“I got that one from the kids in the hall.”–Sid Caesar, blaming his writers whenever a joke would bomb
It's taken me many years to wrap my head around the concept of television writers. It seems like I've always more or less operated under the assumption that people on TV just wandered in front of the cameras and were cool/funny, and then they went and cashed their massive paychecks. This felt doubly true for sketch comedy shows, going back to Monty Python's Flying Circus, where each of the six members of the troupe were credited as creators, writers, and performers. Since I accepted early on that Python had made the rules for how sketch comedy was supposed to work, I also assumed all sketch shows would work the same.
Clearly, I am an idiot. But I hope to at least partially redress that with this here article. As comedy fans, we've all, I expect, kept tabs on what each of the members of the Kids in the Hall comedy troupe have been up to since their television show ended in early 1995. But what about those behind the camera, working with the Kids to bring their highly influential and near-genius level brand of comedy to the world?
Sadly, I was unable to locate any of the cameramen who worked on The Kids in the Hall. However, I was able to track down the post-Kids works of a bunch of their writers.
So far this television season, the only new show to have really caught my attention is Andy Samberg's Brooklyn Nine-Nine. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is to do with my being raised in a Barney Miller household. But as I watched the credits roll on the pilot episode, I caught Norm Hiscock's name in there and immediately knew I was in good hands.
In my many, many repeated viewings of the Kids in the Hall show, a lot of familiar faces would constantly pop up as bit players. I often assumed they were writers, but producer Jeff Berman was the only one to get a sketch written around him so we could place a face to the name. Hiscock, though, might be familiar to repeat viewers as the guy Kevin kept talking to about his eyes in the “Never put salt in your eyes” sketch, or as the guy who shoots Scott near the end of the “Multiple Weddings” sketch:
Hiscock's name is surely familiar to sharp-eyed viewers of King of the Hill and Parks and Recreation, but he first became known to the comedy world at large as writer for The Kids in the Hall TV show for nearly the entirety of its six-year run. I remember noting his name in the end credits for that show way back when, and thinking, “Man, that guy must really know what he's doing to be head writer on this show.” It was one of the rare times I was ever correct as a teenager.
After The Kids in the Hall, Hiscock joined cast member Mark McKinney in the big city to work on Saturday Night Live during its much maligned mid-90s period, from 1994 to 1997. Personally, I was as underwhelmed as anyone during this era of SNL, but I still find the eagerness with which people poop on this time a little disingenuous. For example, Chris Smith's article for the March 13, 1995, issue of New York magazine has entered SNL lore for its scathing depiction of the backstage goings-on at the show, claiming that the show had mired itself in fart jokes and frat-boy sensibilities, despite the best efforts of the more high-minded individuals at work there. At one point he mentions “Norm Hiscock, 33, who was, until a year ago, head writer for Kids in the Hall, the Canadian sketch-comedy ensemble executive-produced by Michaels. Hiscock smiles gamely at his new colleagues, but as the night drags on, the grin can’t disguise his growing bewilderment.” Hiscock is never directly quoted in the article as having felt that way, though I suppose the argument could be made that he wisely thought to hold his tongue for simple job-security reasons. Regardless, he and McKinney both eventually left the show to much less fanfare than was deserved for comedians of their stature.
Fortunately for Hiscock, his next job struck gold: Fox's King of the Hill. He was part of the show from its beginning, receiving a producer credit for the pilot, and was with the show for the bulk of the series until 2004. Personally, I never got really into this show, though I've certainly enjoyed it in the past. I think after Beavis & Butthead, I was kind of burnt out on Mike Judge's stuff (Office Space, the obvious exception). But not unlike with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I am not surprised that Hiscock had his hand in something this successful. Also, it's pretty safe to assume that this gig more or less lead to Hiscock landing a job on Hill co-creator Greg Daniels' Parks and Recreation.
Hiscock's next two gigs were quite brief. In 2006, he wrote for Canadian TV an adaptation of Susan Juby's popular series off young-adult novels called Alice, I Think. The next year, he worked heavily—credited as a creator, developer, executive producer, and theme song composer—on Comedy Central's woefully brief The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show, an adaptation of Dave “Gruber” Allen and David Koechner's stage show of the same name.
Before he landed over at Parks and Rec, Hiscock spent two years writing for another Canadian sitcom, Brent Butt's Corner Gas. Corner Gas was extremely popular in its native land, and by watching an episode or two, it's easy to see why. Butt's easy-going sarcasm and all the quirky types who inhabit Dog River, Saskatchewan, are perfect fits into the current TV landscape of deadpan humor and zero laugh tracks. I don't believe that any of the episodes available on YouTube are ones that Hiscock worked on, but it's pretty easy to see how his sensibilities would fit in there.
Probably the most easily recognizable writer from Kids in the Hall is Paul Bellini, who played the recurring and aptly-named character Bellini throughout the length of the show, dressed only in a towel. His voice and mannerisms were also a direct influence on Kevin McDonald's recurring flake, Dean. When not being poked or spotted by contest winners, Bellini was the most prolific member of the KITH writing staff, being credited in 101 episodes, exactly one short of the entire series.
