Remote Controlled: Q&A with Bruce McCulloch
When asked last week which "Kid" I wanted to talk to by phone for a show preview, I found myself in a truly enviable position. You mean ... I get to pick? (I imagined this being like choosing between children, you know, if I had children to pit against one another so they could fight for my love ...)
While popular vote might have resulted in the choice of Dave Foley (yes, he was awesome on "NewsRadio"), for me, Bruce McCulloch was the Kid who always made the show tick. Also, he primarily considered himself a writer and "idea guy," and well, the more I thought about which sketches always made me laugh hardest, the common factor seemed to be Bruce's warped sense of humor. Plus, I just thought he'd be an incredibly fun interview.
Anyway, this Q&A was conducted last week while he was lounging in an Orlando hotel room. We chatted about a number of topics and he seemed really enthused about coming to Green Bay. Here's hoping that the Weidner Center crowd doesn't let him down Sunday. (I'm sure our city will be well represented at Carlos Mencia, though .... ugh.)
This will be the third city you’ll play in Wisconsin (Madison and Milwaukee), your first time in Green Bay. Is it because we’re close enough to Canada that your sensibility rubs off on us?
“Yeah, I know, we’re really pounding it out in Wisconsin. (Laughs.) Green Bay is one place we’ve obviously never been. I mean, we were actually in Nashville (last week), which is another great city we’ve never been able to play, and it was really, really fun. You know, that’s part of what we’re doing now. Obviously we go to New York and L.A., but this tour is also about playing places we haven’t played, like, ‘How come we’ve never been to Portland?’ It’s a function of touring, you sort of move with the wind a little bit. But that was certainly a part of it this time. And here we are.”
Does this feel like less of a classic “reunion” tour because you’ve been on the road a few times since the TV show aired?
“I think when we went out in 2000, there was sort of internal and external pressure there, (says dejectedly) ‘Oh, we should go on tour at some point.’ And then again in 2002, though we did enjoy it in 2000. But I think this time we just did it for us, and I don’t think we ever expected to go on the road again. We don’t sit around and talk about going on the road. We’re not like Coca-Cola where we’re in a board meeting. Every so often our energy gathers, and especially on this tour, we’re particularly proud of what we’re doing because we haven’t been around for awhile, and we got together and wrote essentially a new show. Just because we want to be together.”
Does it just take one phone call? You to Dave, or Mark talks to Kevin and you’re ready to go?
“You’re talking to the guy. I actually e-mailed these guys, ‘Hey, you want to get together and start writing?’ We tried to do what we did before, the routine that even pre-dated the TV show. We’d get together on Sunday and just write a bunch of stuff and had it ready for a tiny, secret theater for Thursday. So we did that just to see if it’d be fun again, throw some stuff out, put it out fast. We didn’t have a grand plan for the material. We just did a few things at a time. Then it became, ‘What are we going to do with this?’ and then we sculpted it for what’s on the tour now.”
So sometimes it’s just in the air, huh?
“Yeah, we sort of gather like the weather. We don’t have a logic to it, like, ‘Well, we haven’t been out in six years’ or something like that. We’re not on TV anymore, so we’re pretty excited that people still know us, that 2,500 people in Nashville or wherever come out to see us. It’s great. I think we’re at that point where we’re kind of humbled, and we’re friends with the Black Crowes, and they were at (the Nashville) show and said, ‘Yeah, all the fights you go through in your youth. You go through all that to appreciate this point.’”
Is the show all new material?
“Essentially it’s like 86 percent new. A couple of things are old, old things we re-did, or put in for balance. But yes, it’s essentially a new show.”
Was there an urge to do another ‘greatest hits’ style show knowing that it would draw big laughs?
“Not really. I mean, everybody comes up after a show and says, ‘Why didn’t you do blank?’ But the fact that it’s live and we do reference the old characters, I mean, we have scenes, updated not consciously, but you know, ‘This is a great scene for the Kathy’s,’ so we write one for that. It isn’t like we’ve thrown away all of our characters. We’re just not doing our classic sketches. It’s more fun to do a new scene that you’re only going to do a few times because you’re on tour with it. It’s a whole new experience. So I think it’s kind of the best of both worlds. That’s our theory. And I think people have liked this more than any of our other tours because it really feels alive, or maybe we’re just experiencing it that way.”
