When POV sat down over Zoom with director Reg Harkema and producer Nick McKinney, they were days away from the Canadian premiere of their documentary, The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks, at Hot Docs. Given the comedy troupe’s iconic status in Canada and their foundations in Toronto, the film’s homecoming is special.
“We’re really looking forward to the hometown crowd,” McKinney says thoughtfully. “SXSW was great as our first chance to sit in a room with a bunch of strangers and see if they actually liked the film. But bringing it to Toronto is meaningful. It feels right.”
Based in part on Paul Myers’ book The Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy, Comedy Punks tells the story of how five kids from suburban Canada came together and formed one of our most beloved homegrown acts. Sharing previously unheard stories and new behind the scenes footage, all five Kids’ members—Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson—dive into their journey to success and the falls along the way.
Later this month, the Kids will make their return in a brand new season of The Kids in the Hall — the first in almost 30 years. The 8-episode run will stream on Amazon Prime and will pick up right where the Kids left off. The release of Comedy Punks therefore couldn’t be more perfect, giving newer fans a thorough history and providing the die-hard fans with new insights from the Kids themselves.
“They have this amazing shelf life, which I think Canadians should be really proud of,” muses McKinney. “Because their stuff wasn’t topical, you go to their live shows and there are 18-year-olds and 65-year-olds in the audience. That’s pretty amazing after 40 years—to be finding and speaking to a new audience.”
POV: Rachel Ho
NM: Nick McKinney
RH: Reg Harkema
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: Let’s start at the beginning: could you talk about the process of how this film was developed?
NM: I started filming in 2015. I gave myself a budget to make a deal with the Kids and to follow them on their 2015 tour. When my money ran out, I had to go and do other work. But at the same time, I’d found out that Paul [Myers] was writing a book. We were in touch talking about themes and whatnot. When the book came out, it gave the perfect impetus to go to [Blue Ant Media, producers of the film] and say, ‘We should option this. It’s got a great spine. It’s in accordance with the spirit of the film that we want to make.’ Paul’s book was invaluable — he did a lot of research, and it was amazing to have that laid out for us, beyond just factual stuff, the themes [as well].
POV: Were there any stories from Paul’s book that you really wanted to include but just didn’t have the space for in the film?
NM: There were whole categories of things that we had thought about getting into that we didn’t, like the business side of things. Because the Kids were always notoriously known for not being very good at business [laughs], their manager and lawyer, David Himelfarb, wore multiple hats trying to shepherd them through the show business world. But when we started looking at it, it felt a little wonky. As Reg says, a film isn’t a novel, so you have to shape it in a different way.
RH: It was a real lesson, particularly for Paul, who’s an executive producer, on [learning] what’s a book beat and what’s a film beat. I would get these maniacal emails saying, “Hey, we’re not including this or this.” I [eventually] had a shorthand with him: “Paul, that’s a book beat.”
NM: Oh, I can think of one! We didn’t go deep into their other careers. I think we do a quick run where someone summarizes 20 years of incredible award winning work in about 30 seconds. [Laughs.]
RH: How much could we go into their solo careers? We don’t have the fanbase that The Grateful Dead or The Eagles have to do a 10-part series here. Something’s gotta give. The first time we sent out some of Paul Bellini’s [writer on The Kids in the Hall] tapes to get transferred and we got the transfer cost back…we’re not going to send out three tapes of Scott Thompson’s solo show from 2002, you know? [Laughs.] That really focused us. This is about the Kids. If it doesn’t involve the five of them, we don’t include it.
NM: I think it was [also] a matter of instinct. Once we worked with [story producer] Martha Kehoe to find those emotional beats, and once we had the Kids’ interviews, both their group one and their individual ones, in the can, we were living in the world of this incredible archive. To go off on these tangents would have, I think, really interrupted the flow of what we managed to make.
POV: When making a film about such legendary entertainers, whether it’s Alice Cooper, like you did in 2014, Reg, or the Kids, where does your sense of responsibility lie in telling the story? To the performer, the fans, yourselves?
RH: When I came onto that project, I didn’t even really know much about Alice Cooper. I thought he was this clown prince of rock and roll. It wasn’t until I dove into it and listened to four of his records from the early ‘70s and was like, “Whoa, this stuff is just like the Rolling Stones.” [It was] the same with the Kids. I remember being into them and they had this effect on my life…it became something of a messianic fervour. I wanted to elevate Alice Cooper in the history of rock and roll, elevate the Kids in the Hall to Monty Python or Marx Brothers status. My own obligation, I feel, is to tell their story in the most dramatic, emotional, and funny [way]. “Make them laugh, make them cry and make them kiss 10 bucks goodbye.” And just being as true as possible.
