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The Kids in the Hall

The Kids in the Hall

One Dumb Guy
by Paul Myers
foreword by Seth Meyers
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

[Introduction to The Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy (uncorrected)]

On a spring-like Sunday evening in May of 2015, I entered San Francisco’s prestigious Warfield Theater to catch up with my old friends, the legendary comedy troupe known as the Kids In The Hall. As longtime stage director Jim Millan ushered me into the backstage domain, I found them distractedly immersed in their various pre-show rituals, and as usual, it fell to Kevin McDonald to be the first to greet me, offering drinks and snacks before walking me over to a large round table where Mark McKinney nodded hello from behind a newspaper and Bruce McCulloch broke briefly from a conversation with his wife Tracy to raise an eyebrow in lieu of a verbal greeting. A jittery Scott Thompson darted in and out of the room, seeming to have misplaced something important, while Dave Foley offered me a warm handshake with one hand while nursing a soft drink in the other, having recently gone on the wagon. By this point, I had known the troupe for over thirty years, but while these five middle-aged men had long since outgrown their childlike name, very little else seemed to have changed about them since the day we met. While a sense of imminent fun hung over the backstage area, this was not a party; these men were about to go to work at the job they had created for themselves back on the streets of Toronto in the early 80s. As curtain time approached, Millan politely asked all visitors to clear the room and take their seats, affording me my first opportunity to get an unscientific read on the age demographics of the 2300 fans in the sold-out house. Surprisingly, it wasn’t all silver foxes like myself and it seemed to me that roughly half the house was comprised of millennials or younger, a large cross-section of these people hadn’t even been born when The Kids In The Hall TV series was still on network television in the early 1990s, and it was entirely possible that, for many, this was their first time at a Kids In The Hall live show. As the house lights dimmed, a recording of Shadowy Men on A Shadowy Planet’s “Having An Average Weekend,” the official theme for the Kids’ TV series, echoed through the auditorium to cheers of instant recognition. The air was as electric as I was nostalgic.

Taking in the moment I realized that the Kids and I had come a long way, some 30 years and 2,634 miles (4239 km) to be precise, to get here. My mind raced back to Toronto in the winter of 1985, at the very show where I had first realized that maybe, just maybe, these guys had something special. As in all the best stories, it opens on a dark and stormy night, when an especially nasty blizzard was heaping obscene amounts of snow upon the city. TTC streetcars were backed up all along Queen Street and most major surface routes, and you couldn’t get a cab to save your life. Frankly, if you had nothing better to do, you were best advised to stay home under a blanket, preferably near a space heater.

Yet some of us brave comedy aficionados did have something better to do, we who had bravely trudged through six-foot snowdrifts, past cars that wouldn’t be dug out until morning, just to get to a tiny cabaret bar called The Rivoli, where a photocopied poster on a telephone pole out front beckoned, “Man The Laff Boats, it’s The Kids In The Hall.”

Once safely inside the warm confines of the Riv, we bought our drinks from the bartender and talent booker, Carson, and took our seats just as Dave, Kevin, Bruce, Mark, and Scott commandeered two cramped but functional stages and went about the hilarious business of fulfilling their weekly residency. Besides the dreadful weather, the news that day had been dominated by a horrific Air India plane crash, and a kind of black cloud seemed to hang in the air above the city. Earlier that afternoon, the five Kids had huddled backstage to mull over whether they should even play the show at all, operating on the assumption that nobody would make it through the storm, or feel much like laughing if they did. Instead, they opted do the show anyway, for themselves, audience or not.

“The show went on,” says McDonald, “and for some reason, this became the first night that we had a lineup around the block and even had to turn people away. After that night, we always had a great audience at the Rivoli.”

The troupe had been honing their act for months, and I had been laughing along with their uniquely suburban takes on social justice, big city life, and institutional hypocrisy. Week after week, I had witnessed them creating fresh new material out of the ether, creating new characters and forging a unique comedy aesthetic, right before our eyes. While clearly informed by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, SCTV, and Saturday Night Live, their highly disruptive comedy that was as anarchic as any punk rock show playing in the neighbouring bars of the Queen Street strip. Sure they were all white males, but in the early 80s just having one of those white males be openly gay, and not always playing it for laughs, seemed revolutionary. While they played all the female roles themselves, it never seemed like a campy drag act, and their “ladies” were frequently the heroes of their scenes. While the name was already age inappropriate – even then, they were all in their early to mid-twenties -- it also announced them as perennial outsiders, the punks in the corridor, ready to break into the big room by any means necessary.