Did you worry that fans would just shout out the old skits and characters?
“They get enough of what they like. We’ll use Headcrusher in a kind of ironic way, stuff like that. We get to do it our way. And you know, we’re not very smart. When we did our film (1996’s “Brain Candy,”) we didn’t use any of our characters. We don’t have a business plan. We’re just kind of making it up instinctively. We can’t help ourselves.
Any plans to develop another TV show or a film based on the work you’re doing now?
“Well, we’re talking about maybe doing a little low budget film, some very limited TV thing. We have a few shorts in the show that are also on the Internet right now. Friends of mine, the Russo brothers who did 'Arrested Development,' we’ve sort of been talking to them about a movie. I think we may do something. We’ve been talking about it for awhile. It feels like there’s a new life to the troupe, so we’ll see.”
As you were constructing the TV show, did you think that this would be a natural career progression, that even if you went onto different projects, you could come back and regroup as the Kids?
“It’s not like we didn’t imagine doing it. We just didn’t imagine our future. When you’re so young, it’s more about, you know, just bursting. And when the show was over, everyone ran to what they felt was the thing they wanted to do next. And just as time goes on, you sort of go, ‘Man, those were the funniest guys I’ve ever worked with. I like being one of the Kids in the Hall.’ I like writing the TV and movie stuff, but I’m probably more 'Kids in the Hall' than anything.
"This troupe really exemplifies all of our senses of humor, so there is really some comfort in that. We never had a business plan. Ever. You know, I wanted to get us on TV. And once you get on TV, you want to stay on TV. That was it. We did a film because Lorne (Michaels) thought we should do a film, so there was sort of external pressure to do one. But we really didn’t have an idea we liked. So we haven’t really helped ourselves. I always say, we’re five pretty smart guys, but together, the troupe is one dumb guy.”
It would appear you’re in a good position now to be able to tour when you want and not have to milk it for financial reasons or because it’s the only work you can find.
“Absolutely. All have us have our own different careers, so we don’t look to each other to agree on where to go with the rest of our lives. We can come together at this career stage and you know, that’s the fun of it. We can have fun together, but not have to live together, that kind of thing.”
Does age and experience frame the comedy differently?
“Yes and no. All of our ideas are silly, weird and dirty as ever. We always write stuff that reflects our lives. So 10 or 15 years ago, I’d be writing about my girlfriend, but now that I have kids, one of our opening scenes is about the World’s Most Horrible Baby. The sense of humor is exactly the same, it’s just that invariably, the touchstones – ‘Ah, that’d be funny!’ – are a little bit different.”
Dave Foley had mentioned in a recent interview that he didn’t want to play Hecubus anymore because it wasn’t appealing at his age to wear the tight black costume. Does that affect certain characters you write for, like, say Gavin?
“I do Gavin in the show. But it’s instinctive. Like (in Nashville) someone asked where was my rocker guy, Bobby Terrance. And you know, I’m not going to be a (bleepin’) old guy in a rock bit. So it’s instinctive for everybody. Sometimes the idea, like, we’ll have a wild idea that we think the Kathy's would be great in, so we don’t really write from the character, ‘Oh, we’ve gotta find something for this person,’ whatever. That’s kind of hacky. Maybe we did that sometimes in the show, ‘Let’s write another Gavin,’ but I don’t think we do that now. To have something in the tour, you have to really want to do it.”
Some comedy troupes are adamant about not repeating characters or building their brand through topical humor. Did the Kids always plan to feature recurring characters?
“I personally started at a place where anyone who repeated a) a character or b) a scene, they were considered a hack. It almost killed us, because we’d literally be writing a new show from scratch every week. Honestly, we were crazy. But for different people, there’s this idea that you can believe in a character. They live. They pay rent somewhere. And they’re part of your sensibilities. Some characters more than others. Now it’s not like I walk around thinking about myself as the Flying Pig, but like, Kathy, that might be more in line with my sensibility.
