Kids in the Hall – Mark McKinney – Interview

Kids in the Hall

An interview with Mark McKinney
by William Ham

With a seemingly bottomless arsenal of characters (ten in Brain Candy alone) and a goofy, gap-toothed grin, Mark McKinney is one of the most precocious of the Kids. His partnership with Bruce McCulloch and writer Norm Hiscock in the embryonic troupe, The Audience, was the atom that eventually split and mutated into the Kids, eventually leading to a 1990 Cable ACE Best Actor Award and two separate stints (apprentice writer in ’85 and cast member since January ’95) on Saturday Night Live. I had a chance to sit with the man behind the Head Crusher and the Chicken Lady, and here’s some of what he had to say.

What has caused the Kids in the Hall to make such a big dent in the comic consciousness? Is it because you take on subjects that some might consider taboo?
That’s probably what caught people’s attention. I mean, I think it’s just good writing and performing, but we’ve had an ethic since our days in the club circuit just to write whatever the hell we wanted, and that’s pretty much stayed the same ever since. The trick to that sort of stuff is that the edgier you go, the better the writing has to be. What we try to do is to take the weirdest ideas, the darkest sexuality and so on, and make it accessible and funny to the audience. But you can’t badly write a scene like “Cancer Boy” [one of Bruce McCulloch’s characters in the movie] or you should be shot.

Do you raise people’s ire often with your material? I’m thinking of the early sketch you did with the big bucket of confetti marked “AIDS”…
Oh, yes, the AIDS bucket. People take that one little bit so literally. That was from a sketch of Scott [Thompson]’s, one of my favorite sketches he ever wrote, where he played a character who had just come out and told his parents he was gay. And they were fantasizing about what his life was like – not his real life, not a real representation – and his dad’s fantasy was that Scott’s character and his boyfriend were running merrily down the street with a bucket of AIDS and going (mimes throwing confetti around) “Whee! Whee!” We thought that was funny, the way this very narrow-minded man thought. But people take that little bit out of context and go (whispers prudishly) “Oh, you can’t do that .”

Is there anything that is taboo to you?
Well, I don’t think we’d write a sketch about the killing fields or something like that. But no, I don’t think anything is off-limits as long as you can find the perspective on it that illuminates the comedy point you’re trying to make. But there are some areas, like I don’t think we’d ever do a concentration camp sketch. It’d be hard to make that funny.

You’d have to shave your heads for the part, too.
Exactly. And it’d have to be outdoors in the cold, and the sets would be too expensive to build.

Have you come up against much censorship, either with the CBC or NBC?
Not so much with the CBC, because they have this thing called “Adult Prime,” which basically means that after 10 p.m., anything goes. So we could use four-letter words and take on all kinds of bizarre subject matter. But the funny thing about censorship is that you’re always amazed at what they pick on and what they’ll let get by. Like last year I had a long argument with the NBC censor because I was playing a Catholic schoolgirl who was being molested by her dentist on the drive back home from a babysitting gig, and they wanted me to change her age from fifteen to sixteen. Apparently, that makes it more acceptable.

What gives Canadian humor its particular flavor?
I think it’s something about the collision of American and British comedic influences. On one hand, you have the English, who tend to have a more surreal, experimental approach to comedy, and on the other, you have American stand-up, Johnny Carson, and that sort of thing. This produces a neat kind of hybrid that works well for sketches – hard jokes, but more characterization and willingness to experiment. And also, Canadians are just completely self-conscious about the States. We’re twenty million people and most of us live within a hundred miles of the US border, so we’re inundated by the culture, yet at the same time, we’re different. So we react to a lot of things that you probably take for granted. Like your Vietnam War, man. What was that about?

Do you attempt to bring overt messages across in your comedy?
Not really, though I did a sketch once just to get fan mail. I got naked in the sketch, and it was kinda gross, ’cause I told viewers to send me a sock so I could assess their potential for being nude. And I got all these socks in the mail, and I’m still getting them at SNL. The worst thing is that I never got around to printing up a certificate to send them, so I feel like a real heel.

No pun intended, I trust. Does comedy, as many have suggested, come out of anger?
Either anger or obsession. Angry or conflicted people tend to make the best comedians.

Has that changed any as you’ve gotten older?
Sure. It starts out as a kind of therapy, which becomes less necessary as you get older. Of course, then new issues come up that you can work off of. But yeah, you can cool your flame with time.

Given the choice, would you rather be happy or funny?
(pause) Oooh… I always say happy, but I don’t know if I could live without being funny. It’s funny, because the issue of happiness is kind of the point of the movie, you know, a guy tries to make the world happier, and he does, which ends up being really dull and awful, so he sets out to make the world miserable again to re-establish perspective. In a way, that’s kind of a comedian’s tale.

Was the popularity of anti-depressive drugs like Prozac the main inspiration for the film?
A little bit. The main idea came from an article I read about Prozac which said that about thirty or forty percent of the people who took it couldn’t fuck anymore! What a high price to pay for being even! Or maybe they’re happy because they’re not suffering from post-coital depression, I don’t know.

So, given the choice, would you rather be happy or… uh, never mind.