"I don't think we can do 'Farmers on Heroin,'" says Bruce McCulloch, sounding a bit glum.
"Can't do 'Running Faggot,'" adds Scott Thompson. The other Kids in the Hall murmur general assent.
The usually cocky five-young-man comedy troupe from Toronto seems befuddled. It's the afternoon of Groundhog Day, February 2nd, 1988, and the Kids, appearing live on a New York radio show, have been asked by host Alan Colmes to perform something on the air. Lack of material isn't the problem: During almost four years of intermittently brilliant cabaret shows in Canada (and a few months in New York), they've developed an astounding 140 offbeat sketches.
But now, huddled around the studio microphone, they have to decide what would work without benefit of visuals before a large, unseen, mainstream audience – an audience they'll soon be courting, thanks to a long-term development deal with co-Canadian Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, who's dubbed them "the Monty Python of the Eighties." Michaels and his employee, Joe Forristal, helped arrange the Kids' visas, flew them to New York, furnished them with apartments, gave them office space in the Brill Building, paid each one $150 weekly spending money, set up gigs at Caroline's (the city's slickest comedy club) and negotiated a $400,000, hour-long Kids in the Hall special on HBO.
The problem in selecting a sketch for radio is that the Kids' humor is far removed from that of the current rash of easy-quip stand-up comics. The Kids – who all look about 21, though their ages range from 25 to 29 – take their time and don't deliver big knee slappers; individual lines are less important than the concepts, keen observation and disciplined, confident acting. Their humor is not topical, cynical or shock oriented but insightful, gentle, generous – and subversive.
Like Monty Python's, the Kids' sketches begin with an absurd premise, but they're not outrageous for outrageousness' sake; they craft provocative, lyrical performance pieces that showcase their strikingly varied physical types and acting approaches. Many Kids sketches penetrate the psychological intricacies of relationships, like the one in which two lawyers negotiate a couple's courtship and sexual relations and the one in which a man with a cabbage for a head brazenly uses self-pity to bully his date into sleeping with him. The Kids excel at taking familiar situations and rendering them bizarre: In a sketch called "Can I Keep Him?" a boy brings home a stray businessman he finds on the street. Nothing is sacred: In "The Dr. Seuss Bible," the Kids wear cartoon-colored garb and act out the story of Jesus, complete with crucifixion, to mirthful gibberish rhyme. As titles like "Running Faggot" suggest, the group is one of the first to scout the demilitarized comedy zone of homosexuality. The Kids all play women flawlessly, and their shows exude a perverse androgyny. (One of them is gay; two are dyslexic.)
"Why don't we just mention what the sketches are," Colmes, frustrated, is saying now, "and let the audience just enjoy the concepts?" Finally, Bruce, Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald decide to perform the one in which they play construction workers ogling girls but turn the stereotype inside out, trading on-color remarks like "I'd like to meet her parents!"
"You know what I'd like to do to her, guys?" says Bruce's character at one point. "Take her out to a little black-and-white foreign film."
"The kind with subtitles?" asks Kevin.
"Oui, mon-sewer", Bruce replies smarmily. "And then afterwards I'd drive her home, if you know what I mean, and I wouldn't leave her house until – until I saw her safely in the door."
"Ow! Love monkey!" And so on.
The sketch, which sets theaters into hysterics, sounds odd and flat without a live audience. So afterward Colmes asks listeners to call in with responses, and the switchboard blazes. In New York everyone's a critic. Many callers just growl, "You suck, jerks," and hang up. One makes a raspberry; another, a death threat. One sings, "Lady of Spain, I adore you!" Another screams, "Graahhh!" and hangs up.
"The hang-ups need to be more specific," says Bruce. But the Kids are somewhat shaken. When one listener calls the characters "dinosaurs, like from the Fifties," the Kids exchange a horrified look – that's what they have always said about everybody else's sketches.
"It's great," says Colmes, in an attempt to be jovial, "that people give you such a nice, warm welcome in New York."
