If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching an episode of The Kids in the Hall, then you’ve missed out on a quintessential adventure experience into the heights and depths of Canadian humour. The sketch comedy show ran on the good ol’ CBC for five strange seasons before ‘the kids’ decided to make the big leap of faith onto the silver screen with a feature length film.
Brain Candy was to be their American breakthrough, like Tim Hortons opening up in Chicago for the first time or something like that. I imagine a Starbucks was already across the street, waiting for that northern interloper.
In the same breath, Brain Candy marked the same kind of moment. One could have sat in a Saskatoon screening and still heard an echo from the multiplexes of Topeka, Kansas or Wabasha, Minnesota where American audiences were bewildered and bemused at this eccentric fivesome. That mass echo of ‘Huh?’ during the early release of Brain Candy bellowed from deep within the heart of the Midwest and landed with a resounding thud somewhere above the 49th parallel. Perhaps Americans simply weren’t meant to get us or our quirky-beyond-quirky sense of humour.
The Kids in the Hall were the inheritors of the Monty Python legacy and they took up that gauntlet with as much fervor as they could. At its best, sketch comedy is about a troupe of players with funny instincts and who know how to play off of each other’s strengths while bringing something unique to the table. Python’s John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin had the staid and stodgy Brit mentality to toy with and rail against. Our New Britain players – Scott Thompson, Bruce ‘Brucio’ McCulloch (Edmontonian he, or close enough), Kevin McDonald, David Foley and Mark McKinney – had political correctness, Canadian identity crises and other socio-political themes to play off of. They came to show Canada a part of its own confused identity that it didn’t even know it had before. Cross dressing? Sure. That’s fine. But cross dressing as a chicken? There’s McKinney’s Chicken Lady at the strip club, making everyone uncomfortable. Lent your pen to some jerk at the bank who promptly leaves with it, doing unimaginable things with it along the way? Well, McCulloch has the character who will chase him down the street, losing his sanity along the way. Curious what prostitutes talk about on the job? Foley and Thompson (the only two non-‘Mc’s) portrayed two prostitutes who openly discuss the inner workings of their profession, even as an undercover police officer, laughably in very poor disguise, solicits their services. Have a friend who keeps telling you that he’ll do something for you but then when he doesn’t, and you just wonder why? Kevin McDonald’s egocentric jerk Dean will echo in your head this phrase: “It slipped my mind.” Then you’ll realize that your friend is just a jerk too. Jerk.
As an aside, even I have trouble keeping all of the ‘Mc’ names straight. Here’s a handy guide:
- Scott Thompson is not a Mc but is the only cast member who is actually gay;
- Dave Foley, another non-Mc, was on NewsRadio, the NBC show that ran after KITH, and later Celebrity Poker;
- Mark McKinney was on Saturday Night Live for one season (and for some reason). Okay, it was a season and a half;
- Kevin McDonald wasn’t but did get a bit on That 70s Show and was a voice in Disney’s Lilo and Stitch, so that’s something; and
- Bruce McCulloch knows a lot of Daves, one of which is Foley.
At their best, they were great. But at their worst, they were absolutely brilliant.
I still occasionally shout, “My pen! M-m-my pen!” I still creepily crush people’s heads with my thumb and forefinger. I still think about all the Daves I know. I still imagine The Eradicator arriving at squash tournaments to overthrow his opponents despite his obvious and crippling self-esteem issues. I still enjoy girl drinks, but don’t tell my mom.
At this point it should be noted that the t.v. show was produced by a certain Lorne Michaels. Y’know... that Lorne Michaels. The Canadian dude who helped put a fledgling American sketch comedy show called Saturday Night Live on the map? Him. The Lorne Michaels who took SNL sketches and turned them innumerably into movies, most of them floppers but at least Wayne’s World became a big hit.
One can only imagine sitting at the table with these five frantic and creative personalities, and staunch, furtive businessman Lorne Michaels all sitting around thinking of ways to further the KITH brand. “Let’s make a movie” must have been one of the first suggestions blurted out drunkenly by either side. In some circles, it would have been the blurt heard ‘round the world.