I had discovered them early on, and organically. After my younger brother, the sketch comedian and writer Mike Myers, had flourished at the Second City Theatre’s comedy workshops, I found myself following him to class and soon I too was learning the ways and history of improv comedy alongside my fellow students, Kevin and Dave. They said they had been doing shows and that I should come to see them. As fate would have it, my girlfriend at the time mentioned a comedy troupe she’d heard about that featured a fellow student from York University named Scott. Of course, all roads were leading us to The Rivoli, and as Toronto thawed out and warmed up, so too did the buzz around The Kids In The Hall.

Eventually that buzz translated into a career in television and I became a regular member of the studio audience for their live tapings. Soon, our secret was out, and their name spread across the country and beyond. Just as SCTV had put Canadian comedy on the map, The Kids In The Hall updated it and made it even cooler.

As they moved into film and theatre tours, various tensions within the troupe would at times threaten their fragile union, but like any thirty-year marriage, they have somehow made it work for three decades and as the curtain opened at Warfield in 2015, the marriage analogy is underlined by the sight of all five Kids in bridal gowns, symbolically re-affirming their vows via classic sketches, while offering new material, just as they had back in those chilly Rivoli days.

After the show, Kevin made it clear to me that while these five strong willed individuals would probably always find something to fight over, but that this same tension was probably also the secret to their longevity. As with their fictional garage rock band in their beloved sketch, Rod Torfulson’s Armada featuring Herman Menderchuck, there were times in the Kids’ career when they questioned if they were going to make it, but judging by the heroes welcome they received in San Francisco, it was clear they had finally arrived (having eaten).

It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always fun. As a troupe, they’ve often made risky artistic choices, and probably shot themselves in the foot more than once, all in the name of reaching a consensus, according to McDonald, the state of their union was as strong as ever.

“I always say that, individually, we’re five smart guys, but together we add up to one dumb guy,” McDonald would later tell me during one of our many conversations for this book. “We create most of our own problems, then we're sad about it, but later on, we can see the humour in them. I think it helps us write better sketches.”

These pages constitute the inside story of how that One Dumb Guy would go on to write some of the funniest sketch comedy ever performed and inspire their peers and subsequent generations of sketch comedians to create programs such as Mr. Show with Bob & David, The State, The Ben Stiller Show, Portlandia, Key & Peele, and most recently, The Baroness Von Sketch Show.

Today, the Kids In The Hall can still make me laugh whenever I see them or their work, and despite cheating death and worse, they’re still here.

The story of just how they got here begins in earnest in the province of Alberta, when a young drunk punk named Bruce McCulloch met a well-traveled diplomat’s son named Mark McKinney.

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The Adman's Dilemma
Excerpt

Introduction

 

Enter “Don Draper,” 2007

 

Mad Men was one of the critical hits of the 2007/8 television year, winning a bevy of awards (though never a huge audience) for its portrayal of the life and times of the fictitious Sterling Cooper advertising agency in New York City in the 1960s. (Its audience peaked at around 4.7 million viewers for the premiere shows of seasons 5 and 6.) It painted a picture of a place full of cigarettes and booze, sexual shenanigans, competition, much cynicism, and much deceit. Often the drama focused on the troubled life and times of one person, Don Draper, the highly successful creative director of Sterling Cooper, who demonstrated again and again his ability to fashion brilliant ads. In the office and at home he proved a master of deceit: actually, his whole life was something of a lie because he had stolen the name of another person. Whatever his success at the office, he found his private life empty, hollow, and he searched for some experience more real, more authentic in a series of eventually unsatisfying affairs with women.

 

In the next few seasons the popularity of Mad Men and its characters boomed, even airing outside America: it became a phenomenon that sparked all sorts of notice and commentary in the media. The show produced fan sites and fan books, discussions about fashion (because the cast was so stylish) and gender (because the men were so sexist and the women so pleasing), and a new male sex symbol, Jon Hamm, who played the role of Draper. The term “Mad Men” came to serve as a convenient label for a style of manhood, sometimes confident and effective, sometimes reactionary or even repressed. According to Mindset Media, a market research firm, the show was especially attractive to the so-called creative class, very liberal, curious, and maybe a bit dreamy, the types who bought Apple and Audi. No doubt more significant to marketers, the Mad Men audience was full of upscale viewers, in their adult years (25 to 54), earning $100,000 or more a year, thus prime consumers. Academe soon got into the act with a symposium, “The Reality of Mad Men,” at Duke University (2008) and a volume published in Blackwell’s Philosophy and Pop Culture series (2010), followed by a small collection of studies in the next five years. One clever author, Dr Stephanie Newman, a popular psychoanalyst, decided Draper and his compatriots were emblematic of the terrible plague of narcissism that bedeviled the populace of modern America. Not everyone was pleased with the show, of course: Daniel Mendelsohn, in the New York Review of Books (2011), wrote a scathing review of the program’s first four seasons. But even he found the show had a deep fascination for viewers who were children back in the 1960s, which in part explained why it had swarmed through pop culture, or so he speculated. By the time Mad Men ended, in 2015, after seven seasons, the show was ranked along with Sex and the City, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad as one of the sensations of early twenty-first century television.