"Actually," Dave replies, "I feel a real affinity with, say, the Italian immigrants at the turn of the century."
Is America ready for the Kids in the Hall? At first, the answer seemed to be no. Last October, when the Kids performed for their first paying New York audience at Times Square's West Bank Cafe, they were virtually booed off the stage. In the offending sketch, Scott played a middle-aged woman delivering a funny, compassionate monologue about learning that her son is gay. The pathos was given an edge by the presence of her silent husband (played by Bruce), who sat staring forward while behind him their son (Dave) and his friends (Kevin and Mark McKinney) acted out his worst fears: by the end, he was imagining Kevin and Dave skipping around the stage with a confetti-filled bucket labeled "AIDS," sprinkling confetti everywhere.
Too far, yes – they've since changed the ending – but the Kids' stuff is decidedly different, exposing and challenging their audiences' prejudices. In the Rivoli club, on Toronto's trendy Queen Street, where the Kids had been the Monday night "house band," audiences had cheered the sketch. But New York was not amused.
"It was very important to HBO that the Kids not be perceived as a Canadian act," says Lorne Michaels. "My feeling was since I was doing SNL, it would be easier for me if they were here. I also thought that in Toronto they were just a block or two short of complacency. There's nothing like New York to strike terror into the heart of a performer."
So the Kids bunked down in the comedy boot camp that Michaels organized for them, a modern-day version of Hollywood's old studio system. Work – when they were doing any – took place in a windowless office in the Brill Building, just down the hall from Michaels's. They'd workshop ideas, script their HBO show and exhume old sketches from videotapes of Toronto shows. They'd spend daily five-hour sessions in a Hell's Kitchen studio with veteran theater director John Ferraro, honing their performance skills, tightening flabby material and collating sketches into an hour-long stage show that they'd perform two or three nights a week, developing them for TV.
Mark and Bruce had already experienced Michaels's fast-track modus operandi when they were apprentice writers on Saturday Night Live during the 1985-86 season, but this new regimen was antithetical to the way the Kids usually operated. In Toronto, they had put on shows in slapdash spurts, meeting only a few days beforehand to "shpritz" ideas for new material. "The nice thing about Canada is that people work because they want to," says Bruce, 27. "There aren't casting directors at Yuk Yuk's [a Canadian-based chain of comedy clubs] every night looking for people like in the States. That's why we could develop untouched. If we'd tried to develop in the States, we would've been inundated by offers way too early, and doing something on a sitcom might've meant something to someone."
They formed through the 1984 merger of Mark and Bruce's Calgary troupe, known as the Audience, and Kevin and Dave's Toronto group, the Kids in the Hall. (Scott, the eldest Kid and the only university graduate of the bunch, was an out-of-work actor when he joined in late 1984.)
They developed their sensibility "by being really arrogant," says Dave, 25, the youngest, most clean-cut Kid. "We liked ourselves more than we liked anyone else. And no one liked us – we were thought of as 'that unprofessional group that jerks off onstage,' because it looked disorganized, and to a great extent it was. The shows were pretty horrible. Long hauls, two, three hours with maybe one good piece."
The group took its name from the days of radio, when aspiring writers would line the hall outside Jack Benny's studio and wait for him to emerge so that they could pitch jokes. If he liked a joke, he'd use it and give them five dollars; those writers were known as the Kids in the Hall.
When Ferraro first saw the Kids perform in New York, he was intrigued. "Sketch comedy was mined out for me a long time ago," he says. "Done to death. Two guys on a rowboat in a sewer trying to find an exit? You've seen it a million times. But the Kids aren't following anybody: It's perverse, bizarre. The whole structure is new, sort of like jazz, with a Sixties-like conscience."
So the Kids' mandate in New York was not to change but to get better; they suddenly had to perform all the time (almost always with someone important in the audience), produce material on demand and work together day in, day out. "First I hated it, then got used to it," says Kevin, 26, the sweet, stray-puppy Kid with the high, cartoonish voice. "Like a surgeon seeing blood all the time."
