The Comedians Who Helped Define Generation X

Home / The Comedians Who Helped Define Generation X
The Comedians Who Helped Define Generation X

Last May Prime Video launched the sixth season of the legendary sketch comedy show The Kids in the Hall. Not a reboot, but a continuation following a 27-year hiatus. The five actor-comedians who make up the troupe — Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson — are older and some of their preoccupations have changed, as death, which pervaded the original series, creeps closer and the generation gap between the troupe and young audiences widens. But to the relief of most critics and fans, they’re still outsiders looking in at mainstream society with curiosity and contempt.

Anyone who had access to the show when it premiered in 1989 on HBO and CBC found in KITH a set of values that rejected the status quo without ever engaging in gauche politicking. It wasn’t the kind of righteous takedown that battled for cultural supremacy — and led the previous generation from antiwar protests to neoliberalism. It exploited society’s deep-seated perversity to turn it in on itself. From the outset the troupe declared their allegiance with outsiders. These were the parameters that fans could take or leave; and if you left them you probably weren’t a fan. They were unrelenting in their indictment of normative and patriarchal society. Their antipathy toward authority figures — notably fathers, cops, and businessmen — was counterbalanced by their empathy for anyone marginalized or disregarded: sex workers, circus freaks, and all the kids who came from dysfunction. “It did feel like we weren’t like the rest of the people in the world,” Bruce McCulloch said in a recent Zoom conversation, ahead of his live solo show Tales of Bravery and Stupidity, and a troupe performance in Calgary on April 28.

When it began, The Kids in the Hall belonged to Generation X, not only because it comprised much of the show’s audience, but because the outsider status, alterity, and existential angst that came to define Gen X was ingrained in the troupe’s DNA. The archetypal teenage Gen X-er in the early ’90s felt a heightened sense of insecurity, both existential and lived, that grew from the failure of the previous generation’s utopianism. At the time, the highest divorce rate in history left parents at work and kids at home alone, fending for themselves before they were high school age. We retreated into our worlds and, with a vacuum where parental guidance should have been, became ideological agnostics. We sought out our own value system from the few enlightened adults around, whether in life or on TV — TV raised most of us, anyway.

The Kids in the Hall performing at Festival Supreme 2015 at The Shrine Auditorium on October 10, 2015 in Los Angeles (photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

The cynicism that underlay the entire series was both a reflection of and a response to the zeitgeist. KITH displayed a singular grasp of what it feels like to be set adrift in an era defined by uncertainty. In a move that would be unheard of for most comedians, they didn’t chase after laughs, or they sought them from a place of disquiet: In a sketch titled “B&K,” for example, a vaudeville duo descend into increasingly grim dialogue, ranging from infidelity to midlife crisis to abortion, before breaking into a song and dance; in “Mass Murderer,” a serial killer bemoans his job rut; and in the classic “Citizen Kane,” a disagreement about a movie title escalates into a brutal murder. 

The troupe’s 1996 film Brain Candy begins with this aphorism: “Life is short, life is shit, and soon it will be over.”

But their cynicism was embedded in a self-contained aesthetic and conceptual world rife with nods to avant-garde film and art, and underground culture. The troupe’s preternatural ability to mirror and connect with their audience, and to articulate it through their vision, in turn gave the audience the tools to formulate their own countercultural ideals. In a mid-2000s commentary for the 1988 pilot, Scott summed up the show’s sensibility as “teen rebellion, drag, and perverse sexuality.” In the early ’90s, KITH transgressed boundaries of propriety, gender, sexuality, even species as an alternative to binary thinking. 

The troupe’s pivotal contribution to this was their centering of queer characters and themes. The show both normalized LGBTQ+ life and addressed taboo issues, from the AIDS crisis to gay marriage and parenting, mostly led by Scott, the troupe’s only gay member, and his philosopher-provocateur alter ego, Buddy Cole — whose monologues affirmed the show’s queer-positive stance and were the closest it came to direct political engagement. But the entire troupe took part in refusing the male heteronormative mode typical of sketch comedy and the rampant homophobia of 1980s and ’90s comedy in general. 

Scott Thompson as recurring character “Buddy Cole”

In “Scott’s Not Gay,” Scott comes out of the closet as straight to hordes of angry fans. A confused Bruce asks, “first you were gay … and now you’re un-gay?” — effectively creating a world where “straight” exists only as an unnamed deviation from “gay.”

“It’s a rejection of the super macho heterosexuals that none of us could be even if we tried,” Bruce explained in our interview. “Sometimes people early on would say that we were a gay comedy troupe. And I didn’t mind that definition,” he added. “[At the time] I said, I think it’s more powerful if here I am, a kid who somehow wandered out of the cesspool that is [1970s homophobic] Calgary, Canada, and I’m embracing the things we’re talking about. And yeah, I’m kissing Scott Thompson on the lips, and Kevin too, and probably Mark and Dave as well, in the AIDS-ravaged ’80s.”