NM: In the course of making documentaries, there are two kinds you end up making: the ones that you do for hire, because you need to pay your bills; and there are the ones you do because you passionately love the subject. Even putting those other ones aside, you can’t make a documentary without really caring about it. You can’t phone it in. I think one answer is you’re trying to please yourself. You’re the avatar for all the people you’re thinking about. Because we knew we had one challenge in terms of viewership. We knew we could make something that was going to appeal to people who know who the Kids in the Hall are, but what about people who’ve never heard of them? We took great time and attention to make sure that we unfolded the story in a way that you didn’t have to be a comedy fan or a Kids in the Hall fan. Their stories were compelling enough to pull you forward.
POV: Is it a coincidence that Comedy Punks is coming out at the same time as the new season of The Kids in the Hall, or was that planned out?
NM: I think it was kismet by design. [Laughs.] Like I said, we’d been working on this with Blue Ant. They put down the money to option Paul’s book, [and] I already had some stuff in the can. We were looking for the right opportunity to take it out into the marketplace and then bing! Amazon suddenly announces they’re doing [the new season of the show] about three weeks before COVID started. So we had one big long tease of a false start. A year later, we started production. I think Amazon immediately saw the appeal, and because we’ve had the chance to do all that leg work — we had an option on the book, we had some stuff already shot, and we had access to Paul Bellini’s archive. I don’t know how many hearts the film has, but [his archive] is one of the definite beating hearts of the film. He filmed them for 40 years.
POV: As fans, and for Nick, as family, what do the Kids in the Hall represent to you?
RH: I was part of that late ‘80s/early ‘90s, Canadian, Gen X, CBC crowd that discovered [the Kids]. But at same time, I’d also come up with two decades of Christian indoctrination. They broke open a whole new vision of the world for me when I saw Buddy Cole, a homosexual who I had been taught to hate, [and he was] making me laugh my ass off. It made me question everything else that I had been taught. At the same time, I’m not really a comedy man. The biggest comedy I’d been into was the Marx Brothers and a little bit of Monty Python. The Kids in the Hall were just that little extra level of special.
NM: It’s a multi-part answer for me. I come from a funny family. It was a currency in our household. Mark [older brother and member of the Kids] and I both started doing improv around the same time. I was doing it in Ottawa, he was doing it in Calgary. Mark, being older than me, was always ahead of me breaking down possibilities. That included our parents slowly coming around to the idea that there might be a living in this insanity.
I was not a comedy snob, but I was a comedy student. The Kids fulfilled, even when they were still doing their stage shows, [the idea that] something different was possible. And so I had my own sketch troupe, we were doing our own thing, they were doing their thing. You keep learning, you keep working your craft, and you develop thick skin. In a sense, I don’t care if you think it’s funny. I think it’s funny. That’s my thing, that’s what I’m going to do. So I always admired the Kids for sticking to their vision and crafting amazing comedy that nobody else was doing. It wasn’t satirical. It wasn’t taken from the headlines. It was suburban angst and shitty jobs. It was inspiring. I found the Kids incredibly intimidating. I said to Bruce McCullough, when the film opened: “You’ve been intimidating me for the last 40 years!” [Laughs.]
It’s no accident that we called the film Comedy Punks. The Kids cut through the same way punk did in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. We were all ABBA’d out, we were Fleetwood Mac’d out. In the same way that The Clash cut through, there was this new possibility. That punky energy is definitely something that’s in the DNA of the Kids.
POV: Before I let you go, what’s your favourite Kids sketch?
RH: There’s a sketch [where] Mark is a tomcat, and Scott Thompson is a female cat. And it’s their whole courtship, back and forth for three and a half minutes. They just nailed all the humour that a cat person could ever want and beyond. It never went to air. [It’s from Paul Bellini’s] VHS of line cuts, stuff that was taped during the live taping of the show for the troupe to look back at to see if they want to redo or refine. For the stuff that aired, though, I love the “Chicken Lady/Rooster Boy” sketch.
NM: I would say the things that were generally incredibly transgressive were always interesting to me as a comedian. The dark stuff that’s gonna get hate mail: “Dr. Seuss Bible“; “Cancer Boy“; “Buddy Cole“; “Screw You, Taxpayer” — those were the kinds of things that made me go, “Yeah!” Comedy can say something and provoke. Of an aired sketch, I don’t think it was a particularly popular one, but I think the sketch was called Tucker. It’s just about a guy with buck teeth, who’s in his apartment. He has a mouse, and he keeps falling asleep. I think pretty much the only line in the entire thing is him snapping awake and going, “Mouse!” and he walks around looking for the mouse. I don’t even remember the specifics of the sketch, I just remember thinking that the character was just out there and hysterical.