Published on January 15th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant0
Interview: Scott Thompson (Kids in the Hall)
Craig Silliphant sits down with the hilarious Scott Thompson from iconic Canadian sketch troupe Kids in the Hall to talk about comedy, homophobia, and more.
We swear, this site isn’t a Kids in the Hall fan site. Though we are huge fans of iconic Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall and we’re proud to have already featured interviews with Bruce McCulloch and Kevin McDonald, we swear, we’re not stalking them. Much.
This time around, we talk to Scott Thompson, in what ends up being a pretty riveting and revealing chat. While the other guys were really cool and open with us, Thompson is very honest about his triumphs and struggles. We talk about Kids in the Hall, being gay in comedy, and beating cancer. Big thanks to Scott for taking the time to talk to us.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: You’re doing a stand up show when you’re here this month. How have you transitioned into standup? Is it something you’ve done for awhile?
SCOTT THOMPSON: It’s been a long transition, really. I mean, I’ve always performed solo. I’ve always done one man shows. But they’re not stand up. I would talk as myself, but it was always about the characters. Years ago, I did do a stand up tour, but it was me talking, then doing a character, then me talking, then doing a character. It’s not really stand up. I even did a stand up tour 15 years ago as Buddy Cole, in character. But I’ve always been terrified of it. I’ve always thought of it as the ultimate in comedy.
When I first went down to LA to be on Larry Sanders, I used to do this thing called Un-Caberet, which was the beginning of the alternative movement in the states. It was run by Beth Lapides. Everybody that you know that is now big in comedy went through there. Paul F. Thompkins, Zach Galifinakis, Sarah Silverman, all that gang. The thing was, you had to go up on stage, everytime you perform. I’d do it every three or four, maybe every six weeks. I would do new material, like, just tell a story. The whole thing was you had to tell a story or do 10, 15 minutes with all new material. So I never repeated anything. It was just like storytelling. I was always scared, always felt out of control. And I’ve always used the characters to protect myself in a way.
The world has changed so drastically in my lifetime. I could not really be a stand up when I started out. It really was not possible. The kind of stand up that I’d want to be. You couldn’t be honest and open about yourself. Back then. Impossible.
I always kind of resented (stand up) and thought, why do I have to do it? Why am I not in TV shows? Why am I not in movies? Why is it so hard for me post-Kids in the Hall? After Larry Sanders and Kids in the Hall, I kind of assumed that my career will be set. Oh, I’ll be in movies…just like SCTV, SNL, you know. But it just never happened. I really underestimated the depth of homophobia, honestly. I really had no idea it was that bad. So I would do it, but I never liked it.
About six years ago, I got cancer and I had to come back home. I had no health care. So I came home. I took awhile to get better, but I beat it. And while I was really ill, I decided that when I got better, I would take on stand up. And really try to get good at it. Stop fighting it. Embrace it. I felt like I didn’t really have anything to be afraid of anymore. So once I got better, I started performing. Going to all the little clubs in town. Doing it for years on and off. Developing bits. I thought, I want an act. I don’t just want to go up there flying blind. I felt like people enjoyed watching me because they saw a guy out of control. And that might be good for the audience, but not for me.
I though, why do I have to do this? I’m a Kid in the Hall, for fuck’s sake. I know that sounds arrogant, but it’s really the truth. So I went about crafting an act and getting comfortable. In the last year, I’ve felt I’ve made a kind of a leap, where I’m comfortable. Now I want to do it, because I’m doing stuff that no one else is doing. The world doesn’t reflexively hate me now, so I’m not standing on stage for the first 20 minutes getting them used to being entertained by a gay man, you know?
I would be uncomfortable because the audience were so uptight. The last five years, things changed. The tipping point happened. But back then, even seven years ago, five, six years ago, it was just obvious that society was anti-gay. Do you know what I mean? It was just the way it was and there was no questioning it. There might be lots of people on the other side, but the major thinking was that this is not good. This is bad, this is immoral. These are bad people.
Even when I used to do Conan (O’Brian), everytime I went, I would have the censor come to watch me. As if I had to be controlled. Anytime you went to anything remotely gay, the audience would tighten up. Everyone would tighten up. But now it’s so different.
Sorry (laughs), that was a big ramble.
TFS: No, that was great. There’s a lot of things in there I want to unpack a little bit. But let’s go back a bit, to your youth. What was it like?
ST: I was born in North Bay, Ontario, and I moved South with my family when I was nine to Brampton, and that’s where I was brought up. Mostly. When I finished school I went away for a year to the Phillippines on an exchange program. After that I went to York to study acting — I was going to be an actor. I am an actor, but I had no intentions of being a comedian. None. I was going to be a dramatic actor who was funny on talk shows. That was my goal.
