Interview: Bruce McCulloch talks ‘Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town’

The Kids in the Hall reunite on American television with tomorrow night’s debut of “Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town,” an eight-part murder mystery spoof set in a small Canadian town called Shuckton. While I didn’t love the miniseries, I was such a big fan of the troupe that I interviewed both Scott Thompson and Bruce McCulloch when they were at press tour earlier this month.

The Thompson interview ran yesterday, and after the jump I talk to McCulloch (who came up with the idea for “Death Comes to Town” and was head writer and producer) about his own memories of the old show, how the creative process evolved, why he doesn’t act much, and more.

I was talking with Scott about how the writing on the original show worked. It was always my impression that whoever were the leads in the sketch had written that and therefore you and Mark were sort of mostly doing things together, but how did it actually work?

You know what? That”s actually the closest to the truth. People don”t think that and I guess they never want to think that one guy in the band wrote all the songs or wrote a song and made a guy play it and then took turns.  The leads of the sketch generally wrote it.  I have a natural affinity for whatever reason with Mark. Maybe because I met him first I gravitated to him. So I wrote with and for Mark and Dave with Kevin, and Scott was the glue between those 2 sides. So we wrote our own stuff, essentially.  The mythology is that you want to think we were up all night working, but I would start at 10:00 in the morning and have a writers meeting and I”d say here”s an idea. Do you have an idea? And I”d work with an assistant or I”d work with one of the writers and so it was more businesslike in a way.  I wasn”t a guy who”s in a restaurant at 2:00 in the morning looking for an idea, you know? But then the true kind of test and where we”re greatest is when we bring everything back and leave it out and we change it and we say, “That”s not good.” “That”s way too long.” “Hey, why don”t you do that?”  So we write in pairs and we sort of re-write as a group, which I think is our strength.

So how would you say the sensibility of your pairing vs. was from, you know, the Dave and Kevin group?

Well, they”re the vaudevillians. Right?  And I”m the rock music guy who wants to be a poet or wanted to be a theatre guy or, you know, thought I was Eric Bogosian or whatever. I think I was that guy.  Scott”s the obsessed gay one who”s not just gay but obsessed with that and Mark”s the best character guy in the world. We all know that, so he wants to be anyone but Mark. So he”ll do anything. We all obsess so obsession is the center of everything.

But would it be unfair to suggest that your stuff tended to be a little more surreal maybe?

I think so. I mean with 30 Helen”s and all that shit. I can do that.  I made them do Rampop (the “special” son of the town mayor) this time around. I mean, there”s one of those.  But I think the surreality came from me.  I think we all like it.  I think when we started there was a natural bigotry towards surrealism or weirdness because Monty Python had laid claim to it in such a substantial way.

So how, over time, has the writing process changed, from the show to “Brain Candy” to this?

Well, “Brain Candy” was hard because it was so long ago and so painful that we don”t even remember.  I just know we kept writing it one way and writing it another way and writing it another way and writing another way without a center towards where we needed to go.  And I think with this, because I spend a lot of time now writing films for studios or working in films being in editing room, and in 22-minute television where they discuss the A, B, and C stories and all that shit and have act breaks and cliffhangers, that with this I kind of said to the gang, “I have this central concept, I”ll engine it and I”ll end up producing it and I”ll go set it up and I”ll be last man standing.”  So I think because of that I had to make everybody happy. Everybody had ideas but I kind of pounded through some of the beginning architecture which helped.

Okay. And given that you were in-charge, was that a different kind of dynamic from before?

Oh, without question. Back in the ’90s, it would’ve been, “I don”t think we”d allow that because Bruce can”t have his way.”  Of course, if you”re in some way in charge you have to truly make sure everyone”s happy. I can”t fight for my stuff as hard because I have to make sure everybody else is happy.  So I think we”re stupid as a group. Like, we”re all smart but we”re stupid. But I think we all know what is practical. That someone said, “Okay, fuck it. I”ve got to do it,” you know?  “Somebody”s got to go get the raccoon out of the attic. I”ll do it.”

So you guys own your own characters, Scott was explaining before, and yet the cops are essentially the only ones who appear in here.  Was there temptation to maybe bring in others?

No, I don”t think that was a conversation.

So then how did the cops work their way into it?

