"Do you know who I am? Do you know who I am?"
"I'm fuckin' Buddy Holly! That's who I am! Right now, I'm on top of the fuckin' world. I'm 22, I've got my whole life ahead of me... Who knows what great pop songs I'll write? Who knows what hard-working rock bands in towns like...I dunno, Liverpool, England...are being influenced by me right now?! On the bus, loser. Let's get fuckin' flyin'!"
Well over a decade after I first stumbled upon The Kids in the Hall on late night, I still consider the Canadian television series to be my favorite sketch comedy show. The series, starring Dave Foley, Scott Thompson, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Bruce McCulloch, ran for a total five seasons throughout its run on the CBC, CBS, and HBO, and its inaugural season is now being released on DVD by Broadway Video and A&E.
"Why, is that pie I smell?"
"No, it's the smell of my daddy dyin'!"
This four-disc box set compiles all twenty episodes of The Kids in the Hall's first season, and the versions presented here are from the original airings on HBO, complete with language gutted from subsequent appearances on basic cable. Below is a quick list of episodes and sketches, with accompanying links to summaries and transcripts from the incomparable fansite KITHfan.org.
Whenever I force myself to endure reruns of Saturday Night Live from the same era, every once in a while I'll find a "The Guy Who Plays Mr. Belvedere Fan Club", but they're largely laughless. The Kids in the Hall ages a lot better than Lorne Michaels' better known sketch series, due in large part to the fact that it made no effort to be topical or timely, part of the reason why SNL episodes shot around the same time flounder by comparison. Dukakis jokes quickly become dated; a mysogynist with a cabbage for a head or a barely-tolerated manager at a shoe store who contrasts his life with his namesake, Fletcher Christianson, don't suffer in quite the same way. As is almost unavoidable with sketch comedy, the material's somewhat uneven. The Kids themselves admit that they were still figuring out what they were doing in their inaugural season, and the episodes on the first disc are reflective of that. There are some early sketches I still love ("The Eradicator", particularly), but I found the first six episodes kind of middling as a whole. Not particularly good, not particularly bad...just amusing enough to keep me tuned in. After popping in the second disc, I almost felt as if I were watching an entirely different series, almost instantly exponentially funnier. Not only does the material hold up after closing in on a decade and a half, it also stands up well to repeat viewings. I obsessively devoured the Kids in the Hall for years, and despite having watched the living hell out of many of these episodes, they still had me laughing out loud continually.
|"Godspeed through Texas, Faggot!"
It's obvious even from a casual viewing that The Kids in the Hall was penned by guys with a deep and abiding love for comedy. There are nods to vaudeville and Laurel and Hardy, and they play freely with the conventions of sketch comedy. In one early episode, they literally define it, explaining premise, conflict, and resolution as a bedridden man finds his uncolonized chest hotly desired by competing European nations. Other attempts include Kevin McDonald introducing a non-sensical sketch with only a middle and another episode with Beach Blanket Bingo-ish framing set on Premise Beach.
As was the case with Mr. Show, it's not really possible to do the material any justice with a text-driven review. The personalities of the five Kids, the surreality of some of the sketches and the characters scattered throughout, and the wit and delivery can't come through with this sort of approach. It has to be seen to be appreciated, and for viewers unfamiliar with the series who want a taste, Comedy Central still airs it daily. Many of the sketches focus on small-town life (spinnin' tales at the barber shop, a country doctor more concerned with fresh-baked apple pie than a deathly-ill man duking it out with the Grim Reaper, a heartfelt message from a farmer with an extra appendage, and a mammoth crouton), businessmen (mindless pets, flat-headed yuppies, Geralds networking at a dull party, attorneys negotiating dates for their clients and debating intercourse and gin consumption, execs turning to masochism to take the edge off, and the tangentially-related working stiffs exploiting the worker's comp system), and, to rattle off one more unnecessarily lengthy parenthetical list, monologues (the plague of prehistoric creatures terrorizing gay bars, the discovery of the cause of cancer in the course of a sketch comedy show, a guy with a good attitude towards menstruation, the grind of beig a mass murderer, and an ode to the bassist).