 

Yet however imaginative and innovative the show – for television entertainment in America had rarely dealt with advertising as drama – Mad Men spoke to its audience in a familiar tongue. Its treatment of admen and advertising reflected views that were commonplace at the midcentury, evident in, for example, a bestseller like Frederic Wakeman’s The Hucksters (1946) or the Rock Hudson/Doris Day movie Lover Come Back (1961). In fact Matthew Weiner, the showrunner, was obsessed with authenticity, getting the right look and feel, using all manner of artefacts and texts from the period to shape scripts and acting. Mad Men was a marvelous visual representation of what I have come to call “the adman’s dilemma.”

 

At its core the adman’s dilemma described a moral condition produced by the practices of deception: it referred to the sense of malaise supposedly, and according to some authors necessarily, suffered by the masters of deceit. The “adman” denoted a male engaged in the practice of advertising, whether as an entrepreneur, a self-employed professional, or an employee of an agency or business. That person might be a huckster, like the patent medicine moguls of the nineteenth century, a copywriter or an art director (often referred to now as “creatives”), an account executive, a media buyer, an agency manager or head, a market researcher, and more recently the account planner and web developer (employed by an agency). An ad is a paid message, a distinct form of publicity, meant to sell a product, service, industry, cause, or person (and occasionally to un-sell a vice or a rival). People of all sorts came to treat advertising in the broad sense as a dynamic mix of art, information, entertainment, and deception: the mix varied according to the time, the brand, and the source. If it was simply a form of untruth, of deceit, it would be much less interesting – and likely less effective. The elaboration of regulations against deceptive or false advertising worked to mask the presence of artifice, at least partially, in most publicity. That certainly hamstrung efforts to regulate the deceptions, especially the exaggerations and suggestions, of advertising. Still, in time, consumers, the veterans of marketing hype, responded to the mass of publicity with their own mix of belief and disbelief. They “knew” that publicity contained much fiction. Thus the adman became in effect, though never in law – de facto rather than de jure – a kind of licensed deceiver allowed to transgress the rules of truth-telling.

 

Put a bit differently, the adman’s dilemma signified how many writers and filmmakers came to imagine the corruption of the soul engendered by a surfeit of artifice. The dilemma was always a matter of perception. Outsiders mostly saw this as a predicament or warning that faced any persuaders who laboured in the advertising industry. Insiders were certainly aware of the perception that clearly affected their reputation and, perhaps, their sense of self-worth. But, again usually, they denied its relevance or even its existence – as long as they remained a part of the advertising community. Renegades often did explore the dimensions of the predicament, if only to explain or justify their escape from a life of moral disorder. In its basic form a story or tale about the adman’s dilemma told of the young man who strove to excel at advertising, one of the central institutions of modernity, how he normally succeeded but eventually came to doubt the virtue of his existence (what’s called “the liar’s plight”), the moral anguish that resulted, and what he did to resolve his situation. His biography became a grand exercise in the process of self-fashioning, especially the choices made or not made to realize success or secure peace of mind. The recognition of the condition took definite shape in the two decades after the Second World War in America. A few earlier works, such as H.G. Wells’s novel Tono-Bungay (1909) and the memoir of Helen Woodward (a prominent adwoman), had already foreshadowed the definition of this affliction. But it was a postwar series of hit novels and movies that thoroughly explored the dimensions of the angst, perhaps the most famous being Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). The dilemma was both echoed and denied, occasionally finessed or (temporally) solved, in memoirs, polemics, and other discussions – in short, in works of fact as well as fiction. Furthermore that dilemma, if it evolved over time, persisted into the twenty-first century, and it affected the perception and reputation of other individuals also in the persuasion business, such as the public relations counsel or the advertising woman (the chief reason some of them appear in this biography).