Naturally, Bellini hit the ground running after the show. Right after The Kids in the Hall, Bellini wrote on Scott Thompson's Comedy Central special, Out There in Hollywood, which spotlighted gay and lesbian stand-up comics. Bellini was then on staff at Canada's long-running news parody show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, beginning in its fourth season, and during his tenure there, he shared two Gemini Awards and a Writer's Guild of Canada Award with the rest of the writing staff. 22 Minutes has never made a big splash here in the States, likely due to its Canada-centric tone and material, but if you ever have a chance to watch some clips on the ol' YouTube, I don't think you'll regret it.
After a brief stint at 22 Minutes alum Rick Mercer's Made in Canada (or The Industry, as it was known in the States), Bellini tackled a more personal project as the center of his own documentary film, Bellini's Drive. Due to his cult status from Kids in the Hall, Bellini had been Timmins, Ontario's most famous native. That is until the late '90s when Shania Twain began burning up the charts. In 1998, Bellini drives back to Timmins to witness and hopefully partake in the town's welcome-home celebrations for The Queen of Country Pop. I have yet to get my hands on a copy of Bellini's Drive, but it sounds like the exact kind of hilarious and deconstructive material Bellini is known for.
Bellini's muse for the written word has not kept him confined to television. Along with a co-author credit with Scott Thompson for the Buddy Cole “autobiography,” Buddy Babylon, Bellini was also a columnist for the lower-case and recently departed fab magazine, which was a publication dedicated to Toronto's gay scene. Bellini wrote a regular column for the bi-weekly magazine for ten years, and then recently collected all of his columns into a book, the aptly-titled The Fab Columns. Bellini is also helping to spread his brand of comedy writing by teaching sketch comedy workshops.
After serving as executive story editor for Futz!, a series of animated shorts, and reuniting with the Kids in the Hall for their 2010 mini-series, Death Comes to Town, Bellini has landed You Gotta Eat Here! for Food Network Canada, which follows host and comedian John Catucci as he tries the finest fried and greasy foods the Great White North has to offer. Somewhat of an odd place for Bellini to land, not because it's a more mainstream food show, but because, as we all know, fish is all Bellini ever eats.
Remember how great it was when you discovered Freaks & Geeks, how much fun you had watching it the first time all the way through? Wasn't it great? As I got near the series' end the first time, I remember thinking, and I swear this is true, “Y'know, the only thing that could escalate my enjoyment of this show any more is if one of the writers from the Kids in the Hall made a cameo appearance as a character that is basically my dad.”
Well, may the Lord in Heaven above strike me down if that exact thing didn't happen. Episode 13 of Freaks & Geeks, entitled “Chokin' & Tokin',” the one where Bill almost dies from his peanut allergy, features Brian Hartt as bully Alan White's father, who drags his son down to the hospital where Bill is in recovery and forces him to apologize for almost killing poor Bill. The part is very small, but Hartt plays it with such conviction, a guy who knows wrong from right but is also clearly a bully himself and likely the reason Alan became such an insufferable punk. I recognized Hartt right away from his Kids roles such as Mississippi Gary's back-up guitarist and as Dave Gord in “The Daves I Know” (You guys, I was so completely bummed to find out his name wasn't actually Dave).
Immediately after Kids in the Hall, Hartt wrote for Jon Stewart's first ill-fated foray into late-night talk, The Jon Stewart Show, which began its life at MTV and ended up in syndication. A cult success, the show was still largely panned, though I certainly couldn't get enough of it. I didn't realize at the time that Hartt was working on the show, but as per the recurring theme here, it certainly does not surprise me.
From here, though, Hartt's career takes a turn for the more mainstream. In 1997, Hartt became head writer for MadTV and held that position all the way through to 2001, leaving the show with 100 episodes under his belt. Hartt then served as head writer again for the entire run of The Jamie Kennedy Experiment. He also worked in a similar capacity for shows like Blue Collar TV and Mind of Mencia.
Now, look, I'm sure more than a few of you, like me, are wrinkling your noses at the very least at the above list there. And sure, I get it. But who are we, the comedy watchdogs? I'd rather a guy like Brian Hartt have steady TV writing work than the large number of hacks who already have it, y'know?
Hartt, like a lot of his Kids alumni, have gone back to Canada to write, and he has worked on The Ron James Show and Less Than Kind. The latter program can also boast credits for Mark McKinney, Kids writer Garry Campbell, and longtime Kids director Kelly Makin. But Hartt's most high-profile gig by far has been writing for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Hartt came on board over there in early 2011 and wrote steadily for Leno up until this past summer. Whatever your feelings on The Tonight Show or its host, that is a huge deal for any comedy writer out there.
Hey, speaking of Garry Campbell, let's speak of Garry Campbell. Campbell is the writer/Kids bit player I'm the least sure of being able to identify correctly, but unless I am completely mistaken, he often played sweeter, unassuming characters, such as the really nervous guy during the “Wedding Speech” sketches.