Often the sketches will add a strange twist to an ordinary situation -- stabbing a friend through the hand to take a peek at TV listings, a family dinner with an incontinent grandfather, a darkly-obsessed squash player who adopts a secret identity and stalks his prey, hocking up a liver in a front-loaded double date, and a kid who dismisses the song about how the teddy bears have their picnic as "utter bullshit". Others are almost entirely surreal and bizarre, such as a recurring dream about a pear, Elvis as an ideal landlord, the rustic musical "Running Faggot", secretaries with counters implanted on the back of their heads, the life and death of Christ through the eyes of Dr. Seuss, and a young man taking a journey into Indian womanhood. One sketch uses statistically improbable plummets from a plane for an amusing poke at escalating divorce rates. There's a glimpse at the final moments of an irascible Buddy Holly ("Shut up, Valens, you fuckin' 'La Bamba' 'spic! You're gonna fly, and you're gonna like it. Hey, where's Big Bopper? Tell him to get his fat ass off the can. I can't wait all day -- I wrote 'Peggy Sue'!"). Daydreams with exceedingly low standards and wretched, angsty poetry...yup, I don't really have any clear destination for this paragraph, but hopefully all of this gives at least some faint glimmer of an idea of what to expect from the first season of The Kids in the Hall.
"So... what do you eat when you come here?"
"Well, I'll tell ya. If you're gonna eat here, you've got to try the shitty soup.
"Oh yeah, everyone that comes here has the shitty soup."
"It doesn't sound that great."
"Oh, it's not...it's awful. That's why they call it 'shitty'."
Smart, strange, and side-splitting, the first season of The Kids in the Hall is well-worth a purchase. For the moment, its availability is limited to sites like the official KidsIntheHallOnDVD.com. A brick-and-mortar assault will follow sometime in 2004, but an official date has yet to be announced. More casual fans of the series may want to hold off for that eventual wider release since the cost will almost certainly be substantially lower, but the hardcore probably won't have any problem shelling out $59.99 for this set for the added benefit of owning it here and now. Aside from the eight hours or so of episodes from the first season, there are also two compilations (including excerpts from a little-seen pilot), a pair of audio commentaries with the troupe, a lengthy retrospective, a vintage Rolling Stone article, and half an hour of performances from the Kids' dingy club days.
Video: The first season of The Kids in the Hall is presented full-frame, just as it appeared when it debuted fourteen years ago. The Kids in the Hall was shot on a combination of video and a variety of film formats, occasionally making the switch within a single sketch, and there's accordingly some inherent inconsistency in the look of the show. The material was presumably culled from broadcast masters; some of the shot-on-video close-ups look a bit sharper, but otherwise, the video quality mostly seems representative of what I'd expect from an airing on Comedy Central. A few minor flaws were spotted, but nothing I'd think would be severe enough to dissuade interested viewers from a purchase. There are a few video blips scattered throughout the set, particularly noticeable in the "Mood Swing" sketch on episode twelve. Below is one example, cropped from "The Daves I Know"; the lower portion looks like it's from an entirely different frame.
There's also occassional shimmering, with some distortion and discoloration in some objects (particularly shiny ones) and patterns in the background. The image also sometimes hiccups when pitted against reds and maroons, such as the napkins and tablecloth in "Shitty Soup" and the horrified victim's outfit in "Double Date". These sorts of authoring concerns are mildly annoying, something I really wouldn't expect to see after all of the refinement in authoring and compression brought in the nearly seven years DVDs have been on the market, but they're not heavy enough to discourage an order.
"Every time I come to this city, some guy picks me up at the bus station, takes me to a Leaf game, gets me pissed, then tries to blow me. Why can't people like me for me?"
Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (192Kbps) similarly doesn't seem to be much of a leap over what I'd expect from a cable airing, but it's more than serviceable. Heavy background noise is riddled throughout the first episode, but it's not a concern after that. The aural emphasis is placed squarely on the shoulders of its dialogue, which sometimes sounds a bit edgy but remains discernable throughout. Applause from the studio audience offers some nice stereo separation, and the surfy, instrumental music contributed by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (and to stave off any incensed e-mails, yes, I know they're not a fucking surf band) provides most of the activity in the lower frequencies. Aside from the noise in episode one that appears to be an issue with the source material, there are no concerns of note. The set is also closed captioned.
"I once shot a man just to watch him die, then I got distracted and missed it. Oh, my friends tried to describe it to me, but it just isn't the same."
Supplements: Disc one includes brief biographies for each of the five Kids, but the majority of the extras can be found on the fourth and final disc in the set. The featured extra is "An Oral History" (fullframe; 38:24). Aptly titled, it thankfully lacks the overabundance of clips that usually litter these sorts of retrospectives and even end credits. The first twenty minutes focus on the troupe's early days -- how each member got into comedy, the formation of the troupe and the evolution of its line-up, the highlights of their years at the Rivoli, the separation of the group, the progression of their popularity, and eventually the pilot that led to a full season order. It also takes a look at the origins of individual characters (Head Crusher, Cabbage Head, the "Nobody Likes Us" duo, Buddy Cole, Mississippi Gary, Cathy and Kathie, and the Geralds), along with some of the more memorable sketches ("Cause of Cancer", the unseen-on-this-set "Naked for Jesus", and my all-time favorite, "The Dr. Seuss Bible"). Another topic of discussion is the chemistry between the group and what it's like for each member to work with one another. "An Oral History" is equal parts informative and entertaining, covering a lot of territory I wasn't familiar with previously and easily outclassing the majority of retrospectives on TV box sets.