The sociopolitical ground the Kids broke and the risks they took in this vein remain undervalued, even as they’ve been slowly acknowledged over the years. But the troupe established their street cred by clubbing with drag queens in the opening credits; queering heteronormative film and TV tropes; and inhabiting characters who seemed sexually and gender fluid. For suburban teenagers — which most of the Kids once were — in what Bruce called “parched landscapes,” their art was both an ideology and a revelation.

KITH applied similar principles to their portrayals of women. Though nominally based in a British comedy tradition, the main motivation for playing women, as Bruce noted, was to draw from their own lives and relationships and reflect the people around them: “we’re playing our girlfriends or moms or, in the case of Kathie the secretary, my sister.”

In positing heteronormative masculinity as the other rather than the standard, they partly reflected the gender politics of youth culture at the time: male alternative rock stars like Kurt Cobain and Evan Dando wore dresses onstage or in magazines and inspired a self-reflexive, and self-conscious, relationship with masculinity. KITH’s performance of gender might have gestured toward the same self-conscious masculinity in some cases, but they were closer to Riot Grrrl than grunge boy. They avoided the trap of compensatory male feminism through performances that destabilized gender binaries and the category of gender itself. “BECAUSE,” as Bikini Kill declared in the 1991 Riot Grrrl Manifesto, “we don’t wanna assimilate to someone else’s (boy) standards of what is or isn’t.”

Ginger (Bruce McCulloch), Monique (Mark McKinney), and Trudie (Dave Foley) in the season 4 sketch “Sex Girl Patrol”

Their embodiment of women and feminine qualities reifies Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement from The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” An award given to KITH by a Canadian women’s media watch group in the early ’90s attests to what Judith Butler calls “the tenuousness of gender ‘reality,’” explaining why a group of cis men could conceivably present as convincing women to female-identifying viewers — and why they arguably succeeded as agents of feminism. In the ’90s The Kids in the Hall was among the only shows that encompassed a range of individuals, and portrayed women who fall outside of physical or social norms, or heterosexual tropes, as anything other than pejorative stereotypes. (Even with a never-ending stream of shows today, not much has changed.)

In later seasons, sex workers Jocelyn and Mordred (played by Dave and Scott, respectively) presented a self-possessed, feminist foil to the nameless, clueless cops played by Mark and Bruce. More than just inverting normative gender and sociopolitical roles, the characters reinforce the show’s outsider voice and its solidarity with that of its audience. Their depth was enhanced by their close friendship, exclusive of men (besides their lovable “pimp,” Rudy, played by Kevin), and poignantly located one of the show’s most genuine bonds between women outside of conventional society, in contrast with the often fraught friendships or familial relationships of characters occupying mainstream milieus. 

Other women had comparatively mundane lives, but for the most part they were realistic and relatable. The Kids touched — and still touch — on topics ranging from body shaming to sexual coercion without making light of them and fleshed out “types” that rarely received more than a gloss in popular culture: the high-strung career woman, Nina; sympathetic mom Fran; lovelorn teen Melanie; gossiping secretaries Cathy and Kathie.

Beauty pageant contestants (left to right) Kevin McDonald, Dave Foley, and Scott Thompson

In contrast to Jocelyn and Mordred, the sex workers in season one’s French arthouse parody “Hotel La Rut” remain ciphers. The deadpan affect deliberately flattens the melodrama. They emphasize the stylization through avant-garde filmic devices: for instance, a mirror and window create frames within frames that capture the two women, Silvee (Mark) and Michelle (Scott), and visually double the artifice of their performances. The Brechtian denaturalization of gender is underscored by the women’s androgynous bodies, even as the actors exaggerate the gendered dynamic between the languid prostitutes and Dave’s arrogant French painter, who intrudes on their cloistered world. The women compose themselves as objects of the gaze — redoubled by Silvee, who gazes at herself in the mirror — mired in a haze of ennui. The sketch fashioned a distinctly queer intimacy through the doubling and physical contact between the women, and through the violence of the male presence within their softly feminine realm: Dave’s as well as Tony’s, the absent but psychologically consuming man at the center of the joke. 

“Hotel La Rut” was a one-off sketch in the original series (charmingly resurrected for the Prime Video show) but its artifice draws attention to the troupe’s various forms of masquerade. In unmooring themselves from the strictures of prescribed gender identity, they could extend the principles of “drag” into polyvalent and hybrid characters that freely intermingle “male” and “female” signifiers (see, for instance, “Womyn,” “Body Conscious,” or, more fluidly, Mark playing a version of himself in “Confession” from the 1988 pilot).