And so they made a movie. Brain Candy is an atypically linear 89 minutes of typically headtilting Kids in the Hall madness. This time, it’s all about the pharmaceutical industry. What happens is, Roritor Pharmaceuticals is desperate for a new drug. GLeeMONEX is a special kind of drug but it hasn’t quite made it through the human testing phase before it gets rushed to market. It offers people the chance to latch onto their happiest memories. And it works! Depression be gone! So that’s something. Laughter and disaster ensue. That’s good, especially for the sad masses. Even Grivo, the morose singer of a Danzig-ish nihilistic band, turns into the kind of smiling simp who can sing about Happiness Pie.
Everybody knows that no drug is a magic bullet. What is amazing in the initial stages soon becomes a bit of a nightmare as the people who take the drug start turning catatonic and comatose with smiles on their faces.
As you’d expect, the movie is populated with many characters portrayed by the five actors. There’s this cast:
- Grivo the expressionless and morose musician (McCulloch);
- the drug’s inventor Chris (McDonald) who becomes a celebrity after the drug hits the market;
- the drug company executive, the very much Lorne-like Don Roritor (McKinney),
- the hard-done-by Mrs. Hurdicure, patient 957 (Thompson), whose favourite memory is a very brief holiday family encounter with a very uncordial son and his family;
- Wally (Thompson again), an average husband and father and a raging closeted homosexual who finally fully realizes his sexual orientation because of the drug;
- Marv (Foley), Roritor’s executive assistant who takes the drug and whose best memory is serving his boss a coffee that someone urinated in;
- Alice (McCulloch again), fellow scientist in Roritor’s drug labs and man, is she smitten with Chris, even though he doesn’t know it;
- talk show host Nina Bedford (McKinney again);
- the vulgar racist cabbie (McKinney again again);
- Bellini (Paul Bellini, a series’ regular);
- Mrs. Hurdicure’s son (Foley again, but that was it); and
- Cancer Boy (thud).
Oh no. Oh Cancer Boy. Oh man. Oh holy wow. Oh damn. Just damn.
The troupe famously fought hard for this one character (played by a wheelchair-bound, bald-capped McCulloch) to not be cut despite production company Paramount Pictures’ pleas for its removal. It was offensive. It was off-putting. It ruined the movie’s pacing and good-natured ribbings of other character types.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Cancer Boy was a boy with cancer. Baldly cheerful in spite of his poor health, Cancer Boy (note: that is the character’s actual name) told others to be happy even though he’s going to die. Repeatedly told them. The morbid mirth carries him to eventually become a pop singer with his MTV hit single Whistle When You're Low.
Because the troupe put up resistance to keep the character and his two minor scenes, Paramount angrily cut the film’s marketing budget down to “like, nothing,” McCulloch once said during an interview. The number of movie screens for Brain Candy dropped by the hundreds, down to the proverbial “contractual minimum.” The famous five had to shell out of their own pockets to finish the film, even though they weren’t really being paid much to being with.
The film eventually brought in just north of $2.6 million at the box office on a budget of $7 million. Not exactly a success, that. Well, only if you count successes in terms of dollar signs.
For my two cents, the film stands as lasting proof of the bewildering wonder of creative kooks. Dave, Scott, Mark, Bruce and Kevin. They came, they did something weird, they exited stage right. Down curtains.
It’s not so much about breaking the bank when you open a film. For entertainers with such a highly refined and self-defined niche, artistic integrity is everything. They stood their ground and they won the day for proving that they alone can decide what deserves a Kids in the Hall stamp on it. Their entire career was built on the strange, the awkward, the off-putting. I’m not sure if I regularly laughed like a buffoon at their silliness but man, did I ever smile at the chutzpah, the gumption, the comedic bravery. If they hadn’t put Cancer Boy in the movie then I would have been disappointed.
