Writer and journalist John Semley (who I admit to being friendly with, having worked with him on several projects previously) has spent a lot of time thinking about The Kids in the Hall; probably more time than the combined members of the influential Canadian sketch comedy troupe have spent thinking about their interactions since the mid-90s. Semley grew up watching Kids in the Hall, as many Canadian and American teens and twentysomethings did in their early-to-mid-90s television heyday (either on CBC, HBO, or eventually NBC, thanks to the involvement of Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels). Semley credits Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, Bruce McCulloch, Dave Foley, and Kevin McDonald with shaping his comedic taste and sense of humour. He’s certainly not alone, with a direct lineage that’s traceable from Kids in the Hall to modern sketch comedy troupes. For the longest time, old Kids in the Hall episodes were the second highest rated reruns on Comedy Central in the States, only coming in behind classic SNL repeats.
For those unfamiliar (and if you are, why are you honestly reading this), Kids in the Hall was a sketch comedy troupe that was borne from two separate sketch pairings in Toronto during the 1980s. Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald met in 1982 in their late teens at Second City in Toronto to form what was properly known as The Kids in the Hall (the name a subversive tweak on a Sid Caesar reference selected by them troupe member Luc Casimiri) before merging with the Calgarian pairing of Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney (then going by the name The Audience, which depending on who you talk to was either the best or worst name for a comedy troupe) who had just moved to the city. Scott Thompson later joined Kids in the Hall by basically throwing doughnuts at the other members from the audience in a bid to get noticed. From there they made Toronto’s Rivoli their home, got the attention of Lorne Michaels, made a successful comedy show, started unravelling mostly due to clashing egos, made a feature film that spectacularly failed at the box office, broke up, and then have since come together again over the years for on and off appearances.
The doughnut chucking that got Thompson hired is one of many great anecdotes that Semley includes in his book This Is a Book About The Kids in the Hall, which formally launches this week in Toronto alongside a screening of KITH’s 1995 big screen outing, Brain Candy, at The Royal. The book was a natural evolution for Semley, who had already put a lot of time and effort into chronicling The Kids in the Hall for an oral history of the troupe for Toronto alt-weekly NOW Magazine. Having interviewed the members of the group countless times for various projects, the idea of extending what he had learned stuck with Semley, and his passion to share a larger version of the troupes history and a personal, but critical appreciation of the sketch superstars felt like a great opportunity in the waiting.
This Is a Book About The Kids in the Hall expands on Semley’s interviews he previously conducted with the core group of members, but also with those who were around during the inception of their act. The book traces the Kids from their modest months of struggling in comedy clubs, to their uneasy relationship to their success, and eventually to their slow descent towards dissolution and build towards an eventual reconciliation. Semley also speaks to current influential comedic luminaries who saw The Kids as influences on the kinds of aggressively strange sketch shows that have become popular today.
What emerges is less of an oral history, and more of an all encompassing look at how a new scene was created from a previously existing one. Semley has crafted something a lot more historical in scope than merely anecdotal, and while he bristles during an interview over drinks at a Bloordale cafe at being called a Kids in the Hall scholar, he readily admits that he could provide people with plenty of facts and outline any and all conflicting views individual members have on any range of topics.
I talked to John Semley about how the book balances a fan’s perspective with a critical one towards the group, how the book evolved from the original NOW article, Brain Candy’s strange place in the Kids in the Hall canon, and more.
The first I remembered about you wanting to write this book was when you wrote the big oral history for NOW Magazine a few years ago. Did the book come directly from that and was writing something even longer on your mind at the time?
