Back in the Hall: Bruce McCulloch
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 the troupe more-or-less every other week while Death airs.
Illustration by Kyra Kendall/Torontoist.
Speaking to Bruce McCulloch, it’s odd to find out that he doesn’t consider himself a performer. Maybe he’s unaware that to many Kids in the Hall fans, it’s his sensibility that seems to most distinguish the troupe’s humour. Besides playing some of the most memorable characters on the Kids’ sketch series—the self-pitying womanizer Cabbage Head, pipsqueak know-it-all Gavin, the barrel-rolling Flying Pig, and many others—McCulloch grounded much of the show’s patent silliness. He was their George Harrison. The dark one. The angsty one. Peter Murphy in ripped Levis and a beat-up flannel shirt.
As a writer, McCulloch could make the crushing banality of working in a bank or the ceremony of nursing a hangover funny, sometimes almost poetic. Equally adept as a teenage stoner or the teenage stoner’s tightly wound pop, McCulloch’s contempt for middle-class notions of normalcy seemed the most fully formed of all the Kids’. His trademark monologues riffed on everything from contemporary America (“Where else can a guy get a job riding a whale at Marine Land?”) to defending the merits of professional bikini inspecting. He was also totally weird, even getting behind the camera to helm some of the Kids’ strangest comedy shorts (one had him getting paid “the big bucks” to peel road kill off the asphalt and deliver it to affluent connoisseurs).
When the Kids parted ways in 1996, Bruce worked mostly behind the camera, apart from a few bit parts on Gilmore Girls and Don McKellar’s Twitch City. He wrote and directed the 1998 Toronto-set romantic comedy Dog Park, starring Luke Wilson and Natasha Henstridge. He also directed the SNL spin-off flick Superstar (the one with Molly Shannon as the schoolgirl who sniffs her armpits), and the Tom Green vehicle Stealing Harvard. Ever the renaissance man, he also cut two comedy albums (1995’sShame-Based Man and 2002’s Drunk Baby Project), wrote for the short-lived ABC sitcom Carpoolers, and adapted Joe Wenderoth’s epistolary comedy book Letters to Wendy’s for the stage.
With Death Comes to Town McCulloch finds himself back in the spotlight, playing many of the series’ banner characters. The sleazy Mayor Bowman is vintage McCulloch, all faux-folksiness and egotistic bravado, while the obese would-be detective Ricky sees Bruce in a sweaty foam fat suit that dwarfs even the formidable Flying Pig costume. McCulloch also serves as Death’s executive producer. Drawing on his wealth of experience in TV and film, McCulloch was responsible for developing and executing the series’ overall creative direction. As capable behind the camera as in front of it, McCulloch has emerged as the de facto leader of the Kids in the Hall, proving that it is still very much a Brucio world.
Torontoist: Is it fair to say that Death Comes to Town, or at least the kernel of the project, was your idea?
Bruce McCulloch: I think the propulsive image of Death getting off a Greyhound bus in a small town, and doing a murder mystery, was.
When did this image come to you?
It was when we were starting our last tour. Initially I did an outline for a film. Telefilm was going to fund us. But as we talked about it on our last tour, the vibe on the tour bus was that, well, we come from TV and our last experience with film wasn’t so fun. So why not do a mini-series where we can all do a little more of what we want, which is space and time to develop characters according to our own comic quirks. That’s sort of how it evolved.
So how exactly did it get from just an image of Death getting off a bus in North Bay, or Shuckton, or Kitchener, or wherever, into an eight-part, four-hour mini-series?
Well, we just kept thinking and thinking about it, I suppose, about who’s going to die and who are the characters in the town. And then it seemed natural who would play what. At the end of the tour, I went into the CBC and pitched it. Just this idea, as much as I’ve just told you. But as a six-part. And they said, “Well how about an eight part?” And we said, “Okay.” Or I said, “Okay.” And it worked out better anyways. Six would have been too few.
