It’s Monday night, January 11, and I’ve been invited to a screening of Death Comes to Town, the latest project from sketch comedy legends Kids in the Hall and the first time they’ve appeared together on-camera (excluding filmed tours) since the major motion picture Brain Candy in 1996.

Brain Candy flopped, but in retrospect that was a foregone conclusion. Like Tom Green’s Freddy Got Fingered, it was an attempt to take an edgy, reasonably successful Canadian formula and deliver it to mainstream America. In both cases, the Hollywood execs got exactly the kind of warped comedy they ordered; the subsequent lack of success indicates that those who bought the formulas might not have even seen the shows, let alone understood the humour.

Despite severe internal conflicts (Dave Foley, at the time about to begin a successful starring run on NewsRadio, appeared under contractual obligation), Brain Candy contains some of the Kids’ best, darkest work. They seem to respond well under pressure. Here at the Rivoli restaurant, where the first KITH stage shows were performed in the ‘80s, the pressure before the screening is not only creative but physical. The tiny upstairs lounge is filled to the point of fire code violation, and everyone is trying to get something. Photographers find their co-ordinated press area blocked by the crowd. Mayor David Miller pushes me aside to reach his seat. Many shift toward the bar or look to snag a greeting with a recognizable face.

Only I, my guest and a few others seem to be trying for a view of the screens that will play the pilot of the eight-part series, an ongoing murder mystery, with Death personified as a motorcycling drifter, set in the fictional small town of Shuckton, Ontario. I wonder: have the Kids finally become bigger in name than in product -- that is, do people care more about who they are, than what they produce?  

I sat down with Bruce McCulloch -- the brainchild behind the new concept -- and Mark McKinney, who plays Death, to learn how the project got off the ground, how far CBC standards were pushed and about the cultish fan base that has turned them into a comedy commodity.

Q: Was today the first public screening of Death Comes to Town?

Bruce McCulloch:
Essentially, yes, but who’s to say if it was a public screening, in a boozy bar on Queen Street West? Were people watching, or were they just networking?

Q: Could you tell if they enjoyed it?
Mark McKinney: What was inarguable about it was that the audience, whoever that was, turned into this beast that we were tickling for about a half-hour. It’s rare to experience that with a TV show that you’ve made, ‘cause it goes out and you watch it alone at home with your mac and cheese.

Q: What’s the basic timeline of the project?
Bruce: It’s been about 18 months. Conversations started about it while we were on our last tour, which culminated in the idea of doing it as a TV series. Then we took it into the CBC as the tour ended.

Q: Was everyone in the group keen to produce new material? Was there a final holdout?
Mark: I might have been the most nervous, because I was working on another show and wasn’t sure if I could slot it in.

This was Bruce’s premise, and we had to endow him with the authority to go away and get working on it, which he did with Kevin [McDonald] and Scott [Thompson] in L.A. I think 15 years ago we might not have been able to do that. We would have been too jealous and wanted to hold onto our fair portion of the idea. But we’ve grown up.

Q: So has getting older made it easier to collaborate?
Mark: I think everyone’s skills have become more pronounced. After the troupe, Bruce wrote and directed movies and had that side of the business down. We wrote a lot of stuff for the last tour, and a lot of it was from Mr. McCulloch. We thought, we’re not going to be able to write all together because we live in different cities. If we’d waited until we could all get together for five weeks, we’d still be waiting.

Bruce: We also lived under the tyranny of the Brain Candy experience, which probably could have used one of us to be in charge at the centre of it. It’s hard for five guys to sweat the nuances, twists and turns. You build parts of it so that everyone has, tonally, enough to perform.

Q: After so many years together, has the process of choosing roles become quicker? Were you able to say with quick confidence, “Bruce will play the mayor,” etc.?
Mark: We know each other’s flavour, for lack of a better word, each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Wasn’t there a last-minute flip?

Bruce: Dave could have played the mayor.

Mark: That’s right. Dave could have played the Mayor and Bruce could have played [his wife] Marilyn. That’s the area where they intersect in the comedy Venn diagram. In Brain Candy I was going to play the scientist and Kevin was going to play Roritor, but we flipped that at the last minute.

Q: What about moving against that? Did anyone say, “I’ve played this role too many times”--
Bruce: Marnie, the old pizza-delivery lady with Alzheimer's, I think we thought would naturally be played by Scott because of his propensity for playing old women. And now he is one. And then he thought, "I’ve sort of done that," so Kevin grabbed it. Then Scott was like, “Well, I could do it ... but I would want to do it as an East Indian!” “OK, so let’s hear your East Indian lady? Don’t have one, eh? Kevin will do it.”

Q: Is casting tougher as well now that you’ll be playing the roles for four total hours?
Mark took on a lot as Death, it’s a daring role. He’s got a lot to do. He’s holed up in a hotel, alone. He’s physically exposed, riding around in a codpiece on a Mustang bike. It’s a lot to take on.

We had to think about things like back story and character development that you naturally don’t think of when working in shorter forms. When a guy takes on a role in this, he takes on a lot.