"People like to perceive us as guys who go everywhere together," says Bruce. "We are close and really like – even love – each other, but we still are five separate men. Being in New York made us like – I wouldn't say the Monkees, but…"
The claustrophobic setup was part of Michaels's master plan. "I see the Kids as in a state of becoming," he says. "And one of the things I thought was so charming about SCTV was the years the cast spent in Calgary, with nothing to do but to talk to each other. I think the more idiosyncratic aspects of their comedy came to flower then."
The first time Michaels saw the Kids perform, in Toronto the summer after Bruce and Mark's stint at SNL, the Kids put on a dauntingly long show because everyone wanted to shine. At one point, they were interrupted by a woman who jumped onstage and stood on her head, her skirt falling over her head to reveal her underwear. "Lorne Michaels!" she cried. "I know you're in the audience! Pick me. I'd be very funny on your show!" She then began reciting poetry. Scott, ad-libbing brilliantly, yelled, "Get the fuck off the stage!"
Despite the hubbub, Michaels was impressed; he took the Kids out to an after-hours club and held forth, as is his style, into the night. "I was very taken with what they do," says Michaels. "They had a strong sense of history and various styles that had already been done – just like a music group starting out now would have to acknowledge the existence of 30 years of rock & roll. I thought they were particularly engaging as performers, and I also thought they were of a piece: You looked at them, and they all seemed to be in the same group. If you take one or two away, you destroy it."
A few weeks later, he told the Kids he wanted to develop a show with them "right away," but he defined that oddly. He told Pamela Thomas (the Canadian casting director who'd discovered them), who was then pregnant, "By the time we film the Kids' show, your baby'll be talking."
The Kids' overnight success was postponed for months. Michaels first saw them in the summer of 1986; getting to New York took so long that they at first didn't appreciate their good fortune. "By the time we actually got on the plane," says Dave, "it wasn't 'Wow, we're going to New York – Broadway!' It was more 'Finally we're on the plane!'"
So for the first several weeks, the Kids were naughty. Instead of writing new material, they would go out every night, watch a lot of TV, get up at noon, stumble in to rehearsals late, complain about sore limbs, demand things like humidifiers and run up huge phone bills. "These guys were on a Barbie dream vacation," says Forristal.
"Bringing us down was a miraculous idea," says Mark, 28, the troupe's most gonzo deviser of characters and most vociferous negotiator with higher-ups. "Usually someone just shows up, says, 'Okay, you're doing a show,' then bang! It was pretty neat that Lorne invested in us – though the execution could've been a bit smoother."
Ferraro first tried to organize the stage show around a single theme, the suburbs. He had the Kids perform the same 10 sketches over and over. He was trying to perfect the sketches; in the process he nearly killed them.
"At that point, I didn't feel that the people in charge of us understood what we were about," says Scott, 29. "We get a real charge from doing new things, things we're not really sure about. Most of our scenes are written on our feet. You just find it in front of an audience, which is really exciting – and you can really bomb. But we were at Caroline's, which is such a Mecca I guess nobody wanted to risk that there."
"Caroline's is the wrong place for the Kids," says Forristal. "But I was looking for reviews, and I see reviews there more than anyplace else. I was told, 'Bring them to New York, turn them into the Beatles, and we'll shoot 'em.' They needed to develop a cult following in six months; that took years on Queen Street." Besides, when Forristal tried contacting more avant-garde places, like La Mama, mentioning an impending HBO special proved a real turnoff.
This raises a troublesome aspect of the Kids' good fortune: By virtue of their association with Michaels, they're unknowns forced to operate on high-profile levels. Michaels prides himself on being a beneficent "dad" to a whole generation of comedy people, including the original SNL crew, Steve Martin and Penn and Teller. "The Kids have never had a dad," says Forristal, "and they're a very insulated group. They've never not had the decision-making role." And when you're trying to be renegades, having a mentor – even a sympathetic, seasoned and powerful one – can have its drawbacks.
