Kids In The Hall: Comedy Punks Review: A Celebration Of Canada's Finest Alternative Sketch Comedians [SXSW]

"Saturday Night Live" is commonly viewed as the pinnacle of sketch comedy on television, even if fans of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" might have something to say about that. Created by Lorne Michaels, the live, late-night sketch series has endured for nearly 50 years since premiering in 1975, with the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" ushering in a new era of comedy. But Lorne Michaels also made waves with another band of comic misfits imported from Canada, and they stepped into the comedy gaps that "SNL" left unfulfilled. They're called The Kids in the Hall, and while "SNL" caught the eyes of mainstream audiences on network television, they became an alternative comedy sensation that gave a rising swell of underrepresented audiences and comedians the voice they needed to hear.

"Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks," a new documentary from director Reg Harkema, chronicles the rise of this groundbreaking sketch comedy troupe, from their formation in the Canadian city of Toronto, through their beloved TV series in the 1990s, and right up to their upcoming reunion series coming from Prime Video. It's the kind of documentary that serves as a compelling introduction for anyone who might not be familiar with the legacy of The Kids in the Hall, but for the hardcore fans who have been following them for over 30 years, the journey in between sheds new light on the comedians' camaraderie and evolution over the years.

The Kids in the Hall came together in 1984 when Mark McKinney and Bruce McCulloch, then performing in a group known as The Audience, met Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, who were performing under the Kids in the Hall name. The name was inspired by a recurring joke from Sid Caesar's sketch series, where he would attribute a joke that didn't land very well to the up-and-coming comics in the backstage hall who would write jokes for Caesar before he took the stage. Despite McDonald instantly thinking that there was no way McKinney was funny, the two duos hit it off. Once they brought in Scott Thompson as their fifth member, The Kids in the Hall as we know them today had officially been formed, and they began performing regularly at the Rivoli, a bar, restaurant, and performance space in Toronto where the group slowly built up an impressive fanbase. 

But The Kids in the Hall were nearly finished as soon as they began when they caught the eyes of Lorne Michaels, who was always looking for fresh comedic talent to join the ranks of the cast and writers at "SNL." After a private audition featuring the troupe's best material, Mark McKinney and Bruce McCulloch were invited to become writers at "SNL" in 1986, taking them from Toronto to New York City, and making it hard to regularly perform with their partners in comedy. However, the two simply weren't happy in the highly competitive, fast-paced environment of "SNL," and Michaels could see that they simply weren't the same without the rest of The Kids in the Hall. Thankfully, CBC was looking to collaborate with Lorne Michaels on some kind of project, and "The Kids in the Hall" sketch comedy series was born, cementing their chapter in comedy history.

"Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks" benefits from having a subject that rose to fame at a time when camcorders and VCRs meant comedians everywhere were recording their antics both on and off stage. There's a wealth of never-before-seen footage, from early sketches by The Kids in the Hall at the Rivoli to zany behind-the-scenes fun between these friendly and hilarious personalities. Plenty of clips from beloved sketches are featured, though I found myself thinking the documentary was maybe moving too quickly through the troupe's history. Each season could have easily received much more screentime. Thankfully, the film still more than adequately shows how "The Kids in the Hall" stood out from "SNL," choosing to lampoon the trials and tribulations of everyday life rather than riffing on timely headlines and trending pop culture. But it also came with plenty of surreal and zany comedy too, especially as the series became more cinematic and experimental in the later seasons.

'The comic arm of the grunge movement'

On top of a satisfying retrospective, the talking heads featuring each of the five members of the troupe are full of honest, intimate reflections, especially when it comes to the more unsavory and tense details during more troublesome times. You might never have known of the animosity that grew between the gang as their show went into the fifth and final season. The production of their movie "Brain Candy" saw even more tension and bitterness envelope the group, just as it would any rock band who's been together for years. I only wish that the film had more footage of McKinney, McCulloch, McDonald, Foley, and Thompson together in the same room, which is only utilized every now and then. Thankfully, there are still a handful of amusing moments that come from the cast members addressing each other through the camera in their own individual interviews, with the film's editing making them go off without a hitch. You may also find yourself wiping some tears away when Thompson recalls his fight and eventual triumph after a cancer diagnosis. 

Aside from the insights provided by The Kids in the Hall themselves, there's also an outstanding assembly of commentary, context, and compliments from a variety of comedy greats. Mike Myers, the fellow Canadian comedian who found fame on "SNL," pays them the ultimate compliment by saying that he always wished he could be one of The Kids in the Hall (he kinda got his wish by performing with them several times at the Rivoli in the earlier years). Other famous faces such as Fred Armisen, Janeane Garofalo, Lewis Black, Matt Walsh, and Reggie Watts have nothing but kind things to say too. But it's the likes of Eddie Izzard, Julie Klausner, and Mae Martin who offer up the most important praise, and it's also what makes The Kids in the Hall stand out from all other sketch comedy shows, and, as one talking head called them, "the comic arm of the grunge movement."

Despite the fact that The Kids in the Hall are led by five white guys, they also brought with them a refreshing perspective and representation of both female and gay characters. All five of the male cast members frequently appeared in drag, but their sketches never tried to insultingly mock women in a lazy, superficial, or chauvinistic way. They featured hilarious, prominent female characters who just so happened to be played by men, giving the troupe an almost Shakespearean quality. On top of that, the presence of the openly gay Scott Thompson allowed them to effectively and hysterically tackle many homosexual topics, which weren't often being broached in comedy in the 1990s. With that came a queer-positive portrayal of gay characters and effeminate energy that you simply couldn't find in other sketch comedy shows. As Izzard astutely observes, "The Kids in the Hall were and are the successors to Monty Python." It's hard to imagine better praise than that.

"Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks" is an insightful, celebratory, uplifting, and uproarious documentary that celebrates some of the best and brightest comedic talents. My only wish is that we got more time to spend with The Kids in the Hall to allow for even more of a deep dive into their sketches, both in their TV series and their on-stage revival over the past decade. But at the very least, it's good to see this documentary cap things off with the promise of the forthcoming "Kids in the Hall" series reboot. Since the troupe is looking at this more like a sixth season of the show, it'll be like the kids have been waiting in the hall this whole time to hand us some more jokes. I can't wait for more.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

"Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks" will arrive on Prime Video sometime this year.