Join Adam as he examines everything you thought you knew about pop culture and entertainment, but actually…
Kids in the Hall is better than Saturday Night Live
Let’s be clear, I grew up on SNL. Kevin Nealon’s Weekend Update was basically my cracked lens into the world of grownups as I forced myself to stay up late as a child. My impersonation of Dana Carvey’s impersonation of President Bush the First was unrivaled among the other third graders. While Lorne Michaels was something of a third steward for my formative years, actually… his other show, Kids in the Hall, is better than Saturday Night Live.
Airing from 1989 to 1994, the Kids in the Hall, Toronto improv troupe of Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Scott Thompson, Mark McKinney and Kevin McDonald, quietly set the bar for what sketch comedy can achieve; a bar that remains unrivaled to this day. The commercial success of SNL cannot be denied. Its cultural significance is inarguable, but when you break down it down, the boys from the North just do it better.
THE CAST: One of Saturday Night Live’s greatest claims to fame has been the uncanny star power of its revolving cast. Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtain, Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, Will Farrell, the list goes on and on. But actually… for every Martin Short you have to take a Joe Piscopo. A counter-effect of cast member successes are their eventual departures. This can come in spades at the end of a season seeing a mass exodus of cast members like Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudekis in a single night. Sure their different genres, but imagine if the cast of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones suddenly were replaced with Anthony Michael Hall and Paul Schaeffer.
These fresh starts for the decade-spanning program can provide desperately needed house cleanings from time to time, but the risk lies in having to endure an entire season of new faces while the audience tries to acclimate. Let’s not forget, Robert Downy Jr. and Julia Louis Dryfuss were on the same cast in the 80s, which sounds amazing, but actually… it was largely remembered as one of the worst seasons of all time due to the lack of chemistry among the retooled cast members.
The Kids in the Hall couldn’t contrast more if they tried. A tight-knit Canadian improv troupe of five friends that worked stages for years honing the concepts and characters they would bring to television, their chemistry was impeccable. Their timing, prescient. Because the five members remained the sole cast for all five seasons, the audience was able to identify and connect to a point where latter seasons were able to illicit punch lines from the slightest of gestures, eyebrow raise or subtle exhalation, so specialized were their patois with their loyal fanbase. This intimacy led to a cult-like appreciation for the show that the ever-changing monolith in New York could never imitate.
The limited diversity of the five Kids in the Hall cast members would appear a limitation, but actually… it proved one of their most beloved claims to fame. The Kids… carried over certain broad Vaudeville stylings, specific to our point, playing all the roles regardless of gender. Accentuating how awkward Mark McKinney was in heels or how feminine Dave Foley becomes with just a blonde wig was part of the joke. They never made the punch line on cross dressing or the transgender community, but celebrated the fluidity of gender roles in a panoply of permutations that elicited unexpected poignancy in equal measure with slapstick.
THE CONTENT: Play a game at home or on the bus while you’re reading this. Count how long it takes you to think of your favorite SNL character or sketch. Even if you’re only casually familiar with the program you should be able to conjure images of Will Farrell banging on cowbells in under five seconds, but actually… this can, and often does, spiral out to the beating of many a dead horse. Consecutive episodes will often go to the well with the same safe and predictable premises ad nauseum.
The live weekly setting of SNL makes for topical entertainment that can nearly substitute for breaking news, and often does during election seasons. There are few major news stories that escape their irreverent skewering. While this proves some of their best work, actually… it’s also SNL’s biggest weakness.
The Kids in the Hall attempted to follow two simple rules if nothing else in the inception of their half-hour sketch show; no topical or political comedy and no recurring characters. While the studio pushed back on recurrent creations in a small degree, not once in their five seasons did Kids in the Hall rely on the news to provide them the set-ups to their comedy. This discipline lead to some of the most absurdist and/or avant garde material on television at that time. It didn’t always work either. Bruce McCulloch particularly pushed the envelope in latter seasons with material that appeared more like college short films than primetime television. These were glorious, breathtaking mistakes we should all celebrate more often.
Scott Thompson may have done a memorable send up of the Queen, but The Kids in the Hall gave politics a wide berth. This doesn’t mean that they strayed away from social issues, actually… they were among the most forward thinking and unapologetically progressive shows on television at the time.
As liberal and progressive as they may be, to this day, SNL presents any scene with two men kissing as the punch line, hamming it up for laughs and underscoring just how “cool” they are for being in on the joke. For the Kids in the Hall, with openly gay cast member Scott Thompson, homosexuality was a much more nuanced and thoughtful subject. Their jokes weren’t dependent upon sexuality as if it were a novelty, but rather, used it as a stepping stone to explore much wider and socially relevant issues during the early 90s including prejudice and the AIDS epidemic.
As popularity for the show grew, Thompson felt the burden of being seen as a spokesman for the gay community. While he never shied from his opinions, even scripting the recurring “Steps” which was all but a pilot for a LGBTQ Friends that was way ahead of its time, the severity of the spotlight grated at time. This was apparent in the meta commentary laden sketch where a real life Thompson is praised for his advocacy, has to deal with family members dying of AIDS, and is confronted by lovers all while vapidly playing with his hair, sculpting it into more and more distracted structures; underscoring the schism between silliness and seriousness that the show itself threaded. Aside from backstage casting rumors, there is nothing that Saturday night Live has ever presented live from Rockefeller Center that has come close to capturing the human condition as well as those five kids left out in the hall.
THE LEGACY: Going on forty-three seasons and counting, SNL has rightfully earned the right to be considered a comedic institution. A different celebrity and musical guest hosting each week is taken for granted at this point, even formulaic, but it has always kept the show firmly entrenched at the “cool kids table”. The awkward underdog nature of Kids in the Hall is evident in their name. They literally are the “kids in the hall” while Dana Carvey, David Bowie, and Alec Baldwin eat finger sandwiches and drink Don Perignon at one of SNL’s infamous after show parties.
This may sound like SNL’s coup de gracie, but actually… it’s their anchor. While there are always going to be the latest season’s breakout star, SNL’s greatest seasons will always be in hindsight. The accumulative seasons and the show’s increasing dependency on current events leaves classic inventive sketches helmed by Dan Akroyd and John Belushi further in the rear view mirror with Wayne’s World and Celebrity Jeopardy serving as mere blips on a much larger map. All of this serves to dilute the brand. Its tenure only engrains it as part of the very Establishment they first skewered in earnest back in 1975. They may take Trump to task week to week, but like Bush jokes in 2006, actually… it’s not exactly a challenging stance given their demographic. When was the last time SNL aired something that was truly risky and unconventional, something that would dare to rile sponsors?
Conversely, Kids in the Hall’s five seasons were a meteor burning bright before quickly disappearing. With the content and presentation solely in their five sets of hands, Kids in the Hall was able to produce a much more heartfelt and enthusiastic program that was never bloated by uneven casts or a desperate need to appeal to commercial influences. The cast was able to retire the show on their own terms before they became redundant parodies of their former glories. With such a significantly shorter life, Kids in the Hall is a finite resource, a generational treasure to be discovered now as Comedy Central reruns or box set sales on Ebay. In comparison, the ever present abundance of SNL for the past 42 years strips the show of its specialness. “How can I love you if you won’t go away?”
At first blush, it may seem like a given that Saturday Night Live is the best sketch show on television, but actually… with a much more dedicated cast that fans could identify and become invested in, daring and inventive content that was head and shoulders above anything else produced at the time, and a legacy that is both timeless and prescient to this day The Kids in the Hall is much better than Saturday Night Live.