Twenty years ago, comedy turned into a serious business for the Kids in the Hall. Their watershed CBC/HBO sketch show had wrapped after five seasons, and Paramount Pictures had agreed to finance their first — and, to date, last — feature film.
Brain Candy, the story of the invention of a Prozac-like drug that eventually puts users into a coma, was a disaster on numerous levels. The Kids fought internally. Dave Foley left the troupe and only appeared in the film because he was contractually obligated to. They also fought with the studio, which begged for the removal of the controversial Cancer Boy. Ultimately the character stayed, but there were severe consequences.
‘This is considered our darkest chapter. So the idea that we can kind of revisit it now … It’s important to us’
“I’m the pugilist of the group, I’m sent to have the fights,” Bruce McCulloch says from his home in Los Angeles. “I was fighting with someone who put money into the film. I think it was Christmas Eve or the day before, and I was fighting with this guy to demand that ‘we have to have Cancer Boy in the film.’ And then he said, ‘OK, if it means that much to you.’ And then they cut our advertising budget to, like, nothing.
“That’s kind of an analogy for the troupe in a way: We lost the war but won the battle.”
Even then the hits kept coming. The film’s original ending was scrapped and reshoots were financed by the Kids themselves, despite the fact they had not been paid much to begin with.
And after all that, Brain Candy was savaged by critic Roger Ebert: “I did not laugh once, I thought this movie was awful. I thought this movie was awful, dreadful, terrible, stupid, idiotic, unfunny, laboured, forced, painful, bad.” (Gene Siskel, however, loved it.)
It tanked at the box office, to the tune of a US$2.6-million total gross.
But time has a tendency to do the Kids in the Hall favours.
“As my pretty wife says, everything we touch turns to cult,” McCulloch says. “I think probably the last time we toured America, which was I guess six years ago now, there was a lot of people coming up to us and talking about Brain Candy. And I even noticed a lot of people in my life who really like Brain Candy and who aren’t really Kids in the Hall fans. So I find that interesting, because it’s obviously us and the humour is like us, but it’s somehow like a weird album we did on a riverboat or something.”
The quintet will revisit Brain Candy in a big way on Tuesday night. As a part of the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, they’ll appear at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre to do a live read of the movie. Former Odds member Craig Northey, who scored the movie and helped curate the soundtrack along with Matador Records, will front an accompanying band featuring members of Sloan. They’ll revisit the end of the film that didn’t make it to the big screen.
For the Kids, who McCulloch says are talking about a new tour and a concert film, it’s a chance to chase away the ghosts of the past and simply enjoy Brain Candy.
“This is considered our darkest chapter. So the idea that we can kind of revisit it now … It’s important to us. Scott [Thompson] talks about it in his one-man show and Kevin [McDonald] talks about it in his one-man show. We’re guys who have lived, all past 50 now, and we can look back on this, and that we’re enjoying being together is part of the reason we’re doing it.”
The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy plays March 11 at 8 p.m. at Queen Elizabeth Theatre. For tickets and more info, visit torontosketchfest.com.
Bruce McCulloch had plenty more to say about the making of Brain Candy. Here is an extended Q&A with the writer, actor and director.
What are your feelings about the making of Brain Candy in retrospect? Can you look at it now and detach or does everything come back to you?
Bruce McCulloch: “I can actually do both things. My favourite word these days, I can bifurcate my brain and say, ‘Oh, they just woke me up at four in the morning to do my over-the-shoulder as Alice, there; and this is an interesting scene. The thing I was left with the last time I watched it was a sort of pride of stupidity, which is, we’re the least business cynical group of people you’ll ever meet. I don’t think we even have T-shirts for sale any more. We’d have troupes opening for us who would have T-shirts and a mailing list and we’d be like, ‘What the f–k’s that?” I think you can see that in Brain Candy. We didn’t do Crushing Your Head guy, we didn’t do Chicken Lady; we followed this weird idea we had until the end of the Earth. It didn’t have our hit characters in it, it was kind of dark and satirical, that’s just what we were gonna do and we did it. And I love us for that — we weren’t trying to ‘make it.’ “
Was there a steep learning curve going from TV to film?
BM: “On TV we really got it down — how to split up into small groups, write our stuff, bring it back together and beat it up as a group. But with this, we didn’t know how to write a narrative, and how to write a narrative with all of us. I think we’d write it and rewrite it, and read it and reread scene, and I’d think, ‘Did we already film this on the TV show?’ because we’d read it so much. So we actually learned some valuable lessons from this that we could use in our later lives, individually, and then collectively when we did Death Comes to Town a few years back. But I think we were all trying to steer the ship a certain way and we had no idea what we were doing. It was like a conveyor belt from TV dropped us off into the world of movies. We didn’t quite understand it. So we were fighting, but didn’t quite know what we were fighting for.”
If you could go back and do it again, would you have done anything differently?
BM: “We’re not allowed, even though Dave Foley wrote a scene about a time machine, we don’t actually have a time machine. I stand by all the stupid decisions we made. Had we decided the idea on a different day, we would have done a different film. It wasn’t like something we had in our pockets for 10 years, we just followed it. I love us for that, the pure artistic stupidity of saying, let’s just keep writing this weird thing. So no, I don’t have any regrets. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, if we cut Cancer Boy, we would have made another million dollars and been allowed to blankity blank.’ Nah. It all worked out the way it should have.”
If memory serves, Dave was supposed to be the lead but couldn’t do it or didn’t want to do it so it wound up being Kevin. Was that something that happened early in the writing process or did parts have to be rewritten for Kevin?
BM: “I think there was a conversation about that. This was kind of when we had a falling out with Dave. Dave was going to go on to have a movie career, which he sort of did and didn’t have, as we all did and didn’t have the careers we were supposed to have. [laughs] I think there was a suggestion he play the lead, and by the way, he should have. He’s the guy who should do that role and Kevin is not the straight man. He was so sad, he was like, ‘You guys get to have all the fun and play all these characters and here I am in my nerd glasses.’ Dave wasn’t in on the work of the film in the same way, which I think he and we both regret. One of the things we’re doing at the show is, who knows where and why we got it, but we have some pirated footage of the original ending. There’ll be a conversation about — that was a lot to do with Dave — when Dave came into the film and what was shot, and even though we were underpaid to do the film, we repaid for the reshoots for the ending, and did it help. Who knows? [laughs] So I think Dave was just a part of the pain of the entire process.”
Who brought up the idea of doing the live read?
BM: “I had done a read through in San Francisco of Wet Hot American Summer last year with the original cast, and it was pretty fun. And I thought, ‘We could do it with Brain Candy,’ because we have the added element of f–kin’ sexy music. It’s something we’ve always had in the air, and I said let’s do it this year, and people said yes. We’re sort of in that phase of our career where we’re going, ‘Oh, OK.’ We did a bunch of new material shows in Toronto in December, and it was really fun. We enjoyed ourselves and got a great response. So we were trying to do another thing in Toronto that would get us together, and the more we’re together, the more we decide to do things. So, it was me, but I think we’d all discussed it, I was just the guy that said, ‘What about this date.’ “
You guys did some shows in Toronto recently. Are you working toward a tour, more television?
BM: “It’ll be the start of what our next thing is. We’re doing Austin Comedy Festival in April, and then a couple more dates, and then that’s what this is, trying to decide what our next tour is. I think we want to do a tour and there’s been some talk of doing a concert film. We want to do something, we’re just trying to figure out what it is. We’ll be doing more shows, I think, in the next year.”