Published on November 5th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Interview: The Kids in the Hall’s Bruce McCulloch
Bruce McCulloch is a Canadian comedy legend, one fifth of The Kids in the Hall. Craig Silliphant squeals like a schoolgirl, then interviews Mr. McCulloch.
The first time I saw the sketch comedy show The Kids in the Hall beaming out from the TV was about 1989. It was an off the wall, hilarious show that had more in common with Monty Python’s surreal vibe than it did with Saturday Night Live’s safe network nature. This show, that was once a goofy little underground show on CBC, has become a comedy institution, especially in Canada (thought the show did air on CBS and HBO in the US). It provided hours of laughs with my young drunk punk friends and I, endlessly quotable, with characters that are burned in our collective brains forever. Though all five guys in the troupe, Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Scott Thompson, and Mark McKinney each brought something different to the team, Bruce was always my favourite.
Fast-forward 25 years and I’m in my office answering the phone — a familiar voice comes at me, “It’s Bruce McCullooooch,” he says in a sing song voice. Surreal. In support of his Young Drunk Punk tour across Canada and the release of his hilarious new book, Let’s Start a Riot, I spend the next 20 minutes chatting with one of my comedy idols about comedy, The Kids in the Hall, and writing.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: What do you get personally out of exploring your time growing up, and making light of it? Why is the humour important?
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: It doesn’t feel like rocky times. It feels like my life. I’ve never been through anything in my life where humour wasn’t something that helped me get through it. It’s obviously one of the most important parts of my life, and I just think that when we look back on dark things, or silly things that happened to us, I think humour’s good. And it somehow makes it relatable, I think.
TFS: I read something once that has guided me in writing when it’s of a more personal nature — if you’re feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed with telling your story, then you’re starting to get to the real truth of it. Does this ring true for you?
BM: I always say, ‘follow the water.’ You drop the water on the ground and you follow it. You have to follow where ever that idea’s going to take you. And be fearless. Whether you’re an imperfect person or you’ve been through something dark. I think everything I’m writing about — you know, I hope it’s interesting. And I don’t think it’s about me in a sense. It’s really about how the people reading it are going to reflect on their own lives.
TFS: A lot of the advance press on the book focus on trying to squeeze out of you whether the stories are true or not, and to what degree.
BM: Is it 100% true? No, my son is not going to be a teenage sommelier, but essentially the stories are true. I might put in a punchline or a twist that didn’t happen. But I kind of think, are they emotionally true? Is this something I feel? Some are totally true, every minute of them are true. And others are, you know, I take some license with what goes on in my head when I meet my wife, or whatever. But, I think they’re essentially true. Nothing is totally made up, but certainly bits of it are.
TFS: Doesn’t trying to weight and measure what’s true in the story sort of go against the point of storytelling? All true stories are dramatized, and all fiction has truth buried within it. Does it bother you that some people need to know what’s true?
BM: Well no, I don’t mind that. Like, I’m actually a fan of these kind of books. I read the Bob Mould book,nd I was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t know he was doing that when he was doing that.’ So I think, you know, I have some fans from the Kids in the Hall show that will want to think about what was going on or are finding a little treasure or Easter egg, as they call it, in there. But my bigger hope for the book is that, you know, my first heartbreak feels like their first heartbreak. Or whatever that is so certainly some fans will do that, but my hope is the book is bigger in a way.
TFS: There’s a lot of political correctness that can dog edgy comedy. You have edgier characters from Cancer Boy to Angie the HIV Unicorn. Do you think there’s a line between clever bawdy comedy and just shock laughs?
BM: Oh yeah, I mean, it’s funny stuff that I’ve been pointed out as edgy. Well, I guess Cancer Boy was kind of edgy. But it has to hold its weight. You know, we’ve never done a wife-beating joke. Maybe there’s a funny one, I don’t know. I certainly never wrote one. So I think when the subject matter is more serious, you just have to be more careful. The Kids and certainly I, never do anything just because it’s bad or edgy. Maybe when we first started, but…if it’s something serious, you have to weight it. I mean, we were writing when we were doing our anniversary show, when we turned 25. And we said, ‘You know who else has turned 25? Aids.’ So we were going to do a Happy Birthday Aids thing. And then we started writing it and going, eh…this just doesn’t feel good. It’s a funny idea, but let’s not do it. I think you know in your gut if you’re doing the right thing or not.