"Lorne is very loquacious and persuasive," says Mark, "and he has a lot of experience. He might have too much experience. We don't want to come to TV fully formed. We want to find our own niche. Comedy troupes will have shows that are down and up; I hope we have a whole bunch of shitty shows in our future. If you achieve a straight line on the graph, you're dead."
"Water-skiing in the Brill Building!" Kevin yells goofily. It's a Friday afternoon in February, and he's in his stocking feet, holding on to the back of Scott's bulky sweater, being dragged around on the tile floor. "Just drink," he says. "This is where Carole King wrote 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow?' and I'm water-skiing!"
It's also where the Kids are supposed to be slaving away at the show that will make them stars, and right now they're procrastinating. Scott tows Kevin into the Kids' spacious, industrial-looking office, which they're sharing with the accountants working for Broadway Video, Michaels's production company. There are exposed air ducts overhead and posters of Bruce Lee and Boy George on the wall. Tacked to a bulletin board are index cards listing ideas for the HBO show. A filing cabinet holds printouts of sketches with names like "Stinky Pink" and "Go for Guilt," which the Kids have been typing into a Macintosh computer.
"Where's our comedy paper?" asks Dave, looking for a yellow legal pad. Unable to find any, he dictates to Mark, who sits staring at the computer screen through his oversize glasses. "All I have is a title," Dave says. "'The Sad Clown Who Couldn't Frown.'"
"Dave and Mark are the computer geeks," Kevin says, "and Bruce, Scott and I are the Vikings" – meaning they still use good old pen and paper. When writing, the Kids team up in any and all combinations, filling in gaps like a rock band arranging a song. "I feel like a hockey referee," Ferraro says. "I let them go at each other, because, as with a band, people need to do that. Then, if the gloves come off, I say, 'Okay, okay, get off each other.'"
"There's not a lot of trust in the troupe," says Dave, "just a lot of concession."
Dave, the troupe's sole Toronto native, is its comedy encyclopedia; his influences include the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and Green Acres. At 18 he dropped out of an alternative high school and started doing some unpaid stand-up gigs. He enrolled in an improv class at Toronto's Second City, where he met Montreal-born Kevin McDonald, a "comedy junkie" whose influences ran more to Get Smart and Saturday Night Live. Kevin had just been kicked out of acting school because he was only good at comedy. "I always thought I'd be Montgomery Clift," Kevin says, "which is weird, because I was 250 pounds." (He's now a svelte 145.)
Kevin and Dave eventually started appearing at the Rivoli, using the name the Kids in the Hall. They performed sketches like "Gustav the Fern-Slayer" and one in which a businessman quits his job and moves to the woods to become a beaver. "The biggest mistake we made," says Kevin, "was calling ourselves Kids, because everyone could say, 'Oh, those spoiled Kids!'"
"Nobody wants to do 'Asshole,' right?" says Ferraro.
"We'd love to do it," says Scott. "But it's the hardest piece we do; we'd have to rehearse it three days solid."
"I'd love to see you do 'Cause of Cancer,'" says Ferraro. The Kids are silent.
"We have to put on an important show," Mark finally says, to no one in particular. It's an afternoon near the end of February, the Kids' last week in New York; they're alternately pacing and lounging in their rehearsal studio, preparing the running order for their last Caroline's appearances.
They've gone through this process many times before, but today the mood is tense, because these shows are crucial. In attendance will be representatives of HBO, Broadway Video and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (which will probably coproduce the TV show), not to mention everyone the Kids know in New York, all expecting great results from the comedy boot camp.
To compound the pressure, before the Kids leave town, they also have to hand in a second draft of the HBO script and finish writing a short film Michaels is going to let them do on SNL. The tension has been mounting throughout the sleepless week, and the Kids are beginning to jockey for onstage time.
Ferraro has them run through a bit titled "Romeo," in which Bruce plays a teenager with a hankering for little old ladies. The sketch's ending seems out of whack, and they spend a half hour running through dozens of possible fixes. They try adding a new character. "Too many twists," says Ferraro. Bruce says, "We should put on rock music, and I air-guitar out of it: 'All right!'"
