True Story: Some years ago my Japanese wife-to-be was living in California having recently completed her English-as-a-second-language courses, and was trying to decide where to attend art school that fall. She had been accepted at two universities, one in New York City, the other in Alberta, Canada. She opted for Canada, the deciding factor being The Kids in the Hall. She loved that show and figured any nation with that sense of irreverence had to be a fun place to live.
The sketch comedy series ran five seasons, and though executive produced by Saturday Night Live's Lorne Michaels (a fellow Canadian), it was the antithesis of that long-running show, almost like antimatter. Closer in spirit to Jackie Gleason's '50s variety series, Monty Python's Flying Circus and SCTV, The Kids in the Hall share Python's all-male make-up, tradition of cross-dressing characters and absurdist humor, and SCTV's advantage of a laid-back Great White North production sensibility, unburdened by the pressures of live network television and millions of dollars in franchise revenue at stake. It's also a whole lot funnier than Saturday Night Live.
The Kids in the Hall eschews SNL's topical humor, celebrity impersonations, and pop culture parodies in favor of little character pieces focusing on the obsessions of ordinary folk and the beguiling ticks of extreme eccentrics. They'd rather partly failure with an interesting sketch that doesn't quite come together rather than push crowd-pleasing continuing characters until they're run them into the ground.
The lucky mix of talent is an obvious asset. Stars Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson wrote the sketches (with Paul Bellini, Gary Campbell, Brian Hartt, Norm Hiscock, and Frank Van Keeken), and in the course of time one can spot their individual tastes and style, though it's not always clear just who wrote what. (One assumes, like The Beatles' songs, the main performer on each sketch generally wrote or co-wrote the piece.) McCulloch seems to favor character-driven comedy, often in hilarious family and workplace sketches. (He's great as both sensitive teens and gruff, working-class fathers.) McDonald and especially Mark McKinney lean toward the bizarre; Foley (along with McCulloch) is an exceptionally good character comedian (it's no surprise after the show ended he enjoyed a long run on NewsRadio) and extremely versatile. Out-of-the-closet Thompson wrote screamingly funny and perceptive gay-themed sketches (such as "Clothes Make the Man") that must have been among the first broadcast so widely across the U.S. and Canada.
The Complete Third Season is as good if not better than the two that had preceded it. The lunacy remains fresh and inspired in such delights as "The Pen," about a minor clerk (McCulloch) obsessed with a favorite pen and driven to hysterics when a man (McDonald) absent-mindedly forgets to return it; "Girl Drink Drunk," where rising white collar worker and teetotaler Foley succumbs to the devil's brew; Queen Elizabeth's (Thompson) stern television address to the people of Canada; and the wild escapades of a "Chicken Lady" (McKinney) straight out of Freaks at a male strip club.
Video & Audio
The Kids in the Hall - Complete Season 3 (1991-1992) was made available to hard-core fans via online sales on June 29, 2005, but will not officially street until October 25th. The 20 episodes, running 23 to 24-minute apiece, are presented over three discs, with a fourth disc reserved for special features. The full frame image of the program, shot in a mix of film and videotape, looks fine, representative of the period. As with earlier seasons, chapter stops helpfully come between sketches, and menu screens can easily guide the viewer to their favorites. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio is also on par with early 1990s technology. There are no subtitle options.
Disc 1 includes decent Biographies of the five stars, though the rest of the supplements are contained on Disc 4. Season 3 Favorites appears to be two half-hour shows intended for syndication, and are really nothing more than highlights from Discs 1-3. However, each of these has an Audio Commentary by the Kids who are lively (almost too much so; they often talk all at once), occasionally outspoken (Thompson bemoans Lorne Michaels' alleged insistence that they bring back popular characters), and naturally funny. The effect is like sitting in on some kind of Toronto-based Friars Club lunch.
Next are more Performances from the Rivoli Theater, in excerpts dating from November 1988 (just as the show debuted) through January the following year. The sketches are crudely videotaped but as The Kids aren't bound to television standards and practices, there's a liberated use of profanity and more sexually explicit material. A six-minute Slide Show offers production stills taken by Brian Hiltz.
The Kids in the Hall was reportedly named after the phrase Jack Benny used to use on his TV show, referring to the young pool of eager writers just offstage, an appropriate moniker. Though hit and miss, The Kids in the Hall hits the bull's-eye more often than not, and the frequently hilarious sketches haven't dated at all. Highly recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.