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The Kids Aren't All Right

This article is property of its writer and publication and is reprinted here without permission.

(SATURDAY NIGHT MAGAZINE ARTICLE - march 1996)

Kevin McDonald sits cross-legged on the floor and asks his host, the Toronto Sun reporter Zorianna Kit, if she has Alanis Morissette's new CD. Kit tosses him the disc and begins to harp on knowing "Alanis" from her days in Ottawa. Alanis, however, is not the object of her attentions tonight. McDonald is. It is a late Saturday evening in August, 1995. For the past month the thirty-four-year-old McDonald, one of the Kids in the Hall, has been working on the comedy troupe's first motion picture. Kit is hungry for an inside bit of information on the movie, which is entering its last week of filming. The lithe, twenty-something former model appears willing to use whatever means are necessary, ranging from some playful flirtation to the bag of marijuana she has procured, in order to get McDonald to open up. There's only one problem: Kit doesn't know how to roll a joint. Neither does McDonald. Nor does the unhip Saturday Night journalist who has tagged along for the ride. So, like any other intrepid reporter, Kit gets on the phone and chases her leads.

"Hi, it's Zorianna. Do you know how to roll? [pause] Oh, okay. Do you know anybody who knows how to roll?"

"Hi, do you know how to roll?"

"It's me, can you roll?"

"Can you roll?"

While Kit flips through her Filofax looking for a dexterous acquaintance McDonald tries to get comfortable in her small Toronto apartment. He wants to talk about Morissette's hit track "You Oughta Know." The song is a revenge anthem for jilted lovers. McDonald can relate. Three months ago his wife left him, taking half the furniture and the dogs. According to McDonald, it was the pressure he was under while writing the Kids' $7.5-million movie that drove her away. He became obsessed. She couldn't handle it.

The film, The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy, is about the discovery of a pill that cures depression. The Kids (McDonald, along with Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, Bruce McCulloch, and Dave Foley) played a total of fifty different characters over the course of thirty-seven shooting days. Not since Monty Python has a comedy troupe been given the blessing of a major studio (Paramount) to write and star in their own feature film.

In the best of circumstances, making a movie is an exhausting exercise. Brain Candy has been no exception, particularly for McDonald, who plays the film's lead character, Chris Cooper, the scientist who discovers the drug "Gleemonex." Compounding these pressures have been legal wrangling and on-set conflicts.

"The Kids are mercurial and talented," says the film's line producer, Martin Walters. "And that's as far as I'll go."

Never a particularly imposing person, McDonald now has a complexion bordering on translucent. He seems to crave contemplative solitude but does everything in his power not to be alone. Things must be tough - McDonald has sunk so low he's hanging out with journalists.

Meanwhile, Kit has solved her rolling dilemma. She has decided to melt her "weed" on chocolate digestive biscuits. She throws the cookies into a frying pan and begins to yammer. McDonald looks across the room, draws a deep breath, and then exhales, a hint of the vodka and orange juice he'd been drinking earlier wafting outwards.

Then he offers a confession that appears to be more for himself than for anyone else in the room. It's as if Kevin McDonald is reminding Kevin McDonald of a former life, a happier time before the Kids in the Hall decided to make their first feature movie. "I don't usually do this sort of thing," he says as Kit hands him one of her cookies. "Really, I don't."

The Kid's foray into the world of feature film-making began in July, 1994, two weeks after they had taped their final TV show. In the course of ten years they had gone from outlaw comics to cult-TV stardom. Television had grown stale. Film beckoned. The Kids, along with their series' head writer, Norm Hiscock, spent two weeks at an Ontario spa to brainstorm. By the summer of 1995, the script, which had gone through six drafts, had been approved by Paramount. It was to be produced by Lorne Michaels, the creator of "Saturday Night Live," and his production company, Broadway Video. The Kids lobbied for Kelly Makin ( who had directed their series for two years) and got him. Michaels appointed Barnaby Thompson as the film's co- producer. Thompson, a Brit. who had worked on Wayne's World (with Canadian comic Mike Myers), had a reputation for being literate and adept at guiding "artistic" comedians through their first feature films.

In Brain Candy the drug Gleemonex is supposed to cure depression by allowing the takers to relive their fondest memories. Dazzled by the drug's profit- making possibilities, the scientist's employer decides to try it out on the public before it's been properly tested. The city gets hooked, but Gleemonex users find that their "best memories" warp. For example, a war veteran finds his recollections of combat transformed into memories of his sergeant ordering him to fornicate with the enemy. In this respect, the Kids were sticking to the themes they had explored since their first days as upstart comedians.

