Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks premiered to huge laughs and critical acclaim at this year’s SXSW. On the eve of its Hot Docs premiere, we chat with Director Reg Harkema about tracing the story of this groundbreaking Canadian comedy crew, Scott Thompson’s legacy in the 2SLGBTQ+ community, and why tyranny hates laughter.

See Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks at the 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival on May 3, 6, and 7 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, or stream online here

How did you first get involved in the project?

I had recently directed an episode of a series called This Is Pop, called Hail Britpop, and I was looking for more documentary directing work. I went through the CMPA’s database and found every production company that was doing high-end documentaries, and sent them my latest reel with a message about my recent work premiering on Netflix. I had a couple of zoom meetings here and there, and a few emails back and forth, but one of my emails went to Laura Michalchyshyn, who produced Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight, a movie I edited 30 years ago. She told me they were looking for a Director for their Kids In The Hall doc. I’m not a huge comedy fan, but I happen to be of the age when Kids In The Hall were big on CBC, and they had a profound effect on my vision of the world. 

So, I went in to pitch EP Paul Myers, who wrote a book about Kids in the Hall, and Producer Nick McKinney, who is KITH member Mark McKinney’s younger brother, and we all hit it off! Within a couple of weeks, after the usual shuffle back and forth of negotiation, I was hired to direct this documentary.

Director Reg Harkema.
Photo credit: Laura Bombier

How did you settle on the structure of the film?

The process began with Paul Myers’s book, Kids In The Hall: One Dumb Guy. I swept through it and started to isolate where the dramatic and emotional moments were. There was a point in development where every morning I’d wake up, and get on Zoom meeting with Producer Nick McKinney and Story Producer Martha Kehoe, and we would isolate the story beats that we want to tell. Once we had shared all the story beats with the “Kids”, they would start to speak to those beats. 

There’s a recurring theme in the doc that you don’t have to be a musician to be punk, and The Kids in the Hall, for all intents and purposes, were punks – they rebelled against the grain and their style of comedy was countercultural. They were also part of the era in which Toronto’s Queen West neighbourhood saw an artistic and countercultural renaissance. Could you tell us more about the role of punk in the documentary? 

I never really set out to make a documentary that focused on them as punks. I was always more intrigued with the idea of looking at KITH as a rock band. I was very familiar with rock band biopics, I’ve dealt with a bunch of bands on Hail Britpop, and I had done the Alice Cooper doc, Super Duper Alice Cooper, so I just thought of them as a band. They came out in that whole era where Queen Street was kind of a renaissance place for Toronto music, and a lot of the biggest Toronto bands on the punk scene had played at the Rivoli. The Kids in the Hall were exposed to that and picked up on that ethos. I’m not even from Toronto, so I spent a lot of time researching what Queen Street actually meant in those days. Fortunately, I had an awesome Story Producer, Martha Kehoe, who is a little bit older than me, and we have a sort of older sister/younger brother partnership. She kept metaphorically smacking me in the head like, “This is just not getting Queen Street! We need better archive material, we need better music!” I’ve since renounced punk, but I had grown up punk, so I understood the ethos. We directed some of those questions to our approach, and The Kids were more than happy to fall into place. That was their ethos, and they love it.

Could you tell us more about the process of pulling together all this great archival footage from the Kids’ entire history of performing?

My wife (Cindy Wolfe) was the archive producer on this film as well as on Super Duper Alice Cooper, and she pulled it all together. It was archival footage primarily from Paul Bellini, who was a writer on Kids in the Hall and plays “The Man in the Towel” character. He’d been shooting them at the Rivoli on an old camcorder since the 80s, right up until backstage stuff on Death Comes to Town, their mini-series from about 10 years ago. In fact, if and when he shows up at the premiere, I’m sure Paul’s gonna pull out a little iPhone and shoot the whole thing because he’s a filmmaker himself, and a great filmmaker. He recognized and saw the importance of what he was doing. Between their sketches, The Kids would have more candid moments and interstitials, and they had just hours of this stuff that my wife had to sift through and find the best footage for me and my Editors (Peter Denes and David McMahon). And then, on top of that, Mark McKinney himself gave us a hard drive that had tons of footage on it, but we couldn’t figure out how to access it. We finally figured out at the last moment (literally with five days left on the cut) how to access his drive, and we ended up littering the film with all this stuff from Mark McKinney as well. 

While there’s only one interview in the film that includes all the Kids in the same room together, the individual interviews often have the Kids speaking back and forth to each other through fun and clever cuts. Where did that idea come from – was it born out of necessity, or was it a creative decision?

Mark turning to the camera and throwing to Kevin, he came up with that on the spot. I’m interviewing guys who’ve been in the biz for 40 years. They know how to play to the camera, and have a lot of crosstalk on all these subjects. So that just kind of evolved naturally out of my discussions with them, and the Editors jumped on it. Of course, as we did more interviews, we started pushing it a little bit. There’s a moment where Bruce McCulloch says, “Looks like we’re gonna get cancelled, but Lorne got us another season. Thank you, Mr. Michaels.” Well, we set that question up. Nick, our Producer who was interviewing Lorne Michaels in New York, was like, “Can you say ‘You’re welcome, Mr. McCulloch’ to the camera?” Once we saw how well the whole live view was working, we set up a few of those moments. We had Mark say, “They ordered 22 episodes,” and then said, “Let’s get Lorne to correct him and say it was 20.” We started playing with it once The Kids had established the process.

