“The Colbert Report”‘s decision to send Scott Thompson’s Buddy Cole character to Sochi to cover the Winter Olympics was perfect, not only because it’s been great to have Buddy back — on Wednesday night he almost got arrested while “protesting” that he couldn’t get a drink — but because it reminds us The Kids in the Hall weren’t just funny sketch comedians. They took TV comedy to a higher level.
KITH, of course, was the Canadian comedy troupe whose series aired on fully three networks in the late ’80s and ’90s. I got into them late in high school. Here’s what my comedy diet was at the time:
– Network sitcoms, with happy, functioning families, and happy workplaces. They were emblems of the established order.
– Sketch comedy on “Saturday Night Live,” full of pop culture spoofing, catch phrases, and a semi-big band vamping to fill the copious dead space. The show started as late night anarchy, but was also the establishment by the time I got into it, in its sensibilities as well as its stature.
And then came The Kids in the Hall. No pop culture spoofing. No topical or political humour. No celebrity impressions. Some catchphrases and premise characters, but never based on a simple quirk. The music was surf rock, whammy bar guitar. Genuinely cool and exciting. Not heard anywhere else on TV.
They dressed as women, but it was never a joke that they were in drag. They didn’t speak in falsetto. They weren’t self-conscious about playing women. There was no danger it would make them seem gay.
Thompson was quite blatantly gay. He played gay characters. I was a Catholic high school boy. Homophobic by default. Not violently so. But “fag” was a dire insult. Now there was a fag on TV. Not covering it up. Being absolutely hilarious. This set up a weird inner tug of war. He’s a fag . . . and yet . . . he’s awesome . . . What do I do with that?
Their scenes didn’t follow any traditional structure most of the time. There usually wasn’t a clear premise, or a clear punchline. It was hard to explain their stuff to someone who hadn’t seen it. But there was a shared magic with anyone else who had.
They were Canadian. They negated the expectation I’d grown up with that if it’s Canadian, it’s not great, but it’s the best we can do, so you’d better support it, because it’s our culture. To hell with that. They were hysterical. But not by copying the American style. As “SNL” enjoyed one of its most popular phases and “In Living Colour” burst into popularity, the Kids were different. And not out of defiance. They just had their own voice. They spoke their own language.
They represented a different way of thinking. I didn’t have the philosophical vocabulary to understand this as a 17-year old, but they didn’t fit into the modernist paradigm. They were postmodern. They played by a different set of rules. By doing so, they let you know that there are other possibilities out there. They sent out the unspoken message that there are options outside the mainstream. There are different modes of perception than the ones you grew up with.
This sense would get cemented for me pretty quickly in university, when suddenly homophobia was out, and plenty of people were openly gay. It was no big deal at all. Suddenly mainstream music was out, religion was out, the blinders from my suburban background peeled away. Literature, travel, environmentalism, marijuana, conversations that lasted all night — in. And everyone loved The Kids in the Hall. They toured. I got to see them live. They were missionaries of out of the box thinking.
I recently saw Bruce McCulloch do his one man show Young Drunk Punk in Vancouver. His approach was his own. Hard to quantify. Hard to describe. There’s no way it would play in a comedy club. And yet absolutely hilarious. Coming at you from directions you’d never expect. Again, that message underlying everything: there are many ways to think about the world. There are no limits to the way you can engage an audience. Or to how you can live your life.
And now Thompson’s back too. There are still sitcoms about happy families and workplaces full of wisecracks. But the Kids’ sensibilities can be seen much more widely, in TV, in the movies, on the internet, in theatres and comedy clubs and sketch fests. Their missionary work has borne plentiful fruit. Get Buddy a drink.