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Hollywood Dealmaking

Hollywood Dealmaking

Negotiating Talent Agreements for Film, TV, and Digital Media (Third Edition)
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
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The Radio Eye

The Radio Eye

Cinema in the North Atlantic, 1958-1988
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
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Whatever It Takes

Whatever It Takes

Life Lessons from Degrassi and Elsewhere in the World of Music and Television
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

My heart sank as I put down the phone and wondered what to do next. After thirty-five years and nearly five hundred episodes, Degrassi had been cancelled.

I’d had brave words for the network executive at Viacom in reply to his almost nonchalant, “We’ve decided to move in a different direction. Degrassi is over, but we’d like you to come back to us with some ideas on how to celebrate the fourteen years you’ve been the top show on our network — something fitting to end the series.”

“It’s not ending,” I’d said. “We believe in what we’re doing. We thought you did, too. Our plans for this coming season are just too good to let go. Degrassi is going to continue. If not with you, then somewhere else.”

He ignored me. “I’ll look forward to hearing what you come up with to finish the show. Something grand. A special episode, maybe? Or … how ’bout you talk Drake into doing a two-hour concert special to end it all? Think about it and get back to me.”

Click. And that was it. A complete shock. We’d been sure the upcoming season was in the bag. But the television business can be brutal. Despite my confident words, it appeared this was indeed the end. Mute, I stared out the window and recalled the day thirty-five years earlier when, as a newly minted entertainment lawyer, I had first met my future wife, Linda Schuyler. It was a quick meeting, made quicker by the advice I had given her: “Don’t hire me!”

She was holding a small book entitled Ida Makes a Movie, and she wanted to buy the rights to turn it into a short television film. The book was out of print, and I suggested that buying the rights should be very straightforward; however, if lawyers got involved it could get unnecessarily complicated. “Here’s a form for an assignment of all audiovisual rights of whatsoever nature or kind, now or hereafter known, in perpetuity, throughout the universe,” I said (as a young lawyer I couldn’t help talking in legal mumbo-jumbo). “Take it yourself to the publisher in New York, offer them a small cash payment, and see what happens.” I added that by the time I opened a file for her and issued a bill, the internal cost would be greater than any fee I would charge for the small time involved, so my advice was for free.

I actually didn’t hear from Linda again for several years. She had indeed travelled to New York and met with the publisher. Her small payment was accepted, and she had become the proud owner of the necessary rights. She then scrounged five thousand dollars from family and friends, and, with her partner, Kit Hood, proceeded to make the film. It turned out well enough that she was encouraged to make another, Cookie Goes to the Hospital; then another, Irene Moves In; and then a fourth, Noel Buys a Suit. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) agreed to license the four films for broadcast. The licence fees were modest, but Linda’s production costs were even more modest, so it was a great fit.

The one question CBC had was: “What do we call the series?” There were four films, each with a different protagonist, and CBC needed one title to market them. Linda had mused in reply, “Well, each film is about kids, and we shot them in and around my friend Bruce Mackey’s house while he was at work during the days. He lives on Degrassi Street, so why don’t we call the series The Kids of Degrassi Street.” A total of twenty-six episodes of Kids of Degrassi Street were produced by the time CBC suggested aging up to a tween audience by creating a spinoff series called Degrassi Junior High. This would require much higher budgets and more complex financing, and Linda realized that she needed an entertainment lawyer to help guide her through it all. She remembered that nice young lawyer who had given her free legal advice back at the beginning of it all.

From then until now we’ve worked together, with me at first as the lawyer for the production company until, by 1995, Linda and I had also become producing partners and husband and wife. And as the years have unfolded, Degrassi has become the longest-running teen television drama in North America.*

I snapped out of my reverie and back into the present moment. It was mid-March 2015 and Degrassi was ending. The winter in Toronto had been especially cold that year, and snow drifts still piled high outside our television studios — studios that had been an empty warehouse until twenty years earlier when Linda and I had bought that warehouse, fulfilling a dream and slowly turning it into seven interior stages and an exterior backlot of sets, all spread out over two buildings and five acres we called Epitome Pictures. For more than a decade we had produced the most recent iteration of the Degrassi television franchise in those studios, where nearly a hundred cast and crew members were currently standing by, waiting for their work to begin for the year.

How would I tell Linda, and the cast and crew, it was all over?

I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and imagined myself surrounded by a globe of light, a trick I used to keep calm. Eyes still closed, but still not completely calm by any means, I started to realize there might be a small chance to move forward — to manifest a possible strategy we had already been contemplating for the future.

Could the future be accelerated to now?

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