A straightforward introduction to a far-from-ordinary comedy troupe, Reg Harkema’s The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks will leave old fans wondering where they put their DVDs and newcomers wondering how they haven’t heard of these guys; let the rabbit-hole viewing commence.

Though peppered with lots of photos and clips fans haven’t seen, rapid-fire editing ensures we nearly never see enough for a rare clip’s humor to land — instead, the montage persuasively conjures the camaraderie and creative enthusiasm we all wanted to believe in: Yes, these guys were great friends while they were transforming comedy. Then they weren’t. Now they are again.

Forgoing most of the childhood stuff a doc might want to offer (later, we’ll hear several references to alcoholic fathers), the film opens in Calgary, 1981, where Bruce McCulloch met Mark McKinney on stage at an improve event at a club called the Loose Moose. Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald met similarly in Toronto the next year.

Both pairs met while participating in Theatresports, a Canadian-born brand of competitive theater the film doesn’t think it needs to explain. The latter pair felt an instant “comedy chemistry” they compare to falling in love. On the spot, McDonald recalls, “I asked [Foley] to join my troupe. And I didn’t have a troupe.” So one had to be created.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A solid primer with scraps of rare material to entice fans.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)

Director: Reg Harkema

1 hour 34 minutes

Gelling as a quartet and giving themselves a name (a reference to aspiring comedy writers trying to sell gags to an established star), they attracted a fifth member who hadn’t intended to be a comedian: Scott Thompson, whose openness about being gay would become a big part of their identity, had hoped to become a serious actor.

‘The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

“I wanted to be James Dean,” he recalls; instead he would be Buddy Cole, the louche raconteur whose flamboyance would divide both straight and gay viewers of the group’s TV series. (For the record, Buddy’s great. It was the Chicken Lady who was hard to take.)

In regular gigs at a Toronto club called Rivoli, the boys played for a year or so to tiny crowds. They broke out in 1985, starting to sell the house out and inspiring two-hour line-ups to get in. A rave in the Globe and Mail hit the streets just as scouts from Saturday Night Live arrived in town on their annual visit to poach new talent from Second City. Seeing the story, one called for tickets to see the Kids; Bruce replied that unfortunately the show was sold out, and he couldn’t get them in. (Wait, didn’t they say Scott was the one with no head for the business?)

That wasn’t the last they’d hear of Lorne Michaels, fortunately. Amazingly, the group survived a temporary split, when two were hired to write for SNL but hated the experience. Sensing they might deserve a show of their own, Michaels relocated them briefly to New York, making them do live shows for crowds who’d never heard of them while they wrote new sketches for a pilot.

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The story of selling the series and keeping it on the air is just dramatic enough to keep things moving while Harkema brings in contemporary comedians to testify to the influence of that groundbreaking HBO show. Reggie Watts, Feel Good‘s Mae Martin and Jennifer Whalen of the Baroness von Sketch Show are among the fans here; in a stretch of the doc about the Kids’ inspired portrayal of female characters, Martin admits to having been “obsessed and confused by Dave in drag.” (Foley correctly boasts that he was the sexiest woman on the show.)

The series evolved with its creators’ ambitions, but those ambitions often pointed in different directions. Interviewed separately (though we see them together occasionally), the men describe how their bonds grew uneasy as the show drew to a close. Foley’s initial refusal to participate in a feature film made things much worse; the fact that the movie bombed could have been the nail in this coffin.

But hugely successful syndication on Comedy Central provided reasons to reunite. Big theatrical tours put them face-to-face with an enormous and growing fan base, and the men worked together even through Thompson’s near-lethal fight with cancer. The film’s final minutes offer glimpses of a revival series that was announced just before the pandemic. After this funny, lovable refresher course, the new material can’t come soon enough.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Production company: Blue Ant Studios
Director: Reg Harkema
Producers: Nick McKinney, Kim Creelman
Executive Producers: Laura Michalchyshyn, Jennifer Harkness, Nick McKinney, Reg Harkema, Paul Myers, Michael MacMillan
Directors of photography: Chris Romieke, Christina Ienna
Editors: Peter Denes, David McMahon
Composers: David Wall, Adam Whit, Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet
Sales: Solange Attwood