"No," Mark says matter-of-factly. "That's a cop-out. End the scene." Though power in the group is distributed equally, Mark and Bruce, the SNL veterans, exude the most confidence as writers, and the others seem ready to defer.
In contrast to the other Kids' more mundane backgrounds, Mark McKinney is the son of a Canadian diplomat. Born in Ottawa, he spent his childhood variously in Denmark, Trinidad, Paris and Washington, D.C. A self-described "maladjusted, nervous" child whose sensibility was shaped by Mad magazine, he dropped out of college after two semesters and wound up in Calgary. There he started appearing in Theatre Sports, a team improv competition, and met Bruce McCulloch. They formed a team called the Audience and soon began writing a new show every week. They specialized in high-concept bits like beating up actual fruit with a baseball bat and going onstage naked and declaring, "I'm not just naked – I'm naked for Jesus."
Bruce, born in Edmonton, claims to be the only Kid with no real comedy heroes, though he does grudgingly cite Daffy Duck, Woody Allen and the Who as influences. Lorne Michaels has said, "Bruce knows exactly what he wants and will walk over hot coals to get it."
When Scott joined the other four, in late 1984, the Kids found their voice. One of his first sketches, a parody of the commercial that pits Stove Top stuffing against potatoes, was called "The Rectum-Vagina Challenge." But more important, he inspired them to improve their acting. The Kids worked with a director, played a real theater and got a rave in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
So when Canadian casting agent Pam Thomas was scouting for talent for Lorne Michaels, who was returning to Saturday Night Live, she went to see the Kids' show. She quickly called in SNL co-producers Al Franken and Tom Davis and head writer Jim Downey (as well as Pam's husband, SCTV veteran Dave Thomas), for whom the Kids put on a private lunch-time performance in the Rivoli.
"It was a heady time," says Mark. "No one had ever paid any attention to us. Everyone was very excited and disturbed at the same time." Mark and Bruce, at that point the most experienced writers, were flown to New York and hired. "It was heartbreaking," says Kevin. "We all thought the troupe was splitting up," says Dave.
Things started happening back home, too, thanks to the hype waves of the SNL audition. Dave was cast as the lead in a low-budget movie called High Stakes, and Scott and Kevin were asked to join Second City's touring company.
The night before Madonna hosted the season's first SNL show, all five of them hooked up on a conference call. "We all pretended to be fantastically successful and sipping champagne," says Mark. "We must've sounded hateful: 'Are you there in Vancouver, Dave, making your movie?' 'Yes, I am.' 'How are things at Second City, Scott and Kevin?' 'Well, Kevin signs next week.' 'How's Madonna in New York?' 'Madonna's fine, we're getting along famously!'"
But the flush of success drained quickly. The Kids in Second City found themselves performing decade-old sketches at lawyers' conventions and bars full of drugged-out bikers; back in New York, Bruce and Mark were having a similarly frustrating experience, mostly contributing bits for running characters like the Liar, the Master Thespian and Pat Stevens.
At Christmas break, the Kids all got together for some shows at the Rivoli. "It was," says Bruce, "like putting on old comfortable shoes after wearing a tuxedo."
"Dan," Lorne Michaels is saying to Dan Aykroyd, "these are the Kids in the Hall. They're Canadian." It's February 12th, and the Kids are in Michaels's office to have a meeting with him about the first draft of their HBO script. It's the week Aykroyd is making a cameo on SNL as Robert Dole, and he has stopped in to socialize. The Kids are all dumbstruck, and Aykroyd, who is shy himself, says, "What's your common enterprise, boys?"
"Comedy, sir," says Mark.
Soon Aykroyd and Michaels are discussing Donald Trump's attempt to buy MCA. They wander out of the office, leaving the Kids to toy with a plate of sushi.
"Lorne seemed to like the script," Kevin later says about the meeting. "He was really vague. It was specific hates and vague likes." Michaels suggested they put the last sketch first and mix up the content a bit more. And that was that.