TFS: Infamously, you didn’t spend more than a year at York?
ST: No, I finished! I was kicked out of my program, but I finished in English. I was kicked out of theatre. But I got a fine arts degree. And I think it was probably the best thing for me. It gave me a lot of anger — I’ll show you. You can’t really underestimate how important that is.
TFS: For sure, that’s a great motivator.
ST: It really is. And the other thing was, getting a good education is really important. There’s a lot of people out there that haven’t read the classics. I think it really helped me a lot, so I’m really glad it went down the way it did. And then I met the Kids in the Hall and that changed everything.
TFS: So how did you go from drama to comedy, and when did you realize you were funny?
ST: I was very unsuccessful as an actor. I didn’t really get any work. It was only a couple of years before I met the Kids in the Hall. I did try my first years out of York to do stand up. I’d go down to Yuk Yuk’s and do the open mic. I did it maybe four or five times. This is before I met the Kids in the Hall. The atmosphere was so awful. Frankly, abusive. I wasn’t even out of the closet yet, but they knew. Not just the audience, I’m talking about the comedians, everything. It was awful.
TFS: So how old were you then?
ST: In my early 20s.
TFS: And how old were you when you came out of the closet?
ST: Oh, then. 23, 24. I came out late. 24, I think? But I read gay, I think. I’m not a super queen, but you know.
TFS: How did you start to express to the world that you were gay?
ST: I didn’t. You couldn’t. You could not. In those days, stand up in those days, they’d pick out a guy in the audience who looked weak or effeminate, or alone, or nerdy, whatever and he’d be focused on. They’d call him Lance or Bruce, gay names. And they would mock him throughout the show. That happened all the time. I looked at it and went, there’s no place for me here. And then I met the Kids in the Hall and I realized that I could be other people. And that had never crossed my mind before.
TFS: I know Kevin and Dave kind of met, and Bruce and Mark, but how did you come into the picture?
ST: I was the solo guy. I started doing improvisation and I had a team called ‘The Love Cats.’ There were four of us. We were quite a wild improv group. We weren’t really that good, but we were fearless. We did lots of crazy things. That’s when The Kids in the Hall met ‘The Audience.’ Kids in the Hall were Dave and Kevin and Luc [original member Luciano Casimiri]. And then Mark and Bruce were with the other group, The Audience, from out West. They formed a group together, The Kids in the Hall, there were about eight of them. Mark saw me at improv, at Theatresports, and I think I did something crazy one night. I used to wear costumes, I’d wear pearls and things like that. So I stood out. I had to because I wasn’t really good at it. But I was a trained actor and I think Mark really liked that. And then I went and saw them one night with my friend Darlene, and they were doing a midnight show. And that was it — I fell in love. I knew I was going to be in the group, instantly. I’d never met them or anything. I turned to my friend and said, I’m going to be in the group and she said, ‘you don’t even know them.’ I said, ‘yeah, but it doesn’t matter.’ They don’t know that they need me.
TFS: That’s cool. So going back to Kids in the Hall. It was the 90s. I was in high school watching you. I guess I was raised in a way that it didn’t make a difference to me that you were gay or that there was gay comedy.
ST: Were you raised by hippies?
TFS: No, quite the opposite actually. But that kind of hate or homophobia was just never engrained into me as a kid. But, I realize at the time, there wasn’t a lot of understanding at the time. It was a time where people would still say, ‘oh, that’s gay.’
ST: For sure. And I mean, Aids, for God’s sake. You can’t take Aids out of the equation.
TFS: Right! I was talking about this with one of my writers this morning. We were talking about the stupid rumour, or the question, or the assumption that used to be out there — that all The Kids in the Hall, or at least more than one of them, were gay.
ST: Yes, and they all paid for that. They all paid the price of homophobia. And it’s sad, because I think if you look at our careers, post-television…they’re not at all like the careers of SNL, or SCTV, or Mad TV. It’s totally different. We all paid the price. And it’s sad, because I deserve to pay the price, but they didn’t. But I love them for it.
TFS: That’s super interesting, but the flipside is, having that kind of humour is one of the things that made Kids in the Hall so amazing and edgy at the time.
ST: Yes, yes.
TFS: Like I said, I was in high school, and I’m watching comedy that no one else is doing at the time. Whether it was something that centred around the idea of a character being gay, like Buddy Cole. Or whether it was something as simple as five guys doing characters in drag.
ST: There’s no question, it was revolutionary.
