BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Canadian writer, director, and, yes, rocker Bruce McCulloch’s enduring sketch comedy characters cut to the bone because they swim so close to the surface. Over the course of our nearly 30-minute phone interview in advance of his June solo run in NYC, a number of McCulloch’s darkly shaded oddball creations reveal themselves in unmistakable if fleeting vocalizations. Well, it seemed that way—at least to this longtime admirer, whose raised antenna caught the singsongy cadences and breathy inflections possessed by office worker Kathie, whom McCulloch has said is based on a sister. One supposes he likes her very much, just as one supposes she long ago surrendered to hearing other people’s impression of her brother’s (slightly exaggerated?) impression of her.
Like salty ham-hating husband Gordon, youthful spouter of dubious trivia Gavin, and Flying Pig, whose antics prove loveable, fatal, and delicious, easily flustered Kathie is calibrated for laughs but endowed with an emotional heft that gets into your head and stays there. All of these and many other McCulloch creations—The Terrier Song! The chauvinist with cabbage for a head!—have been earworming the unsuspecting since they were set loose during the 1989-1995 televised work of Canadian sketch comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall (KITH)—currently enjoying the deservedly warm reception given their new eight-episode season, which premiered in full, May 13, on Amazon Prime.
We’re not here to talk KITH, though—not yet, at least. But if you have a soft spot for McCulloch’s point of view and its many character-driven KITH delivery vehicles, that’s reason enough to believe the ticket you purchase to see Bruce McCulloch: Tales of Bravery and Stupidity will be worth its weight in comedy gold. Chelsea Community News, which doesn’t normally endorse shows sight unseen, was sold after our recent phone interview with McCulloch, the majority of which appears below in delightful Q&A form. Then, stick around for the what, when, where info about his June 1-12 run at Soho Playhouse.
Scott Stiffler for Chelsea Community News (CCNews): Have you brought your solo work to New York City before?
Bruce McCulloch: No, nothing. I did a couple of staged readings when I did a book a few years ago (2014’s Let’s Start A Riot: How A Young Drunk Punk Became A Hollywood Dad), but nothing else. . .
CCNews: You spent time here before The Kids in the Hall did, yes?
McCulloch: Well I was there, you know, when I was a young punk in the sort of important days, and I was in the East Village staying with various friends… I had a couple trips there when all I wanted to do was go see music and then later when I worked for Saturday Night Live as a writer and then, of course, the troupe came [to NYC]. Loren [Michaels] flew us up there to perform at the West Bank Cafe for a while and at various other venues. And so those were my big things. When we were at Saturday Night Live, I lived at the Chelsea Hotel with [fellow Kid] Mark [McKinney] and I remember all the maids were stealing and Mark wrote little notes that he left all over our apartment saying, “Maids, please do not steal (laughs). And they stopped stealing. And of course, New York’s New York, right? But we’ve [KITH] had real fun there, playing big venues, Town Hall.
CCNews: And [fellow KITH member] Scott Thompson brought his solo show [Aprés le Dèluge: The Buddy Cole Monologues] here, to Joe’s Pub and Soho Playhouse. Have you seen it?
McCulloch: Well, not in New York, but I’ve seen that show. I mean, that’s a brilliant show. And quite frankly, seeing that show was a reason I thought, “Oh, we should do another year of Kids in the Hall.” He’s got so much to say and he’s so bursting. I mean, he’s fucking brilliant—and he’s a mess. You know, the sweat pouring off of him and he’s missing his cues… but yeah, I think it’s fabulous and it’s fabulous, you know, that he’s being able to speak. He’s speaking about his world and his world view, and that’s what Buddy Cole has always been for us.
CCNews: So no pressure, you’re about to make your NYC solo performance debut, with. . . what’s the show about? They wouldn’t give us a script or a screener.
McCulloch: Yeah. No. I mean, you know, New York’s always scary? Just because you want to succeed there? I’ve had fun playing this show in a lot of my favorite cities: Chicago, the Portlands and the SanFrans. But it is a show that is about; it’s a theatrical show. It’s part stand-up, part storytelling, part just, weirdness, I think? And the title refers to, you know, my wife says that I put myself in weird situations just for the material, right? Tales of Bravery and Stupidity. But the emotional center of the show is kind of the heartbeat underneath my work for my entire life which is… and this one is really about breathe, about were all sharing breath now. It’s about humanity and kind of reaching out to each other—not in an over-the-top pedantic way, one would hope, but it’s just really about kind of a journey to self that we are all going through and how in a corny way we are all in this together.
