Dressed Up for the Movies : Going the Monty Python Route, Kids in the Hall Leaving TV


Coming soon to a theater near you: The Kids in the Hall.

Have you heard of them? They're in the final season of a TV series critics love that's been running for five years. They just got a movie deal with Paramount Pictures. They're managed by the same group that handles Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. They're currently selling out theaters on a live tour, including two performances tonight at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles.

Still doesn't ring a bell?

If not, you're not alone. For five exhausting seasons, the five-man Canadian troupe has written and acted in more than 700 comedy sketches for "The Kids in the Hall," an absurdly funny TV series that films 10 long months a year, both in the studio and on location.

But their half-hour show, which is wildly popular north of the border in prime time, airs on a ragtag lineup of CBS stations in this country at 12:35 a.m. on Fridays, one of the worst time slots in television, with virtually no network promotion. Comedy Central shows nightly reruns of the series, but the cable channel can only be seen in one-third of all television homes.

So now the Kids--Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald, Scott Thompson and Bruce McCulloch--are choosing to end their TV series to try to make the risky leap to feature films.

"It was one of the few unanimous decisions we've ever made in our lives," said Foley last week, speaking by cellular phone on a tour bus driving from Toronto to Ottawa, with Elvis Costello blaring in the background. The performers, all in their 30s, are taking time out from TV production to do an eight-day tour with stops in Seattle, San Francisco and New York.

"More than anything, we just thought we were getting old," Foley said. "We figured we can't be the Kids in the Hall forever. We want to do some other projects before the troupe loses its will to work together. We wanted to make a movie, and we didn't think we would ever find time if we kept doing the series. The series eats up our whole lives. We don't have friends. We never see our wives."

While the Kids in the Hall may not be big names in America, neither were the six members of Britain's Monty Python when they wrapped their TV series after only 45 episodes--compared to 110 for "The Kids in the Hall." "Monty Python's Flying Circus" didn't pick up steam in this country until after it had ceased production in 1974. The members pursued solo careers and periodically reassembled for a string of successful movies.

That's roughly what the Kids have in mind.

"You only have so many three-minute ideas in your head," McDonald said. "It's getting harder and harder to create a little world in three minutes. You have to think of a good ending every time, and that's the hardest thing. The only way to keep our comedy going is to move to the next forum, which would be a movie. Either that or opera."

Like Python, the Kids have developed something of a cult following here for their bawdy humor, and they routinely dress in drag when their comedy calls for women. They're recycling TV skits on a minimalist stage for their current tour, including one about two secretaries probing the new man in the office to find out if he is gay, and another in which five men playing poker talk about how they wish they were women.

The Kids in the Hall opened last week to a crowd in Ottawa who screamed and applauded when their favorite TV characters appeared throughout the show--such as the Chicken Lady, the mutated offspring of a farm boy and a barnyard fowl. The man who brought the Kids to America, "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels, says it's that way no matter where they play, in the United States or Canada. He said more people come up to him on the street in this country to inquire about the Kids than any of the other comedians he has shepherded to fame.

"My feeling is these shows will still be watched in 20 years," Michaels said of "Kids in the Hall," which debuted in America three years ago on pay cable's Home Box Office, before moving to CBS in 1992 and becoming the second highest-rated show on Comedy Central. New episodes will air through December before the series goes dark. "The fans tend to be very devoted. Whenever the Kids play live, it's always a sell-out, and that can be in Boulder, Colo. So they must be reaching a lot of people."

The Kids have four or five vague ideas for their feature film, ranging from a period piece about beatnik poets in Greenwich Village, to a story that takes place in the middle of a jungle, to a movie involving karaoke. Two days after the TV series finishes production in July, the Kids are going to a private retreat in Northern Ontario to write the movie together.

"I don't know what's ahead for the group--that depends on how our movie does," Thompson said. "Even if it's a huge hit, I think we will have to take a break from each other. We've been together so long, and we all are itching to do solo projects. Some of us will fail, some of us won't."

Foley is the first to get a major supporting role in the upcoming movie "Pat," one of Michaels' many "Saturday Night Live" movie spinoffs.

At least in features, the Kids won't have to deal with the hassles of network TV. Their series also airs on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., where standards are loose compared to American broadcast television. When the Kids began airing on CBS, they had to deal with grief from the network over language and some dark humor dealing with drugs, suicide, homosexuality and bigotry.

"The last fight I was involved with was a sketch called 'Grizzly,' which shows my ass twice," McDonald said. "I had a fight with CBS to get in two ass shots. We won. In the sketch, Mark and I drive up to this club north of Toronto in the woods, because we're horny bastards and we want to hit on women. We don't realize it's a gay bar. There's also a known grizzly in the area. A big hairy gay man comes after me, grabs my crotch and tries to hit on me. I flash back to when I was a Boy Scout and the leader said, 'Whenever you're caught by a grizzly play dead.' So I do, and he takes me home and has his way with me."

The Kids often shoot two versions of scenes now to pacify network executives. This season, they actually began using the F word in Canada. "We've sort of broken that barrier," McCulloch said. "You can only say it when you're really mad, or if you spill something hot on yourself. For the CBS version, we might say, 'Oh knackers.' "

"We win more of the TV skirmishes than we ever thought we would," McDonald said. "The ones we lose we go out and drink and complain about them, but at least it's fun because we're drinking."

McCulloch said that five years doesn't seem like a long time compared to TV shows that run for 10 years or more. "But five years for us has been a marathon effort when you have to create seven or eight new sketches every week," he said. "Right from the beginning, we were cognizant of trying not to repeat characters too much. We all joke about hacks, and we don't want to be ones. Being a hack is not about compromising for us, it's just about doing the same thing too much or too long."

Right now the Kids, who just flew in from San Francisco, are enjoying their tour. They started out on stage in the mid-1980s, when they were in their 20s with full-time jobs and still wrote 90 minutes of new material for a weekly stage show in Toronto.

"We haven't done this in a couple years," Foley said. "We're sort of playing hooky to do this tour. When we were talking about doing another season of the show last year, we asked production to find time for us to get out on the road again. Largely because it's fun, and it reminds us of when we started out. In a stage show, you can do anything you want at the moment, and not worry about whether you're screwing up a scene. That's kind of liberating."

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