Everyone likes to think that as soon as Lorne Michaels returned to Saturday Night Live in 1985, the flailing sketch-show instantly got back on course with new blood like Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, and Jan Hooks, who helped make up the strongest cast since the Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, etc. days. Nope. First came a disastrously experimental season in which quintessential eighties movie actors Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Randy Quaid, and Joan Cusack struggled to do what the seasoned improvisers do. Michaels certainly got one thing right in his lame return season: he hired new writers Mark McKinney and Bruce McCullough. This opened up a working relationship that would lead to the show that would even make Hartman, Carvey, and Hooks’s return-to-form Saturday Night Live look safe by comparison.
However, as John Semley’s new book This Is a Book About The Kids in the Hall makes perfectly clear, Lorne Michaels did not poof The Kids in the Hall into existence like some sort of improv fairy godmother. McKinney, McCullough, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, and Scott Thompson had already been sharpening their comedic blades on Canadian stages for five years before their series’ 1989 debut. Semley traces their lives further back than that, revealing some pretty unfunny stuff about alcoholic fathers, depression, and most shockingly of all, Canada’s first high school-massacre, a horrific event Scott Thompson survived. Whereas such experiences would have sent most people to the shrink’s couch, these guys worked their experiences and issues into their comedy and ended up with TV’s funniest sketch comedy show (with the possible exception of Monty Python’s Flying Circus). Even reading descriptions of the “Hey, any of you guys ever beat up your dad?” or “Screw you, taxpayer!” sketches made me laugh out loud.
Though he likes to crack wise, Semley himself isn’t nearly as funny as his subjects, but he basically maintains an appealingly conversational tone throughout that keeps the reading entertaining. The personal and interpersonal troubles, network struggles, failures, and triumphs of The Kids in the Hall make the reading absolutely compulsive.