Q: What other ideas were batted around?
Mark: I thought that what we would do was film the tour, as there was so much good material there.

But we didn’t have a competitive idea. I was tired of the network stuff I was writing, so I wrote a piece about the fattest town in America. Did I ever tell you about “Fat Town”?

Mark: Yes!

Bruce: It was literally in the middle of America and was the fattest town. I think that’s where the character Ricky came from.

Mark: You’re always the one who has “Town” as the second part of your ideas.

Q: You’ve mentioned influences like Roots and Twin Peaks. Is that just you selling the concept, or were you directly influenced by other shows in this case?
I don’t think so. I think we’ve enjoyed cable -- The Sopranos was epiphanic for all of us. But there’s so much of that good TV on now, where you can follow the stories and see weirder stuff, and I think that influenced us, but it’s not a standard comedy model.

Q: Have you paid attention to sketch comedy over the last 10 years? Have you seen the form moving in any directions you may have pointed to when KITH was on the air?
I like the fact that a lot of comedy got wild and unconstrained by anything to do with network television. A lot of it moved to the Internet, where Kids in the Hall would have been had we started up now.

It’s fun to write without any constraint because you can get obsessed: it’s just about one screwed-up crazy idea, and you will take it to the max.

Q: Did spending years apart on other projects have a positive effect?
I think there was more trust. I think because we’ve gone on and continued to define our own individual likes and dislikes, virtually by painting that with our careers -- who’s become more writerly, who’s doing acting, who's stayed with comedy or moved to drama, who’s worked in long-form -- it’s easier to acknowledge whose strengths are.

Bruce: And weaknesses. Sometimes, if someone couldn’t show up, we wouldn’t say, “We can’t start!” We just worked. It was more realistic in a sense.

Q: Did you examine any of your old material, to avoid repeating ideas?
Oh, god no! Hell, no. I don’t think you can stay endlessly fresh. I think the best creative people recognize there’s maybe one, two, if you’re really lucky, three themes that keep cropping up in your work. They’re really constant. So I wind up, in my own work, revisiting the same types of characters and situations. I think that’s how creativity evolves.

Q: With that in mind, will fans get to see the return of any old characters?
There are a couple of characters that made it in, but really because they fit. The cops are there --

Bruce: Which aren’t really characters, no offence to them. They’re actually called Cop 1 and Cop 2.

Mark: They’re the generic voice of dullard authority.

Bruce: I tried writing an arc for them once, one of them wanted to give it up ... but I thought it was so boring! They don’t need an arc.

Q: Are there any characters you miss acting as, or writing for?
Scott thinks in terms of characters. Mark does. I don’t. It’s performance -- I made a commitment to only perform with these guys, when people didn’t call me to be in their things! [laughs]

Q: Did the CBC take any issue with the edgier content of the series?
I think in a glancing way they raised some concerns, but I knew we were being given a lot of latitude, so it made us respect their notes a little more.

Q: Specifically, I wonder about the scene of Death literally “snorting” the souls he has collected. That seems like a fairly blatant “what can we get away with?” move.
Mark: Why?

Q: It’s a pretty stark drug reference for network television.
How is it a drug reference?

Bruce: [Laughs.] Would you see that on Cold Case? Do those characters snort coke as an aside?

Q: Not only are you referencing it, but physically showing the snorting --
It gives Death an appetite. He should be that screwed-up. The rules of the afterworld should be twisted.

Bruce: I think CBC would have had a problem if we had the “special son” [Mayor Bowman’s uniquely disabled child “Rampop”] snort cocaine.

Mark: There would have been a problem if we had a regular character doing it, but in our bizarre world this is just how Death collects souls.

Q: Is it easier now to do your own thing than it was in the ‘90s, now that the network knows who you are and what to expect?
The thing is, now that it is easier for us, I recognize that it was easier back then. We were phenomenally lucky to get into an umbrella where we were not creatively interfered with -- for five years, with your first show in the business. That’s amazing.

Bruce: With me having done a lot of American TV, and pitching pilots and getting notes ... I remember at CBS having to redo an outline five times, and I got paid a lot of money, but the show never happened.

Mark: The notes didn’t help? It didn’t get five times better?

Q: With the setting in mind, did you go back to small-town Canada to see what it’s like in 2010?
Bruce: That would require research!

Mark: All the questions in your interview imply a lot more thought. That would have been a good idea -- you mean go and actually look into the thing that you’re writing about?

Q: Were the residents in the filming locations accommodating or did they look at you guys like, “What the hell are they doing?”
They were fantastic. North Bay couldn’t have been nicer. Toronto bills itself as a film-friendly town, but in North Bay it was like, “Hey, the circus is here!”

Death Comes to Town airs on CBC Tuesdays at 9 p.m. local time.

Watch the first episode:

2 Comments | Add a Comment
I love farting!
North Bay loved hosting the Kids in the Hall and their crew. The town just isn't the same since they left. The locals involved in the production gathered at Don Cherry's to view the pilot together. The evening was filled with reconnecting with new acquaintences, laughter and good memories. I would dare to say, North Bay will always feel like The Kids are part of our community.
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