When the project was first listed on the Telefilm website, it was credited to “Bruce McCulloch and the Kids in the Hall.” And then it turns out you’re the executive producer. How did you like having all that control? It seems that ten or fifteen years ago that would have never been the case, that the troupe would have never ceded that authority to you.
Oh no. But I think it’s the maturity of the group. Ten years ago they wouldn’t have allowed me to do it. And now they realize Bruce will do it. I’ve always been a guy—obviously I’m not a performer for hire. My skills as a performer are probably last. For me it’s always been the four funny guys and then the guy with the weird head who twitches all the time, which is me. But I’ve been doing some TV, and I’ve been doing films. And we think that Brain Candy kind of lacked the strength of a person to engineer it. Even in terms of business and selling shows and that, I’ve been doing that a lot. So I said that I’d lead it and be the producer, and it was good. Being the executive producer, I also have to give them what they want. I can’t fight for my thing. I have to make sure there’s enough Dave in the show. Like, “Dave you want to write a couple more Marilyn scenes?” Whereas fifteen years ago I would have fought for myself, now I fight for everyone else.
Did you ever have any desire to direct it?
No. I mean, if there’s one thing I would never want to do with the troupe, it’s direct. You have to get into their performances. We had a great director in our midst, Kelly Makin, who did Brain Candy and many of our seminal short films, so we had somebody else to do it.
Looking back at the series…
As I do every day.
You probably watch a season every day.
They’re all on YouTube, you know.
Oh! And how do I find YouTube again? What channel is it on?
Channel…YouTube. Dot org. Or dot com.
Oh it’s on the Interweb!
YouTube is one of the boxes on CP24. Right there between traffic and weather…but anyways. You just said that you don’t really see yourself as a performer. But to disagree with how you see yourself, a lot of fans think that your persona defines the sensibility of the show. Or that what’s funny and most interesting about the Kids in the Hall is Bruce. Bruce bits. Bruce stuff. Things where you can see “Bruce” written all over it.
Well others would say Scott, or Dave, you know what I mean? It’s like, do you like Radiohead or the Smiths?
But still, there’s something to it. What do you personally count amongst your best Kids in the Hall sketches that you’ve written or performed?
Because I’m such a writer I think more in terms of that. I think “Thirty Helens Agree.” My dad, who [Bruce leans into the recorder] diiiiiiiiiiiiied, his favourite thing was “Hey you millionaires, get out of that garbage!” from our pilot. I enjoyed doing Kathy. I enjoyed doing Tammy, and other weird women. It took a while for me to take to the drag, in a sense. Those were the things I enjoyed. Cabbage Head I never enjoyed, so I didn’t really do it that much.
And for the record, you know, for all the Bruce fans, is “Love and Sausages” a David Lynch nod?
I suppose it is. I did have a piece once on my record called “Eraserhead.”
Right. From Shame-Based Man.
Yeah. And it was about getting drunk every night for a week and watching Eraserhead. And I did. For a week. It’s a true story. When my girlfriend at the time was in France, of all places. So I went through this time when I was really into weird film, and I don’t know if it’s specifically him. But maybe. There’s certainly this Eastern European sensibility. In retrospect, one of the best things about the show was an ability to do indulgent, in the best way, short films. When you’re doing Superstar, you can’t do something indulgent or weird, you have to do this kind of movie.
Well, if Superstar is not a ninety-minute indulgence…
But since the show, and since Brain Candy, you’ve had a lot on the go. Writing and directing Dog Park, the show Carpoolers, you mentioned your albums, was it hard to find what you wanted to do after The Kids in the Hall or did you just have so much that you wanted to do?
I think it really took me ten years to understand the importance of the troupe, after the show was done. Contrary to the belief, we never broke up. We just stopped working together.