At their most extreme, characters’ transgressive and polyvalent qualities landed them in the spheres of the grotesque and carnivalesque. Even small touches, like the striped and patterned robes and pajamas worn by sanitarium escapees the Sizzler Sisters (Kevin and Dave), suggest these inverted worlds: In the Middle Ages artists often portrayed minstrels and jesters in patterned or parti-color clothing, and outsider figures like foot-soldiers and executioners wore stripes. But these categories achieved their fullest expression in characters that merge the human world with the natural or animal world, Bruce’s Cabbage Head and Mark’s Chicken Lady

Mark McKinney as the “Chicken Lady”

Cabbage Head, a sleazy lounge-lizard type who has cabbage leaves in place of hair, weaponizes his hybridity to elicit sympathy — and sympathy sex — from women (he’s the “king of the mercy fuck”). The absurdist take on a common scenario of sexual predation throws its outlandishness into relief: “I don’t think that would have been funny if I was just … hitting on women with these lines and saying, ‘I had a bad childhood.’ There was something about the surreality,” Bruce told me. “I think that’s just automatic: How did that hit me? I don’t know. He’s got a cabbage for a head. Well, let’s go with that.”

In contrast to Cabbage Head’s toxic masculinity, bawdy Chicken Lady is part and parcel of the Rabelaisian comic grotesque and its joyfully unruly body and appetites. Her particular hybridity has roots in commedia dell’arte’s exaggerated gestures and avian masks (although the specific inspiration for the character was apparently Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks). At the same time, she’s a genuinely sympathetic figure; as audiences are reminded in more than one sketch, her hybridity has relegated her to perpetual outsider status.

Chicken Lady, her friend the Bearded Lady (Kevin), and even the Sizzler Sisters symbolize the outsiders for whom KITH have created a safe and inclusive space. Yet in their carnivalesque splendor, in their own worlds within the show’s already alternate world, they’re impervious to the labels thrust upon them by polite society. Their comic transgressions are layered with social and biological transgressions that shadow the comedic bathos with the pathos of real life. 

Bruce McCulloch as “Cabbage Head”

In his 1963 study The Grotesque in Art and Literature, Wolfgang Kayser defines the grotesque as the “estranged world.” Kayser writes that the grotesque “does not constitute a fantastic realm of its own …. The grotesque world is — and is not — our own world. The ambiguous way in which we are affected by it results from our awareness that the familiar and apparently harmonious world is alienated under the impact of abysmal forces, which break up and shatter its coherence.” 

The passage is about Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but the principles, and Kayser’s claim that Bruegel “wanted to portray the absurd in all its absurdity,” perfectly describe KITH’s “estranged worlds” of middle-class suburbia and corporate culture, in all their social mores, hypocrisies, and horrific abuses (see Kevin’s autobiographical sketch “Daddy Drank”). In the ’90s KITH’s arch portrayals of businessmen, like the “Geralds,” converged with the era’s contempt toward “selling out.” Underscored by characters like Bruce’s rebel bank employee (“Fuck the bank I work for!”) or the show’s most famous vigilante, Mark’s Head Crusher, this cemented their status as anti-establishment and anti-authority voices in a society populated by drunk dads, assholes, and pricks. 

At their darkest are masterworks of fine-tuned satire like the pilot’s closing sketch, “Reg,” written by Kevin, Dave, and Bruce. The troupe play a fugitive band of brothers gathered around a fire (in a baby carriage), reminiscing about their dead friend Reg. It all feels like a 20-something Stand By Me until it emerges that they ritualistically murdered him. Still, they miss him: They wish they had said more when they had the chance and they wonder where his soul is. “There are some scenes that really are the soul of the troupe,” Bruce commented of the sketch. “There’s something about that, the five of us agreeing that this is a great idea.” 

The troupe on set in the ’90s. Left to right: Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Dave Foley, and Scott Thompson

Alongside what it says about the troupe’s bond, “Reg” illustrates a theme that recurred throughout the series: the rupture between reason and reality, and the limits of reconciling them. Kayser posited that Bruegel secularized Bosch’s Christian Hell to portray a world that “permits of no rational or emotional explanation.” Without the moral compass of religion that gave meaning to Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” Kayser argued, Bruegel’s hellish landscapes strip the veneer of reason from the world.

In a similar way, KITH lay bare the absence of reason and present a world “alienated under the impact of abysmal forces.” They share less with what a 2000 New York Times article called ’90s “hipster meta-humorists” than with the gallows humor of World War I literature, from authors shocked into cynicism by modern war and death. Beyond the distractions of life that chatter away in their scenes is an existential No Man’s Land; the Kids had been there and come back.

“The men whom I knew … were tough; they knew how to fight and suffer with comic grace,” wrote Esther Newton in Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (1972). If the 2022 series is a reminder of the Kids in the Hall’s genius, it’s a reminder as well of the capacity of five White men, mostly straight and from the suburbs, to fiercely de-center themselves, and the straight male perspective — to take the angry young man they each embodied and unsex him. Their toughness, like the performers to whom Newton refers, is founded on otherness as an imperative. For the generation they most reflect, they represented the only viable path forward. In the preface to Mother Camp, Newton writes: “If we really examine ‘normalcy’ we may choke on what we bring up.” 

Fuck the system. Fuck normalcy. Fuck the bank.

Source link