Well before Broken Social Scene, Toronto birthed its most formidable indie collective: The Kids in the Hall. A staple of Hogtown’s emerging alt-comedy scene of the ’80s and CBC and Comedy Network airwaves in the ’90s, the Kids are back with Death Comes to Town, an eight-part mini-series airing on the CBC. To mark the Kids’ triumphant return to Canadian TV, Torontoist is interviewing a different member of troupe more-or-less every other week while Death airs.
Illustration by Roxanne Ignatius/Torontoist.
Of all the Kids in the Hall, Scott Thompson has always seemed to be the odd one out. The last to join the legendary Toronto comedy troupe in 1985, Scott rounded out the Kids’ lineup, then comprised of two pairs of long-time writing and performing partners: Kevin McDonald and Dave Foley, and Mark McKinney and Bruce McCulloch. He’s also the oldest member of The Kids in the Hall, and their resident gay guy.
In character as lilting socialite Buddy Cole, Thompson prodded taboos of the gay and straight community alike. At once the hyperbolic, flamboyant expression of his sexuality, and a clever guise for getting away with all kinds of literate, inflammatory rhetoric (like perpetuating myths regarding race and genitalia proportions, or suggesting that Jesus of Nazareth was himself a homosexual), Buddy became Thompson’s alter-ego and stage persona, adding some rainbow flag-waving iconoclasm to a troupe that was already plenty iconoclastic. (Buddy was also a counterpoint to another of Thompson’s memorable gay characters: the naive, terminally cruising Butchy, best known for fatiguing the word “hot.”) And like all of the Kids, Thompson was endlessly versatile, playing not just super-fops and doe-eyed tops, but oblivious middle-management types, hockey-haired hosers, teenage stoners, and Brazilian B-movie starlets.
Following the end of the Kids’ CBC sketch show, and the commercial failure of their 1996 film Brain Candy, they all went their separate ways. Scott landed a spot on HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, replacing Linda Doucett as the gay, Canadian assistant to Jeffrey Tambor’s pitiable late-night sidekick, Hank Kingsley. When Sanders wrapped in 1998, Thompson popped up occasionally on TV, be it as a pundit on Politically Incorrect, a guest star on Reno 911!, or as the host in the first season of the Global reality series My Fabulous Gay Wedding.
But some twenty-five years after joining the troupe, the fifty-year-old Thompson’s back where he belongs: making funny with the Kids in the Hall in their new mini-series, Death Comes to Town, premiering tomorrow night on the CBC. While he relishes being back with the group that made him both a gay and Canadian icon, personal tragedy made the process of working on Death Comes to Town extremely difficult. While writing and preparing the series, Thompson was forced into his most difficult role yet: cancer victim. But now—months later, cancer-free, completing radiation treatment, and with a new Kids in the Hall project under his belt—Thompson feels better than he’s felt in years.
Torontoist: What role did you play in founding the Kids in the Hall?
Scott Thompson: I came to the group last. I went to York University, and wanted to be a serious actor. I just graduated and wasn’t having much success. And then one day a friend of mine, Darlene, said there was a group that was doing midnight shows. This would have been around ’84. I saw them, and I thought, this is what I was I going to do.
Had you done any comedy prior to this?
I loved comedy. And I dabbled in stand-up, but I found it very difficult. The comedians were, well, they were mean to me.
Well it was the mid-’80s, and I was pretty open about who I was. I hadn’t come out of the closet yet, but I was very close to it. I was just coming out, basically. I wanted to be myself. If I was going to be a comedian I’d have to talk about my life. Now this was when AIDS was basically raging through the world, and for us, for gay people at least, it was killing everyone I knew. It was a nightmare. It was nothing like today. And gays were very much the bottom of the barrel. In comedy, gay men were the go-to joke. Everything was a “fag” joke. And comedians, I hate to say it, were really nasty. I thought that I couldn’t handle it by myself. So when I saw [The Kids in the Hall] I thought I could hide. Hide in that group. And it was exactly what I thought was funny. I remember saying to my friend Darlene, “I’m going to be in that group,” and I hadn’t even met any of them yet!
So you just approached them and said “me too”?
It might have been even more arrogant, like, “You guys are missing something. It’s me.” I just kept hanging around. And they would watch me perform. By the end of ’84, going into ’85, I was a full member. And once I was in, I locked the door and swallowed the key.
Well five’s a magic number.
Five was a magic number. I come from a family of five boys. Five’s the number in a hockey lineup. That was it.