Yeah, and I remember once talking to Martin Short and he told me, “keep doing stuff.” He said the reason there was no more SCTV stuff is because nobody sent him the plane ticket. No one organized it. So I think for myself, and the rest of the troupe too, it’s like you’re leaving college. You’re graduating and you’re going to do all this other stuff. But I’ve realized that I can be most myself in this group, in a way that I can’t even when I’m doing my own thing. In a sense, this is more like me. This show, Death Comes to Town, is more me than Carpoolers was. And I got to do what I wanted with Carpoolers in a sense, and I had other writers, and network help, and all that shit. I’ve done a lot of stuff. I’ve written lots of films for studios, and pilots for television, that have either been produced or not produced. But I think it took me time to find my footing. I don’t love directing. I actually love producing television, and Carpoolers was okay for me in that way. I think I thought I wanted to be Richard Linklater when the troupe was over.
So with Death Comes to Town your banner character, who’s on all the buses and posters in the subway tunnels, is Ricky. What was it like to play a character like that, to have to work in a fat suit?
It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life.
Former Shuckton hockey star Ricky (McCulloch) grabs a snack. Photo by Michael Gibson.
It’s also probably the most disgusting fat suit ever, in the history of television.
And it smelled. Especially at the end of the day. It’s like being trapped in a cage that is your body. It was weird. It was really weird. And at the end of the day, I would just take off my fat face and down a beer without breathing and tremble on the way home. It was very, very hard. I’m not a natural performer, and I’m playing a weird character that for some reason has a high voice, ’cause I guess some of those guys have high voices. And I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, as a performer. And I played a lot of it alone, like talking on the phone. At a certain point in the production Scott got wrapped first, and Dave got wrapped, and Mark got wrapped, and it was just Kevin and me, in this fat suit, after everybody else had gone home.
Were you at all worried about playing this character? Fat-suit comedy carries some pretty strong connotations.
Oh without question. Because it’s hacky or just because it’s hard?
Well both. You probably don’t want people to see it as Klumps in the Hall or something.
Well I don’t know any better. And I lived through “Flying Pig,” so I knew I could do it. And then I wrote another “Flying Pig” sketch so I knew I had to do it again. And I think I was the only guy who could do it. I think anyone else would have died in the suit.
It works too. It’s a big fat suit, but there’s a disturbed little boy inside.
Were there any reservations about killing off Mayor Bowman? He’s kind of a classic “Bruce” character.
I think he’s closest to an archetypal Kids in the Hall character, for sure. Kind of mean, and he’s got a lot of bravado. But no. I mean, we had to. Other stuff emerges. New characters arrive all the time.
What about his special son, Rampop? Who thought of Rampop?
I think I thought of Rampop. It was kind of our “Love and Sausages” of this show… It was kind of weird and it’s not that funny. But it still gets a big laugh. If there’s a Bruce kind of piece, it’s a Bruce kind of piece. It’s kind of weird and there’s no real jokes in it. It’s just stupid. Every so often we allow each other stuff, and I think people were slow to take to the idea of Rampop.
Mayor Bowman (McCulloch) takes a lap as wife Marilyn (Dave Foley) and “special son” Rampop (Landon Trudel) look on. Photo by Michael Gibson.
Is there any threat that you’ll come under fire for this? Is Rampop the next Cancer Boy?
I don’t think so. I think there’s enough offensive stuff to go around. And of course he’s “special,” right? And as things progress, we’ll understand more about that.
Are there any plans at the moment to sell Death Comes to Town to a U.S. network?
Can you say anything more about that?
We’re literally fielding offers. The usual model is, you get a bit of financing in Canada, and then you have to sell it to the States, and then give the States all of this control, and all these notes and stuff. But we really wanted to just make it, and make it the way we want, and not have to be worried about being controlled at this point in our careers. CBC was super-generous. We had a really good production budget. So now we can go sell it to the rest of the world.
Will it take down there? What with all the hockey jokes and Quebecois accents.
Well we’d never really embraced the Canadiana on our old show. You know, we’d have “going to a Leafs game” jokes, and we did a little bit of that. We were sponsored by Roots but we never wore shirts that said “Roots”—we just gave them to our girlfriends. So I think for this we really wanted to do the Olympics, and Shuckton, and hockey. And the soundtrack is all Canadian music from the ‘80s. We embraced it. And I think in the States there’s a few Kids in the Hall fans, and people who liked our other show will like this one too.