The Kids in the Hall
Death Comes to Town
Directed by Kelly Makin
Starring Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson
Release Date: May 24, 2011
I grew up watching The Kids in the Hall, a half-hour-long sketch comedy series from Canada starring a popular comedy troupe whose core cast of five founding members – Scott Thompson, Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, and Kevin McDonald – has never changed in their existence. It remains one of the funniest television shows in the histories of both television and things that are funny. The Kids came into my life at a time when I had a very conventional view of what comedy was. Then again I must have been all of ten years old when I first saw The Kids in the Hall arriving on American shores and being resigned to the netherworld of late Friday nights on HBO in the early 1990s. It didn’t have a fraction of the cultural impact of the Beatles coming to the U.S. to play on The Ed Sullivan Show, but it meant a hell of a lot more important to me. The Kids’ unorthodox (to me at least) amalgamation of off-kilter and experimental humor with more broader comedy to appeal to those with a kindergarten student’s comedic sensibility, but it was all done the Kids’ way so that even it when it seemed like they were playing it safe their loyal fans never assumed they were selling out.Â
After three seasons, their show moved to CBS and was also broadcast late every Friday nights, and two seasons later The Kids in the Hall was cancelled and replaced by The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder, which probably made Dan Aykroyd very happy. Most of my later exposure to the Kids came courtesy of Comedy Central showing reruns on staggered schedules for the rest of the 90’s and well into the next decade. To this day I watch many of the show’s funniest sketches on YouTube and anywhere else I can find them, and at one point I owned the complete first season on DVD. The Kids in the Hall could be infinitely more hilarious and addictively perplexing in less than thirty minutes than an entire season of Saturday Night Live. Once the show ended the troupe re-teamed to take their act on the road several times and even made a movie for Paramount Pictures in 1996, Brain Candy. But despite their best efforts the hole in the humorous soul of this planet caused by their untimely absence from the airwaves has remained empty. Shows like The State, Mr. Show with Bob and David, and Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! have helped though, but like Monty Python’s Flying Circus before them the Kids were imitable but virtually irreplaceable.Â
Almost four years later the Kids reunited for their first original television venture since their show ended more than a decade earlier, Death Comes to Town. The eight-part series was aired on CBC Television between January and March 2010 and premiered in the U.S. in August of that year on the Independent Film Channel. Now the full series is on DVD from A&E Entertainment so devoted Kids in the Hall fans and newcomers can see for themselves if one of the greatest comedy collectives of all time still has what it takes to concoct their patented brand of demented and inventive humor years after the last time they staged a very polite invasion of American TV and shook things up just a tad.
Death Comes to Town is set in the town of Shuckton, Ontario, Canada (pop. 27, 063). Shuckton is a small town with a big heart and an economy built on the manufacturing of rat fur. Mayor Larry Bowman (McCulloch) recently made a bid to have the town host the 2028 Olympics, a bid that failed measurably at a ceremony attended by nearly every Shucktonite. Later that night as his long-suffering wife Marilyn (Foley) is out drunk driving and their “special son” Rampop (Landon Reynolds-Trudel) is off in his own world where all the adults resemble animated butterflies, an unseen assailant sneaks into the Bowman residence and bludgeons the mayor to death with one of the family’s thirteen remote controls. Larry’s will dictates that if he dies, Marilyn has to assume his responsibilities as mayor of Shuckton (because who needs free elections, right?) and as she goes about to revitalize the town’s sluggish economy by offering up their beautiful lakes for the disposal of nuclear waste to the highest bidder a police investigation represented by two inept cops (McCulloch and McKinney, quite obviously reprising the characters from the recurring “Police Department” sketch on their old show) ramps up to find the dead mayor’s murderer.
As the search for the killer proceeds, several subplots unfold: local television reporter Corrinda Gablechuck (McKinney) becomes pregnant after a drunken one night stand with her laid-back boom mic operator Shaye (McDonald) and finds her career being threatened by ambitious weather woman Heather Weather (Thompson); former hometown hockey star-turned-morbidly obese shut-in Ricky Jarvis (McCulloch) is inspired by the death of the mayor – who was also his hockey coach – to break from his daily routine of pigging out and watching TV to conduct his own independent investigation with help of absent-minded pizza delivery woman Marnie (McDonald); and small-time criminal Crim Hollingsworth (Thompson), who claims to be one-sixteenth Ojibwe Indian, is arrested for killing Mayor Bowman and has to rely on the services of greenhorn public defender Sam Murray (McDonald), currently paying out of his backside to keep his dying 32-year-old cat Buttonhole alive, to save him from Death Row.