John Semley: Doing a book was on my mind the whole time while I was doing that. You know how it is, but when you write any article from interviews, you end up ditching 95% of what you record when you do them. That oral history was the longest cover story that NOW ever ran, and that’s to their immense credit, but even then I couldn’t get in even a quarter of what I wanted to get in there. I had all this stuff and I immediately started thinking that there could be a book here. I had interviewed each of them lots of times for various different things, and spent lots of time thinking about them, and I had opinions about them that I thought were valid, so what better to write a book on than something you know a lot about and have an enthusiasm about? I mean, that enthusiasm is almost exhausted by now. (laughs) If you ever want to go from loving something to being exhausted by it, writing and thinking about it all the time is the way to go.
I know you best as someone who approaches most pop culture institutions and signifiers from a critical perspective in your journalistic writing. So as someone who’s admittedly a fan of the show and someone who has watched every episode countless times in preparation for the book to the point of exhaustion, how do you balance your personal appreciation of Kids in the Hall with a critical appraisal of them?
John Semley: I actually had someone ask me this at Word on the Street the other day about if it’s hard to be critical of something if you’re a fan of it, and for me or for you if anyone has read anything that you or I have written, you’ll know that it’s absolutely not hard at all. It’s almost an obligation, so there are lots of parts of the book that are critical of them. It’s not in the way where they’re being criticized as people, but it’s being critical of things that maybe didn’t work or that were bad ideas at the time. I sort of bristle at this idea of fandom as this incipient, hyper-enthusiastic thing where you have to like everything because you feel some sort of ownership over the things you like. I think as a fan, you’re in a prime position to be critical about things because you know them so well.
You’ve spent plenty of time talking to the members of Kids in the Hall, but when you sought to look beyond each performer’s personal experiences in the troupe, where did you start looking for their historical impact on their American and Canadian counterparts?
John Semley: I looked for people from two different side of this. First, I knew I had to talk to people who were a part of the Toronto comedy scene in the 80s, like the guys who ran the Rivoli, bookers, Mark Breslin, who booked for Yuk-Yuks, and figure out from them what the temperature of the scene was like in those days. I talked to people who were involved with their early shows, and I talked to writers who worked with them, like Norm Hiscock, who’s now the show-runner for Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Then I talked to anyone who was influenced by them, like the guys from Picnicface, who had their show produced in part by Mark McKinney. I talked to Nathan Fielder, Tim Heidecker, people who really remembered appreciating them and who claim them in some ways as influences. I actually interviewed David Cross and Bob Odenkirk for something else, and I managed to sneak in a few questions about The Kids in the Hall. There’s a genealogy that you can trace from the Toronto comedy scene to Kids in the Hall to things like Mr. Show, Picnicface, and Tim and Eric. It was an evolution towards more aggressively weird comedy.
Outside of talking about what sketches or Kids in the Hall characters are the most iconic, I think most people still tend to focus on the first major dissolution of the group, despite the fact that they keep getting back together. In the book and in the oral history, the members talk about their individual egos and issues both informing the group dynamic and pulling it apart at the same time. Looking back on all the research and talks you’ve done about the show, do you think that professional animosity reflected on the show in the later years they were together?
John Semley: One of the threads that I try to follow in the book is this idea that the grinding antagonism that occurred between them sort of made things better for the audience. They’ve had fallings out and whatever, but they were never truly hateful towards each other. It wasn’t ‘I don’t like you’ or ‘I hate you,’ it was always ‘I want to be the one to deliver the funniest joke’ or ‘I’m going to make something funnier than that.’ Bruce McCulloch used this great analogy that if the Kids in the Hall were a band, they’d be a band made up of five bassists, or if they were brothers, they’d all be the youngest brother. They all had this mentality where they would vie for attention and want to be the best in the group, but to me that’s what made it so good. But then again, that’s also what burned them out, and after Brain Candy came out they didn’t want to remotely do anything with each other for the next five years. And in Canada by that point, even around season three or four of the show, most critics had really written them off. Many in the press thought they were getting too indulgent or whatever you want to call it. Critics were quick to say that their subversive spark had somehow kind of fizzled out, and I think it’s hard not to take that to heart.
