Back in the Hall: Dave Foley
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Back in the Hall: Dave Foley

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 Sasha Plotnikova/Torontoist.

Ask any Kids in the Hall fan and they’ll tell you: Dave Foley makes the prettiest lady. Appropriate then that Foley’s banner character in Death Comes to Town sees him donning drag again. But maybe “drag” is the wrong word. After all, for all their cross-dressing shenanigans, the Kids never seemed as if they were caricaturing women. Where the gents in Monty Python played the fairer sex as either high-strung housewives or barking crones, subbing in Carol Cleveland when they needed a “real” lady, the Kids never seemed to regard gender as a matter of cartoony costuming. For the most part, they tried their darndest to pass as women, not just men-dressed-as-women.
Marilyn Bowman, the soused Mayor of Shucktown in Death Comes to Town may seem plenty goofy (what with quadruple martinis and Lady Macbeth–styled political ambitions), but within the show’s larger comic operations, she fits in perfectly. As played by Foley, Marilyn is backwater Ontario’s answer to Sarah Palin: all pantsuits, thin smiles, and profound sadness. It’s also appropriate that we wrap our series of Kids in the Hall profiles with Foley, since this week’s series finale brings Marilyn to centre-stage, organizing an overly extravagant public execution where the series’ many murder-mystery threads come together (some convincingly, others not so much).

Death Comes to Town also sees Foley trotting out his time-tested straight-man persona as Levon Blanchard, the unflappably disheartened director of a local news team, and snagging a few of the show’s riskier laughs as Doc Porterhouse, a jovial abortionist who hands out kittens with every operation. Considering Foley’s relative celebrity in the U.S.—after Kids in the Hall wrapped, Foley moved on to sitcom stardom as the cucumber-cool lead of NBC’s NewsRadio, where he spent five seasons reacting to the collected silliness of Phil Hartman, Andy Dick, Joe Rogan, and Jon Lovitz—it’s especially nice to see him back with the Kids in the Hall, freed from the purgatory of Celebrity Poker Showdown.
At times it gets kind of tragic, seeing Foley toss out half-assed poker puns or slip out his dick in Uwe Boll films. But like all the Kids, he’s at his finest when working with the troupe. He’s a little pudgier perhaps, but he still makes a pretty believable woman.

Mayor Marilyn Bowman (Foley) interviews her husband’s condemned killer (Scott Thompson).

Torontoist: So I guess let’s start at the beginning. You founded the Kids in the Hall, in its original incarnation, right?
David Foley: It started when I met Kevin McDonald at a Second City workshop. And he asked me to join his Theatresports group, which at the time was Kevin and Luciano Casimiri. That became the original Kids in the Hall, the three of us.
How’d you like working at Second City?
Back then, we had a really good teacher. I liked it because I met Kevin there and Kevin made me laugh. It was mostly a place to get over stage fright. Mike Myers had just left the course and had joined the theatre company when I started doing workshops.
Your partnership with Kevin continued into the series. There are a lot of sketches with the two of you and it’s easy to imagine you writing in Second City workshops.
We worked together for a while before the two troupes merged. Kevin and I were writing partners, and definitely performing partners, within the troupe. To this day, there’s still usually a couple of Kevin and Dave sketches. A couple of two-handers.
What do you owe that dynamic to? What about Kevin have you always found so fun to work with?
We have a really good sense of each other’s rhythm. We always knew what the other guy was going to do on stage at any time. We could always get inside each other’s rhythm, where if you had somebody else do it, the sketch would just bomb.
Is it the kind of thing that can only come from working together for such a long time?
There’s that. But it was also there the first day we met each other. There was a kinship. We both knew what was funny about the other guy.
When it comes to stuff the two of you did together, is there anything you think worked particularly well, that you remember as classic Dave and Kevin?
Oh gosh. I guess Simon and Hecubus. There was other stuff I liked doing. There was this one about an escapist. I only did it once.
The bad Houdini-type guy who can’t follow through with the escape?
Yeah, he can’t get out of his straitjacket. I liked that a lot. And the “King of Empty Promises” sketch I did with Kevin. I liked those characters a lot.

