You can get a sense of a person by the comedy they ingest or reference. Often, their humor is shaped by those they enjoy or admire, so you can tell what they find sacred or profane. It’s the same thing with music, a flag planted by exposure to an artist which becomes that person’s defining trait. I’ve never had that. Or, at least, felt like I’d had that. I can identify several films directed by the Zucker Bros., Mel Brooks, and Richard Donner, or albums by Coheed and Cambria, Aerosmith, and Quincy Jones, that’ve each had a hand in what I’ve loved or how I’ve viewed the world. Strangely, it took until now, almost this exact moment, to recognize the genius of a troupe I’ve known and even seen performed live: Kids in the Hall. Their’s is a comedy style that’s anarchistic, unhinged in its individuality and vision, refusing to conform to anyone else’s view of the world. Having its world premiere at SXSW 2022, director Reg Harkema’s (Super Duper Alice Cooper) documentary Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks digs into this notion, leaving few stones unturned, unafraid to explore the good and the bad of the living legends of comedy.
For the unfamiliar, Kids in the Hall is a Canadian comedy troupe including Bruce McCulloch (Schitt’s Creek, director), Dave Foley (NewsRadio, actor), Kevin McDonald (Lilo & Stitch, actor), Mark McKinney (Superstore, actor), and Scott Thompson (Reno 911!, actor) who spent years creating their own materials before a relationship with producer extraordinaire Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live) assisted in the creation of five seasons’ worth of sketch comedy. Their show, simply titled The Kids in the Hall, ran from 1989 – 1995, after which they made the film Brain Candy (1996), went on hiatus, started a series of tours, made a mini-series, and are currently in production on a new season of The Kids in the Hall for Amazon Prime. That’s their general history as it relates to their careers, something which Harkema spends the bulk of the 97-minute documentary exploring. It’s not the factoids or the hitting of the major moments in their careers that, while fascinating, make the documentary engaging, hilarious, or remotely rewatchable, it’s how it taps into the individual members of the troupe, giving them the time to offer their raw and unflinching opinions about their incredible careers.
Like most traditional docs, Comedy Punks is structured around the usual talking heads interviews mixed with archived footage, home videos, photographs, and the like. What makes it different, truly different, is the editing. Harkema clearly understands that, like music, comedy is about timing. Some bits or sketches come down to whether or not the rhythm is there. For a group like Kids in the Hall, timing is their bread-and-butter. In order to replicate some of this, the one-er interviews frequently get cut to feel like one member is responding to another member’s comments. This may be Harkema’s film and the Kids’s story, but its editors Peter Denes and David McMahon’s pitch-perfect timing that makes the entire documentary feel like we’re watching one of the troupe’s live shows with each member riffing off the other. Except, rather than making jokes about a fictitious premise, it’s their lives and the troupe’s legacy which is the premise. Few moments in the doc, too few by my estimation, involve all five members in one place together, yet the editing instills the feeling that Mark is responding to Bruce or Kevin to Dave or even Scott to all four, creating the sensation that they’re all present together. Especially as the documentary gets into their separation (the rift which formed between Dave and the other four as he went to work on NewsRadio in 1995 after their series ended), the film never loses the sense that there’s a unified story. Don’t mistake this for a tale that’s been glossed over or shortened, though there are quite a few things I would’ve loved seen explored more as a mostly newbie to their Kids career, the way in which they speak, not just candidly, but with such ferocity, there’s never a sense that any subject is off topic. Which, nothing is: the good, the bad, and the devastating.
In part due to editing, in part to the nature of their story, Comedy Punks flies by in a flash. Part of what makes it feel that way is the use of materials to enhance the story each of the Kids are saying. My favorite approach is the layered use of archival material when used to illustrate a point by one of the troupe or by one of the several guest individuals talking about their experience working with the Kids (Mike Meyers and Paul Bellini) or about their influence on their work (Eddie Izzard and Jennifer Whalen). We’d be shown a recording of one of the improve shows and then, typically, that same sketch, but as it appeared on an episode of Kids. It’s a small thing and, in a way, just feels like a bit of redundancy in storytelling, but what it actually does is highlight just how long some of these classic bits have been gestating and honed within their performances whether it’s crushing heads or Cabbage Head. This happens throughout the documentary, no matter the period that’s under examination. It should confuse, throwing the timeline out of order, yet, it enhances what we learn by solidifying the idea that the Kids have been following their own beats since their beginning.
I don’t think that there’s anything in Comedy Punks that’ll feel revelatory to fans of the Kids. Not the genesis of their name, not their love for theme song band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, nor their love for each other. This isn’t the kind of documentary that will tell that kind of story. Instead, Comedy Punks is a celebration of five talented individuals who are stronger together and know it, and whose work and creative energy fuels the others, pushing them to make some of the best material of their lives. Me, I watched episodes of Kids on Comedy Central in the ‘90s, knowing enough to reference them so that my eventual wife, EoM editor Crystal Davidson, who I met in college, knew I wasn’t a total dweeb (just a partial one). Knowing how she loved them, I even took her to the “Live As We’ll Ever Be” May 3rd, 2008, show at The Warner Theatre in D.C. as a birthday gift and she met some of the members. But it wasn’t until I heard their stories, learned about their process, and could see how they sought to break social mores through comedy that now, in 2022, I actually want to sit down and check out the series properly. That, to me, is a sign of success in a documentary: it provokes continued exploration of the subject matter. Whether you’re an established fan or a newcomer, Comedy Punks’s frank approach is an appropriate celebration of a legacy that continues to grow and is bound to grow all the more in part to Harkema’s documentary, one of best documentaries of 2022.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
*Weekday, March 15th, Screening @ 2:15p CT, at ZACH Theatre
*Weekday, March 16th, On-line Screening @ 9a CT
*Weekday, March 16th, Screening @ 2:45p CT, at ZACH Theatre
For more information on the documentary, head to the official SXSW webpage.
For more information on the Kids in the Hall, head to the official Kids in the Hall website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.