CCNews: That heartbeat behind your work: Once you gained an awareness of it, how that effect your work moving forward, if it did?
McCulloch: It did. Because I do talk about the death of a friend in this show, a friend who was in a band called The Tragically Hip, which is the biggest band in Canada. I’ll have to explain to New York who they are. But he died of brain cancer and we talk about the, uh, I read a couple emails that we sent back and forth in his final days that are dripping in gallows humor but really beautiful. So that was about five years ago and I think that really gave me a kind of humanistic middle of the show, sort of energized the shows. And I’ve rewritten it now, for the times we’re in.
CCNews: What do you mean, the times we’re in?
McCulloch: Well, I think we’ve all been through a catastrophe and this has been a really hard time when our lives have shrank. I talk about, “It’s great if you only have low-grade depression,” and so, you know, I don’t say the word COVID, really, in the show. But I think it hangs over the fact that… and it’s about keeping going which is about my friends, myself, and all of us. We’re here. If you’re here in the theater, you’ve made it, we’ve made it. And that’s how I see my life right now… I really want to do a quieter show where you can see me and I can breathe and there’s a quieter communication with the audience. So that’s why we picked Soho Playhouse.
CCNews: Is that more gentle rhythm, in solo performance, something that’s always been there, or has it developed more gradually?
McCulloch: I think it’s come gradually…It’s like, I have two different shirts. I kind of have my rock star shirt and I can go out to Vancouver and play a 700, 800-seater. I wouldn’t do it with this show. This is a little quieter. But I should also say (whispers), there’s some big fuckin’ laughs in this show. So it’s first and foremost a comedy show that turns into kind of a more serious show as it goes. But yeah, I like both. But for this, right now, it’s nice to do a show that I take very seriously. Communicating with the audience is the thing that I want to do at this point in my life.
CCNews: What is your sense of the way people receive the show? Is it what you want them to get out of it—and have you been blindsided by a reaction?
McCulloch: It’s like [test] screening a movie. You can hear how it plays. You don’t have to get the cards to see what they like. You can feel when people are rocked or they think that’s sort of sweet, some story I tell about my wife, or it’s touching or sad. What really matters is that I can feel the connection with people which is what I started doing 30 years ago in a small theater in Calgary and has basically been the sweet little peach of my career that I can go back and do this sometimes.
CCNews: You said that the show is, first and foremost, a comedy—and comedies have a very specific goal: Get laughs. In a live setting, especially in a solo vehicle, what is it like to solicit, and receive, a laugh?
McCulloch: Well, it’s sort of like warmth. I wouldn’t say it’s like sex. It’s like a charge but there’s nothing better than a new laugh. I had five big, new laughs last night: Two that I improvised and three that I wrote. It’s like, “Oh, a new laugh.” It’s like meeting a new friend. The new laugh is the most amazing thing and the laugh that’s always there is great too, and of course it’s mysterious the one night it’s not.
CCNews: So you’re pulling in laughs each time out—but beyond that, do you feel audiences are connecting with the things those laughs are there to address?
McCulloch: I think what I intended the show to do, it is doing, which is people see me as an older person who has more emotion than they thought I might. And of course, it’s not about me, it is about all of us—the humanity of it. I’ve heard that from people over and over and you know, probably not a thing to put in the article, but people cry. Not all the time, but the other night I saw a woman just dripping tears at the end. Sometimes at the curtain call I’ll say, “It didn’t end so fuckin’ funny, did it?” But that’s the journey and that’s the reason I will stay in a hotel and come do this for two weeks—because it’s that important to me.
CCNews: So the young punk, the once and current Kid in the Hall, is not only capable of a deeper resonance, he’s acclimated to it?
McCulloch: Well, it’s like all my friends they go, “Oh, my fathers who are in their 80s now, they’re so sweet they were such tyrants.” I think… I think it’s two things: I think there’s been a wave of kindness required in the world now. You know in the workplace, in making sure your workers are happy and fed and that everybody has to get heard. And I love all that and I think that’s also come at a time when, for me, it’s really lovely to—I’m producing a TV series with some young BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] comedians called TallBoyz to be able to mentor these young, beautiful spirits. So I think It’s also me working with young people and seeing that they’re kind of different than my generation and certainly the Kids in the Hall, who were five rabid animals, it’s really nice. It’s nice to look back and see how different it is now even though some things are the same. Laughs and monologues and whatever are the same, but we’re in a different word
CCNews: Let’s see It’s 3:04. We’ve got like, 10 minutes left in our alloted time for this interview. Is there any ground we haven’t covered, about the solo show?
