Stage: Wednesday, April 25, 2002
No Kidding

Kids in the Hall keep thriving despite mainstream neglect.


The scene inside Dallas’ Bronco Bowl back in February of 2000 was like a college-reunion keg party — except that beer was being sold by the rather pricey plastic cup. An equal mix of men and women, most in their early thirties, thronged the aisles and clustered around fire exits, shouting out lines, hooting, and applauding every change of facial expression by the quintet on stage that was triumphing in a series of brief, character-driven comic vignettes.

The Kids in the Hall got more acclaim that night in Dallas than they ever did from television execs. From the moment of their 1989 debut on HBO, the Canadian troupe was swimming upstream, their half-hour show relegated to the wee weekend hours, amid reruns of M*A*S*H and the apocalyptic rantings of televangelists. The Kids’ dope-and-drag-queen humor was a few years ahead of its time.

Comedy Central, which saved the troupe from obscurity a few years ago, sponsored the 2000 Bronco Bowl appearance and is also behind the Kids’ return engagement there on Friday for “Tour of Duty,” the Kids’ latest production. The group has stuck to its original sources of hilarity, with a few updatings. Their current popularity may be giving some sleepless nights to the HBO types who originally dissed them — which would be justice of a sort. The network never gave the Kids the respect they deserved, despite the high-profile endorsement of “Lorne Michaels Presents” before each half hour.

Things got worse when HBO stopped producing the Kids. After that, new installments of the series were created for syndication. Then you had to be up really early to catch them, primarily because local tv stations were obviously uncomfortable with two of the Kids’ favorite themes, marijuana and homosexuality. Comedy that makes drug use look fun is still largely verboten on tv, so the stoner character, who trades his favorite leather jacket to the devil so that his hair can be replaced with long, dread-like buds, remains radical. It may seem strange to youngsters nowadays, when you can’t channel-surf without running into a wisecracking gay sidekick, but in the early ’90s on the small screen, there was a relative paucity of so-called “queer” humor. And in every glorious sense of that once pejorative adjective, the Kids — Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald, and Scott Thompson — rolled in like a tsunami to fill the void. No other male comic ensemble attacked gay and female characters with such ferocious enthusiasm. Whether it was Thompson as the queen of England, McCulloch as a radical lesbian activist, or McKinney as a mincing musical theater star who thinks he’s still in the closet, the Kids took the quotation marks out of drag and sissies-as-the-butt-of-the-joke comedy. They weren’t interested in distancing themselves from feminine roles to be politically correct. Their forte was acting, not impersonation, which lent a strange dignity to the fringe-dwellers they celebrated.

The Kids in the Hall tv show ceased production in 1995, and it seemed only a handful of mourners were in attendance. They had enough clout to get a feature film called Brain Candy produced in 1996, but it was disappointingly mediocre and apparent evidence to their detractors that these guys were a garage-sale version of Monty Python. The Kids scattered to direct and perform in movies and tv — Dave Foley making the biggest mark with News Radio — until Comedy Central rode in on a white horse to champion their legacy. The Comedy Central suits who heavily promoted the reruns understood that, for many people, the Kids’ menagerie of original characters had gone unnoticed the first time around. Their huge post-mortem popularity lead to 2000’s unprecedented, sold-out North American and European tour, sponsored by Comedy Central, that mixed old sketches with new material (a documentary film about that tour was just released on DVD last week, titled Same Guys, New Dresses).

The military connotation in the current show isn’t accidental — although the Kids largely shun topical humor, they’ll be making some post-9-11 references. Along with bar fixture Buddy Cole and chatty secretaries Cathy-with-a-C and Kathy-with-a-K, you’ll meet a trampy socialite who plans to infiltrate Afghanistan in a burqa on a one-woman mission. And expect one punch line to make several surprise appearances: “Because we can’t let the terrorists win!” If you bet that anybody can poke the country’s seven month-old wound with queer respectfulness, place your money on the Kids.

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