As it turns out, during the Kids' five months in New York, they have only three meetings with their "dad"; the meetings consist mostly of his expounding various theories and discussing the structure of the show – filmed and live bits, all played for a live audience. He sees only three of the stage shows. Ferraro says he received no directives from Michaels other than to work with the Kids. "It's been very organic," he says, "like a Montessori school or something. They know not to mess with the process."
"Lorne's like a really rich parent who leaves the care of the children to a nanny," says Scott. "He really doesn't have much to do with raising us; he just occasionally peeks in and kisses us on the cheek and reads us a goodnight story." The Kids, usually so hardheaded about outside input, seem for once like neglected children.
"We only have $6 million on the line tonight," Kevin tells his girlfriend. It's Friday night, the Kids' last show at Caroline's, and they know it's essential to impress the shiny pseudo-downtown club's overflow crowd, which includes most of the Broadway Video staff (except Michaels, toiling on SNL), their William Morris agent and HBO chief Michael Fuchs.
They're given an extra boost just before they go on, when Forristal gives each an additional $1,500 in advance money for their trip home. Some of them have it in their pockets onstage.
The houselights dim, a guitar instrumental pounds over the sound system, and the stage lights come up on all five Kids leaning against the back wall, drinking beers, reminiscing about Reg, a friend who recently died. The audience is ready to laugh, but the Kids take their time and build.
"It seems like it was only yesterday we were just kids, hanging out, getting Slurpys," Dave says wistfully. "Next thing you know, we all have jobs." The others grunt in agreement.
"And girlfriends," says Kevin.
"Next thing you know, they're moving in with you." "Next thing you know," says Bruce forlornly, "you're out buying piano wire – good, strong piano wire – and sneaking up on old Reg while he reads." The audience, at first taken aback, begins to catch on.
"Jobs become careers," says Dave.
"Girlfriends become wives," says Kevin.
"And Reg becomes a lifeless corpse in your arms," says Bruce. "One last pfft – and that's all she wrote, sister!"
"Kind of makes you think of the fragility of human life, don't it?" says Scott.
"Not really," says Mark. "Remember how he fought back?"
"Easy to beat up," says Dave, "hard to kill." Though the lines are funny, it's the acting, the carefully calipered swing from naiveté to blithe evil, that makes the bit come across. By its end, when the Kids raise their beers in a toast to the late Reg, the audience is sold.
The rest of the show goes just as well; the Kids even pull off a risky closing sketch, the outrageous "Seuss Bible," with Scott in a purple loincloth on a cartoon cross. The crowd eats it up; HBO's Fuchs exclaims that he thinks the stage show would be better on TV. Afterward there's a party at a small restaurant in Greenwich Village, and the Kids seem exhausted, jubilant, relieved but sad that their camp is closing down. They head back home to Canada.
After the kids have been back in Toronto for a month, their inertia has made them anxious. Their SNL film has been put on hold because of the Writers Guild strike, and word from New York regarding the TV special keeps changing. At first, HBO wanted an on-location, basically filming the club act, but soon everyone realized that the Kids wouldn't fit that format; they will add filmed bits.
But Michaels wanted to hold out for an additional commitment to a pilot and a long-term series of half-hour shows. "The Kids need a gestation period," he says. "Somebody to put them on the air and let them be bad, the way SNL was allowed to be bad for its first year." HBO is balking, wanting to see what the first hour is like. Now the Kids are waiting to find out when they can film.
The Kids have ambitions to do it all – movies, solo projects. Scott has a beat-box band called Mouth Congress; Kevin has been contacted to audition to be the voice of Babar in an animated cartoon. For now, everyone's main concern is to get the HBO show on the air. "We want it to be done right," says Bruce. "Even if it's good, it'll be great, because nothing on TV's that good. It's easier to botch it than to make it great; a lot of really good intentions just get worse and worse with more money and people, just get watered down."
For now, the five guys who may change the face of comedy sit in five Toronto apartments, waiting.