Some of the Kids in the Hall Wrote for ‘SNL’ — And Failed Miserably

‘I didn’t really want to be them,’ remembers Bruce McCulloch
Some of the Kids in the Hall Wrote for ‘SNL’ — And Failed Miserably

The connection between Kids in the Hall and Saturday Night Live seems obvious on its face — Lorne Michaels produced both the Canadian sketch troupe’s TV show and the long-running SNL. But there was an earlier connection, one that wasn’t exactly promising for the long-term relationship between Michaels and the Kids.

In the mid-1980s, the group had gone about as far as they knew how to go. Their stage shows were smashes in Canada, but what next? The answer came when an SNL talent scout caught the show, and then raved to writers Al Franken and Jim Downey. They quickly hired the troupe’s most experienced writers, Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney, to join the SNL writing staff for Season 11. It was Michaels’ first year back after a five-year exile. 

As one might imagine, hiring only two of the Kids wasn’t great for the group’s dynamic. “It was a terrible year for Kids in the Hall,” McCulloch admits in John Semley’s This Is A Book About Kids in the Hall. “We were on Saturday Night Live, and the others were flying in to, like, meet Madonna. But they weren’t getting to do what we were doing.” 

What McCulloch and McKinney were doing wasn’t going well either. Everything that could go wrong went wrong in Season 11. For some reason, Michaels assembled a cast of movie stars, including Randy Quaid, Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall and Robert Downey Jr. Jon Lovitz and Nora Dunn had some of the same improv experience as the original cast members, but overall, according to McKinney, the group “was a little light on the tried-and-true comedy guys.” 

SNL knew it was bombing with both fans and critics. I ranked the season as the second-worst of all time, the one in which Michaels has Yankees manager (and lousy host) Billy Martin pour gasoline on the set at season’s end and burn down the entire show. The crazy thing? The writing staff was a murderers’ row: Downey, Franken, Jack Handey, Robert Smigel, A. Whitney Brown, Carol Leifer (who’d go on to The Larry Sanders Show and Seinfeld) and George Meyer and John Swartzwelder (two of the best Simpsons scribes in history). “It was the best writing staff ever,” McKinney has said. “Like, ever.”

But McKinney and McCulloch couldn’t get a sketch on the air. Their Canadian comic sensibility wasn’t connecting with the other SNL writers, and it was frustrating as hell. “When I went to Saturday Night Live, I thought I’d find all these amazing voices, the most amazing comedians of a generation,” McCulloch explained. “And they were all funny. But they weren’t the Kids in the Hall. They didn’t speak the same language as me. They didn’t get me. And I didn’t really want to be them.”

What do you do with great comedy scripts that SNL doesn’t want? Save ‘em for later, like McCulloch’s commercial parody pitch about a group of 30 middle-aged women named Helen. The Helen-centric focus group assured quality, like “Thirty Helens agree that Saturday Night Live is better than ever!” SNL writers didn’t get it, but “Thirty Helens Agree” became a popular recurring bit when Kids in the Hall got their own show. 

It was a long season of struggle, with McCulloch and McKinney contributing jokes for Lovitz’s Master Thespian and Dunn’s talk-show host Pat Stevens. The guys were miserable. Yep, it was fun to meet Madonna, but it wasn’t as fun as performing with Kids in the Hall. 

“Mark and I did not succeed there,” McCulloch has said. “I gained 50 pounds because I got drunk and ate cheesecake and stared at the screen. But I realized how important the troop was to me.”  

So did Michaels — soon he was producing a show featuring the entire gang, a group that should have never splintered in the first place.


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