On an early episode of the show, Dave Foley once announced to the live audience that the troupe had made an amazing discovery, something unprecedented for comedians. And then Bruce McCulloch comes on stage and sheepishly apologizes, “I’m sorry I caused all that cancer.” Cancer, as everybody knows, is not an easy topic for mirth-making, especially on a professional and highly public level. But they did it. They made us laugh at a guy admitting the worse-than-Hitler notion of being the sole source of millions of cancer deaths. I laughed. I still do too. It’s ridiculous but just might have been the brightest harbinger of what everybody in the Brain Candy theatres should have expected. They should not have expected to laugh. Certainly, they would have laughed and what they laughed at would have surprised them as much as the Kids would have been surprised to get such a reaction.
In his verbal dissection of the film on At the Movies, lauded critic Roger Ebert once tore the troupe a new one by issuing this screed: “awful, terrible, dreadful, stupid, idiotic, unfunny, labored, forced, painful, bad.” I think that was his thumb down. Gene Siskel, Ebert’s showmate and frequent sparring partner, retorted by defending it as “audacious, clever, very funny.” Maybe Siskel was half-Canadian. I’d like to think they both were.
What’s better than all that fuss is that the film lives on as a cult classic, a Canadian Holy Grail. Brain Candy is the brainchild of five brainiac weirdos: top notch strangelings who didn’t even get along with each other during the best of times. They simply played off of each other’s fever dreams and made sure that vibrant and memorable characters came to life in utterly bizarro skits. They defied the odds. They did what they set out to do. They showed us the weird.
As an interesting side note, the movie was co-written, as you’d expect, by Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson, and not as you’d expect Norm Hiscock. Dave Foley was busy at the time with his new American NBC show NewsRadio, too busy to sit down with his former Kids-ians to help with the script. Boo! Hiss!
Norm Hiscock is himself a comedic genius with thick, juicy chops from working on SNL, King of the Hill, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, not to mention such Canadian landmarks as Maniac Mansion, Corner Gas and a little something called The Kids in the Hall. I’ve always said that if it’s got Hiscock on it, it’s got to be something to see.
Brain Candy to sing along toAnd hey... there’s music too!
Speaking of defying the odds, the Brain Candy soundtrack is a stellar piece of oddball oddities. As the movie has elements of diagetic wonder, the album features a few scenes with characters in dialogue or breaking out into song, starting with McCulloch’s Grivo moping to his mortcore throngs. Yes, Odds are there to start it off with him as his band, Death Lurks. Hi Craig Northey! I see you there! You produced this whole bit of excellence. Good on ya, eh!
The soundtrack is pure awesomeness with its eclectic and strange mélange of contributors. Furthermore, it seems as Canuck as eating Cheezies and drinking Pilsner from stubbies but there’s a veritable Yankee deluge of American mid-90s ‘alternative’ acts like Stereolab, Pavement, and Matthew Sweet. Revel in the actual film track of Scott Thompson in character realizing that he is, in fact, gay. I’m Gay is brilliant and joyous singing, ending with Thompson marching down the street with dozens of others, young and old, as he belts out a sustained ecstatic and climactic 15-second verse of “I’m gayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” Even the ears need to breathe after that.
Back to the soundtrack... there’s Yo La Tengo for indie flave, and Liz Phair with her razzamatazz of hard-boiled badassitude singing “Six Dick Pimp”... sorry, mom. If things weren’t goofy enough, They Might Be Giants swoops in to save the day with “Spiraling Shape”. Odds returns on its own moniker for “Eat My Brain” (from their mucho popular album Good Weird Feeling) and The Tragically Hip arrive as they must for Butts Wigglin’ (a song borrowed from their Trouble at the Henhouse record). That’s good treadmill music right there, I am telling you, sir.
Finally, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet finish off the disc with Having an Average Weekend, the Kids’ splendid guitary theme song of yore, but not before perpetually towel-clad Paul Bellini has his own instrumental called Long Dark Twenties to usher it in.
Thus caps off this cult Canadian classic, and the career of an irreplaceable comedy troupe.