What I find so interesting about Brain Candy is the fact that it was a major film that was conceived, green lit, and pushed into production essentially when Kids in the Hall were done with each other.
John Semley: Yeah. The wheels were in motion to do a movie, and they had the decision where they had to figure out if they wanted to do a sixth season, and Mark McKinney was the only one who said ‘I do’ to that. Everyone else said no. Dave Foley was already transitioning towards doing NewsRadio, and there were a lot of personal things going on at the time. Kevin McDondld was getting divorced. Scott Thompson’s brother died. This was all happening as they were going into Brain Candy, and I think the movie that came out of that period of their lives is very telling of that. I also think all of these compounding issues made their time apart seem a lot more acrimonious to an outsider than it might have otherwise. A lot of it was ego, but there was a lot going on personally and professionally.
Foley was the one who, for lack of a better term, was getting called up to the big leagues, and that’s the sort of thing that was hard for everyone to get past. It’s this idea of competitiveness, and it’s easy to see how something like that can be read by some people as thinking that Foley was somehow the best. It’s not like Bruce McCulloch can knock on the door of NBC and suddenly get a sitcom because Dave Foley had one. It’s not like how Scott Thompson showed up on Larry Sanders, which he’s amazing in, because NewsRadio was a show built around Dave Foley and he’s the star of the show, which carries weight. On NewsRadio, Foley was sort of the Bob Newhart guy, and one of the things he’s so good at is being that sort of straight-man around which all this kookiness and craziness sort of orbits, and that’s such a high profile role to play on anything. But the process of making that movie, the personal issues, and Foley getting recognized were really what tore them apart. Foley was originally supposed to be the lead in the film, but he didn’t want to do it, and Bruce sort of tenuously took on that role. The movie that resulted is great, though. It’s really dark and weird, and I like it as an artifact of a rough time for them.
They made this movie with Paramount Pictures, which is a big deal. It wasn’t this little film that was going to just play festivals. It was a major release that was produced by Lorne Michaels at the time where Wayne’s World and Tommy Boy were some of the biggest comedies of the decade. And they had a lot of fights with Lorne over things they felt were unlike them, and Lorne had to kind of hammer it in to them that people don’t know who they are and that the jump from being a cult TV show that’s on after midnight and a movie opening in cinemas across the country is a huge one. And sketch comedy troupes have always had a rough time adapting to something longer just from a structural standpoint. You have to adapt from doing something that’s three or four minutes long to something that’s 90 minutes to two hours long. It becomes tedious and hard to maintain the essence of what you do, and I think Brain Candy does a pretty great job. I think there’s certainly better examples of sketch troupes adapting, like Life of Brian, and worse examples, like when Mr. Show or even Tim and Eric tried to do it, which are funny in parts, but not good movies. In hindsight a lot of the guys wish they had done something simpler with Brain Candy – like taking a fairy tale like Monty Python did – but they made this unique dark movie that was different from any other of the Lorne Michaels productions at the time.
You were too young to really have been around for their on stage roots in the 1980s and you weren’t a journalist yet when the troupe was coming apart, but what’s the sense that you get from talking to the members of Kids in the Hall now versus what they thought of their place in comedic history at the time?
John Semley: I think what waned through that process of coming in and out of Kids in the Hall, and with the wisdom that everyone says comes with age, is that I think they appreciate Kids in the Hall more. By the end of the 90s, they were really resentful of it and wanted to do things for themselves, but now I think there’s this knowledge they they’re funniest when they do this and best when they’re together. As much as the reunions, shows, and projects are motivated by money – which we all know they are – you can still make a buck going back and doing this thing you love. If everyone’s on board, that’s great for everyone.
This Is a Book About The Kids in the Hall is now available in stores and online. John Semley will be on hand to launch his book and introduce a 35mm screening of Brain Candy tonight, Thursday, October 13 at 8 pm (with a 7 pm preshow featuring classic KITH sketches), at The Royal in Toronto.