Behind the scenes with the Kids in the Hall at the legendary Rivoli, where they built Toronto’s famous alt-comedy scene in the 80s. (L-R: Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald and Bruce McCulloch)
Photo credit: Laura Bombier 

What was your experience with premiering the film at SXSW? What was the reaction to screening a Canadian story in Austin?  

What’s interesting with the SXSW screening is that this project was conceived to be exhibited on Amazon Prime as a two-part Docuseries, but then we got into South by Southwest, and they wanted it as a feature. So I had to do like a little nip and tuck and snip at the beginning of Part Two and marry those parts together. We were privileged to get in South by Southwest, and suddenly I’m watching this thing, never before seen by an audience, in front of like, 600 people. You just soak up all those vibes and the laughter and incredible stuff that you don’t anticipate. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but there’s a very emotional moment towards the end of the film dealing with Scott Thompson’s cancer diagnosis that, in isolation, we thought would just continue the mood. But in a crowd of 600, it was just a moment of relief and release for them, and gave them license to laugh in a way that I didn’t anticipate. At that moment, I realized this is what The Kids are all about. The five of them are a brotherhood who are there for each other, but then their dark humour always comes in. As for the reception, The Kids are a big cultural thing. There are people out in the States who are bigger fanatics of The Kids in the Hall than many Canadians. In fact, the Canadian-ism of it all appeals to Americans in many ways. To see all the positive reviews that came out of South by Southwest, and see them reiterate some of the things that I was feeling about The Kids, is very special.

Kids in the Hall member Scott Thompson has been openly gay since the inception of The Kids, and The Kids have always played with gender roles and queer characters. What has the reception to the film from the queer community been like? 

I spoke earlier about how revolutionary The Kids in the Hall were for me – they came along at a moment when I was just coming out of two decades of Christian indoctrination, where I was taught that homosexuals were bad and evil. And then The Kids in the Hall show up, and Scott Thompson starts doing Buddy Cole monologues, and I’m laughing my ass off. I didn’t even understand what homosexuality was or what “queer” was. All I knew was I was laughing. It flipped around my entire vision of everything I had been taught – if gay people aren’t evil, what else have I been taught that’s wrong? The Kids in the Hall cracked open a window to an entire lifestyle. Now that lifestyle has its own entrenched community that I can’t really speak to. I do know that for many years, a portion of the gay community was very uncomfortable with The Kids in the Hall because the character of Buddy Cole was so aggressively effeminate, and leaned into a stereotype that a lot of the community was uncomfortable with. But from Scott’s standpoint, and Paul Bellini’s standpoint, they were creating a character that was owning that and was unashamed about it. Now I think people are starting to see how it was a comment on gender stereotypes and gender roles, and they were discussing these things 30 years ago, but they’re very contemporary conversations now. We had one review of the film from The Queer Review that kind of brought me to tears because it brought it all full circle. It basically said we spend a significant, satisfying amount of time dealing with the queer aspect of this troop. I was very moved to see that they were getting what I set out to accomplish, that Scott Thompson was the first guy to really own his queerness in sketch comedy. It’s like Rob Halford being the first one to own heavy metal and Judas Priest, and the fact that Rob Halford is also gay I don’t think is much of a coincidence. Queer icons are trailblazers. It was very satisfying for me to have Jen Whelan from Baroness von Sketch Show in the film because her experience with Rhe Kids reflected my experience – I was in the suburbs, and I’d never seen anything queer, and this blew my mind because that’s kind of how it was in the 80s. In a Christian high school, your first insult for another dude was calling him the F word. But you get out of high school, and you experience all these new things in the world, and Scott Thompson’s comedy is an experience that allows you to reevaluate everything that you believe. One thing I want people to understand is that comedy is not just this facile thing. It’s important. I mean, the fight against tyranny in the world today is being led by a dude (President Zelensky) who used to play Hava Nagila on his penis. Tyranny hates laughter. 

Were there any memorable moments on set while making this documentary?

The last interview with the Kids. They wrapped their series on a Friday, and then they trucked over to the Rivoli to do the interview with us on a Saturday. So in many ways, it was kind of their wrap party –  the five of them together, in their old stomping grounds, and laughing and joking amongst each other. We just let the cameras roll, and occasionally we’d prompt someone to get a piece that we thought we were missing. There was a joie de vivre in the room having the five of them there together, knowing that they’d accomplished one thing with the reboot, and at South by Southwest they accomplished another thing with the documentary. I felt very fortunate and lucky to be there.

Another great moment was interviewing Eddie Izzard for the documentary. I remember showing up to shoot behind the scenes at the reboot. Eddie Izzard showed up, and I’m such a non-comedy fan, I was like, “who the hell is Eddie Izzard?” I watched the interaction with Eddie and the rest of the Kids, and the vibe and demeanour she was giving off. I went back and watched her standup and was enthralled, and then found out that she was shooting something in Toronto and knew we had to interview her. She was so awesome. We’d scouted this loft, and people were stomping on the ceiling, and there was someone yelling in a park nearby. If the sound got too loud, she would just stop, wait till it calmed down, go back, and repeat her entire thought. Then she politely refused our offer to call an Uber and jumped onto a Bikeshare in a skirt and high heels. I was like, Eddie Izzard, hashtag total fucking boss.

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