TFS: Along the lines of The Kids in the Hall’s career trajectory, you guys retain the rights to all those characters? I read somewhere that you thought that might also have had mixed results for your careers?
ST: Absolutely. If you think of Lorne [Michaels] as God, and us as his children in a way, like Adam and Eve, we took away the power from him. He couldn’t control us because we found a way to…Lorne’s always owned everybody, owned their characters, you know what I mean? He never owned our characters, so as a result, there was never a Headcrusher movie, there was never a Buddy movie, a Gavin movie, because Lorne didn’t own them. That’s one side effect. But the other thing is, unlike anyone from SNL or SCTV, we own our characters. We can do whatever we want with them.
TFS: I’m sure that also prevented you from having these horrible, giant multiplex ruinations of some of those characters.
ST: True, but it would have been nice to have a blockbuster movie (laughs). And there are some good movies that come from that world.
TFS: Oh, for sure.
ST: I think what it did for us, was it kept us hungry. Much longer than we should have been hungry. It kept us hungrier than any of our peers. And I think in a strange way, that’s a blessing. Creatively, it’s a blessing. Financially, it’s not a blessing.
TFS: That also means I got excited because I get to talk to Scott Thompson today, but if you gave me Adam Sandler, who is obviously a bigger star, and I wouldn’t give a shit about that. His career has gone off the rails as far as I’m concerned.
ST: Yeah, there might even be a part of him that’s jealous of us (laughs).
TFS: I’m sure a lot of cocaine and swimming pools help.
ST: That helps, doesn’t it?
TFS: Have you seen the Aziz Ansari show, ‘Master of None?’
ST: I love it.
TFS: I was thinking about it, going back to the idea of Kids in the Hall having a gay member and your career — there’s a great anecdote in one of those episodes where people expect Ansari to do an Indian accent for roles. Do you feel like you get typecast in those situations as a gay man? And does that bother you?
ST: Oh, yeah. God yeah. But it’s changing. It’s all changing. Even for me to rail about it now seems disingeniuous because it’s changing. But for the longest time, I was completely stereotyped and was not allowed to play straight. Wasn’t allowed to play straight and wasn’t allowed to play gay if the part was big. They could only go to straight men who wanted to show how brave they were. The other part is, they all expected me to be Buddy Cole, and I’m not. I’m not ashamed of him. He’s great, but that’s not me.
TFS: Do you ever get to do roles that you’re proud of as a gay man? Stuff that gay or straight people can see and not be made to think that you’re acting out a stereotype?
ST: I guess so. I’m proud of my work on Larry Sanders.
TFS: That’s a great show.
ST: It is a great show.
TFS: Switching gears, and I asked both Bruce and Kevin about this too, about the idea of bawdy comedy. Should there be something more satirical behind edgy humour? Or can it just be bawdy for the sake of being bawdy?
ST: They’re all valid. There’s nothing wrong with getting a laugh from something bawdy. We were generally quite snobby about that sort of thing. I think in the entire series, there’s only one fart joke. And it’s done by the Queen, so that’s why it was allowed. I think shock is a tool you can use. When it’s used in an empty manner, just to shock, I don’t think it’s effective. But it can quite often open doors, shock, in a way. Loosen things up a little.
TFS: Right. Makes sense. So, sorry, I’m kind of jumping around a little, but I want to quickly touch on Buddy Cole…
ST: You don’t quickly touch on Buddy Cole.
TFS: (laughs) Sorry, I fed you that one, didn’t I?
ST: Yeah, you did (laughs).
TFS: Okay, to slowly caress Buddy Cole…
ST: Thank you…
TFS: How did Buddy come about? Was that pre-Kids in the Hall? Something you were working on?
ST: Yes. Basically, I used to improvise with my friend Paul Bellini who wrote on the show. Back in the mid-80s, Paul got a video camera and we just started improvising and invented this character. I never had done that kind of voice before, because honestly, I think I was afraid that if I talked like that, it would be the end of me. I would end up talking like that forever. Like when your mother says, ‘don’t make a face, if the wind changes, it’ll stay that way.’ I was terrified that if I started that I would end up being an effeminate, prancing queen. But then I met a guy, had an affair with him, and he was effeminate. But very sexy. I was very attracted to him. He died, and I started imitating him. He was one of the first to go in AIDS, and I started to imitate him. Then I started imitating him on camera. His voice, and his brains, because he was an incredibly smart guy. Paul and I just started making up shit. I wrote the first monologue, which is about Buddy in Bagdahd. When I did that with the Kids, it sort of cemented me.
