Amazon’s ‘Kids in the Hall’ Breaks the Curse, Crushes Heads in a Reunion of the Comedy Punks
If we’d only known how unprotected the earth is in this galaxy, we never would have unplugged the last fax machine. The resuscitated “Kids in the Hall” series comes as a new line of defense from old offenders, and they’re up-to-date on the advances in technological dangers. The players have learned how to masturbate during Zoom meetings. From experience, too much experience. Yes, the Kids in the Hall comedy troupe are Canadian, but they are funny. So much so we never realize what an insidious plot they stretch over multiple 20-minute increments of sketch-comedy. The Kids have gotten old, so old that death is their best friend. While not every routine ends with it, the ultimate demise looms over every punchline. Not because any one laugh may be their last, but because death renders life absurd, and that’s where the Kids play best. As comedians, they kill there.
Even the last glory hole (Paul Bellini) is given its most improper due as the troupe bring their surrealist take on all things which pass without an ounce of nostalgia. Prime Video’s new documentary “The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks” does that for them. This frees the old punks to be new godfathers you’d never leave your kids with. The new “Kids in the Hall” enjoys quite a few freedoms which had been denied as new kids on the block, and the players have accumulated the age and wisdom to squander them on absurd silliness. The skits are populated with cheating imaginary girlfriends, post-apocalyptic DJs with only one record, and a mysterious, apparently all-knowing, all-seeing, and almost-all-exposing, man in a towel. When the troupe conjure Shakespeare from a commemorative upper torso bust, they forget to solder the gaping wounds of unfinished art.
The “Kids in the Hall” ensemble consists of Dave Foley, and yes, he’s still the cute one, along with Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson. They were the “SCTV” of their generation, live or on TV. But they went a step forward. They didn’t need to please, performed material they thought was funny, included in-jokes and outrage, and showed no overt interest in whether the audience was laughing. They made themselves laugh. They were casual and likable. The Kids in the Hall didn’t limit themselves to the usual topical political humor. They wanted to upset and please at the same time, using homosexuality as a weapon against homophobia, laughing at forbidden nature of taboo, and squishing stranger’s heads between their fingers.
Lorne Michaels, who turned the cast of the National Lampoon Radio Show into the Not Ready for prime-time players of “Saturday Night Live,” wanted them. “Kids in the Hall” was a groundbreaking sketch comedy show that ran from 1989 to 1994, bouncing from HBO and CBC to CBS in the downward spiral of success. The Kids sold their souls to return from their long hiatus, and it’s not a seller’s market. Their initial deal for stardom was a pact with the big man downstairs. For the series, they’ve sunk deeper into the evil abyss, signing with Amazon’s Prime Video. The darkness shows.
The humor is more subtle, even as it goes big, though never really loud. The ensemble stumbles over leaps of logic into brilliant strangeness. The very first skit is criminally absurd. Two thieves get away with a robbery by stripping naked because the cops are looking for clothed perpetrators. That is only the setup, but the execution, including an almost calisthenic search, just to keep the balls bouncing, still leaves room for an impossible conclusion, which is then undermined itself.
Ever the masters of self-referential, self-deprecating, and quite possible self-injurious behaviors, one skit stars Foley as a collector looking to buy an old “Kids in the Hall” performance on VHS, only to learn it’s worthless because there are just too many Kevin McDonald sketches in the world. With impeccable group chemistry, the troupe proudly wear their influences on the sleeves, which may also be where they wipe their noses. One sketch begins as a class-conscious fancy-restaurant bit which would fit nicely in a vintage “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” episode, and ends as Kafkaesque quiche, and still light on the kitsch.
The Kids in the Hall continue to push boundaries, even retroactively, as they put old beloved characters into new scenarios without ever giving the feel of recycling old material. Thompson’s Buddy Cole was a groundbreaking gay character during the run and a cautionary tale now, but loving it in a perversely nihilistic “No Exit” way. Yet, the troupe still mines timeless humor, like the importance of proper pronunciation when dialing 911. Groucho Marx wrote that one of the fundamental rules of comedy is “When all else fails, drop your pants.” The Kids take this classic commitment to heart, boldly bearing their shortcomings for the world to laugh at. And we do.
Comedy is under attack from both sides of the aisle now, and freedom of speech is becoming increasingly conditional. You have to know your pies from your tarts. Luckily for the Kids, one-liners are only part of their farcical arsenal. They drop punchlines with facial expressions, and their non-verbal communications can be as triggering as any repartee. The audience has to think while they laugh, until they don’t, and that’s when the most subversive ideas get through.
Each of the eight episodes runs about 25 minutes. Not every skit works, but “Kids in the Hall” season one feels like season six, with a 27-year gap, rather than a reunion. The jokes are still fearless, the formerly youthful cynicism is more maturely vicious, sometimes exquisitely brutal, but the sketches are built squarely on the performers’ unique comedic personalities. Each member has multiple great moments in every installment. The sad thing is, most viewers probably won’t be able to think about anything else but pouring cheese on their heads, and eating them.
“Kids in the Hall” begins streaming May 13 on Amazon Prime Video.