The Kids in the Hall, as now constituted, came together in 1984 when the original Kids in the Hall (Foley and McDonald) merged with a comedy troupe from Alberta called The Audience (McCulloch and McKinney). Scott Thompson joined a few months later. The Kids had little in common other than a contempt for the popular comedy forms of the day - stand-up comedy and Second City-style comedy revenues - which they considered stale. "We didn't know much what we wanted," says McDonald. "We just knew what we hated." Their revolt against the comedic status quo resulted in an approach that was neither political not topical. Rather, they played with the illicit desires (sex, violence, obsession) they saw running beneath the surface of middle-class life.

In 1989, after years of working in small comedy clubs, the Kids landed a TV series, thanks mostly to Lorne Michaels (who signed them to Broadway Video) and Ivan Fecan, head of entertainment programming at CBC. The Kids played off their innocuous boy-next-door looks, creating dark sketches such as "Naked for Jesus," which featured nude religious testimonials, and Mark McKinney's "Chicken Lady," a half-woman/half-chicken with a strong sex drive. The show was critically acclaimed; The New York Times dubbed the group "Canada's version of Monty Python." The show also garnered Emmy-award nominations. By 1994, however, the Kids had had their fill. Foley went on to star in the hit NBC sitcom "NewsRadio." McKinney joined "Saturday Night Live." McCulloch focused on feature-film writing and directing. Thompson landed a role on "The Larry Sanders Show." McDonald appeared in National Lampoon's Senior Trip, and devoted his energy to pitching scripts in Los Angeles, none of which were picked up. throughout this period, Brain Candy remained a priority. "We had to do the movie now," Thompson says, "Or else everyone would have drifted apart."

But by August, 1995, midway through production of Brain Candy, the question had become: would the Kids in the Hall survive the movie?

Many in Toronto's comedy community have compared the Kids' decision to quit television to an old married couple divorcing after a long, tumultuous relationship. This comparison doesn't bear analysis. The Kids in the Hall, says Scott Thompson, are more "like brothers, or a sinister brotherhood that you can never leave. Like the Mafia. We're like five friends who ten years ago killed somebody and kept it a secret."

Like brothers, the Kids were constantly vying for power. Most sketch groups have a leader, a dominant personality who drives the artistic direction. Not the Kids in the Hall. Writing the TV series, the Kids would often pair off: Foley and McDonald; McCulloch and McKinney; with Thompson oscillating between the two. This dynamic, in which no-one either seeks creative superiority or surrenders his artistic autonomy, kept the Kids' work edgy. "I sensed a constant tension," says a former member of their TV production team. "But as a group they had a bigger ego than any one of them."

In 1993, as the Kids launched what was to be the final season of their show, the group was reported to be plagued by bickering and infighting. Animosity between Foley and McCulloch was said to be particularly fierce. At one press launch Foley told me: "I hate Bruce." It was hard to tell how much of his statement was a joke.

"Dave always struck me as operating in a different milieu anyway," says the same production-team source. "He'd be the guy who wore the shirt and tie, while the rest of them, especially Bruce, cultivated that sort of beat image."

Foley found greater success after leaving the Kids. The show he went to, "NewsRadio," took off. the Kids may have seemed like ancient history. In June, 1995, Foley told Paramount that he did not wish to do the movie. According to Dinah Minot, vice president of creative affairs at Broadway Video, it was because of "family reasons." (Foley himself refuses to be interviewed.) Foley was asked to honour his contract or face possible legal action. He showed up for shooting in July.

As with the Kids' TV series, which was the result of a comedic Darwinism in which only the "fittest" sketches survived, the Kids were constantly rewriting Brain Candy; no-one could agree on what the film was about. Each Kid had his own take. According to McDonald, that was part of Foley's problem with the film. "He felt the movie should focus on the scientists and the discovery of the pill. The other side felt it should come at it from the pharmaceutical company and how the business works."

Ironically, in most of his scenes, Foley is either estranged form the other Kids or actually alone on screen (something McDonald says occurred by accident). Still, when stand-up comedian Harry Doupe asked Foley how long the Kids were shooting, he replied: "I finish on July 21." "Really? You guys are all done on the twenty-first?" Doupe asked. "I finish the twenty-first," answered Foley. "They're filming until the end of next month. I've actually left the group." Whether Foley meant it remains to be seen.