You kind of touched on this, but you guys are renowned for having really positive attitudes towards gays and lesbians. For you, was it a self-conscious thing? Was it a way of striking back against these other comics who made fun of you? Or was it just something you could naturally play to?
Definitely in the early days, I was motivated a lot by vengeance and anger at being so excluded. And fury: basically fighting my whole life and being so terrified and then finally coming out and coming out into a plague. Also comedy was such a terrible place for gays. Comedy’s a world of men. Even women have to be a little male to succeed in comedy. My joke about comedy is that it’s violence for physical cowards.
What do you mean by that?
Because all the language is violent. It’s all about killing and slaying the audience, about the microphone as a phallic symbol. These are male values. I think for me at the beginning, my whole goal was…well first of all I wanted to make great comedy, but I wanted homosexuals to be on the same level as everyone else. Whatever you are—gay, straight, bi, transgendered, asexual, who cares?—gays are not going to be the go-to punchline. Straight males think of gay males as weak, which equals feminine, and therefore there’s an awful lot of misogyny in comedy. Even though there’s tons of funny women in comedy today, it’s still a man’s world. And I didn’t want people to treat gays like, “Oh, those poor things, those poor gay men.” I wanted people to look at us, and me, and think “Wow, he’s cool.” To be cool is what I wanted. I wanted people to look at me and say, “Now that’s a cool guy.” It took a while, but that became part of the Kids in the Hall’s ethos—that whatever your sexual identity was, that was fine.
It works too. It maybe explains why the show remains so popular today, with people watching it on DVD. Despite it being kind of anti-authority and punk rock, there’s this sense of inclusion that people respond to.
I still watch the show too, occasionally. I have a Kids in the Hall Google alert—I’m not going to pretend that I don’t. I even have a Kids in the Hall blog alert. Sometimes people will post a sketch and I’ll go, “Oh, I remember that” and I’ll go and watch it. The other day somebody posted “Gazebo,” and I watched it and thought, “Oh that was a fun one.” I’m very, very proud of what we did, and I can still watch it and enjoy it.
Looking back at the TV series, what were some of your most memorable characters who you got to play, or memorable sketches you wrote or took part in?
I loved all the characters. Buddy was a very important character for me. He became my stand-up voice, in a way. I still do it, but if I’d gone into stand-up full throttle a lot of the jokes I’d written for Buddy Cole would have been jokes I’d done in my stand-up.
To a lot people you kind of became Scott “Buddy” Thompson.
In a way, and now I look back and think, “God, I could have done a little less Buddy.” Because I get so identified with it. I think a lot of people still assume that’s who I am, that’s what I act like and look like. Truth is, he’s smarter than me. Otherwise we’re kind of the same. My hair is very high and blonde, and I sometimes wear a red smoking jacket, and I lisp and swish around. But for me Buddy was just a character where I wanted to take a stereotype and make it powerful. So I love him. I love Fran. That’s one of my favourite characters. I loved doing her as my older lady character. And Francesca, the Brazilian movie actress, is another one of my favourite characters. I loved playing Brad, the white trash guy I did all the time. And I loved doing Danny Husk, my businessman character. He was definitely a go-to guy that I could always do, and was very much an everyman. What I loved about the Kids in the Hall was that I could work with all these different aspects of myself.
Do you feel that there were any sorts of character types that you seemed to gravitate towards, besides, you know, waiter characters?
Well one of the ones I gravitated towards, which kind of surprised me, was that I played a lot of straight men. And by that I mean the comic straight man.
Well Danny Husk is the ultimate aloof businessman. He kind of defines the entire show’s attitude towards aloof businessmen.
And Danny was a character that…well, comedy needs straight men. And you know what I mean. I don’t mean “straight/gay.” Before everyone thought Dave was the best straight man. Doing Danny I was trying to do what Dave did. I just started doing him one day and talking like that, going [in Danny Husk voice] “Look at me. I’m standing here. Now I’m going to stand over here. Look at me, I’m turning around in a circle.” I remember a couple of the guys really laughing, so I went off in this routine where I described every little thing I was doing as if it was fascinating, but in a really dry manner. The first scene we did with that was “Anecdote,” which was Danny telling the world’s most boring anecdote. He didn’t even have a moustache then!
People talk a lot about how the Kids in the Hall skewered middle-class corporate culture and the business world, and Danny seems to be at the centre of that.