TFS: Have age and hindsight brought anything to a complicated group relationship like the one you share with the [Kids in the Hall] guys? You know, when you’re young, you’re more insecure, perhaps more likely to fall into certain patterns of partnership?
BM: I don’t think our creative relationship is that different. We did some new shows, this year. We were in Toronto and in the States. That’s still the same. We still go, ‘No, I don’t like your idea’ or, ‘here’s what would be funny.’ But I think, interpersonally, we’re just kind to each other now. I had kind of a book launch here in Toronto and did my show and you know, Scott and Mark and Dave all came, and Kevin texted me ‘cause he was out of town. So it’s like, everyone is kind now. We’re kind of nice to each other now in a way that probably we weren’t…well, certainly we weren’t, in our 20s.
TFS: What were your comedy influences? When I was younger, the only other sketch troupe that could touch Kids in the Hall was Python. But what other stuff was there?
BM: I guess I was a fan of Python, but I had Woody Allen books and records or whatever. I wasn’t really a fan of comedy; I don’t know if I am now, you know, I was more into rock music and Jack Kerouac than I was Saturday Night Live. Those guys are all, well, not Scott, he’s a punk too — but Kevin and Dave are certainly aficionados of all comedy from Jack Benny up. And me, I had less respect for anything that came before me. (Laughs)
TFS: So, you were really less a comedian and more a funny guy with a rock n’ roll spirit?
BM: Yeah, and when I started writing sketches, I’d never seen anybody do sketches. I just sort of started to try to do them. I’d never really seen anybody do stand up. So I sort of made it my own in a certain way. Though of course, you can’t not be influenced by Python, if you exist.
TFS: I have to bring up [The KITH movie] Brain Candy. While it may not have been popular opinion when it came out, I fucking loved it. I love it now. I know it was difficult to make. How do you feel about it now?
BM: I think the feeling we had for years about that movie wasn’t so much the movie itself, but it was just how hard it was interpersonally. You know, it was sort of the end of a long run on TV. We were exhausted. There was other sort of personal challenges between people in the troupe. I think now, it’s kind of a pretty great, flawed movie. We just did a staged reading in March, here in Toronto, with the original composer and Gord Downey sang a song and whatnot. And, I loved it. And only now that we’re at a healthy chapter, being able to look back on our long lives together, can we look back at our darkest chapter. Which is, sort of, somehow, Brain Candy.
TFS: I often quote the Glenn Danzig rock star character to my wife. When I think something sucks, I toss my head a bit, throw back my shoulders petulantly, and declare, “This is bullshit!”
BM: (Laughs) It sounds like I need to talk to your wife.
TFS: You should. So, the book and the live show cover a lot of the same ground. What’s the difference? More riffing in the live show, I presume?
BM: I do riff more in the live show. Brian Connelly, who’s a musician from Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, and my oldest friend in the world, plays live with me. I do some stories that are from the book a little bit, I do some things that aren’t in the book, but it’s a show that has that kind of theme of growing up in a weird family and finding my own family. And that thing about outsiders. It’s sort of a companion piece to the book, but it isn’t exactly the book.
TFS: Is the book more for Canadians? I noticed more than a few references that someone in America wouldn’t recognize.
BM: No. I write whatever I write. It’s going to be out in America in the summer. So they may not know some of my references or whatever, but they’ve always got along with us. I wrote it whatever way I wrote it, so Americans will like it or be confused by some of it perhaps.
TFS: The Young Drunk Punk TV show is still on track for release next year?
BM: I’m actually in the middle of production. I’m in Toronto right now doing some press for the book, but we’re in the middle of production and I’ve sort of stopped. Stopping for a little bit to do things. Do a few live shows and then we’re back and we’ll be wrapped by Christmas. I hear January but I don’t have an actual date yet.
TFS: This has been great. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. Is there anything you think I’ve missed that we should mention?
BM: I think you’ve done an excellent job and you should feel very good about yourself.