I think it”s just me as a bad writer and needed that function of police and of course we”re going to do bumbling police, I think. And because they”re not really characters – it”s just Mark and I. We trade lines. He forgets his line, I”ll do it.  I forget mine, he does it. But they”re not characters.  I”m not as obsessed with characters certainly as Scott is but they don”t have a back story. They”re just cops which is almost a surreal, for us, take on cops, you know?

So, and it”s still the case of basically whoever comes up with the character plays the character for the most part or has that changed as well?

That changed in us too. I mean, we knew Mark was going to do Death because it was natural, so I kind of had some things for him and then he”d comment on it. I think people  were more assigned characters in this because we knew we had to do an accused killer and then Scott said, “Oh, I”ll make him a native Canadian and I want it.” He wouldn”t want it if it wasn”t native Canadian because he had a take on that character and then it became that. So it became about him. And then once you sort of get a claim on it, then you own that character and you can tell people, “No, I don”t want to do that one. I want to do a different scene.”

But you feel after knowing each other all this time you”ve maybe gotten better at writing for each other? Like, “This is something Dave could do”?

Oh yes. And of course, and listen it doesn”t matter like Scott was originally was going to maybe do the pizza deliver lady.  Seems like his turf.  And he said, “I don”t want to repeat myself.” I thought, “Dude, we haven”t done anything for 15 years.  I don”t think it”s considered repeating yourself.” But absolutely, I know that Dave”s going to play the town abortionist. I know that. It”s natural.

I mean it is weird because ordinarily when a troupe breaks up, they break up and that”s it.  And you guys have come back together both on stage and now on-screen.  After “Brain Candy” did you expect to work with these guys again?

No.  I mean, we never broke up, we just, never had a reason to call at certain times.  And obviously we”re good friends.  I love having dinner with these guys but it”s more fun to work on-stage or write a scene with them. And I think it”s just its own weird thing.  And it just needs us to go process our own lives for awhile and come back.  Personalize as people and then as sort of as artists or business people or whatever we are now to come back with it.  This last time had been a long time.

Obviously, “Death Comes to Town” is very Canadian. Overall, how important has the Canadian-ness of the comedy been? Did you always feel it was something you had to do to stand out – “We’re the Canadian sketch troupe” – or is it a matter of national pride, or what?

We really are proud Canadians, but we didn”t want to fall in that fucking trap where like we”re sucking up to Canada.  We”re just weirdoes like everybody. There”s weirdoes in America and there”s weirdoes in Canada. But with this, I think it was me for some reason who thought let”s make it really Canadian and it just started to fall into place. As the series goes on you”ll realize it”s all like late 70″s-mid-80″s Canadian references, and hockey, and Scott had the great idea to have the Winter Olympics as the failed bid, which seems so Canadian. And it just got better and better to do more and more Canadian stuff. And I think maybe because we”d been away for so long and it was really fun to go be at CBC.

How much acting have you been doing in the last few years before this?

None. The other guys auditioned for stuff. They all get stuff.  They all get offered stuff. I act if I”m asked but it”s never been my favorite thing. The writing”s always been my favorite and the second favorite now is producing.  Figuring out the whole world and what should be the thing, so I”m really happy and comfortable with the idea that I perform mostly with the group.

And yet you have a number of the more prominent roles in this.

Oh yeah, because I wrote a lot. I’m a reluctant actor but I”m also a pig, so if you”ve got to be there, you might as well do it.

Having not done a lot of it lately, was that in any way difficult for you?

I think it was. I really noticed just watching, to me, just the skills of the guys as actors are natural, or they weren”t trying too hard. I just thought they were all better actors and I didn”t know if I was as good I was playing through this. Dave”s on sets all the time.  I”m on-set but usually behind the camera now.

And it sounds just based on what you”ve said here and what everyone was saying on stage that this was a good enough experience that you want to repeat it at some point?

Well we”re not that smart. Just because it”s a good enough experience doesn”t mean we”ll repeat it. There”s only so much light in the sky.

But I mean you”ll try to do something again?

Yeah, I think we will. And I think we”re practical now.  That was the practical decision to let people handle different things.  CBC immediately asked us to do another set of them or another limited series, and the answer was no because we needed our lives to grow back into themselves before we can do that thing again.

But it probably won”t be 15 years?

No. I don”t think it can be. I think also we know when we did this, if we waited a couple more years or more it would have been, “Who cares?” I don”t know. I don”t know. I felt like we had to do it if we were going to do it and we did it.

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