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.

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