tv What the Kids in the Hall Taught Me About Feminism
The Kids in the Hall forever changed the shape of sketch comedy with its boundary-pushing, punk rock attitude and insane characters. Starring Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson, the show ran from 1989 to 1994, and continued to amass fans through years of reruns. Now that the troupe has returned with a new series and documentary on Amazon Prime Video, I’ve been thinking back to when I first started watching the show in high school. As a millennial misfit, I was drawn to the Kids’ offbeat sense of humor, but what really hooked me was the troupe’s feminist sensibilities. It was these five Canadian men in drag who opened my adolescent eyes to concepts like sexism, toxic masculinity, and gender inequality.
I have many feminist heroes who are women, but as a teenager surrounded by Girls Gone Wild and The Man Show’s girls on trampolines, I actually learned about objectifying women from Bruce McCulloch’s character, Tammy the teen pop star. When an older male record executive attempts to seduce her with a bouquet of flowers, Tammy sings, “I’m not gonna spread for no roses … Laura Secord never did. Gloria Steinem did once, and then she felt sad.” No one else on TV seemed to be talking about Gloria Steinem, much less making a joke about fetishizing young girls.
The Kids in the Hall weren’t the first guys I saw doing drag, but they were the first ones I saw playing realistic women. They distinguished themselves from Monty Python’s screeching pepperpots by representing women I could actually relate to: single mothers; secretaries who worked boring, low-paying jobs; women who were navigating breakups; women enduring sexual harassment; and, time and time again, women who were being hit on by creeps.
Perhaps this is why the most dedicated Kids in the Hall fans I know seem to be women. Sure, the troupe has a huge male following, and dozens of famous male comedians have listed them as an influence. But the true Kids in the Hall nerds I’ve met, the ones who don’t so much like the show as have it flowing through their veins, have all been women.
Tavie Phillips, the Kids’ social media manager, has been keeping the troupe’s online presence going for the past 20-odd years, so I figured if anyone understands Kids in the Hall fandom, it’s her.
“Women have seen themselves portrayed by men in less than respectful ways so often that it’s just a pleasant surprise when you see how the Kids do it,” says Phillips. “How fully formed [the female characters] are, how the sketches about hetero relationships aren’t always about the man’s point of view, how the costumes, makeup, vocal and physical characterizations skewed towards realistic rather than campy or demeaning. Womanhood is never itself the butt of the joke.”
Phillips is right—the drag is really good. The wigs are well manicured, the fake breasts are proportionate, and the early ’90s fashion on display in the show is très chic. More than once I’ve watched a sketch and thought to myself, I’d wear that.
In Paul Myers’ biography The Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy, the troupe credits Thompson with creating the blueprint for these three-dimensional female characters. Rather than just throwing on a cheap wig, the guys were often sensitively portraying different types of mothers, sisters, wives, and girlfriends, a few of whom are based on their own family members. (That said, there are still some female characters who are simply batshit, like McKinney’s preternaturally horny Chicken Lady.)
But it wasn’t just their approach to playing women that set the Kids apart. The way they spoke about women is even more interesting. In an early Season 1 sketch, the guys sit around playing poker, and what first reads as a normal night of male bonding takes a hard right turn when Foley confesses he wishes he could have a period. “Just one a month, OK?” This prompts a discussion about all the things they’re missing out on as cis men: motherhood, breastfeeding, even menopause. Five masculine guys expressing a naked desire to be more nurturing than their rigid gender roles allow was a transgressive display of vulnerability, particularly in the context of sketch comedy, a medium that’s traditionally mocking and sarcastic. Even McKinney’s admission that he’d “like to be a dyke” is sincere—it’s not sex he’s after, but rather “to be buried in the sisterhood of women.”
Women also factored into The Kids in the Hall’s roster of well-developed queer characters that honored and even gently poked fun at the LGBTQ community. Thompson’s raconteur Buddy Cole is easily one of the show’s most recognizable and longest-running characters, and in one of my favorite sketches, he coaches the lesbian softball team, Sappho’s Sluggers. The result? Magic.
Foley’s monologue about his “good attitude towards menstruation” showed that periods could be openly discussed in comedy without becoming a gross-out gag—something I appreciated during my own anxiety-ridden menarche. “I know a lot of men are made uncomfortable by this monthly miracle, but I embrace it,” states Foley. “Embrace it the way some men embrace the weekend.”
Female sexuality was also portrayed without the glib misogyny of, say, Saturday Night Live sketches about Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill, and Marcia Clark. Sex-positive women were centered in “Wild Weekend,” where Cathy the secretary experiences a sexual awakening, and “Fantasy,” where an insecure McDonald has to reckon with his girlfriend’s voracious imagination. There was also a series of sketches with Thompson and Foley as the apathetic sex workers Mordred and Jocelyn. While prostitution is so often played as a cheap gag, the Kids flipped the script and showed life from the sex workers’ point of view, so that the joke was on their idiot clients or their loony pimp.
The show’s most salient example of feminism also happens to be one of its most absurd characters: Cabbage Head, Bruce McCulloch’s cigar-smoking loudmouth. McCulloch says he came up with the idea when he noticed men hitting on his girlfriend in a way that tried to exploit her pity. Cabbage Head’s very first line is “So are you gonna sleep with me or what?” When he’s turned down, he becomes even more indignant: “It’s ’cause I have a cabbage for a head!” Each time Cabbage Head appears, he uses his ham-fisted manipulation in an attempt to get laid, whining excuses like “I had a bad childhood!” any time he’s criticized. Even worse, he pretends to be into “women’s lib” when he thinks it will work to his advantage. These days, we can label Cabbage Head’s attempts to guilt women into sleeping with him as toxic male fragility or even nice guy syndrome, but back then, he was simply an asshole.
The Kids in the Hall never shied away from dark themes or violence, and neither did their female characters. In one sketch, McDonald and McKinney play two dopey guys who work in a pizzeria and letch after 10th grade girls. One particularly striking girl (Neve Campbell!) turns the tables when it’s revealed she murdered her English teacher for “always staring” at her. As she’s dragged out by the cops, her classmates cheer and the pizza guys see them all in a threatening new light. In another sketch, McCulloch’s radical left-wing lesbian, Shauna, declares that Cabbage Head must die. She bursts into a bar where he’s being gross to yet another date and confronts him. “I used to wear nylons on my legs to do temp work. Now I wear them on my face to stop sexism,” she says, before shooting him and spraying salad everywhere.
As progressive as their approach to comedy was, the Kids didn’t fall into the trap of self-congratulation, even going as far as mocking performative allyship in sketches like “Art Class” and through McCulloch’s “He’s hip, he’s cool, he’s 45” character. They were also quick to deride their own shameful desires, like in the “Terriers” song, when McCulloch interrupts the bikini-clad backup dancers. “Sorry ladies, you’re scantily clad and have nothing to do with the narrative. Therefore, it’s sexist.” He then adds, “Wow. That hurt.”
And according to Phillips, the Kids practice what they preach. “Having spent time with each of them personally, I can tell you there’s no hint of macho bullshit among a single one of them,” she says. “They all have so many female friends and colleagues. Their work is a reflection of the respect I’ve seen them show in real life to everyone: man, woman, or nonbinary. They are all proudly feminist, and say it in so many words.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my closest female friends have all been Kids in the Hall fans. As teens, having that connection meant sharing a language of weird humor and turning mundane situations into comedic ones with phrases like “My pen!” or “Never put salt in your eyes.” And now as adults, it means supporting one another in the ongoing fight against sexism—and men with cabbages for heads.