Yeah, and we didn’t even know much about it. None of us had ever lived in that world. It was just from our gut, about what we felt it would have been like. I feel that AT&Love—the world we created with the secretaries and everything—could have been this alternate world that we could have ended up in.
So after the show wrapped, and after Brain Candy, which was by all accounts a disaster, you guys kind of drifted apart and did your own thing. But what motivated you guys to get back together for tours in the 2000s, and now for the new mini-series?
Time was part of it. We did a big North American tour a year and a half ago, where we wrote all new material. That was such a fun time, and we had so much fun on the tour bus. We thought, you know, why not do it again? It’s not like our careers were really taking off separately. So we did it.
Bruce had this idea that he and Kevin were going to write a movie about Death coming to a small town. And he pitched it to us and said, “You know, maybe this might be better for us as a mini-series.” We made a vow that we would clear our schedules, such as they were, to do this thing. And truthfully, on our own, we’d had a rough time, to be blunt. We made peace with our pasts, and we knew that we would still always fight. But we were older. The rivalry had settled down enough that we could focus on doing something great together. We knew we had enough juice left in us and we decided to give it another shot. We started working on it right then.
Was there any hesitance doing something long-form like a mini-series after the experience of working on Brain Candy? Why not a sketch special of new material or something like that?
We knew we couldn’t do a sketch series. We could never improve on what we did before. There would be no point. For years we were burdened by our reputation, and this was a perfect way to do something new where even if we blew it we’d still have our sketch show. It’d be like a failed experiment. In our own careers, we’ve all gotten much better chops as writers and actors. Sure, many of the projects we worked on may not have been great. Many have never been seen. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t learn from them. We knew that we could do this. The idea was great. It was a large canvas we could work with. Large themes and multiple characters. Brain Candy came during a period in our lives when we were all messed up, by many things, one of them being fame. But by this time in our lives we had dealt with all those things…Making this mini-series was a joy. For me, personally, it was an absolute joy. I’ve had some personal problems, as I’m sure you probably know.
Of course. I wasn’t going to bring it up.
I don’t mind at all. Honestly I’m so thrilled now to be where I’m at. You can ask me. I don’t mind at all.
Well did you find working on this to be at all therapeutic? Maybe that sounds a bit too New Age-y…
Oh not at all. Look. I would have preferred to have done it without having cancer. But that’s just not the way it worked out. It was therapeutic. Because when we were first putting together the story—Bruce, Kevin, and I broke down the story—we were getting to the first draft and then I got cancer. I got thrown overboard at that crucial moment. I vowed I would stay in the mix. But I found as things went on, I couldn’t contribute in the way I wanted to contribute. I had three characters I had to oversee: that was Dusty, and Heather, and Crim. Bruce was the head writer. Bruce was the man. He was in charge of everything. The Crim character came from Bruce and then I sort of took it and made it mine. I wanted Heather to have a great rivalry with Corrinda. And Dusty was this crazy sort of coroner character.
But I got sicker and sicker and it became more and more difficult. But I knew that when August came along, I had to be ready. My doctors all knew that getting rid of cancer was my number-one job, but close on the heels was being ready to make Death Comes to Town. I got diagnosed in March, and started my chemotherapy almost immediately. While we were working on the scripts in the summer, I still worked on them. They brought [long-time KITH writer] Paul Bellini in to help me. I have to say, I needed help because I couldn’t do it.
Scott as local troublemaker Crim (one-sixteenth Native “and proud of it”) in Death Comes to Town.
There’s no shame in that.
No, but it was hard because I wanted to be there every moment, but I couldn’t. During those sessions writing in Toronto, I was there in a bed. We had a little mattress there on the floor, and I would rise up from my bed and contribute, and then it’d get too much for me, and I’d lay down, and get a little sick, and then I’d step outside for some medical marijuana [laughs] and then I’d continue working until the effects wore off. And then I’d have a nap. I’d nap in the room while they worked.
My job was to bring the presence of death to the show, and give it some gravitas. And by the time my chemotherapy ended, two weeks later, I was shooting. It was the best thing in the world for me. It kept me going. Then I finished the series and a day later I was doing radiation. So I had this amazingly beautiful period in between two nightmares.
How are you feeling now?
I’m absolutely great. I’m seven weeks from the end of radiation. I’m cancer free. My body continues to improve. I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But the doctors say I’m doing remarkably.
I’m glad to hear it, Scott.
