Viewers before them had first-generation “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV.” But five Canadian lads turned out to be “kind of the only comedy group that reflected Gen X,” as fan Fred Armisen puts it in “The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks.” Reg Harkema’s documentary is a breezy, worthy overview of a collective career now approaching its 40th anniversary.
While best enjoyed by the already converted, it provides enough showbiz insight and interpersonal drama to entertain newbies. It will provide both camps with an appetizer for the Kids’ limited-run reboot of their original sketch series, which new episodes (featuring an array of name guest stars) launch May 13 on Amazon Prime, followed by this doc a week later (on May 20).
While all in their early twenties, Mark McKinney and Bruce McCulloch met in 1981 via a Calgary comedy-improv group, as did Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald in Toronto the next year. By 1984 the two units had heard enough about each other to meet up, then begin performing under the “Kids” name (borrowed from Jack Benny patter). Their ranks were completed in ’85 by Scott Thompson, a drama student who’d “wanted to be James Dean” but quickly revised his goals after seeing the other four. “The moment they invited me in, I was never leaving,” he says in connective latterday interview sequences shot with the quintet in Toronto’s Rivoli club.
It was there that they scored a residency, honing their act for paltry audiences over many months’ course. Culling the best material accumulated for a streamlined show, they suddenly found every evening sold-out. A rave “Globe & Mail” review drew attention from an “SNL” talent scout. After producer Lorne Michaels put them through considerable hoop-jumping, that eventually led to the debut of their eponymous show on HBO and CBC in 1989. Despite acclaim, it was actually canceled at the first season’s end — till a well-timed CableACE Award provided Michaels impetus to get that decision reversed.
“The Kids in the Hall” immediately struck a fresh note for TV sketch comedy, feeling at once casual and surreal, clannish and amiable. Unlike competitors, it was not interested in topical political, pop-culture riffing or much scatological humor; its edginess seemed less indebted to stand-up than ironical, rueful, absurdist in-jokes between friends.
Favorite figures emerged, like McKinney’s berserk “Chicken Lady” and misanthropic “Headcrusher.” But the show didn’t trade in trending catchphrases or gags so much as ridiculous yet often strangely poignant character dynamics, with emphasis on human failings — a “cavalcade of bad parenting,” alcoholism, homophobia, et al., behaviors rooted in the members’ primarily suburban backgrounds. Writing collaborator Paul Bellini says, “They wanted to make comedy that upset and pleased people at the same time.”
That extended to using “homosexuality as a weapon to bash squares,” as out gay member Thompson put it. This manifested most outrageously in his celebrity-obsessed barfly Buddy Cole, an “alpha queen” whose supreme self-confidence turned stereotype into a badge of coolness. Such inclusivity permitted the group to incorporate even dicey topics like AIDS, because they were laughing at the taboo, not the subject itself. Among many comedians interviewed here citing the Kids as an inspiration, there are female comics who approved of the group’s myriad distaff roles, which were funny without making womanhood itself “the joke.” “They just played women as characters. They were real, they were grounded,” Lauren Ash says.
“Comedy Punks” marches methodically through the next four seasons, which gained in strength and (increasingly expensive) imagination. But delivering 20 half-hour episodes per year, plus live shows and other obligations, began to stoke discord as well as exhaustion within this “comedy arm of the grunge movement.” They decided to call it quits, but then got a belated, unexpected green light for 1996 feature film “Brain Candy” — an unhappy experience for all, in part because Foley had already abandoned ship for the sitcom “NewsRadio.” Nor was it a commercial or critical success, despite building a cult following since.
After each spinning off in different directions, however, the Kids realized they all missed working together. That, combined with expanding popularity from Comedy Central reruns, led to reunion tours, 2010 miniseries “Death Comes to Town” (a sustained mock murder mystery narrative), and current activities. Indeed, they seem so happy in each others’ company now, it’s hard to believe they were ever at one another’s throats.
While we hear from some collaborators (notably the no-nonsense Michaels), the primary voices here aside from the Kids themselves are fellow performers. Some, such as Mike Myers, have actually eclipsed their fame — but all remain hugely impressed by the troupe’s innovation and skill.
The fast-paced doc benefits from access to a great deal of archival footage beyond the original series, going back to videotaped club performances in the early ’80s. The often well-remembered broadcast clips are generally so short they trigger only smiles of recognition — such character-based, situational humor doesn’t really play ideally out of context. But then many viewers will remember that context, and the documentary will surely send more than a few back for marathon re-watches.
Shown currently at Hot Docs (and in its prior premiere at SXSW) as a feature, “Comedy Punks” will be available Amazon Prime in two separate parts of the same total duration.
“The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks” will be available exclusively on Amazon Prime starting May 20.