Manipulating these events to his twisted satisfaction is the bloated specter of Death himself (McKinney), living in a cheap motel used for illicit rendezvous and angry at his predicament of being stuck claiming the souls of Shuckton’s citizens. Regardless of the outcome of the murder investigation, Death knows his job in Shuckton will never be finished until he brings about the swift and pleasurable (to Death anyway) demise of the one soul that has inexplicably eluded his cold grasp the longest: Ricky Jarvis.
Here are the episode names and broadcast order for Death Comes to Town:
1. Death Checks In
2. Who Mailed Our Mayor
3. The Stages of Grief
4. Big City Smackdown
5. Butterfly is to Blame
6. Cause of Death
7. Serious Shockey News
8. Dead Man Walking
The passing of time has not dulled the Kids in the Hall’s edge and comedic instincts. While it rarely scales the wildly bizarre heights they reached in their prime, Death Comes to Town is still a hilarious and at times sweet and surprising creation. One could look at this series and think of it as the Kids’ satirically skewed variation on twisty, serialized television dramas like Twin Peaks, 24, and Lost that focus enter seasons on the development and resolution of a single epic plotline. Using a small and unexceptional rural hamlet like Shuckton as the show’s primary location gives the Kids a playground to let the various oddball characters emerging from their imaginations play out their separate stories while converging with the larger tale of the death of the mayor and the subsequent investigation and trial that ensues. When the shocking developments in the narrative arrive they never feel forced or hackneyed, even though some of them do seem goofy, but in a very good way.
The characters of Death Comes to Town are mostly loathsome and unappealing creatures, but the writing and committed performances by the Kids – whether in drag or out – somehow make them endearing, and always funny. McKinney is given the flashiest (and often fleshiest) role to play as Death, typically a figure of horror and menace in popular fiction but here presented as a slovenly, bitter working stiff who is so sick and tired of having to shuttle Shuckton souls to the great beyond that he has to drown his sorrows in alcohol and sex with plus-size redheads he picks up in bars. Driving around town on a tricked-out bicycle wearing a Reaper-esque hoodie and cape with his distended gut hanging out, McKinney’s Death is a pathetic being you can empathize with even though he comes across as a sadistic prick most of the time. Thompson is equally impressive as the vapid and duplicitous Heather Weather, uncomfortably strange as town coroner Dusty Diamond (just wait until you see the horrific things he does with the mayor’s corpse), and incongruously engaging as dullard murder suspect Crim.
McCulloch stands out as the character with the most complete arc in the series, Ricky Jarvis, in spite of being buried under pounds of makeup and a fat suit. Ricky’s story offers up the most unique surprises and watching him getting to square off with Death at the end is the perfect way to bring the many subplots of Death Comes to Town into a blissful collision of insanity. He also gets to cut loose as the egomaniacal Mayor Bowman and a flashy big city prosecutor who depends more on bombastic speeches and programmed music than facts and evidence to convict criminal suspects. Foley does his best work in drag as Marilyn Bowman but also gets huge laughs as Doc Porterhouse, the folksy town abortionist, and constantly perturbed news producer Levon Blanchard. McDonald also has his finest role of the show playing a woman, in this case the ever-forgetful Marnie, and is often just as good as the inexperienced lawyer Sam and the lackadaisical Shaye.
Each actor also plays various smaller parts throughout the story, while a few recognizable characters from The Kids in the Hall make amusing cameos through the series and Canadian improvisational comedy great Colin Mochrie makes a droll appearance as the money-grubbing veterinarian milking Sam out of everything he has to keep his should-be-dead cat alive.
Each episode of Death Comes to Town, which was filmed with Red One digital cameras, is spread across two discs and is presented in full frame. The transfers reflect their original broadcast quality and look very sharp with solid colors that bring out the most visually in the Canadian locales. No subtitles are included.
The shows sound really strong with English 5.1 audio tracks. Dialogue and music are vividly presented, with good volume balance between the mixes. For the visually impaired A&E Entertainment has also provided descriptive audio tracks that are occasionally amusing to listen to.
Foley and McCulloch provide funny and enlightening audio commentaries on three episodes and the second disc contains a half-hour of deleted and extended scenes whose absence from the final edit is understandable and a five-minute reel of bloopers which can be accessed in parts from a sub-menu.
Death Comes to Town finds Canada’s finest comedy troupe at their best and still crafting some of the funniest programming imaginable on a fraction of what most major network shows get to spend while producing barely half the results. I can only hope that the Kids in the Hall are not yet through bringing their unique humor to the airwaves. This DVD is well worth a buy.