From 1989 until 1995 a quintet of outwardly unassuming, slightly nerdy, Canadian smart-alecks revolutionized sketch comedy. Discovered by Lorne Michaels, The Kids in the Hall’s early shows were legendary on the Toronto comedy club circuit. They eventually got their own show on CBC HBO and later Comedy Central. Specializing in utterly mundane set-ups that devolve into absurdity, the members all had impressive comedic range that could lurch from underplayed nuance to shrieking hysterics. Dave Foley, along with the others (Scott Thompson, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney), achieved god-like status in Canada and has developed a cult following in the US.
Dave Foley is also known to American audiences as the provider of dry color commentary on Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown and as Dave Nelson on the sitcom NewsRadio, a role written specifically for him. The son of a steamfitter, Foley dropped out of high school and created the original Kids in the Hall group when he was paired with Kevin McDonald at an improv class. I talked to him at the beginning of the Kids Tour between shows in Merrillville, Indiana. and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
So do you like touring?
Yeah, I do. It’s fun. It’s fun for us to be out on the road together. Cause most of the big decisions are already made, so we don’t fight. And the guys make me laugh so it’s fun to hang out with them.
Do you find the act works better in certain places?
Most of the places we get good audiences, but there’s definitely some places that seem more excited. Oddly enough we always end up doing really well in Texas. We always end up having really great shows in Dallas and Austin. And our New York shows are always really great.
So you’re not sick of each other yet?
No, no. I mean, we went through times where we were sick of each other over the years, but we’re all really enjoying being together right now.
So you actually do hang out when you’re not performing?
Yeah, we’ve gone through different periods where we hang out more or less. But most of us are living in LA now, so we see more of each other than we have in a while.
I was wondering if you guys still have the same process for writing sketches as you did for the TV show?
Actually the way we’re working now is a lot more like before we had a TV show. We’re doing a lot more writing as a group. We used to do an entirely new club show every Monday. So we used to write an hour’s worth of material in two days every week, because we all had full-time jobs.
Is it collaborative at the writing stage or does someone come up with an idea and then you riff on that when you’re improvising?
For the most part it’s a collective writing process. We prefer to come to the group with ideas rather than fleshed-out scripts, then we all work on the scripts from there.
Are there times when you’re thinking to yourself, ‘God that’s a stupid idea, but sure go ahead’?
Oh sure. All the time. We had a piece in the show last night that I thought was really stupid… and I couldn’t believe we were doing it. ‘Do we really have to do this?’ And we did it and it was a huge hit. You never know. I think we’re at the point now where we can openly say if we don’t like something, but we’ll still try it do it as well as we can. But it turned out I was completely in the wrong last night.
It seems like you guys don’t want to be pigeonholed into having certain really popular bits that people will repeat when they see you on the street. Is there a conscious effort in the show to have new material?
The past tours had mostly been old bits from the TV show, but this tour we really wanted to do a lot of new stuff. Because it’s really a lot more fun to do comedy that the audience can’t sing along to, tell jokes people haven’t heard. But we’ve never been as focused on having recurring characters as much as other sketch shows are.
Is it true the name Kids in the Hall comes from an old Sid Caesar line?
Yeah. There was a whole group of guys trying to get into show business… writers on Your Show of Shows who would hang around the hallways of NBC who got referred to as “The Kids in The Hall.” The guys that were the kids in the hall were guys like Neil Simon and his brother. And Woody Allen and people like that who were the guys hanging in the hallway looking for a job.
And does that indicate the kind of stuff you grew up watching?
Well, that’s what Kevin and I were watching. Kevin and I were definitely interested in the history of comedy. Everything from the silent days onward.
Was there something that you watched growing up that clicked for you, that made you say “I want to do that”?
Actually, I never thought I wanted to do comedy when I was growing up, but I watched a lot of comedy. Growing up in Canada you never actually thought you could be in show business. It seemed outside the range of possibilities. My parents used to let us stay up to watch Python when it was first running in the late 60s. It was airing in Canada the same time it was running in England. The US got it a few years later.
There’s definitely a Monty Python element to your comedy.
Yeah… but also for me it was growing up watching things like the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, WC Fields. Whatever comedy was on Saturday matinees on the TV. I would spend a whole day watching three Martin & Lewis movies.
Another element of your comedy is that it features “regular people.” Did you get any ideas for characters from specific people in your daily life?
Scott [Thompson] and Mark [McKinney] definitely. They’d start from the characters and work their way out. Whereas Kevin and I will work from a funny premise or a hook for a sketch and the characters are created to fit that. I know Buddy Cole is based on someone really specific… Scott said it’s based on an older gay man who he knew, but he won’t say who.
Your skits are also strangely timeless. There are almost no pop culture references, no celebrity impersonations — they’re absurd and mundane at the same time. Was that conscious?
It was a conscious thing in part because we were big fans of Second City Television — and in terms of celebrity impressions they were the best. Out of respect for their work, we didn’t want to be like them. But also the stuff that would break up the other guys in the group was usually just about how people interact or some weird premise. Like the “Bruce causing cancer” sketch.
How much do you think Toronto at that time was an influence? It was known sort of as “Toronto the Good” and had that reputation of being really uptight and having lots of yuppies. It seems like that was a big source of your comedy.
Yeah. That and also we were starting out on Queen Street… in sort of the early — or at least the middle period of punk. There was definitely a punk influence in what we were doing. There was a lot of great music happening at the time but not a lot of comedy. I think we were really influenced by the music scene in Toronto at the time. But yeah, there was also a lot of stuff about businessmen. We didn’t know anything about businessmen. They were just people we saw on the street who we didn’t understand.
You had a lot of office characters, and some of the observations are really spot on. Did any of you have experience in offices?
Not much. I know Mark used to have a part-time job at a bank. And Bruce actually went to business school. But we had very little experience in offices. I’d look at those office buildings downtown and think those buildings were full of people and they were doing stuff that filled up their 8- to 10-hour day every day. They had to keep track of papers that were apparently important. And I had no idea how it was possible to have things to do all day in an office.
The Kids in The Hall are playing four shows at The Nokia Theatre over 3 nights – April 18-20 — with two shows on Saturday the 19th. http://www.myspace.com/kithtour08.