But it was powerful, because Buddy became my stand up voice, in a way. But I realized that subconsciously, that voice lulls people into thinking that the person talking is not a deep person. Do you know what I mean? That accent — the gay accent, makes people think, oh this person’s a pushover. This person’s weak. Buddy’s not weak. He’s an alpha queen. So that’s what allowed me to say things I’d never have been able to say if I’d taken on a different kind of persona. It was an attempt to give that stereotype teeth. And bite.
TFS: So Buddy hasn’t become one of those characters that haunts you over time?
ST: Not at all. I love him. I still do him. I still write new Buddy monologues. I have a new one now. There are certain things that in stand up are scary for people, but they’re not for Buddy. Certain topics that I give to Buddy. There’s one that I’m working on now that’s a boundary pusher. But people like that character, so they let him say things that…he gets away with murder.
TFS: Perhaps you just said this, but you can go deep enough into character that you can say something that Scott Thompson might can’t say. You would be embarrassed if the joke bombed, but Buddy doesn’t care.
ST: Absolutely! Buddy doesn’t give a shit. He could care less if he bombed or did well. He’s still the smartest person in the room, so what does he have to prove? Nothing.
TFS: That’s really cool. Switching gears again, I don’t want to ask you too much about this stuff because I know it was a darker time, but…
ST: Brain Candy?
TFS: Brain Candy. The reason I want to talk about this is because I wasn’t super aware of what was going on with the troupe at the time. But I fucking love that movie.
ST: Me too.
TFS: Okay, well that was my question. Aside from what was going on at the time, the implosion of the group, sort of, do you have bad feelings about it or can you separate it from that?
ST: No, I love it. I totally separate myself.
TFS: I would say too, that you have arguably some of the funniest characters in the movie. My favourite, I was telling Kevin this a few weeks ago and we were laughing about it, Mrs. Hurdicure.
ST: She’s a nice lady.
TFS: Her happiest moment. It’s the worst. I mean, it’s awesome, but it’s so heartbreaking, and that’s why it’s funny.
ST: It is, and it’s kind of my favourite kind of comedy too. There’s sadness there. There’s a lot of sadness there. Very proud of that scene.
TFS: Kevin had said too, that you guys were idiots to have made your first movie a comedy about sadness.
ST: Oh, insane. A satirical comedy about depression. Where we don’t do our hit characters. Complete career suicide.
TFS: Although, I feel like we’re drawing some patterns here. Whether we’re talking about edgy comedy, or comedy about homosexuality, versus something like this — Kids in the Hall pushed comedy ahead. You’ve never played it safe — you did what you thought was funny.
ST: We never have. We are slaves to our muse and that’s the truth.
TFS: How about now, with the guys in the group? Obviously you went through those dark patches and have come back together in later years, what do you think of your relationship with them now? Do you relate to them differently now?
ST: I don’t know if it’s changed, but we’re just more respectful of each other. As human beings, but we’re still the same way in terms of the work. We’re still ruthless. Which is the way it has to be. But we’re definitely kinder to each other as human beings. We’ve been together since we were kids. But the same dynamics are always there. For example, Mark and Bruce are a team, Kevin and David are a team, and I’m the bridge. It’s always been like that. It’s not that I’m the adopted child or anything. I can swing with all of them. We call can too. But that’s sort of how I see my job, to go back and forth between those camps.
And a lot of things that drove us crazy about each other back then, now we just say, ‘oh, that’s just Mark.’ No matter who it is, we just say, ‘oh that’s Mark.’ (laughs)
TFS: (laughs) It’s funny how that happens as in general as we get older.
ST: Yeah, it’s like brothers. I come from a family of five boys, so it’s a very familiar group to be in.
TFS: So, is there anything else you are working on you’d like to plug?
ST: Oh, yeah, I’m working on tons of stuff! There’s a second book in my graphic novel series, the Danny Husk series, The Hollow Planet. And I’m working on turning that into an animation series. I have Buddy Babylon, the Buddy Cole biography is coming out in the New Year, digitally on Amazon. I published the book in 1998, but it didn’t do well at all. People weren’t ready for it. But now they’re putting it out in an e-book and we’re putting in the missing chapters that were taken out 18 years ago. That’s very exciting for me. I’m hoping that Buddy Cole will get a second chance. I think in Canada it got one review. People were disgusted by it. They called it racist, homophobic, all those words. And I have a series coming out in May, which is called What Would Sal Do? It’s the best part I ever had. I play a priest. It’s on Superchannel. Hopefully it gets an American network as well. It’s huge for me, because it’s funny, it’s a comedy, but there are dramatic parts in it. So I finally get to be an actor. I’m thrilled.