Kids Aren't All Right
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NIGHT MAGAZINE ARTICLE - march 1996)
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?"
do you know how to roll?"
me, 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
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."
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
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
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
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
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