Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald talk sketch martyrdom and the curse of The Kids In The Hall – The A.V. Club

Kevin McDonald and Dave Foley in The Kids in the Hall (Jackie Brown/Amazon Studios ) and at SXSW (Errich Petersen/Getty Images)

Kevin McDonald and Dave Foley in The Kids in the Hall (Jackie Brown/Amazon Studios ) and at SXSW (Errich Petersen/Getty Images)
Graphic: Libby McGuire

The Kids In The Hall are back, but in some ways they never left. While the public breakdown of the group during production of their 1996 cult classic Brain Candy had them hanging up the wigs for a time, they returned soon after and hit road, bringing their brand of horrifying and absurd sketch comedy to the masses.

And now, after two decades on tour and a brief sojourn into narrative storytelling with the 2010 miniseries Death Comes To Town, Mark McKinny, Bruce McCulloch, Scott Thompson, Dave Foley, and Kevin McDonald have resurrected their ’90s sketch comedy series for Prime Video. The Kids In The Hall, which debuted May 13, is the troupe’s first sketch series in more than 25 years. Luckily, 30 Helens and this writer agree: It’s as good if not better than anything they’ve ever produced. And we don’t mean that hyperbolically. The show is ridiculously funny, innovative, and specific in ways that only those five Canadian gents can muster.

Come May 20, Prime Video will also premiere the documentary Kids In The Hall: Comedy Punks, which follows the Kids from their humble beginnings on Canadian comedy stages to working for something worse than the devil: Amazon (their words.) The A.V. Club spoke with members Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald about their new show, how the group feels about their legacy, and the relationship between horror and comedy.


The A.V. Club: Seeing as you two were the only ones that showed up today, who is the worst Kid In The Hall?

Kevin McDonald: Me!

Dave Foley: Yeah, it’s really a drag that Kevin’s here. I was hoping—

KM: But I’m glad Bruce isn’t, because he gets really hurt when they say I’m the weakest.

DF: Not the weakest. Worst, he said.

KM: Oh, worst. Yeah, I’m the worst. Also, the weakest physically.

AVC: In the Comedy Punks documentary, you two discuss how closely you collaborated as writers. Is that still the case?

DF: Yes. Absolutely.

KM: Not only do we write together, a lot we rewrote together. Actually, I didn’t rewrite anything of Dave’s. His stuff is perfect. Dave rewrote a lot of stuff that I wrote without him and then we would write back and forth and everything. We wrote everything! The whole series! Most things on Amazon, Dave and I write!

DF: Yeah. That new Outer Range show? That’s ours.

AVC: You guys were the ones who told them to add a big hole.

DF: “Hey, time-traveling portal. Jeff Bezos, you’re welcome.”

AVC: I really love the “Kevin MacDonald Antique Shop” sketch, where Dave is pawning off old Kevin McDonald sketches. Meta humor has always been a part of Kids In The Hall, going back to the first episode of the original series. Do you guys have an idea of how far you can push without tipping the scales into self-indulgence?

KM: I write a ton of meta sketches. I had another meta sketch I wanted to do, instead of “The Antique Store,” where I, Kevin McDonald, bring all my premises out that I know we’ll never make, and I bury them. Mark [McKinney] plays a monk, and we have a ritual. We bury them. I think it’s because the meta part of my brain comes from Monty Python and Andy Kaufman and even Steve Martin. He started anti-stand up. That’s the weird thing about Steve Martin. I always think he became an arena comic, but he was sort of making fun of stand-up comedy. Like, when he put an arrow through his head, he was making fun of a comic with an arrow through his head. But it also works because it’s also funny to see a guy with an arrow through his head.

DF: He was doing like a punk rock deconstruction of comedy.

KM: Deconstruction of comedy, which Python [did] and even before that, Ernie Kovacs and even before that, The Goon Show. That’s always been a part of all the Kids In The Hall, I think. Sorry, Dave, you can’t answer any more because—

DF: We’ll tell you a behind-the-scenes story about that meta sketch. Another sketch was shot the same day that went a little longer than it should have. Much longer than it should have. And so at the end of the day, we only had an hour and a half left to shoot. I think we got our line producer to give us a half-hour of overtime, so we had two hours to shoot that sketch. And I believe that no other two members of the troupe could have shot a sketch in two hours.

KM: Yes, I believe that we floated on our chemistry. The chemistry got us to freelance for two hours and made the scene better than I thought it was going to be.

