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kottke.org posts about Kids in the Hall

Sketch comedy as media archaeology

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 27, 2017

I consider the late 1980s and the 1990s the Golden Age of sketch and improvisational comedy. Cable helped, but even Saturday Night Live was good, particularly in the Phil Hartman years. Generation X comedians had digested the lessons of Peter Sellers and the Goons, Monty Python, The Richard Pryor Show, early SNL, SCTV, and more. HBO, Comedy Central, MTV, the BBC and CBC all needing inexpensive, entertaining programming that didn’t necessarily conform to older network standards meant there were a lot of shows looking for talent and willing to experiment.

For me, the Big Five from that era are A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Kids in the Hall, The State, The Chris Rock Show, and Mr. Show with Bob and David. Chappelle’s Show is a sixth one if we hold over to the ’00s. It’s a generational accident, but I was in the right place and right time for all of these shows at their apex. They’re the episodes I remember, and the ones I rewatch. People younger or older than me have a different list, and that’s just fine. I feel lucky that for fifteen years, I was able to make these shows mine.

One of the great things about these shows is that they were completely of their moment, but (with the exception of Chris Rock) they weren’t topical. It’s not like SNL or The Daily Show where you have to respond to whatever was happening that week, and as a viewer, you sort of have to know what was happening that week in order for it to make sense. Mr. Show might indirectly reference the OJ car chase, or Chappelle’s Show Kobe Bryant’s rape charges, but you can take the allusions or leave them. Most of them feel like they reference history rather than trivia.

You don’t need a time machine to try to imagine how you would have understood the comedy in 1994; the shows are their own time machine, bridging the present and the past.

This, at least, was true for a long time. What you notice, though, when you recommend these shows to a precocious 14 year old, is that some of the media conventions don’t really exist any more. Or, at any rate, they’ve shifted from dominant to residual phenomena. Mr. Show’s “Underground Tape Railroad” uncannily predicts viral social media, but the fact that these tapes were really bought and sold and pirated and passed around almost seems like something the writers of the show are making up. You don’t need to know about Tommy and Pamela, but you kind of need to know the kinds of things the media was satirizing.

Infomercials, televangelists, musical box sets, daytime (and nighttime) television talk shows — the bread and butter of 80s-90s parody just doesn’t have the same reach and relevance now as it did then. The same thing happened to Python and SCTV, which are now almost archeological in how they captured the dominant media genres and personalities of their time.

This is why, while I would not say that Kids in the Hall is better than Fry and Laurie or Mr. Show, I would argue it is aging better than any of the other shows in its generation. It’s less dependent on lampooning particular media forms or figures and better at loving, withering, character-driven weirdness, whether everyday or abstract. It’s simply less like television.

Instead, it leans on dramatic monologues.

Surreal office humor:

Domestic drama:

Bunuelian craziness:

Black and white newsreels:

Office humor, plus history:

And sketches that reference media genres that don’t actually exist, but should:

The one exception I’ll grant is the classic “Citizen Kane.” Everything about it screams dated. Old movies on broadcast television on just a few channels, advertised in newspapers. Some of the films mentioned are twice as old now as they were when the sketch was written. But I contend that this sketch remains perfect, and would work just as well (if not better) if Dave Foley’s character refused to consult his smartphone.

Not everything about Kids in the Hall still works. It offers an almost all-white version of Canada. The drag characters and humor are better than most of their predecessors’, but often still not good enough. Some of the gay jokes, even Buddy Cole’s, fall very flat. There are way too many ethnic stereotypes. Mark McKinney wears fucking blackface as a character called “the Blues Man.” This was totally fucked-up then and is fatal now.

But when the show is good, it is unbound from time. And especially in comedy, that is a very rare thing.