The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks
(Canada, 95 min.)
Dir. Reg Harkema
Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks is a welcome, warm reflection upon this group of comedians who, for a period in the late 1980s/early ’90s, were at the pinnacle of the sketch comedy landscape.
These were a bunch of boys who made their bones in a bar on Queen Street in Toronto. They made it feel as if this city was at the forefront for something both groundbreaking and hilarious. They made Toronto proud with their accomplishments. Sure, it’s not quite curing cancer, but the clever writing, the quirky performances, and punk rock-via-suburbia ethos struck a nerve. The world began to take notice (the world, in this case, in the form ex-pat impresario Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live fame, looking to strike gold once again).
The troupe, named as a sly if incredibly unhip nod to writers circling Sid Caesar’s orbit, would land a filmed version of their rambunctious act on HBO in the States with production locally filmed not so far from where they honed their craft at the Rivoli bar. There would be highs and lows throughout the run of the show, as massive success contrasted with the pressures of performing and keeping things weird, fresh and original, eventually taking quite a toll on these men.
Superficially, their story is far more generic than the skits that brought them notoriety then attention and finally cult-like adoration from generations of fans. However, thanks to director Reg Harkema (Super Duper Alice Cooper), their tale is almost as entertaining as The Kids as a subject. At every step, we’re half expecting a generic, almost rote talking-heads documentary, but somehow, almost implausibly, the chemistry of the interviewees along with the unvarnished looks at both the lows and the highs makes for something far more exceptional.
Harkema mixes archival footage, contemporary interviews, and reflections from fans such as Mike Myers, Erick McCormack, Mae Martin and Jay Baruchel to buttress the discussion, but the true heavy lifting comes from the Kids themselves. Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald, Dave Foley, and Scott Thompson are interviewed both as an ensemble and individually, managing to tell their truths in ways that highlight not only their grand successes but also moments that overwhelmed, depressed, or downright jeopardised what they had as a team.
The film does a wonderful job contextualizing their comedy, particularly the way that gender, sexuality, and even the banality of life were explored throughout their run. Comparisons with Monty Python are obvious, of course, and the likes of Eddie Izzard are there to firmly place the Kids on a similar, no doubt silly looking, comedy pedestal.
Behind the laughs there were plenty of lows, yet rather than gorging on the negativity tabloid-style, or papering them over in hagiographic ways, Harkema allows the reality and complexity of their situation to be revealed. This allows for a poignancy that never feels trite, and simultaneously allows fans of the crew to learn more about what they already love, as well as an introduction to those that weren’t around to witness to see what made their work so special to so many.
By the end, it does lead to an advertisement for the work that the five are completing together now, a reunion long gestating that’s eagerly anticipated by many fans. Yet even this move that could come across as overly manipulative or crass somehow works within the whole, making it feel like something that’s been worked on for many years to transpire rather than a mere cashgrab or nostalgia binge.
It’s clear there’s great love and camaraderie between these five, yet it’s also clear that they’re not blind to their own faults or the fractures that have beset in the past. Rather than erasing what pushed them apart, the film embraces these moments, allowing the scars and wrinkles to show even as they push together as an ensemble decades after those nearly-empty first shows on the Rivoli stage.
It’s been a long time since these five were kids, and even then the notion that they were part of a punk culture was stretched at best. However, it’s undeniable that their unique brand of lunacy that collided the absurd, the silly, and the profound worked in ways that continue to resonate to this day.
Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks provides a perfect summation of who these Canadian comics are, why they mattered, and why they continue to matter to this day. It’s a sympathetic telling but one not succumbing to a two-dimensional portrait, a deserving biographical documentary for these five remarkable individuals.
The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks premiered at SXSW and has its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs before debuting on Prime Video.