There are also two episode compilations. The first is a truncated pilot episode, the same version previously released on the "Best of The Kids in the Hall" video some years back, lacking the "Guys on Break", "Brian's Bombshell", "Everyone's Friend", "But Do You Love Me?", "David Foley's Power / Mark McKinney's Confession", and "Naked for Jesus" sketches from the original HBO special. Even at this heavily shortened length, there's still quite a bit of great material. "Reg" (an ode to a fallen friend who met a gruesome end) and "Romeo" (teenaged Rusty lusts after the senior set) both resurfaced in the Kids' live reunion shows, and the pilot also introduces the Head Crusher, Cabbage Head, and Buddy Cole. (One of Buddy's first lines from his monologue in the pilot is referenced by Oscar Wilde in a later episode as well.) The second compilation, titled "Season 1 Favorites" although I wouldn't describe it as such, features "Death Row", the two-part "Banker Doesn't Like Us", "Buddy's Better", two "Crushing Your Head" bits, "Citizen Kane", "Car Ride", and "Womyn". The two compilations are closed captioned, for anyone keeping track, and they also feature semi-rambling audio commentary by the five Kids. It's actually just four for the first chunk of "Season 1 Favorites", with Scott popping in late. Some of the topics tackled include the Head Crusher's faux-Goon Show voice, the "Citizen Kane" sketch taking about as long to write as it took to perform, Mark living well below his means in a $90-a-month apartment, and chatter about Kevin's weight and overdosing. The pilot commentary makes note of where particular sketches were written, a pizza-fueled fifty-hour improv marathon on cable access, a lack of breasts in their early transvestastic efforts, and a debate as to whether an acquaintance of the troupe was a mime or a clown. Listening to the commentaries on the third season of Mr. Show set might give some idea as to what to expect -- it's not the tightest, most coherent discussion, but that's part of the appeal. A fun listen, and it's too bad there weren't more.
Also included are close to half an hour of vintage performances from the Rivoli Theater, beginning with a sketch from 1987 and spanning nearly two years. Seven segments are provided in total - a prolonged bow, the map-directed male bonding of "Map Scene", "Fem Out", the genital snorting "Dog Office", the mostly-musical "A Truck Called Dempsters", "The Night I Fucked Jimi Hendrix" ("It was big and black and thick as a spatula!"), and "Toga Party". The footage was shot with a camcorder, and the despite the rough quality of the video and audio, it's interesting to see such a stripped-down show and the group in its infancy.
The DVD-ROM portion of the disc includes the Rolling Stone article "Hot Comedy: Is America Ready for The Kids in the Hall?", penned before the troupe made their television debut, in PDF format. Rounding out the extras are a thirty-second full-frame trailer for Mr. Bean - The Whole Bean and a set of DVD credits.
The packaging is similar to Fox's recent Firefly, with four translucent slimline cases in a box set, the combined width of which is about the size of two standard keepcases. The back of each case lists the contents of its disc, divided by episode and then by sketch. The episodes themselves are similarly structured, with each sketch given its own chapter. That, combined with the nicely arranged sketch selection menus, makes it quick and painless to hop straight to a particular bit. The animated 4x3 menus are easy to navigate and offer the always welcome "Play All" feature, requiring as few button presses as necessary for marathon viewings.
Conclusion: Established fans of The Kids in the Hall needn't have bothered wading through this entire review -- they should be familiar enough with the material to know that this set is worth the asking price, and the extras included make a purchase even more compelling. The series still airs for an hour every weekday afternoon on Comedy Central, and the uninitiated may want to tape or TiVo a few episodes before whipping out their credit cards. The first season wasn't the best of the Kids' five-year run, but there's still a hell of a lot of great material on this set, more than enough to warrant an enthusiastic recommendation.
Related Links: DVD Talk also has reviews of other Kids in the Hall DVDs, including the documentary Same Guys, New Dresses, the live Tour of Duty, and the feature film Brain Candy. Gord Lacey's TVShowsonDVD.com also deserves a plug for his involvement with this set, as does the official Kids in the Hall site, which currently is just used to accept orders for the DVD. Also, thanks to TV Tome for the information on the two different pilot episodes and KITHfan.org for saving me the trouble of writing dozens of summaries.