Kids With a Scythe
by M. Faust
Bruce McCulloch on Death Comes to Town, the new Kids in the Hall series
The Kids in the Hall are back, and they’re better than ever. Or at least they’re as good as ever, and when you’re talking about the most consistently inventive and hilarious ensemble since Monty Python, that’s more than enough.
When the Canadian comedy troupe ended its first television series in 1994, after five seasons and 103 episodes, it wasn’t because their popularity was fading. They chose to end on a high note, moving on to solo projects and a movie, 1996’s Brain Candy. Over the years they have reunited for occasional tours, while the original shows continued to gain new fans on reruns and DVD.
The new series, Death Comes to Town, was written and performed by all five original members—Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson. Instead of the sketch format of the original show, its eight episodes introduces all new characters joined by a central narrative thread: Who murdered the mayor of the small Ontario town of Shuckton?
As usual, all of the Kids play multiple characters, male and female. The most memorable are McKinney’s snaggle-toothed, pot-bellied Grim Reaper; Thompson’s hairless and closeted town coroner; McCulloch’s 600-pound former hockey star; McDonald’s scatterbrained pizza delivery lady, who investigates the murder; and Foley, fetching as ever in a dress, as the late mayor’s alcoholic but ambitious widow. (Fans of the original series can also look forward to cameos by Bellini and Chicken Lady.)
If you didn’t catch the series when it ran on the CBC earlier this year (access to the Canadian airwaves being a perpetual benefit of living in Buffalo, albeit one overlooked in the recent TreeHugger.com article currently making the rounds), you can join the rest of America in catching up to it when it premieres on IFC this Friday night at 10pm.
As part of a media blitz that had them all over cable TV and the internet last week (by all means go to YouTube and watch their appearance on The Soup last week), I recently spoke to Bruce McCulloch, who, as the executive producer of the series, proved right off the bat that he knows how to deal with the media.
AV: It seems like you guys have been everywhere in the past week.
McCulloch: It’s not too bad—we don’t go on Good Morning America, but we’re busy with cool people like yourself.
AV: I understand that the original idea for the series was yours?
McCulloch: I had the initial idea, and I stepped up and said, “Follow me boys!” Just like Vimy Ridge, for all the Canadians reading this. [Look it up—I had to.] I declared myself and said I will serve as executive producer and take care of all the problems and be last man standing, which I was. It was one of the first times over a long history of the Kids in the Hall that there was an initial idea where we all went, “Yeah, that’s great idea.”
AV: What struck you as funny about death?
McCulloch: Well, Death getting off a Greyhound bus in a small town seemed like a good writing engine for me. What are the characters of a murder mystery—we need the guy who’s wrongly accused, we need the prosecutor—it just felt like that would be juicy, as we like to say.
AV: So everyone contributed to the writing?
McCulloch: Yes. I shouldered the architecture of it—the problem with Brain Candy was that we were all trying to write it at once. One guy has to have his eye on the ball while everyone goes off and writes and brings their stuff back in.
AV: Unlike the original series, which was seldom specific about locations, this show is very openly Canadian. Was that intentional?
McCulloch: It was. When we first did the show, we really balked at the “Canadian comedy troupe” thing, even though we were proud to be Canadian. But this time it just felt really sweet to go back to the CBC and a story with a hockey player and this sad little town trying to get the Olympics, and all those ’70s and ’80s classic Canadian rock songs. We really embraced it, probably for the first time ever.
AV: I loved the songs, especially “Where Evil Grows” [a 1971 hit for yhe Poppy Family, led by Terry Jacks pre-”Seasons in the Suns”].
McCulloch: I didn’t realize how great that song was. Terry Jacks actually approached us about using it, and he let us take it and score it. I realized, ’cause I’m a music geek, there’s a kernel there that influenced “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And being a composer, I was like, this is amazing!
AV: Is there a Canadian sense of humor?
McCulloch: I think there is. I think Americans want to explain things as they’re doing them, and Canadians don’t necessarily do that. And I think the fact that we watch America makes us able to comment on them. All comedians, be they from America or Canada, are usually the youngest born or the middle child, they’re never the first born. They’re the watchers, the people trying to get attention from the first born, and as a nation Canada is like that.
AV: There’s some really dark humor in here—not just Death, but the necrophiliac coroner, the genial local abortionist, the Frankencat. Were there any ideas that the CBC wouldn’t let you do?
McCulloch: No, actually. CBC was fantastic. They gave us a few notes that were mostly logic notes, but what they were saying from the highest level was, “We know what the Kids in the Hall are, and we want the Kids in the Hall.” So they let us go pretty far.
AV: How about from your own perspective—were there ideas you rejected as going too far?
McCulloch: There may be things where we self-censored ourselves in terms of the writing, but I can’t honestly think of them. There was a lot of conversation about where the orphan story went. That was like three-to-two that we’d do all the things we did with that one, but mostly everyone was nice—there’s nothing dirty left on the editing room floor.
AV: Your major character in the series is Ricky, the disgraced high school hockey star who is now a 600-pound shut-in. How uncomfortable was the fat suit?
McCulloch: Of course we’re the Kids in the Hall, so we didn’t have the Eddie Murphy fat suit with its own cooling system built in. That was probably the hardest part of the whole thing, some pretty tough, wet going. The big battle scene with Death, that was probably a 12- or 13-hour day. They won’t let you do that in LA, but when you’re the executive producer, it’s like, gotta keep going!
AV: Because you’re all writers, I assume that you mostly devise characters for yourselves to play. Is there a lot of switching that goes on in development?
McCulloch: Some. It’s sort of a creative osmosis. Mark played Death because he loves characters where he can ponder, “How does this guy grunt?” Scott came up with the story of Dusty, so he was going to play him. We were cognizant of not wanting to play too much opposite ourselves in the same scene, ’cause it’s a comedy killer—we made that mistake in Brain Candy.
AV: Why are men in dresses funny?
McCulloch: [He pauses.] Well, that I don’t know. I guess because it’s an obvious absurd joke. And then when you forget that they’re men, then it becomes more interesting because it’s absurd that you forgot about it and you remember it at certain times. So it’s like a magic trick.
AV: After nearly 30 years in this business, does being professionally funny get easier or harder?
McCulloch: It gets both. I spend a lot of my time writing scripts and doing pilots for American TV, and you spend a lot of your time explaining why what you want to do is funny. So in a business sense it gets more tiring to have to explain yourself, and you don’t want to be that guy saying, “Don’t you know who I am?” But understanding what makes TV, what makes characters and storytelling, makes some part of it easier.
AV: How has the chemistry among the five Kids fared after all these years together?
McCulloch: It ebbs and flows, but its easier to be together now…it’s weird when we haven’t seen each other for a long time, but when we’re performing we just get back into it. You go in the van and Scott’s reading the newspaper, and he says hi or he doesn’t say hi, it doesn’t matter because we’re like a whole family. It’s that way in terms of performance and writing as well. Death was sort of a test—we’ve sustained ourselves mostly doing tours, where it isn’t as hard to agree on things as much as doing a whole new series, where you have to agree on the entire scope and tone of it. That takes a lot of discussion and a lot of trust with each other.
Watch the trailer for Death Comes to Town
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