The Kids in the Hall existed in a sort of parallel universe to the much more popular, much less brilliant Saturday Night Live. Though comparisons between the two are inevitable, perhaps because of the Lorne Michaels connection, Kids in the Hall should be appraised—and appreciated—as part of the crooked line connecting Monty Python, which preceded it, and Mr. Show, which followed. While attracting an intense cult fan base, the Kids faced at least three major obstacles that made crossover success pretty much an impossibility. They were Canadian and had a pronounced—and, for fans, most welcome—quirkiness. They were disarmingly intelligent, yet always willing and eager to embrace the oddness of life. Their one-two punch of ingenuity and eccentricity could be like Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons—you either got them, immediately, or you did not. Lastly, they dressed in drag. Often, and convincingly. Too convincingly, perhaps, for the average American sensibility circa 1990-something.
Although only one member of the ensemble is gay, queer culture was featured prominently—or, at least unabashedly—waaaaay before it was as widely accepted, or commonplace as it would thankfully be less than two decades later. Perhaps the primary reason it was easier for some to describe, or dismiss the show as a bunch of dudes in dresses is because it was, and remains, pretty difficult to pinpoint what they were up to. Precious few impersonations, less than a little political pot-shotting, The Kids in the Hall managed to consistently skewer piety and send up our ever-uptight social mores through the creation of insanely indelible characters: they understood that to effectively ridicule the world they had to make themselves ridiculous. In one skit, fur trappers cruise office buildings, killing yuppies in order to sell their “pelts” to a high-end haberdashery. In another a harried corporate big shot, in the midst of a stress-driven cardiac arrest, rips his heart out of his chest, pouring coffee on it and yelling “Get back to work!” And how inadequate would our world be without the Head Crusher, the Chicken Lady, Buddy Cole or Cabbage Head?
The definitive sketch? Every fan will claim one, but it’s difficult to deny the exceptional “Retelling of a Complicated Italian Movie”, which features everything that made The Kids in the Hall so inimitable: as two guys in a bar discuss a foreign film, the happy hour crowd slowly assumes the roles being described. All of a sudden the storyteller is holding a pistol and melodramatic shots ring out. “Wow, what a complicated plot!” his friend says, still holding his buffalo wing as he collapses, clutching his bleeding stomach. You have to see it to disbelieve it, but it manages to be clever, surreal and, as always, hysterical. Naturally, one character is dressed in drag.