How the Kids in the Hall pioneered an alt-comedy scene at The Rivoli

Read an excerpt from John Semley's debut book, This is a Book about the Kids in The Hall, launching October 11


THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT KIDS IN THE HALL launch and screening of BRAIN CANDY at The Royal Cinema (608 College), October 13, 8 pm. See listing.


Earlier this year, on a drizzly, mid-winter walk through Hamburg, Germany, around the St. Pauli quarter, weaving in and out of the infamous Reeperbahn, where the red-light workers ply their trade and the stag party bachelors saunter and slosh around cups of Pilsner like sailors on shore leave, I came across a plaque that struck me as sort of curious. 

Near the intersection of Grosse Freiheit and Schmuckstrasse, embedded into a brick wall, there’s a memorial for the long-demolished Star-Club: the venue best known for nurturing the talents of a then-unknown English rock and roll band called The Beatles. Amid the half-intoxicating, half-nauseating swirl of sex and booze and cigarettes and guys trying to sell me coke outside of a casino, there was this big, clunking tribute to the past that said, basically, “The Star Club was here. The Beatles were here.” It’s a shrine memorializing a place that exists only in the cultural memory.

There are certain venues that live, even if it’s only in memory, because of their association with certain artists. The Star Club has the Beatles. The Fillmore West has the Grateful Dead. CBGB has Agnostic Front (or, sure, the Ramones). And in Toronto, the Rivoli has The Kids in the Hall. 

In my new book, This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall (ECW Press), I write at length about the legendary sketch troupe’s origins slumming it out on the stage of the Rivoli, still located at 334 Queen Street West in Toronto. The venue, which in its past lives operated as a burlesque house and Trotskyite hangout, helped nurture the troupe’s oddball, outsider sensibility.

The following excerpt looks at how an early iteration of the Kids in the Hall (which included David Foley, Kevin McDonald and Luc Casimiri) teamed up with Albertan transplants Mark McKinney and Bruce McCulloch, and a Toronto actor named Scott Thompson, and began honing their comedy at the Rivoli—often to thankless audiences of next-to-no-one. 

(On a sappy note, this book wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the exhaustive research and interviewing I conducted for a NOW cover story on the Kids in the Hall a few years ago, and I’m pleased as punch to have a portion of it appear here.)

While the Kids in the Hall 1.0 (Foley, McDonald, and Casimiri) had performed short ten-minute sets at the venue, the resto-club’s stage—a place that, according to its former owners, long served as a sacred site for diehard members of the Kids in the Hall cult, like a comedy mecca—didn’t immediately become the Kids’ unofficial home.

Together, they played other clubs around town—The Poor Alex, The Ritz, The Factory Theatre, Theatresports competitions at the Lake Ontario–adjacent Harbourfront Centre—perfecting their sketches and improvisational skills while learning to get along with one another. It wasn’t easygoing from the get-go. And in a way, it never would be. As McDonald told me, “We started working together before we even knew that we could work together.”

By 1984, the troupe had been winnowed down to its core fivesome: Foley, McDonald, McCulloch, McKinney, and Thompson. “At one point we looked up,” McCulloch remembers, “and it was just the five of us.” Campbell, Van Keeken, Casimiri, and other adjunct members found different jobs in the comedy world, writing for radio, TV, and awards broadcasts. (They’d all continue working with the troupe, in one form or another, over the years. They just took their bows from the stage.) Perhaps they were less devoted to the ruthless work ethic and more sensitive to the paltry turnouts and non-existent enthusiasm for the troupe. Or maybe there was just a special energy coursing between the core five, the guys we now know as the Kids in the Hall.

For McDonald, the core members shared a common resolve and a sense of antagonism and self-persecution. Other people leaving the troupe only built up this shared feeling. “We always sort of felt like underdogs,” he explains. “That’s sort of our common bond. I think some of the other guys that quit the troupe probably felt more confident.”

The five-man troupe eventually fell in with Nasimok, worming their way into the weird, fringe comedy night he was curating every Monday at the Rivoli. They began experimenting with sketch and performing improv sets for the thin audiences. “We’d be doing weird shit,” says McCulloch. “Mark and I would do beat poetry, or I’d do ‘Daves I Know,’ or other weird stuff.”

That word—weird—keeps coming up. “It was just aggressively weird,” says McKinney of those early shows. “Now I would call it ‘cable comedy’—just exploring your own thing, instead of doing jokes about the post office or the mayor. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, if I have a deficiency in my comedy encyclopedia, it’s knowing what the masses, the people, find funny.”