You’ve also managed to achieve the most visibility after The Kids in the Hall ended. What was it like to move into something like NewsRadio, where it seems like they took your persona from the Kids in the Hall and built a whole series around it?
Well, that’s exactly what happened, really. [NewsRadio creator] Paul Simms really liked the Chicken Lady sketch. He was impressed by the fact that I was getting a lot of the laughs as the straight man in that scene. He wanted that for his show. He wanted a guy who could get laughs even though he’s not the guy dressed as the chicken.
Did it ever get stifling, always having to play this one type of character?
No it wasn’t really. I mean it’s a great role to have in a sitcom. Every sitcom needs that figure. And I did have some episodes where I had to be a little odder. It’s basically what Bob Newhart did on The Newhart Show or Jack Benny on The Jack Benny Show: surrounded by crazy characters who were always wisecracking. And the role of the straight man there is just to set things up, and keep it real.
So why’d you guys decide to do another television series, as opposed to a movie or just keep touring.
Well, we knew we didn’t want to do another sketch series.
Why not?
Well, we didn’t want to have to compete with a younger version of ourselves. And we were talking about movies, but this idea of Death Comes to Town came up and Kevin and Bruce thought it would make a better TV series, because it could expand. It was also something we’d never done, a narrative TV series.
Given the troupe’s success, and yours especially in the United States, why’d you decide to bring the show to the CBC?
Largely it was an emotional decision because that’s where we started. It was also a creative decision, in that we knew we’d have much more freedom to do what we wanted to do. It was all predicated on the idea of us wanting to write together, and we wanted to go where we could write what we want without getting a whole bunch of notes from producers. We wanted to get as far away from the experience of Brain Candy as we could get.
Well, you probably wouldn’t get away with the idea of Doc Porterhouse, Town Abortionist on many U.S. networks.
No! No, we probably wouldn’t. But now that it’s done, hopefully we can sell it in the States. But the main thing was that if we were going to be back together, we wanted to do whatever we wanted to do, with as little interference as possible.

Foley as Doc Porterhouse, the folksy Shucktown abortionist.

So what kinds of stuff did you bring to the writing process, to developing the show? Did you write your main characters, like Marilyn or Levon? Or were these roles just assigned?
It was a mix of both. We wrote scenes and we divvied up who would play who. And then at some point in the production schedule we made some switches. I think originally Kevin was going to be Levon. I also loved the idea of a jolly old town abortionist, so we wrote that up. We wrote Marilyn without any idea of who would play her. With Marilyn, and the mayor, and couple of others, there was no clear sense of who was going to play them.
Well, Kids in the Hall fans always say that you made the prettiest woman, so I guess it would make sense that you play Marilyn.
It’s true. Though I’m not as pretty as I used to be.
She’s great too. The way she gets her son to blow into the breathalyser so she can start her car. It really makes the audience have nothing but contempt for her.
Oh she’s horrible. One of the things I argued with the troupe about was making Marilyn just as horrible as Larry.
You also kind of set it up that it’s Marilyn who kills Larry. But you probably can’t give it away.
No. I’d like to. I don’t think we’re going to attract the P.D. James crowd. It’s not a great mystery, but we use it as a device to keep the show rolling. But we still have to set everything up and have a payoff in some way. Maybe not in a satisfying way. But in some way.
What other stuff have you got on the burner at the moment?
Actually Kevin and I are writing a pilot for Canadian TV right now. It’s for CanWest, I forget who the outlet is. I think Showcase. The premise is that Kevin and I were in a Tears For Fears–style band in the ‘80s, but we’ve hated each other for years. Our career ended when Nirvana came out and Kevin’s character, who wrote all the songs, has lots of money and lives well, and I’m broke and divorced several times. A bit of a middle-aged womanizer. But anyways, we decide to get back together and cash in on the nostalgia craze.
Anything planned for the whole troupe?
Well, I hope people like Death Comes to Town. We talked a bit about how if people like it, maybe we’ll do a movie together or do another mini-series with a different storyline. It all depends on if people like this series.
Well, you’ve got a ton of fans. A friend from Chicago recently taught me a Kids in the Hall drinking game. Which despite being Canadian I had never heard about.
I’ve never played a Kids in the Hall drinking game. How does it work?
You just watch the show and drink every time all five of you are on screen, or if there’s a man in a dress. Stuff like that. Every time there’s a business man you have to yell “A business man! A business man!” and take a drink.
Wow. The dress thing alone must get you pretty loaded.
Stills from Death Comes to Town courtesy of Suzanne Cheriton.