Looking at Campbell's CV, it's pretty clear that he and Hartt worked well together as they share credits on many of the same shows. He worked on MadTV from its very beginnings, and continued to do so for almost its entire run, while also managing to knock out a couple of episodes of Roseanne Barr's ill-fated mid-90s variety show, Saturday Night Special. Campbell also holds many credits on Blue Collar TV and The Jamie Kennedy Experiment. Like Hartt, he also wrote for The Ron James Show and Less Than Kind, not to mention Jeff Foxworthy's Big Night Out and an episode of the Buffy spin-off, Angel.
Campbell also returned to his home turf with the Kids in the Hall's Death Comes to Town. He also worked on the show Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, which I've long been wanting to see, not just because I like Jason Mewes but also for my love of all things Satanic. Campbell also wrote for the sketch troupe Picnicface on their Canadian TV show of the same name. Alas, the show, produced by Mark McKinney, did not last long, but their clips will never die on YouTube.
Diane Flacks holds the rare distinction as being one of the female actors to play actual females on The Kids in the Hall, given the boys' tendency to play female roles themselves. Flacks was the waitress in the “Girl Drink Drunk” sketch and was the girl in Brain Candy who points out Dr. Chris Cooper's resemblance to a young Tom Jones.
Flacks is actually more of a writer/performer than anything else. After various bit parts on The Kids in the Hall, she only became an official part of the writing staff for the show's final season. Since the turn of the century, she has acted in such Canadian sitcoms as P.R., Walter Ego, and Moose TV, all of which sadly only lasted a season or so. But the theatre really seems to be her home more so than television. Her plays have been critically lauded, and she has written and produced four one-woman shows. Her most successful one, Bear With Me, was based on her book of the same name, and revolves around her experiences with pregnancy and new motherhood.
Flacks was also a regular columnist for The Toronto Star, and for three years, her column, “In the Thick of It,” highlighted ordinary people going through extraordinary hardships, beginning with her own story of her second child's near-fatal health problems in infancy. Flacks has since parlayed this column into other similar works, acting as CBC radio's parenting columnist and also contributing to that network's Definitely Not the Opera show with Sook-Yin Lee.
Also joining the Kids writing staff in its final season was Andy Jones, who played the Roritor scientist who just wanted to keep his monkeys in Brain Candy. Jones' Canadian sketch comedy legacy actually precedes the Kids in the Hall show a bit, as he was an early member of the troupe CODCO in the mid-70s, and was in the cast for the TV show, which began in 1987 and eventually aired in a block with The Kids in the Hal. In 1991, “The Pleasant Priests in Conversation” sketch caused a stir, depicting three priests discussing their various sex lives:
The CBC refused to air the sketch and Jones (who plays the first priest) quit the show in protest. CODCO lasted another year before ending in 1992.
Jones has also made much more of a career as a performer, acting in many small character roles, as well as writing, directing, and starring in the feature film The Adventure of Faustus Bidgood. He also has five of his own one-man shows under his belt. Jones, it now seems, spends most of his time writing children's books based on Newfoundland folk tales and running a bed & breakfast out of his home with partner Mary-Lynn Bernard.
Frank Van Keeken
From the earliest days, Frank Van Keeken was part of the Kids' legacy as part of the troupe The Audience with Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, Norm Hiscock, and Garry Campell. Van Keeken is only credited as a writer for season four of The Kids in the Hall, which might just be my favorite season on a whole. To my own disappointment, I can't remember a single sketch Van Keeken appeared in, though I recognize his face and am sure he was in at least a few sketches. But I am also sure we all remember his turn as Vegetable Lasagna, the poor beleaguered tourist caught between Elaine and Puddy's international flight/fight in the “Butter Shave” episode of Seinfeld.
Van Keeken has gone on to great success behind the camera since The Kids in the Hall. His most high-profile gig here in the States was an extended writing stint on the final two seasons of Mad About You. He then wrote for a couple sadly short-lived series like Jonathan Katz's Raising Dad and Seth Green's Greg the Bunny.
In Canada, Van Keeken has met with great success writing for shows such as Big Sound, Billable Hours, and The Dating Guy. But his most recent work seems to be doing very well in the family- and youth-oriented vein. Van Keeken has created not one but two wildly popular shows in Canada which are currently on the air: Wingin' It, about an angel trying to get his wings by helping out a luckless high school student, and The Next Step, a teen dance drama which has recently wrapped shooting for its second season. Again, somewhat far afield from the absurd sketch comedy that was his beginning, Van Keeken has clearly made his way through this thorny showbiz world. Last year, he and his wife opened the Garafraxa Theatre in Durham, Ontario, which operated as a live venue, a coffee shop, and a yoga studio. Sadly, it seems the Garafraxa is temporarily closed as of this writing, though the yoga studio is still fully operational.
And there we have it. Besides the five faces of The Kids in the Hall that we all know in love, there were seven more faces which were perhaps not as well known, but necessary all the same to bring us five seasons of what will likely go down as one of the top three best sketch comedy shows of all time. Well, wait: maybe their faces weren't necessary for that, but the writing talent that lives behind those faces. And I don't know about you guys, but it does me good to know that these Kids writers are still out there making with the jokes and the words and generally putting good stuff out there.
Jimmy Callaway lives in San Diego, CA. For more shenanigans, visit his bloggy, Attention, Children.