“I wrote for Saturday Night Live prior to the 'Kids in the Hall,' and it was the year they did the (Jon Lovitz character) the Liar. And it was like, ‘What are we going to make the Liar lie about this week?’ And I was writing (bleepin’) Liar jokes every week. So for (the Kids) no, we didn’t want to do that. From our point of view, characters had to earn their way back into the show.”
Was it easy to avoid giving into the pressure of getting easy laughs from a popular character?
“Well, we were all about pleasing each other. If I brought in a weak Gavin scene, someone might be like, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ But you want to bring in something that’s more, ‘(Bleep), that’s so funny! You gotta do it!’ We competed with each other, tried to energize each other. That was a big part of it.”
Did that give and take mean you had to be hard on each other’s work? Be each other’s worst critics?
“Yeah, but it was more like, ‘Is that your best idea? Really?’ Dave and I wrote jokes more than others, so if we needed a joke somewhere, we’d put it in. And the others would say, we need to cut this, it’s not working. So we would go at each other’s stuff, but I don’t think we do that with the ferocity that we used to, just because I’ve learned that you make a suggestion to someone once, and you’ve said your piece. I realize that now. It was probably until I was 30 before I realized that other guys have ideas. (Laughs.) But that’s why we have a really good show now.”
I assume the egos aren’t as fragile either.
“When you’re 26, you try to find yourself in every joke and idea. Now it’s just about a great show. And you can have both.”
Do you have favorite characters to play or write for?
“I’m an idea guy. A weird idea, a weird phrase, it’s just as interesting to me. ‘30 Helens Agree’ is just as important to me than any character as a surrealist, arbitrary thing.”
Were most of your ideas based on something real, or did say, “the Eradicator” or the “My Pen!” sketches just evolve from something that struck you as funny in your head?
“Everything … I don’t know, the hardest question to answer is where do you get your ideas from? It could have just popped in my head, you know? Like, we do a piece now, a surreal dance piece that I literally wrote in my brain in 40 seconds. It doesn’t really make sense (laughs) but it’s one that people love. I don’t know why.”
How about the music numbers then? “Daves I Know” and “The Terrier Song” had to have more structure to them as ideas.
“They just seemed arbitrary. I don’t know where ‘Daves' would come from. That’s sort of the funny thing now, because in Hollywood writing on TV and writing features and stuff, I’m always explaining why something is going to be funny. I can’t imagine that, you know, ‘I’m going to sing a song about a bunch of guys named Dave and it’s going to be really repetitive, but funny ...’ I wouldn’t know (the answer) myself. It sort of takes the magic out of it. Why is something funny? It just is.”
So you’re not big on breaking down comedy as an individual or a group, dissecting why a joke works?
“The theory of comedy, we don’t really do it. We know our craft though. But we don’t (bleepin’) care. We’re not structuralists or anything. We just want everything to be as funny as it can be.”
You’ve mentioned in the past that you like writing more than performing.
“I work a lot with Mark, and I’m happy to give him really good jokes that I write. The other guys perform in their lives. That’s the bulk of their lives. I’ve done the odd thing, the one-person show sometimes. But I’m not an actor for hire. I’m an acquired taste (laughs.). I’m not the guy who plays the crazy neighbor. It’s not interesting to me. It’s boring to me. So maybe that’s why I’m loving the tour, because I don’t perform as much.”
You enjoy performing, it’s just not your first choice?
“Yeah, I’m loving it, but not because I’m trying to do a five-day part in a Jim Carrey film where I’m waiting in trailers all day, and some people know me, some don’t. I don’t really enjoy that.”
As you move forward with new material, do you get caught up in the Kids’ legacy?
“At this point in our lives, yeah, we get asked a lot, ‘Did you get your due? What about your influence on young people?’ I’m just happy we had a TV show. It’s just that simple. We’ve been selling out tour stops, and you know, it might not be every seat, but there’s like-minded people that have found us, even after all this time. And that’s why I got into it.”
-- Thomas Rozwadowski, email@example.com