Being the in the oldest possible millennial demographic is interesting because you sit in-between extremely disparate nostalgia touchstones. The most striking of these involve technology and media access. Peers just a year or so younger usually don’t remember the feeling of agreeing to sleepover at a classmate’s house JUST because their family had cable. But that was what I did one night back in elementary school. While we were supposed to be asleep, my host eagerly showed off their access to more than five channels, eventually landing on what I would much later learn was the season 2 premiere of Canadian sketch comedy The Kids in the Hall.
My host wasn’t interested, and would only reluctantly go back during commercials on other channels. Watching the few sketches my host would let me, I was blown away. The jokes about Dave Foley being a bad, but charming, doctor and a bad, but charming, alien spy helped cement my elementary school crush on him that Newsradio would exacerbate, and seeing Bruce McCullough’s Bobby defeat the devil with the power of rock was a highlight of the evening, but what really stuck with me was the sketch “Comfortable.” There was everything my young mind needed to see to feel like I was really getting away with something by watching it. Jokes about sex! About fucked up adults! Classic sitcom-y social situations inverted and made absurd! ACTUAL sex! Jokes about ding dongs! A funny punchline that I could still understand!
The next day at recess, when the kids all gathered to tell each other what we had watched on tv the night before (life before the internet became commonplace was rough, kids), I gleefully recited and acted out the sketches I had seen. The other kids laughed and wanted to know what show I had seen these bits on. When I told them, one of the kids made a dramatic gross-out face and said “Kids in the Hall!? Ew, you know those guys are all gays right? Gays who wear dresses!”
Somehow, that was also one of the first times I had heard a peer refer to something they thought was bad as “gay.” Of course, as a prepubescent kid who didn’t yet know they’d grow up into an over-politicized queer woman, all I said in response was something like “oh.”
Of course, the idea that Kids in the Hall was “the gay show” just because it featured a single gay actor/writer and some sketches about gay characters is ridiculous. The show covered lots of different ground over its five seasons and a movie, blending sketches based in grounded character work with others based on surreal absurdity. Still, the way the show dealt with queer topics and characters is worth looking at.
In the Kids in the Hall universe, weirdness was found in day to day reality as much as in fantasy. “Find beauty in the banal, for it is everywhere” the future patriarch tells his precocious, silence-breaking son in a sketch about a future holiday celebrating an inscrutable fan-favorite man who does nothing but wear a towel. The queer, the exploited, the stricken, the awkward, the bizarre, the freaks? Their lives were not really any different from the suburban family, the 9 to 5 business men and women, or the other respectable 90s ideals. Cabbagehead is a ridiculous character not because he simply has a cabbage for a head, but because despite his pretenses about that oddness defining him, he’s just a normal sexist creep we’ve all met a million times before. Utterly normal office ladies Cathy with a ‘C’ and Kathy with a ‘K’ may spend most of their time gossiping about slutty temps or the Jays’ bad season, but like everyone else they’re only ever one bad day away from complete economic and mental collapse. Superheroes, BDSM enthusiasts and South American cult B-movie stars all independently spend their free time debating who’s the better romantic foil for Sam on Cheers. No one has a monopoly on normalcy or on being an utter fuck up.
This underlying theme is just as important to understanding the show’s queer die hard fans. For the young queers rushing home to catch the syndicated reruns, it was a reminder that you could be gay and still, you know, anything else. You could be flamboyantly, OBSCENELY, self-indulgently gay even! None of that made you a fuck up, and even if you were a fuck up? Not only was that for entirely different reasons, but you were hardly alone in that.
Yet it wasn’t important just for offering a few weird kids who watched too much tv a “you can be anything” message. Hell, pretty much any goddamn media gives kids that message. What was more important for us young not-quite-aware-yet queers was how it provided so many of us with our first look into a larger queer history and context. Because even though we absorbed the message that weirdness and subversiveness wasn’t bound by any particular group, we were also absorbing how being weird and subversive in certain ways did come with some pretty specific connections. Connections that the straight world wasn’t interested in teaching us.
Most people associate Scott Thompson with the character Buddy Cole. Buddy’s monologues, and their increasing fantastical elements, are often a source of debate among both the audience and the other Kids. An off Buddy bit could be self-indulgent and grind the comedic pace of an episode to a halt, while the better ones were some of the best material on the show. Buddy was unapologetically, flamboyantly gay. Rather than the usual sexless gay men of TV that came before, Buddy fucked, and he talked about it. He minced through each monologue, peppering them with reclaimed slurs and refusing to compromise his experiences with the audience. Buddy was every flamboyant, anti-gay stereotype but presented positively and as an actual character. The queer community didn’t always know what to do with him.
As a kid I didn’t know I was living in a post-genocidal America. I knew nothing about the AIDs crisis and Ronald Reagan. I didn’t know how much gay history had been wiped away, how many artists, writers, thinkers had been allowed to die. I didn’t know why there were huge generational gaps among the gay men I knew. I certainly didn’t know the debates among surviving gay men over how to best present themselves to the world when asking for basic human rights and decency. For some, characters like Buddy Cole were “regressive” and promoted bad stereotypes and had to be expunged and condemned by good liberals, even when the creators and performers of said characters were gay. Gay experiences had to be scrubbed and made palatable for straight people, and that meant making sure the only gay people seen were clean, polite, sexless and white. As a young kid who didn’t know what they were, but knew whatever it was, it wasn’t a straight man, these Kids sketches helped build connections to that lost history which would only become apparently years later. Rewatching a sketch of Buddy at the cemetery, giving a monologue about his friend the leather slut who was just buried there, I pick up a lot more than I did before. “Maybe its for the best” Buddy says to the grave of his friend who died of AIDs, “get this, fags are becoming respectable!” Four years later, Will & Grace is celebrated for first bringing gay people to tv.