Eventually, the Kids usurped Nasimok’s Monday night showcase at the Rivoli. “When they figured this was a good place to play, it [became] a ‘Kids in the Hall and Friends’ variety evening,” Nasimok says. “I saw what was happening, I was becoming much more of a producer than a performer, and it was like ‘You know what, guys? You take it.’” Bruce McCulloch remembers their move to Monday nights as a bit more predatory. “We took his comedy night from him and made it our own,” says McCulloch, “without realizing what a pricky thing it was to do.”

The Kids in the Hall didn’t quite know what they were. But they knew what they weren’t. They weren’t Yuk Yuk’s. They weren’t Second City. They weren’t the type of comedy troupe that relied on a steady stream of out-of-towners bouncing off double-decker tour buses to replenish their audience. They were different. They were weird. And they hoped to make a name for themselves in Toronto as a way of attracting an audience that was there to see them, not just to be entertained for a few hours by a string of carbon copy stand-ups, dulled by the mild pleasure of two watered-down drinks (minimum).

This focus on weirdness and opposition to Toronto’s comic mainstream didn’t mean that the Kids’ early shows were some wacky, anarchic space. They may have been drinking and blasting punk music and doing their “weird shit,” but they were always beholden to a pretty strict work ethic. “We advertised that every Monday would be a whole new show,” Foley told Jesse Thorn in 2007. “We’d never repeat sketches. There’d be an hour of new material. And then we’d improvise for an hour after the intermission—which is when we’d get drunk.”

This maniacal commitment to keep working and inventing new material was driven largely by McCulloch, who hated laziness and reserved nothing but contempt for the “hacks.” More than any of them, McCulloch was ruthlessly focused on comedy. He compares himself to “a little monster”—so devoted to doing something new and worthwhile, comedy-wise, that he totally closed himself off to anything that was unrelated to comedy. “I was so obsessed with what I was doing that I didn’t have time for anything else,” he recalls. “I was so obsessed with wanting to write and perform.”

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At the core of this work ethic was that above-mentioned rule about not repeating material. It was something McCulloch had laid down for The Audience, back at the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary. “If you ever repeated material, you were a hack,” says McCulloch. “So we never repeated material. Which is crazy. We’d write something, perform it, and it would be gone.”

In a way, it seems totally insane. Imagine a band never performing the same song twice, trying to develop and nurture an audience without repeating the material that people who liked them actually liked. It wouldn’t fly. The rule about not repeating sketches did, however, go a long way toward drilling that sense of hard work and enterprise into the troupe. Each week they delivered on their promise of an hour of new sketch material followed by an hour of improv. It was like getting a new episode of Saturday Night Live every week. Except it was on a Monday. And it was really live. And it was really, really weird.

“They had an audience,” remembers the Rivoli’s David Stearn, “but it seemed like they were doing it too often. It was getting kind of thin, the material was kind of thin.” You can chalk up the Kids’ inability to immediately build a fan base to any number of things: the material itself, the regularity of it (performing enough to build a core crowd, but maybe too much to create a real demand for their performances), or the troupe’s hard-and-fast rule of never repeating material. But as Foley put it in a 1986 interview, “It’s the best place in the world to try new material. If we didn’t keep developing with Rivoli-type shows, we’d be dead in the water.”

By their very nature, the Kids’ Monday night performances throughout 1983 and 1984 were hit-and-miss. One week someone would show up and become an immediate convert to the Kids’ comedy. The next week they’d bring two friends, witness something totally different, and wonder what they’d seen in the troupe in the first place. While in the longstanding legend of the Kids in the Hall, those Rivoli shows were an immediate turning point—the troupe’s fast track to stardom—in matter of fact, it was much harder for the Kids to find their groove, and their audience. Dave Foley estimates that in those early years playing the Rivoli, they were bringing in maybe ten or fifteen people a week. “It was tough sledding,” McKinney admits. “I think the only thing that kept us going, for me anyway, is that I knew it would happen. I knew at some point there would be an audience.” Or, as Kevin McDonald has put it, with typical self–deprecating humility, “We thought we were good. But we also knew that every comic thought they were good.”

This faith carried the troupe along. Whether or not anyone else recognized their talent, the Kids themselves knew they had something. They knew it. It was a matter of instinct as much as survival. If they failed, they’d go back to working their boring, unrewarding minimum-wage jobs. If they ended up succeeding, well, who knew? “This might sound arrogant,” says Thompson. “But I knew, the first time I saw them, and I wasn’t even a member, that we would be very successful. I just knew. The moment we started performing I thought, ‘You cannot not notice us.’”

Excerpted from This Is a Book About the Kids in the Hall by John Semley. © 2016 by John Semley. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd. Don’t miss Semley’s 2013 NOW Magazine cover story about the Kids in the Hall here.

website@nowtoronto.com | @johnsemley3000

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