AVC: I love the button on that sketch where Dave Foley, the actor, realizes that he’s trapped in a sketch. This season really treats The Kids In The Hall like a worldwide curse. The first scene of the series sees the selling of a copy of Brain Candy at a garage sale lifting the Kids into profitability and, basically, opens The Book Of The Dead and plagues the world. That tension between horror and comedy is always intertwined. Is there ever a concern that you’re getting a little too scary or a little horrific? 

DF: Well, I think we do a nice job of not revealing how terrifying it is to be trapped in the Kids In The Hall for 40 years.

KM: I mean, we do feel trapped, but it’s a lovely trap. It’s a beautiful nightmare.

DF: And it’s one that we’ve kind of accepted. There is no way out.

KM: Yeah. Except the end itself is the only way out.

AVC: There’s just such horror in your characters. It’s not like they enjoy being in these situations. I’m thinking of the DJ at the end of the world sketch. It’s filmed like a Tales From The Crypt episode. Is there ever a concern that this is now just scary? It’s no longer fun?

DF: I had that concern when I was shooting that sketch. I kept wondering, “God, is this funny at all? Is it even interesting?” For me, the comedy was all about the transition from the horror of real life to immersing yourself in routine, that idea that you can fall into it, using routine and repetition and just doing the things to take yourself out of the fact that you’re trapped in a horrible situation.

KM: And besides horror, there’s also sadness in that scene. Dave’s looks when he stops being a rock ’n’ roll DJ are just sad in a comical way. And sometimes comedy comes from great sadness. And I think building comedy on top of something that’s already funny will be less funny. When we’re on set, sometimes we have to say to the director, “That’s too scary” or “That’s too sad.” There’s a balance that you find through your instincts and sometimes the directors are too good, better than us, and we have to make sure that they’re less skilled, so we keep that balance.

DF: They’ll sometimes go, “Oh, so that’s okay, but this isn’t?”

KM: Because there are no rules! It works there. It doesn’t work here.

DF: Yeah, it’s instinct. It’s all and our personal taste. With the Kids In The Hall, our attitude is our personal tastes are the only ones that matter.

KM: Yes. Not only in the Kids In The Hall but in all of life.

The Kids In The Hall

The Kids In The Hall
Photo: Jackie Brown/Amazon Studios

AVC: That sketch felt like the worst parts of quarantine, and it got at some real hilarious truths about the things that we do to establish those routines. Whether it’s watching the same show over and over or pretending that you’re a radio DJ.

DF: Yeah, it came out of those. It was a response to those darkest times of COVID and Trump.

AVC: Death Comes To Town is probably the Kids at their most horrific, pushing the comedy into a sicklier territory. Did the response to that show push you in a sillier direction for the sketch show?

KM: I don’t think it was the response from the critics, but rather our own response. Some of us thought that as good as it is, we didn’t do it as well as we could have. And so, there are two things we can do: make a better miniseries or go back to sketch comedy and be silly and do that bad. But it’s not like we thought it was too serious or anything.

DF: It was an experiment in terms of trying to figure out something else that we could do as a group. I think we could have had more of the silly stuff and the ridiculous stuff, maybe we could have done a better job of creating a plot and an arc.

KM: Yeah, if we had a second one. The second one would have been even better.

DF: Yeah, maybe if someone will let us because not many people watched Death Comes To Town. So it wasn’t so much response because there wasn’t enough response to inspire any change in our direction. If people had responded at all in any way, that might have informed us.

KM: It was like everything we do. The first week 2 million Canadians watch Death Comes To Town, which is like 20 million Americans. Then it was down to 1 million. Then it was like 500,000. When Brain Candy came out, we were number 10, and then, we were number 46 the week after. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen with the Amazon show.

DF: Yeah. Can you not put this part in?

KM: I curse the show!

DF: I’ve got to say, in Death Comes To Town, I love the story arc of the abortion that just keeps on living. That was very dark but also, I thought, very silly. We kept the idea of “what if death is late to this abortion.”

KM: I also like the idea that Dave and I did with the 27-year-old cat.

DF: Based on a true story.

KM: Based on a true story. I spent a lot of money on a cat who wanted to die. And then Dave came over and said that if the cat learned to speak English it would say, “I’ve learned to speak English to tell you to kill me. I can’t stand the pain!”

DF: “Why won’t you let me go?!”

AVC: Was there ever a time when you were considering doing another narrative show or was it always going to be a sketch?

DF: I think it was always going to be a sketch show. The reason we did the narrative show was that, for years, we always had this sense that we can’t go back to doing sketches because we don’t want to put ourselves in the position of competing with younger versions of ourselves directly. But when we were doing one of our live tours, we decided to write all new sketches because we were tired of, you know, the audience knowing all the jokes, and we found that we really liked writing sketches. We wrote a bunch of sketches that we thought were as good as anything we had ever done. And we thought, well, we should try to film these in some way. We thought we’d just film them as individual film pieces. When it came close to our 30th anniversary, we thought, let’s see if we can’t put together a TV show and do those sketches and write some new ones.