All the Kids played a version of themselves on the show in addition to their other characters. From Bruce’s jaded rebel to Kevin’s needy neurotic, they each adopted a certain persona when it was time for a sketch to break the 4th wall. Scott’s persona was among the most complex, a character both obsessed with celebrity and unsure of their role as one. A narcissist whose towering self-respect was held together with the flimsiest of structure. A stark contrast to the confidently “problematic” Buddy, Scott’s persona could alternate between a proud spokesman for gay rights and a reluctant celebrity who just wanted to watch tv and screw in peace.
But its a mistake to reduce Scott Thompson to just “the gay one” of the group. That was the label he often got stuck with (and, to be fair, intentionally played up) as a result of being one of the only out performers on TV at the time, but it obscures everything else he brought to the show. His extremely hetero characters, such as Danny Husk, were just as important to the Kids in the Hall universe as Buddy, and the show refused to force every gay character into a Thompson sketch or mold. The other Kids deserve credit too for the lack of “gay drag.” They played their characters real, and let the humor come from that. When gay characters showed up in a sketch, it wasn’t to BE the punchline, but to deliver it. Even the characters we were meant to laugh at were funny not because they were queer, but because of what they did or said or how they interacted with each other. For the young queer audience at the time, this distinction was a revelation.
The above sketch (which sadly isn’t currently available online) is about a near-death experience at an awkward Thanksgiving dinner. It features a gay couple visiting one of the partner’s parents, yet that relationship is never brought up or used as the source of humor. The fact that they’re gay is so un-absurd that it isn’t even remarked upon directly. Everything else in the world of this sketch is absurd and ridiculous and funny, but being gay and visiting your boyfriend’s weird family? That’s just normal.
One of the reasons Kids in the Hall was so important was because of the myriad diversity of gay characters. The fifth season series Steps (named for the famous long staircase in the Church Whesley Village where young gay Torontonians hung out until it was torn down in 2003) looked at a collection of younger gay men, free from some of the cultural baggage Buddy carried as a survivor and debating among themselves their role and place in the world. Like Buddy, they were based on common stereotypes. Thompson’s Butch was a simple, oversexed beefcake, Riley (Foley) was effeminate and catty, and Smitty (McDonald) was academic and stridently liberal.
Most of the sketches would pit the exasperated Smitty against Butch and Riley, who would resist his attempts at respectability politics. Yet, at the same time, Smitty wasn’t just a joyless pendant, he was a joyless pendant we all knew and recognized. The fact that he was usually the butt of the joke didn’t mean he was always wrong, per say. Humor came from his ineffectiveness at communicating or his obsession with respectability, not from the fact that he recognized how fucked up things were for gay people.
This laughter coming from your own community instead of coming from outside is key. That laughter is always going to be different, and a lot of “well-meaning” comedians or commentators miss that distinction. Obviously, not every sketch has aged well (generally speaking any sketch about race by five white Canadians in the 90s is going to be trouble), but there are some good bits the Kids did that I absolutely believe would have aged poorly if they had been performed by others without their connection to or empathy with their audience.
I like this sketch because of how the ending subverts the expectations of the joke. The sketch is structured to lead you to believe that you’re watching a relatively-generic bit about 90s “PC culture” gone too far. The angry feminist, angry black woman, and angry queer are refusing to listen to the nice, befuddled old man who just wants to teach an art class. He clearly doesn’t mean bad! The humor seems intended to come from how over-the-top the student complainers seem to be in respond to something as innocuous as sketching a nude model. These jokes were a dime a dozen in the 90s. Dave Foley plays his usual put-upon straight man to the mounting accusations of intersecting sexism, racism and queerphobia, and it appears we’re meant to identify with his struggle to just get through teaching his class in the face of this unfair attack. Then at the end we find out they were right. The remaining students are only interested in harassing and ogling the model, and the sketch ends with the befuddled art teacher alone, his illusions shattered and his vision of how to define art and his class are left unclear. THAT is the punchline! It doesn’t matter how strident and imperfect their protest was, there was an underlying truth to everything the imperfect, angry protesters were saying. Yes, its mocking what some sad channers are still calling “sjws” for whatever reason, but more than that its mocking the world that has made analyzing the the world in those contexts necessary. Every other lazy “anti-PC” joke from the era would have ended the sketch long before that point.
I’d be remiss for not, embarrassingly, mentioning how in high school, at my peak Kids in the Hall obsession, I desperately wished I looked like Dave Foley. As an adult trans woman, I realize how undoubtedly that was because he looked so effortlessly good in drag. Thinking “Gee, I wish I was the kind of handsome that looked like this beautiful French-Canadian hooker character” may be a tip off, young eggs.
So, despite that young, confusingly homophobic classmate’s pronouncement, Kids in the Hall was not “that gay show.” Yet, at the same time, it did resonate with a generation of young queers for how it gave space to humor and characters its contemporaries wouldn’t.