Review: Amazon's 'Kids in the Hall' revival is an adventure in aging — with the same old bite
In the first scene from the new, sixth season of "The Kids in The Hall," which premiered Friday on Amazon Prime, belated by only 27 years, a woman at a swap meet examines a VHS cassette of "Brain Candy," the troupe's less-than-successful feature film.
"Are these the same hilarious Kids in the Hall from the early '90s?"
"No," says Scott Thompson, as a vendor who might be an alien but who is also Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall. "These are the rage-filled Kids in the Hall from the mid-'90s."
What had at the time been envisioned as the final episode of the original series, a CBC co-production that ran here on HBO, Comedy Central and late at night on CBS, ended with the cast — Thompson, Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch and Kevin McDonald — buried alive; the new series literally digs them up again, three decades older, in their old clothes but not, as they regard one another with horror, their old faces.
Another gift from Canada to American comedy, though always Canadian at heart, the Kids in the Hall are that rare thing, a long-lasting sketch troupe with a fixed lineup. Members have worked individually and in combination over the years — Foley may be best known here for "Newsradio," McKinney for "Superstore" or "Slings & Arrows," Thompson for "The Larry Sanders Show" — but there has been no Kids in the Hall activity without all five present and accounted for; even Monty Python reunited without the late Graham Chapman.
Not all reunions are made the same. Often, it's for a payday, and even when the impulse isn't merely financial, performers, bands or comedy teams — they are the same in so many ways — might remain content to recycle the old hits rather than knuckle down to do new creative work. Sometimes it's a matter of personal history and creative connection and knowing how it all works — or, like muscle memory, not having to know how it works — and because there is a special joy in getting the band together. Well-written, expertly performed, unashamedly odd and full of beans, this would seem to be the latter sort of enterprise. An adventure, if you will.
This new season of "The Kids in the Hall" is not strictly speaking a reunion, given "Brain Candy," the group's 21st century live shows, from which a few sketches in the present season were seemingly developed, and the 2010 miniseries "Death Comes to Town." But it more than acknowledges the past. Old characters return, older; the opening credits, grainy black-and-white interstitials, and nonupdated theme music, "Having an Average Weekend" by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, deliver a jolt of early '90s straight to the system.
An unexpectedly poignant documentary, "Comedy Punks," accompanies the new series, going back to the early 1980s, when McCulloch and McKinney working in Calgary and Foley and McDonald in Toronto got wind of one another and smashed themselves together like trucks carrying peanut butter and chocolate in that old candy commercial; Thompson joined them in Toronto to make a fab five. The arc of their history is familiar, from countless show business documentaries and backstage dramas and comedies. (It's "Spinal Tap," among other things.) There are scruffy beginnings, playing to audiences that number in the low dozens; the overnight success that takes years to build; the ecstasy of fame; the sputtering of the old spark as individual ambitions and opportunities arise; dissension, alienation; and revived interest leading to reunion. Everyone grows up a little, but not too much. Ultimately, it's a love story. Fortunately, cameras were around from the start.
Time haunts all performers. We measure them for what remains of youthful energy and agility and bite, even as we might acknowledge some growth of subtlety, nuance, command, wisdom. Comedy is especially susceptible to generational change and bias; although young comics often cite older ones as inspirations, and a few giants remain funny across the decades, the art survives by parricide. New brooms want to sweep clean. Rhythms change; what was once surprising can become stock; you won't get anywhere in that business reminding people of Bob Newhart, or Steve or Demetri Martin. Young fans who signed on for "Schitt's Creek" might not all respond to what Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara (who makes a cameo as a "friend of Kids in the Hall" in the new series) did on "SCTV," if they even bother to look.
There is nothing the aging comic can do, of course, but continue to try to be smart and good; it helps to be a little outside the norm to begin with, to be willing to leave people a little disturbed, to privilege satisfaction over success. (As a producer notes in "Comedy Punks," they were "willing to die on any hill that came up.") Happily, the Kids' dark, impudent impulses remain intact. In one very dark sketch — it can hardly be called a sketch — Foley plays a post-apocalyptic disc jockey broadcasting from a bunker, "rollin' out the rock to whoever's left in whatever's left of the great metropolitan area," though the only record he evidently has left to play is Melanie's "Brand New Key." It is chilling and sad, and also comedy.
Although wigs allow them to portray some younger characters, age and time are integrated into the material. There is a routine about elderly male strippers ("Autoworkers and strippers are in the same union, so I got to keep my benefits," says a laid-off McKinney, while McDonald needs his wife to help him undo his track suit.) In another, secretaries Kathie (McCulloch) and Cathy (Thompson) sadly send Earth's last fax. Buddy Cole (Thompson) gives a young friend a tour of old and closed gay bars and bath houses, which spins off in a direction there is really no way to describe in a family newspaper, though as is generally the case with the series' sexual material, it is not crude or gratuitous or there for an easy laugh, but essential to the concept or the characters.
There is room, of course, for offense, and not merely over some full-frontal nudity from men around 60. According to Thompson, TV's first out gay sketch comic after Terry Sweeney, who spent a year on "Saturday Night Live," some gay men found his flamboyant, effeminate Buddy Cole distasteful, or inadvisable, though the character has gained, in less closeted times, iconic status.
As they have since their Toronto stage days, the men sometimes play women, which is not the point or meant to be funny in itself, but merely a way to introduce female characters into their comedy. There is also a sketch revolving around Super Drunk (McCulloch), a caped superhero whose powers all come from inebriation. (Stoners are acceptably funny now; drunks, not so much.) These may be a deal breaker for some viewers in this third decade of the 21st century, but one would guess that the troupe is quite prepared for that eventuality.
‘THE KIDS IN THE HALL’
How to watch: Premiered Friday on Amazon Prime Video