KM: We just like doing sketches. I don’t consider it going back to something. It’s sort of what we do. I would love to have gotten better at doing movies and miniseries, but we’re old now and we’re doing sketches.

DF: Yeah, and it’s an exhausting art form, sketch comedy. You have to generate a lot of ideas for very short pieces.

KM: It’s such a silly job. That’s the skill God gave me? Sketch comedy? Not even standup comedy. The poor cousin of standup comedy. That’s my talent. Sketch comedy.

AVC: The cinematic quality of the sketches makes it seem like they were just written for the screen, basically. What would you say is the ratio of stage sketches to film sketches on the new show?

DF: In terms of how they were written? Maybe 60 percent were written for the TV show and maybe 40 percent were developed on the road. Is anything in the first episode from the tour?

KM: I forget what’s in the first episode. We did the order so long ago.

AVC: How do you order them?

DF: We fight a lot.

KM: And Dave said a very smart thing about it; it’s art in itself. Just ordering. There’s so many things to think about.

DF: My analogy was that Sgt. Pepper’s isn’t a great album just because it’s full of great songs. It’s a great album because it has great songs in the right order. Like, if you started the album with “Lovely Rita” and ended with “Within You, Without You,” and put “A Day In The Life” in the middle of side one, it would have not been a great album.

KM: There are so many things that you’ve got to think about. What’s the best beginning? What’s the best ending? To me, I think the most important is a beginning and end. My thing is always is to put a meaty scene in the middle.

DF: That anchors the show. Instinctively, you learn that you can have two great sketches and you can kill both of them by putting them next to each other. Individually, they can both be great sketches, but you diminish them by putting them near each other. It’s a skill we learned in the club days because you felt it right away. You’re in front of the audience and you feel when you put something in the wrong order.

KM: Yeah. Like B-flat and D are two great chords, but I don’t know if they work together. Do they? I don’t even know. Are they the same?

DF: Let me get a guitar.

The Kids In The Hall

The Kids In The Hall
Photo: Jackie Brown/Amazon Studios

AVC: Thank you for making these episodes 23 to 25 minutes. Especially, now, when we don’t have commercials, it’s so nice to have those bite-sized episodes. Just so we can process the sketches a little bit more and that way we can remember them.

KM: I love I Think You Should Leave, that they’re 15 minutes long, right? That’s sort of a perfect time for that family.

DF: That’s the way Ernie Kovacs used to do it. He used to do 15-minute shows back in the early days of television. It’s perfect.

AVC: Were there any sketches that you were hoping to get in the show but didn’t make it this time?

DF: Oh, lots, lots.

KM: I love Dave for a lot of reasons, and the most heroic reason was he sacrificed a few good scenes so others can get their scenes in. And that was sort of heroic.

DF: Well, thank you.

KM: Sketch martyr. And there were lots of other reasons behind the sketches and get in, but not because they weren’t great.

DF: Yeah, I think we all have sketches that we will revisit if we wind up doing another season. And again, some of them just didn’t get in because, what I just talked about, there was no space for them.

AVC: Is there a premise or a sketch idea that you’ve been keeping in your back pocket for like the last 30 years?

KM: Yes! I have one. I have several. But the one I remember right away is: What if a guy was $10 short of being a millionaire, and I see him on the street in a rich man suit next to people begging for money. “Ten dollars. All I need is ten dollars.”

AVC: Many of your sketches take unexpected turns. You’re following a premise for, say, the first two minutes, and then there’s a beeline to an even more absurd premise. Is that your process for writing or do you get bored of one premise and want to move onto something else? 

KM: A lot of those times, the second premise is actually the premise of the sketch. And because we like to do a “wall of laughter,” like Phil Spector’s “a wall of sound of laughter,” we start off by thinking of something else that’s funny too. That leads into the main premise.

DF: In the first episode of the show, the Money Mart sketch is structurally very different from any other sketch we’ve done in that it’s really two completely different sketches that go on. You’ve got the sketch with Kevin and I as the criminals are trying to make their escape by being naked, and you would think that once those two characters leave the sketch; the sketch has to be over. But then there’s a whole second sketch that’s about the cops and their relationship. From a technical standpoint, I enjoy the fact that that sketch is very structurally innovative.

KM: Yeah, it’s amazing because it’s one of the longer cop sketches. They’re usually in short bites. And it’s amazing to see them for that long.