McCulloch: I should probably say that there’s music in it as well. Not live music, but beautifully recorded music.
CCNews: Is that music available for purchase anywhere?
McCulloch: No, no. I just…
CCNews: Are you working on that for…
McCulloch: No, no. I probably should do that. Hey, that’s a good idea. I think I will do that.
CCNews: You’ve got that rock star element [audience] probably hungry for it—and they’re gonna bootleg it anyway, so…
McCulloch: Yeah, OK. I’ll get on that.
CCNews: I think you should. Let’s talk about The Kids in the Hall, the new stuff on Amazon Prime. There’s literally new stuff, alongside some really satisfying “Where are they now?” sketches. Was there agreement on what effect the accumulating years would have on classic characters, and yourselves?
McCulloch: I don’t think it was a discussion. It was just a fact. I mean, we look different. I’m still Kathie. I’m still Gavin. We’re older… and some of those characters are more stuck, and probably some of them are more evolved. The things that Buddy Cole is going to talk about are modern, but he’s still the same, you know, lounge lizard or whatever you’d call him. . . Yeah, we never talk about what we’re going to write—ever. We only write stuff and then look at it later and go, “Oh, what was that stuff?” and in fact, only kind of doing press maybe do we reflect on really what is in the series. We just make it and then look back and go, “Oh, what is that? Oh, it is a weird building that we made.”
CCNews: There’s a little more of a throughline in this eight-episode run, a genuine arc where stuff in the first episode is held accountable all the way to the end.
McCulloch: Well, I think it’s the one you’re suggesting which is the cerebral thing of us and Amazon, and are we continuing—and Don and Marv which we thought, I thought, was a pretty good idea to discuss us, and in a way to discuss that we’re older, you know, Don saying, “What’s wrong with Kevin’s hair?” to kind of make fun of ourselves and discus the process of our coming back and whether we’ll come back for another season or not.
CCNews: Does the troupe have any internal feelings about that?
McCulloch: Well, it feels like there is an appetite for it and we’re gonna figure that out after it launches … We’ll commune and see what we think we should do.
CCNews: There’s some backstage footage and one sketch that seem to address, or at least reference, the pandemic. Otherwise, very little content particular to the here and now. Is it there in less particular ways, though?
McCulloch: Yeah, it’s not anything to do with the headlines. It’s what’s physically, spiritually happening to myself and to all of the people around me. And with the case of The Kids in The Hall, it’s how hard it is to be writing over COVID and what we’re all going through and getting sticks up our nose to get tested every day and not being able to talk to each other, wearing masks until we can finally see each other. And for me, it’s me and my family and all the things they’re going through, all the things my brothers and sisters are going through, and the people beating the pots outside for the first responders. It’s just in the marrow of it? But it’s not necessarily in the conversation. It is a little bit in my [solo] show because I think we really should say, “Fuck, we’ve been through it.” That’s important to me and I think people really love that. They wanna go, “Yeah, you’re right.” Brain Candy [the 1996 KITH feature film] was kind of sour because there were a lot of problems. Scott’s brother had committed suicide, Kevin’s marriage was breaking up, we were fighting with, not Paramount, but one of the producers—and you can just feel it in the footage. So I think whatever’s going on puts a little wash over it.
CCNews: Well, that’s our time—and we didn’t even talk about your work directing features and television [Dog Park and Schitts Creek, respectively]. Is there anything you’ve not done that you aspire to, in terms of expressing something new, something personal?
McCulloch: Not really. I’m writing another book. But I think when you do a 1-person show, you feel like you’ve gotten every—or I’ve always thought—you’ve given everything out that you want to give out. And so I’m not thirsty to be heard. It’s not like in the troupe where I’m going, “OK I’m going to record some music. Because I wanted to do some more music that got into the show.” After a 1-person show and especially a fairly significant run, which this [Soho Playhouse] will be in my terms, you feel pretty satiated.
Bruce McCulloch: Tales of Bravery and Stupidity runs June 1–12 at SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam St. btw. Varick St. & Sixth Ave.). Wed. through Sat. at 7:30pm, Sun. at 5pm. Tickets ($40.50) available at SoHo Playhouse. Follow McCulloch on Twitter.
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