As he sat in his trailer between takes, McCulloch pondered the rifts that been a part of the troupe's history. "We all went through a phase of not appreciating the group. I've never thought that friction would break us up. It would be the other thing: boredom."

Socially, though, the Kids have always maintained their distance. Brain Candy's hair and wig designer, Judi Cooper-Sealy, who for years worked on the "SCTV" television series, says: "In 'SCTV,' they all knew what each other was doing. These guys are different. They [the Kids] ask us. It's like, 'What's he up to now?' They don't socialize."

According to McDonald, everyone with the exception of McKinney contemplated quitting the troupe during the shooting of the movie. "We were all going through our own hell to get the movie done. The smallest things seemed bigger," he says. "We were all crazy. Scott came back from 'Larry Sanders' and he was unhappy about some cuts we'd made to the script. While he considered quitting I went to the bathroom and almost threw up. I thought, it's not worth it. Wives are leaving you, friends are yelling at each other. I should quit. We should all quit. But I came back in, Scott and I talked, and we wrote a great scene."

McDonald's life last summer was bleak, In his back yard the grass and weeds stood six feet high. His dining room, living room, and many of the bedrooms were without furniture. He spent many evenings "at home sitting by the fireplace, crying." Kit reported in The Toronto Sun that he had been tipsy on the set. Which led McDonald to retort: "I guess that teaches me not to drink on the set." (Kit failed to mention that he wasn't actually working that day.)

McDonald, a self-described manic-depressive, was apprehensive about Brain Candy: "My worst fear," he said during filming, "is that I'll ruin the movie."

McDonald's insecurity stems in part from his feeling that he's the "overlooked" Kid. "I used to get fan mail that said: 'Dear Kevin, I like you very much, tell Bruce I love him.' " He was also the Kid who had the least career success after the TV show ended. While the others landed roles, McDonald elected to work on his own projects. Of all the Kids he stands to gain the most from Brain Candy's success. Or to lose the most from its failure. The film's subject, moreover, is close to his heart.

McDonald grew up asthmatic and overweight. He lost his fat as a teenager by becoming borderline anorexic. Even so, McDonald maintains, "You need your dark side as much as you need your good. Being happy all the time is as bad as being depressed all the time. Killing depression kills creativity. It may be fucked up but we believe it."

The summer was saved for McDonald by Scott Thompson and his boyfriend, Josh, who moved in with McDonald during the filming. Though Thompson had his own grief to deal with. Two weeks before filming began, one of his brothers committed suicide. "It's awful to hate yourself," Thompson remarked one evening. "Anger is not pleasant." It was hard to tell if he was referring to himself, his lost brother, the film, or the universe. In a bizarre spin, two of the Kids had become choice candidates for Gleemonex - if only it existed.

At least one thing still drew the Kids together though: a total commitment to "their laughs." All during the shooting they fought a war of artistic attrition against the studio, disputing in an amiable manner, most of the concessions they were asked to make. McKinney, dressed as talk show host Nina Bedford, fought for his interpretation of the character as a screechy corporate cheerleader. McDonald pushed to get his version of Chris Cooper - the obsessive who sacrifices relationships for work - on screen. (The Kids are used to being pressured. The CBC used to urge them to be "more Canadian." In America they were pressured to cut out all Canadian references.) McCulloch explains the Kids' philosophy: "We're greedy and we don't like to give up laughs. We create the machine. We own it. We aren't doing an indulgent film."

When the Kids went to Los Angeles to preview their picture, however, that's exactly what they considered their ending to be - indulgent. The Kids had written a scene in which Cooper (McDonald) slips into a coma and dreams the end of the movie. They had filmed a sequence featuring an elaborate parade, complete with Coma Queens, candy-coloured floats, and a grinning mob. The scene scored poorly with test audiences. Both the Kids and Paramount felt it lacked dramatic weight. "We had created a film that was two-thirds done," says McDonald. "I think we just didn't do it right - the ending was too scattered."

In January, the Kids met again back in Toronto, on a set closed to the media, to re-shoot the ending. Maybe the freezing temperatures helped cauterize whatever wounds were opened in August; McDonald says the troupe got along so well that they're now discussing a possible tour this summer.

More important, the Kids appear to have done right by the film. The buzz form those who've previewed it is that the movie's strange, intelligent, and funny. Brain Candy now closes with McDonald furiously trying to create a pill that causes depression. In the dysfunctional family that is The Kids in the Hall, that's as happy as an ending gets.

 

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