by Natasha Mekhail /
When I turn up for a pre-show interview with Bruce McCulloch, he runs away. Literally. In the parking lot outside Edmonton’s Jubilee Auditorium, a guy in sunglasses, headphones and jogging clothes legs it right past me. My friend points him out as he disappears around the corner of an adjacent building – “Wasn’t that him?”
So we wait backstage, a little bored, watching the parked Kids in the Hall tour bus out the window while his handlers apologize for the oversight. When McCulloch finally returns, drenched in sweat, a half-hour later, he looks less than enthused about being interviewed.
“Give me five minutes,” says the Canadian comedian turned L.A. writer/producer/director as he walks off down a hallway and into his change room. He comes back, as promised, five minutes later. My friend squeezes my hand to keep from laughing. McCulloch is practically naked save for a too-short silk, leopard print robe (think: Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan). At least he’s in better spirits.
The Kids in the Hall troupe got its big break while performing sketch comedy in Toronto in the ’80s. Saturday Night Live producer and fellow Canadian, Lorne Michaels, took a chance on the ragtag fivesome comprised of McCulloch, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, and gave them their own show. Their twisted brainchild aired on Canadian and later American television from 1988 to 1995. His most recent work includes creating the show Carpoolers for ABC and writing the romantic comedy Comeback Season, starring Ray Liotta. Growing up, McCulloch spent time in both Edmonton and Calgary. This tour marks a homecoming of sorts. His sister and her family still live in a rural community northeast of Edmonton and she’s in the audience tonight.
McCulloch leads us to the lounge, slinks into a sofa and puts one leg up on the coffee table, politely asking a roadie to bring him a salad and some chicken. It takes all of our concentration to keep our eyes on his face and not on the shadowy, yet exposed, area below. We never find out whether he is wearing underwear or not. Later, we’ll laugh to ourselves that, as Canadian comedy royalty, Bruce McCulloch can do pretty much whatever he wants.
How did Lorne Michaels single you guys out?
The first time we met Lorne Michaels was when Mark and I auditioned for him as cast members. We ended up being writers for Saturday Night Live. After that he came down to Toronto. I think he liked us. Because we were Canadian. Because we were little pricks. And also because we were already fully formed. He had an affinity for all Canadians. Everyone has sort of a Daddy relationship with Lorne. So he came up to Toronto, saw The Kids in the Hall and said, “Let’s do a TV show.”
How did you know that you had something? Had it?
Well, I don’t think we did. I think it was a very social process. People came in and went out of the troupe. We started in Calgary and I said to Mark, we gotta go. When we got to Toronto, we worked with Kevin a little bit and Dave. But there was a bunch of other people, too – and we kept failing. It seemed like when we looked up, those four guys and I were the last people standing.
Often when you look at your own history, it seems like, oh, we started doing comedy and Lorne Michaels met us. No, it took fucking yeeears. We were successful in Calgary, then we were so unsuccessful in Toronto. Spent all our money; it took forever. Then when Lorne discovered us, we went to New York for a while and we were showcasing. We did so many showcases for HBO and the deals kept falling apart. So what sounds like a fast history is really a lot longer. There’s a lot more shit in there.
How did the five of you come up with ideas when you were starting out?
We were like a rock band where one guy said, “I have a riff I like” and another guy said, “I don’t know if it’s that good.” So, I don’t think we had things organized. It’s like a guy would bring in an idea and pound everyone with it. And then it would either take fire or not. I think the process was unbelievably aggressive.
We’d compete for whose idea was better and how an idea should go and what we should try. We started doing the ridiculous thing of writing new material every time we performed. So, we were always doing too much. We never had enough time to rehearse – never had enough time to get our fucking cardboard wings made or whatever it was. For that reason it was all a bit frenetic. Once you start performing, the best idea wins. It stands out.
How do you work together to come up with material now?
We started more in a groupy kind of way. But TV eats up so much material so, when we were doing the show, I always had a writing assistant who would take notes and I’d dictate to him or her – usually her. It got very compartmentalized. But, for this tour, we wrote the way we used to write at the club in Toronto where we did all our stuff. We’d get together and write some stuff and then, four days later, we’d do it in front of an audience. It forced us to write together, improvise together. It worked pretty well so we went back to the old way of doing things.
Do you and the other Kids see each other regularly?
