An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Nathan Weinbender reviews new documentary "The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks"

For scores of teenagers, discovering the Kids in the Hall was something of a hipster rite of passage. The Canadian comedy troupe’s self-titled TV series, which ran on various networks from 1989 to 1995, is the sort of absurd, transgressive stuff you’re meant to stumble upon while flipping through channels late at night, and to then spread like gospel. If Saturday Night Live was the major label artist racking up Top 40 hits, then the Kids in the Hall were the scrappy delinquents you might hear on a scratchy bootleg. They also happened to write way better songs.

I found the Kids at just the right age, around 12 or 13, through reruns on Comedy Central. Their brand of cerebral, cynical anarchy was precisely what a hard-to-impress teenager could have hoped for. So I’m squarely in the (admittedly niche) audience for the new documentary The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks, which digs into the group’s legacy through interviews with the troupe’s five members — Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson — and with the contemporaries and protégés who worship at their altar.

Even if you’re not a disciple of the Church of the Kids in the Hall, you may still recognize some of their recurring characters, like the Headcrusher, who used forced perspective to pinch things between his fingers, or Buddy Cole, the flamboyant socialite who delivered withering monologues behind a cigarette and a martini glass.

The Kids explored themes both timeless — the bizarre rituals of dating, the tedium of the suburbs, the pathetic conformity of corporate culture — and ahead of their time: Thompson was one of the few openly gay performers of his era, and his material was often unapologetically, radically queer in ways that television rarely was. They were also famous for playing women in drag, though never for a cheap laugh.

Comedy Punks marches dutifully through the Kids’ history — how their live shows slowly built a cult following in 1980s Toronto; how SNL’s Lorne Michaels mentored them until they were ready for primetime; how their grueling TV schedule led to an acrimonious split while filming their 1996 feature Brain Candy; how they reunited in the early 2000s and continue to produce strange, slightly off comedy.

I can’t imagine this documentary will make much sense to viewers who don’t already have a cursory knowledge of the Kids in the Hall, nor do I think it will convert the uninitiated. It’s a rigorously conventional film about comedians who are anything but, and yet another legacy documentary that trots out a bunch of well-known talking heads to gush about how important, how influential, how transcendent the subjects are. Even if it’s true, it’s a bit repetitious.

And yet I loved hearing the behind-the-scenes stories and seeing unearthed archival footage, and I can’t help but applaud the fact that the Kids in the Hall are now being recognized as the alt-comedy icons they’ve always been. The release of this documentary coincides with the debut of the Kids’ first new TV sketch material in more than two decades, which turns out to be as weird, outrageous and boundary-pushing as ever. Here’s hoping yet another generation gets to stumble upon their sly, subversive satire and become fans for life.
Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.