Thank you. And it’s been an incredible year for me. It could have gone so badly for me, but in some ways it’s probably the best year of my life because I kicked cancer and I did something that I’m extraordinarily proud of with the people I want to work with for the rest of my life.
It’s got to be reassuring. If you can kick cancer’s ass, what’s going to get you?
It’s true. And you can! Cancer’s not what it was. It’s strange. In a weird way, it brought something to the show. Cancer kept screwing with me, and I kept telling it, “You’re stupid.” First of all, anything that kills its host is stupid. I was like, “You think you’re going to kill me, but you aren’t. And you’re going to give our show a depth it might not have had.”
Thinking about it like that had never occurred to me.
It probably hasn’t to anyone but me. The other four probably think I’m insane to think that. For me, there were times when I thought, “Why does our show have to be about death?” But it’s really the only topic in comedy. Isn’t that what comedy’s all about, whistling past the grave?
And everyone always says that all comedy is rooted in tragedy.
But unlike Brain Candy, this series was not surrounded by tragedy. Even though it’s about death, it’s full of joy. It’s really filled with life.
You mentioned some of the characters you play in the new series, like Dusty and Crim and Heather. What are they all about?
Well Heather Weather is the world’s oldest weather girl. Her and Corrinda Gablechuck, played by Mark, have had a lifelong rivalry. They’re both women of a certain age, where Corrinda’s nearing the end of her fertility cycle and Heather’s nearing the end of her cycle of being on camera. She’s beginning to think about how much longer she can be the pretty weather girl on camera. So they have this rivalry that comes to a head in the series. And Heather is this vicious sociopath who wants success at any cost. She is kind of like Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Except played by a man and older and less attractive. But probably fucks the same kind of men. A bit of a cougar. I’d always played women who were, in my mind, more nuanced and nicer. I’ve never played a woman so mean. But it was a thrill. I wanted to play a bitch.
Scott as catty meteorologist Heather Weather in Death Comes to Town
What about Dusty? He seems to be this sort of Vincent Price–ish gothic figure.
Dusty came very easily. He was very, very organic. I wanted to play a crazed, closeted gay character. But not Buddy Cole. He’s the opposite of Buddy.
Buddy’s pretty far from being closeted gay.
Yeah, and Dusty’s self-loathing, and deluded, and Buddy’s not any of those things. And the way Dusty spoke came very naturally. There was a character I used to do in the series who was a little bit like that, but I never got a chance to develop him. He’s very deluded. Very full of himself. He became the coroner, I can’t remember exactly how. We wanted to explore obsessive love, and what that would do to a person who has never been able to express love. And it’s pretty grim. It’s hilarious. But it’s grim. And the reason Dusty looks like that is because I had just done chemotherapy.
So there’s no bald caps?
There’s nothing. When I showed up to film, the chemotherapy had taken a lot out of me, and I knew I didn’t want to put on wigs, and moustaches, and all that shit. So I figured, why not play a character who has alopecia? There’s no way I could have played Ricky, the fat guy. I literally couldn’t have done it. The look evolved because I was lazy and sick. I did write a scene which explains his alopecia, but it never made the final cut. But it doesn’t matter, because to me it’s just a fascinating way to look.
It’s true. It makes you look equally intimidating and vulnerable, like you’re a terrifying newborn.
Yeah he is like a fetus almost. I mean, I didn’t even have eyelashes. He’s kind of alien. It was freeing to do that. And for me personally, it was like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m going to show the world what I look like.” But when you do chemotherapy, you lose all your hair. Oh well!
You’ve never seemed like a shy guy.
No! So I figured, “What the fuck!” I’ve never hidden anything else before, so I’m not going to hide this. And why not use it creatively? So once again, I’ve fucked cancer over. It’s given me the look of my career.
You better watch it. Cancer’s probably sitting in its house conspiring against you because it can sense you talking like that.
[Laughs] You’re right! I take that back. Cancer’s hovering around going, “Don’t get cocky!”
Just kidding, of course.
Oh, I know. Me too…but not really.
Well the Death Comes to Town posters are all over town. It’s kind of uncanny to see the Kids in the Hall plastered all over Toronto again.
Yeah and I was surprised they went with the Dusty photo. I saw it and I was like, “Holy shit.” People might actually recognize me again…and it’s so exciting. There’s nothing I love more than even talking about the Kids in the Hall. I’m just so excited about what we’re going to give people. I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.
Stills from Death Comes to Town courtesy of Suzanne Cheriton.