No, we love each other but we don’t see each other all the time. Kevin and I have become very good friends through proximity. I work with him on a bunch of stuff. But, like with all my good friends, we connected through work to make each other laugh. And so, we can go out for dinner and make each other laugh but it’s not the same as creating stuff. That’s the true fun of it. These guys are the funniest guys I know because they’re the guys I formed my sense of humour with.
I’ve watched old Kids in the Hall on DVD recently and found that it’s the lack of pop culture references that makes the show really timeless. Did you decide consciously to keep them out?
I think we literally only wrote what we thought was interesting. As Dave would say, “Second City had parody covered,” so we didn’t want to do that. I don’t really like parody. It’s not so interesting to me. I like weird social stuff, fucked up families and crazy girlfriends. I think that stuff is timeless by nature.
What shows did you watch that influenced you?
I wasn’t like the other guys. They’re all comedy geeks. I thought they were losers at first. They all liked Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. I didn’t like any of that shit. I was more getting drunk and listening to rock music. That’s why I brought a different thing to the troupe. The guys were into Vaudeville. They would go to movies on the weekend. I always thought, “You’re going to movies on the weekend? You’re a fucking loser. You should go listen to four bands.” So I didn’t watch that much TV, though I’ve gained an appreciation for Monty Python because they’re the best.
Do you watch TV now?
Do you see shows that have been influenced by what you did?
I’ve sort of become interested in sketch comedy again in the last few years. Like, I would never go to a sketch comedy club and watch it. I have done Sketchfest in San Francisco a couple times and mentored a couple troupes. But I don’t go into that area. I don’t think that I influence. It’s all just comedy. We had weird ideas; other people have weird ideas. It’s just like how there were punk bands in Seattle at the same time as there were punk bands in Vancouver. I think we’re kind of a part of a movement in comedy.
What was your movement?
Oh, I don’t know. For us it was cross-dressing, how fucked up the suburbs are, guys in plaid shirts saying fucked up shit, society’s stupid, counter culture – whatever that is.
And you didn’t like businessmen…
Well, it was me who didn’t. I brought that in. I took business at Mount Royal College and got 20% the first year. I just thought that it was such a ridiculous thing. My dad had been a salesman. Kevin’s dad had been a salesman. Now that I work in L.A., they have big meetings with groups of people going, “Now Suzie from Synergy is going to speak.” It really is the white waste in a sense. All these business people talking shit and flying places, having meetings and getting nothing done.
Do you wear suits?
Sometimes. I’m just getting a little old to wear my unicorn T-shirt. I wear a suit or – you know, when guys get in their mid-forties they start wearing jeans again – I wear jeans around now. I have a friend who wears a suit all the time. He used to be an actor. His name is Paul Feig. He did a show called Freaks and Geeks. One of my best friends. He wears a suit around all the time. I think it’s just to say, “I’m here to do it.”
You think a suit says, “I’m here to do it”?
It can. I mean, it’s nice sometimes to dress up for people. I used to be really into clothes when I was really young – then I found comedy. Dressing was my creative outlet. I’d always wear weird nurses shoes and three fucking Dickies. Then I started doing comedy and I didn’t care about how I dressed. As I got older, I realized my creative outlet was my work.
So, now that you’re in that business environment, do you miss the freedom you had in the old days?
I had no more freedom then than now. Nothing’s different in my life. I used to be the guy who made the posters for the show. So, I’d have to go into the library and steal old, weird photos. Cut them out of the book, paste them on, then figure out how to get a credit card so we could rent a microphone. I’m still the guy who does that, in a way.
It’s like how I’ve done a lot of directing. It’s so mythologized. You think directors just sit around talking about shots. Fuck. No way. All they do is figure out when Will Farrell can do his ADR.
So much of creativity is not creative. But that’s the reason to do The Kids in the Hall tours because I do spend a lot of my life explaining to people in boardrooms why things are funny. But with the Kids, we just go, “That seems funny to us,” and we do it.
I think as you get older and more successful, you get farther and farther away from just making stuff. But that’s what everybody I know wants to do.
Now I actually like business. I like making deals. And I like understanding the psychology. If you realize that business is psychology, then it’s interesting. It isn’t just sprouting numbers.
What are you going to do between now and when the show starts tonight?
I’ll shave. I’ll put my pantyhose on. When I’m done, I’ll listen to music, joke with the guys. That’s the reason we’re doing this. We spend hours together and just talk about shit forever.