Nearly 27 years to the day since it all came to an end, and at the very place it began 11 years before that, The Kids in the Hall felt like it was the perfect time to start the ride all over again.
They (well, four of the five – wiry, wild-haired Kevin McDonald was absent) were together at Rivoli theatre, the Toronto-comedy mainstay the group showed their first sketches at in 1984.
Standing arm-in-arm on stage, after having managed to cram a couple hundred cheering fans during one of the most volatile and odd times for sketch comedy in the genre’s history, they couldn’t have picked a better moment to do it.
Among their jokes, aimed mostly at themselves (“We’re horrified by the way we look,” Scott Thompson said early on in the night. “Like, who opened the gate at the old folks home?”) they were there to celebrate the launch of a new sketch-comedy TV show — their first small-screen endeavor since the original, self-titled series came to an end in April 1995.
But despite the time – and McDonald’s absence that night – this wasn’t a reunion for the Kids.
They’ve continued to write together and perform live together – everything the group was originally intended for, until they, unexpectedly and unintentionally, stumbled into the world of television, a journey outlined in their documentary The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks, which launched May 20 on Amazon Prime.
According to the Kids’ “cute one” Dave Foley, they stayed together because their sketch group worked the way sketch groups were always supposed to work.
The Kids in the Hall gave its members a space to flex their comedy muscles, a group of like-minded comedians to bounce ideas off of, and a reason to keep making comedy even when the jobs aren’t there — an especially important part of the equation lately, as sketch comedy went through a boom and bust.
“In our heads, whenever we were together, we still feel like we’re these, sort of, punks in our twenties,” he said. “You know?”
“I think it kind of did crash, but I think it’s coming back,” Thompson added about the world of sketch. ‘”And I hope that we’re part of it.”
That crash, and subsequent return is not only disrupting the sketch-comedy route to success groups like The Kids in the Hall helped to define, it’s fundamentally changing the comedy we consume—and how comedians make it into the industry.
Sketch comedy’s ‘golden ages’
The bottom fell out of sketch comedy after two successive “golden ages,” explained Nick Marx, an associate professor of film and media studies at Colorado State University and author of Sketch Comedy: Identity, Reflexivity, and American Television.
The first happened in the ’80s and ’90s, when series like Kids In The Hall, Mr. show, The Ben Stiller Show and In Living Color proved sketch’s ability to bring in TV audiences, established its format as based around an at least semi-regular cast, and cemented it as a pipeline into the comedy industry.
But that changed with YouTube.
“That golden age of 90s sketch comedy I identified, pretty much brings us to the end of the peak of TV as the dominant sort of entertainment medium,” Marx said. “Once YouTube comes along, it becomes something else.”
When sites like YouTube offered a platform directly to audiences, without the need for a broadcaster, it let anyone with internet access find an audience.
And while Marx said that buoyed other mediums, it’s both super-charged, and sunk, sketch.
“The rise of social media and YouTube has made it tougher for new sketch comedians to break through and do the same cohesive half-an-hour, hour-long show that we saw folks in the nineties doing,” Marx said. “Because that’s just not how people consume media anymore.”
While people enjoyed sketch TV shows when that was the only way they could consume them, YouTube allowed them to skip the 22-minute shows to find their favorite sketch online, hurting the broadcast ratings.
That meant that even shows that still managed to make it to air were cannibalized by their own success. Aurora Browne of Baroness Von Sketch Show — a Canadian sketch series whose incredible social media virality dwarfed their broadcast ratings — explained in an interview that her brother-in-law thought they only were an online show.
“I sent an email to my family after that saying: ‘Just so you know, there’s a whole show,” Browne said.
Online sketch boom and bust
But some were able to make it, and lead sketch to its second golden age.
Saturday Night live, the late-night series by Canadian television producer Lorne Michaels first aired in 1975. In October of last year, SNL’s 47th season’s second episode — with guest host Kim Kardashian — brought in 5.27 million viewers, according to Hollywood Reporter.
Marx says SNL has become a landmark of shows in the US “And that becomes the thing against which all sketch shows compare themselves. They’re trying to either be the new SNL or rewrite the rules of what SNL has already done.”
DC Pierson, a founding member of Derrick Comedy — best known as being the group where musician and actor Donald Glover got his start — explained that while they found their fame on YouTube, it was never their goal. When they started in 2006, the early days of YouTube, there was virtually no map for creating a career and making consistent money on the platform, so they used it primarily as a way to feature their work, instead of an endpoint or career on its own.
The internet brought massive attention to sketch comedy, but had already almost entirely undercut the sketch show – the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for sketch groups in the past.
“It’s like sketch kind of like lost, but it won’t,” he said.
And then almost as soon as the boom started – after birthing everything from Britanicks Eagles are Turning People Into Horsesto Derrick’s Girls are not to be trustedto Picnicface’s Powerthirst (a Canadian internet sketch group, who later received a sketch show that was cancelled after a single season) – it was over.
After a while, the platform couldn’t handle the huge number of sketch groups all trying the same thing, and it became impossible to break out or reach audiences who didn’t feel like wading through a glut of content.
“The golden era of online sketch, when the goofiest idea could hit eight-figure views, is clearly over,” reads a WIRED article from 2018. “To put it in Monty Python terms, online sketch is the parrot at the bottom of a cage: It’s hard to tell if it’s deceased, or simply stunned. But it’s definitely flat on its back.”
Now on TikTok
In recent years, it has started to make a comeback. Canadian tallboyzproduced by Kids in the Halls’ Bruce McCulloch, has eked out a three seasons, as has HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show. Elsewhere, I think you should leave and Ziwe have figured out a way to leverage their social media presence into sustainable shows by crafting a single identifiable character that keeps audiences coming back for more content.
But the real place sketch has thrived, Pierson says, is online — on the video sharing app Vine when it existed, and the similar TikTok now. Comedy on the app, which has already fundamentally changed how the music industry worksis dominated by a single user performing a skit as multiple people by pointing their phone at themselves.
That, Pierson says, is sketch – even if people aren’t aware of it.
“The people watching it probably don’t know that it’s a sketch and the person making it probably wouldn’t even describe it as like a sketch necessarily,” Pierson said. “But it’s a sketch.”
One of those creators is Newfoundland’s Tyler O’Dea. The sixteen year old has amassed a TikTok following over one million in just over a year and a half by performing skits, though he only tangentially thinks of himself as a sketch comedian.
“I’d say I call myself a sketch comedian, but a different type of sketch comedy than like This Hour Has 22 Minutes or stuff like that,” he said. “A sort of a subgenre of sketch comedy.”
O’Dea doesn’t currently make any money from the app — TikTok’s Creators Fund is unavailable to Canadiansand he is also too young to participate – but he does see a future in it.
Because, instead of being a stepping stone, sketch has become a goal in and of itself.
“I think sketch comedy isn’t just the gateway into comedy. I think it is a real branch of comedy, and you could make a career out of that just as much as you can with stand up, writing or anything else.”