to acting, he’s still a working comedian: in 2006 he hosted Sketch with Kevin McDonald on CBC, which won a Canadian Comedy Award; his one man show Hammy and the Kids in 2010 met with critical success; and he continues to tour and lead comedy workshops.

Mark McKinney’s portfolio has expanded to both comedy and drama, in front of and behind the camera. He’s done some theatre and films (ranging from Guy Maddin’s 2003 The Saddest Music in the World, Maddin’s first collaboration with Isabella Rossellini, to yes, the Spice Girls’ Spiceworld). McKinney was a co-creator and co-writer of Slings and Arrows, a gem of a series on Canadian television. In addition to his behind-the-scenes work, he also had a role in the show, which was about a fictional Shakespeare festival, with each of its three seasons focusing on a different play (Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear). It was both comic and tragic, and extremely clever, winning multiple awards through its run (McKinney himself won a Gemini Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role in 2006).

He kept writing before eventually adding directing and executive producing to his resume. He’s appeared in both seasons of FX’s Man Seeking Woman (McDonald and Thompson have also stopped by for an episode each), and he’s now part of the ensemble cast of NBC’s Superstore, which premiered in November 2015 and has recently been renewed for a second season. It’s a show with much potential and allows McKinney to do what he does best, totally immerse himself into a character — in this case, the relentlessly positive and slightly naive Glenn, the store’s manager, a man likely to end up curled up and whimpering in a corner were he ever to encounter the Chicken Lady or the Headcrusher, two of McKinney’s most popular KITH characters.

After doing two music/comedy albums, Bruce McCulloch also moved into writing and directing. He won a MuchMusic Video Award for Best Director for his Tragically Hip video, “My Music at Work”. (Foley and McDonald also have music video connections: Foley’s appeared in a few including in his purple underpants in Hollerado’s “Americanarama”, and McDonald was in OutKast’s “Roses” video). McCullough also directed the 1999 SNL spinoff film Superstar, featuring Molly Shannon’s character, Mary Katherine Gallagher. He created Carpoolers which ran on NBC from 2007-2008. He also created and stars in Young Drunk Punk, a coming of age story set in early ’80s Calgary, which earlier this year received seven Canadian Screen Award nominations, including one for best comedy series. In 2015, he published Let’s Start a Riot: How A Young Drunk Punk Became a Hollywood Parent, a collection of personal stories.

Scott Thompson has also branched out into multiple genres. He published the autobiography of his camp, monologue-loving character Buddy Cole in 1998 and wrote The Hollow Planet, a graphic novel based on another one of his characters, Danny Husk, in 2010. He’s been seen consistently on American and Canadian TV, appearing on The Larry Sanders Show, My Fabulous Gay Wedding, and Reno 911!. In 2013, he threw his comedy fans for a loop by becoming part of the cast of the psychological thriller series Hannibal, on which he played Special Agent Jimmy Price. I do wonder what his new fans thought when Buddy Cole returned to television, appearing on The Colbert Report to flamboyantly cover the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Recently Thompson and Paul Bellini brought their ’80s art-punk band Mouth Congress back to life, uploading 15 albums on Bandcamp last September and doing their first show in 24 years at the Rivoli in Toronto in February 2016.

Brain Candy didn’t ruin the Kids’ careers or comedic legacy. Not one tiny bit.

Quite frankly, I love these five men. I love them each in different ways, and my love for them over the years has changed as we’ve all grown up, but in no way has it diminished. Kids in the Hall was one of the greatest sketch shows ever, and any comedy fan who doesn’t know most sketches by heart should be ashamed of themselves. Seriously, what have you been doing with your life? I have rewatched that series so many times, laughing aloud in anticipation of the brilliant line or look (or kiss) I know is coming. I get re-amazed at some of the boundaries they pushed and seduced by the stories they wove as I waver between favourites (right now “Impulsive” wins my best short film, “Montreal” is my preferred Buddy Cole monologue, and my pants-wetting classic line comes from “Katnapped” when Kevin McDonald’s rich, middle-aged Mrs. King tells her young cabana boy, “The only thing you’re good for is fucking”). I will sit and go over and over the episodes with anyone willing to do so with me, and if no one’s available, I’ll do it on my own.

Because I am a Kids in the Hall cult member. I love that show, and I kind of even love Brain Candy, too.

Bruce McCulloch called Brain Candy the troupe’s “darkest chapter”, but the passage of time has eased any disappointment true fans might have felt. In 2009 the A.V. Club‘s Nathan Rabin took a look at the film again as part of his “My Year of Flops” series. He rated it a ‘Secret Success’ for its historical reflection of the time period as well as its black comedy approach to the message that “To remove suffering and pain from the human equation is to remove much of what makes us human” (Nathan Rabin, “Happy Happy, Joy Joy Case File #134“, The A.V. Club, 1 April 2009).

Time seems to have soothed the Kids’ souls regarding the film, as well. In 2014, McCulloch said: “As my pretty wife says, everything we touch turns to cult … the last time we toured America, which was I guess six years ago now, there was a lot of people coming up to us and talking about Brain Candy. And I even noticed a lot of people in my life who really like Brain Candy and who aren’t really Kids in the Hall fans. So I find that interesting, because it’s obviously us and the humour is like us, but it’s somehow like a weird album we did on a riverboat or something”.

That same year, the Kids did a live read of the movie’s script as part of the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival. The performance was sold-out. When McCulloch was asked if he’d do the film differently now, he said, “I stand by all the stupid decisions we made… I love us for that, the pure artistic stupidity of saying, let’s just keep writing this weird thing. So no, I don’t have any regrets … It all worked out the way it should have” (Noah Love, “The Kids in the Hall Prepare to Revisit their ‘Darkest Chapter’ with Brain Candy live read in Toronto”, National Post, 11 March 2014).

Looking at Brain Candy now allows us the distance to appreciate it for what it was: just another chapter in the book of Kids in the Hall. Perhaps it was a dark one, but dark has always been a part of their comedy and part of their cult appeal. It’s worth another view, as we wait to see what the next chapter will hold.

If you still don’t like it, that’s okay, too. As Dr. Cooper’s speech at the end of the film reminds us: “You can’t be happy all the time. That’s life.”