DF: And it’s about their relationship. So you’ve got one sketch about the relationship between these two terrible criminals and then, on the other half of it, it’s about the relationship between these two terrible cops. When you watch it, it feels like it’s all one sketch, but it isn’t.

KM: It’s two sketches. It’s like the Beatles did that. Sometimes Lennon just had a bit, but he couldn’t finish it and Paul put another bit on it, but it’s much more artful than that. It’s much more powerful than Lennon and McCartney.

DF: Those hacks.

AVC: There’s such an excitement when those sketches make the turn, then all of a sudden you have a weapons-grade deployment of a really old character, like the “Super Drunk” runner that leads into the Head Crusher. Were you more careful about adding those fan favorites?

DF: I think in that one, Bruce just took Mark hostage, essentially. Mark didn’t write a “Head Crusher” and didn’t want to write a “Head Crusher” and wouldn’t write a “Head Crusher.” And Bruce just wrote him into that sketch. And then once Mark was written into it, then Mark had to get on set and sort of create a “Head Crusher” scene against his will. I think more than anything, what you are looking at is an actual hostage situation.

AVC: So you didn’t feel the obligation to, you know, bring back the Secretaries and the Head Crusher?

DF: No, I don’t think so. You know, Kevin and I thought it’d be nice to do a Simon & Hecubus sketch, and then we just didn’t think of an idea. We didn’t want to do a retread of an old sketch.

KM: Even in the first series in the ’90s, we sort of had an unspoken rule: Any sketch had to be good enough to make the show. It didn’t matter if it was a “Head Crusher” or a “Chicken Lady” or “Simon & Hecubus,” we would never put it in just because it is a “Head Crusher,” “Chicken Lady,” or “Simon & Hecubus.” It had to stand on its own merits.

DF: Over the course of 100 episodes, there’s really only a handful of “Head Crusher” sketches from the original show. The same thing is true of any of the other, I guess you would call them, “hit characters” in a show that was never a hit.

KM: And of course, Lorne Michaels, who is very, very smart, it drove him crazy. Why wouldn’t you do your hit characters over and over? That’s how you’ll get more and more seasons.

DF: Yeah, why wouldn’t you have 20 “Head Crushers” in your 20-episode season.

KM: And I don’t think we’re artists or anything; we just go with the funniest scenes that week.

AVC: Many people discovered Kids In The Hall as children, watching reruns on Comedy Central. Does it feel weird knowing you warped so many little minds?

KM: Yeah, I think we have. It’s nice. People always say, “It’s because you guys that I have my sense of humor.” But I hear them saying “It’s because of you guys that I’m on my third marriage and I get fired a lot.”

AVC: You’ve inspired a generation of losers, my lord.

KM: Yes! [Raises his arms in the air triumphantly] Let the losers take over!

AVC: Do you have any messages for the nine-year-olds sneaking on to Prime to watch the new series?

DF: Call Child Services. You are not being well taken care of.

AVC: In Comedy Punks, you all describe the difficulties of the writing and production and aftermath of Brain Candy. Do you feel more at peace with that chapter of the group?

DF: Yeah, I think so. We’ve done a few live stage readings of the script to Brain Candy over the last few years, and we had a lot of fun doing it. It’s one of those things where we realize that it was just a confluence of bad events in everyone’s lives and bad timing and a bad third act.

KM: The first two acts were fine.

DF: I think we realize now that we actually can enjoy it. Especially for me, it’s a big transition that I can enjoy the movie and enjoy the script and enjoy the whole history of the troupe, which is a good thing that comes with age.

KM: It’s become part of the story and you get comfortable with any part of the story after all these years.

DF: You come through a bad patch, but, you know, we’re all still together and we’re still friends.

KM: I still do this [turns head in shame] when I think of some of the stuff I did and said to Dave, but aside from that, I’m comfortable with the bigger picture of the story.

DF: Unfortunately, my memory isn’t very good because I used to drink a lot, so I can’t remember anything you said.

KM: Uh, oh. I’m kidding. I did nothing bad.

DF: Oh, okay. Good!

AVC: Anything you were hoping to get off your chest or that you always wanted to say during one of these interviews?

DF: I’m hoping people enjoy this new stuff as much as we do, but hopefully more than we do because we’re pretty critical of ourselves. I hope it’s as much fun to watch as it was to make.

KM: Luckily, we’re proud of the show and we hope a lot of people watch it. There are a lot of selfish reasons why we hope people love it, but the basic reason is for people to laugh. It’s nice to make people laugh.

DF: We wanted to put out some comedy that’s the kind of comedy that we, ourselves, are missing right now.

KM: We had to do it ourselves.