Bruce McCulloch, who once had to fight for his jokes and characters, finally has some validation. Amazon Prime is airing a revival of The Kids in The Hall, the series named for the sketch-comedy quintet he co-founded nearly four decades ago. He has a one-person off-Broadway show. And he’s executive producing TallBoyz, a very funny new series starring a diverse Canadian quintet that advances the sharp-eyed, provocative ethos of The Kids.
On the latest MovieMaker podcast, we talk with McCulloch about his complicated characters, the roots of his comedy, and one of his difficult fights for a character he believed in — Cancer Boy, one of the many roles he played in the 1996 Kids in the Hall movie Brain Candy. You can listen on Apple or Spotify or here:
When The Kids in the Hall made Brain Candy at the end of their show’s first TV run, studio executives and many others objected to Cancer Boy, a plucky kid who elicited the sympathy of everyone around him because of his brave fight with cancer.
“I fought because I was told — by my punk ethic — that I have to fight for my work,” he says. “I always see the humanity in all these things. I was imagining a kid who had cancer, who was in remission. And now Wayne Gretzky wasn’t going to come visit him.”
He adds: “I see only humanity for those for those children… they’ve got better spirits than people who seemingly have everything. That was the point with it.”
Cancer Boy stayed in the movie, but is widely cited as one of the reasons Paramount didn’t strongly back Brain Candy, a commercial disappointment.
“We won the battle and maybe lost the war,” McCulloch says. “But, you know, I’m happier that I did Cancer Boy than I didn’t.”
In fact, he says the character remains his favorite from Brain Candy. He stresses that the Kids in the Hall never had comedic targets, except for themselves. Still, Cancer Boy will not be part of the new Amazon series — though McCulloch is confident he is still alive and doing well.
Another character who will not return, because McCulloch and the other kids don’t think he’s right for the times, is the beloved folk hero “Running F—-t.” He was played by the Kids’ Scott Thompson, who was openly gay at a time when few people on television were. The slur in the title of the sketch makes people wince, but Thompson’s pride and fortitude in the face of rampant ’80s homophobia have aged quite well.
“Running F-word is a bit of a complicated thing, and written because that was the word that that was hurled at me from every truck when I was growing up. Because I didn’t look like everybody else — meaning I looked pretty cool,” McCulloch deadpans.
The Kids’ comedic sensibility can still lead to disagreements with the higher-ups, even on their Amazon Prime revival. McCulloch notes that TallBoyz may have had an easier time on Canada’s CBC network, where it first aired.
“Amazon’s probably a little tougher on us than certainly CBC was on TallBoyz. You know, just like, ‘We got a lot of people to think about, we don’t want you guys to do anything out of line.’ And, you know, TallBoyz, because it’s an amazing young, BIPOC show, they have their own voice — and they really can’t be censored. Because they’re the truth, right? They’re the truth of their lives.”
He hasn’t felt stifled, he says.
“Mostly, we’ve gotten through all the stuff we’ve needed to get through,” McCulloch says. “You know, they’re just a cautious, large company, which is a bit different than, you know, putting your record out.”
What does he think about claims that people are too sensitive now, and that it’s hurting comedy?
“Well, I think the fact that people might be more sensitive is good for the world. I do like, mostly, the change in the world,” McCulloch says.
He saw the increased thoughtfulness in his work with the TallBoyz, featuring friends and collaborators Guled Abdi, Vance Banzo, Tim Blair and Franco Nguyen.
“When I worked with TallBoyz, it’s like, ‘When are you guys gonna fight with each other? Aren’t you at each other’s throats all the time?’ And so I love that there’s a kindness in the world — ‘Attention must be paid!’ to the kindness of the world. I love that. It can get trickier when you’re doing stuff that’s more nuanced, or satirical. That is, you’re on the right side. But if people, you know, have a knee-jerk reaction, they could think you’re not.”
He says of the Kids in the Hall: “I think we’re kind of grandfathered in, because we’ve been at this a long time. And we’re clearly not in it for the money, or the fame, or any anything other than the love of games. And we and we fiercely want to you know, protect the outsiders. We’re all outsiders. I say in my one-person show: Outsiders, there sure are a lot of us.”
TallBoyz member Banzo says the possibility of people being offended will always exist in comedy.
“I think everything in comedy has already been done. And we’re just kind of spinning our wheels and repeating it and hoping nobody notices that it’s ripping off everybody else,” he jokes. “I mean, as far as people being offended, and stuff like that, we’re in a world where we have to deal with one another. People are going to have emotions about what you do, whether it’s good or bad. And you kind of have to ride the waves.”
TallBoyz make smart, nuanced and very funny observations about racism and toxic masculinity, among other subjects — always finding an absurdist, unexpected bent. Does he think comedy can be a force for good?
“Well, all comedians are evil. I can tell you that,” Banzo laughs. “Force for good? It can be… it depends on the comedian. But I like to do good with my comedy, you know? Speak truth to power.”
TallBoyz is now airing on Fuse TV and Fuse +. The Kids in the Hall is now airing on Amazon Prime.
Main image: Bruce McCulloch.