On one of the collective commentary tracks for the first-season box set of the sketch-comedy show The Kids In The Hall, the members of the titular comedy troupe posit that each season of their show had a theme: The first year was about families, the second about dating, the third about splitting up, and "our fourth season was about our first season." The theorizing goes awry when troupe member Bruce McCulloch jokes that the fifth and final season was about CB radios, but even the more serious part of the premise doesn't quite hold water. The Kids In The Hall was a groundbreaking and pace-setting show, alternately mundane and surreal, down-to-earth and absurdist, rote and random. But it rarely seemed to be about anything, apart from the bizarre, stylized personalities its five-man troupe created.
Those five core members—McCulloch, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson, all Canadians who met while working Canada's improv/stand-up circuit—teamed to write and perform the show, a hodgepodge of live studio skits and monologues, as well as pre-filmed pieces like the recurring bit "30 Helens Agree." Sometimes, the Kids subversively address the camera as themselves: McCulloch awkwardly apologizes for causing cancer, while Thompson introduces himself ("I'm actor-comedian Scott Thompson and, yes, I'm the fag") to discuss the swishiness he'd instinctively brought to a waiter role in a different sketch. In other bits, one Kid takes center stage as a particularly outlandish personality—such as McKinney's indelible "Head-Crushing Man," who enjoys pretending to squish distant, oblivious strangers—while the other performers provide bit-player support. But many of Kids In The Hall's best pieces are ensemble scenes in which three to five cast members assume quirky but relatively mundane characters and put themselves into uncomfortable, gleefully unpredictable scenarios.
The Kids In The Hall was masterminded and produced by Saturday Night Live's Lorne Michaels, and it occasionally takes on an SNL-esque tone, especially when fumbling through overlong, gimmicky bits like McCulloch's recurring turn as an abusive jerk with a cabbage for a head. The first of the 20 episodes in this set is particularly dire, and shows a troupe struggling to find its identity and pacing. But as the season progresses, the group tightens up more than it stretches out, and the show quickly outpaces SNL for cleverness, daring, and unselfconscious playfulness. Like any sketch-comedy show, from clear inspirations like SCTV and Monty Python's Flying Circus to clear followers like The State and Upright Citizens Brigade, The Kids In The Hall has its hits and misses. But even without an obvious prevailing theme, the show works best as a whole, as an exploratory ground for a talented group given the freedom to explore what was, back in 1989, a less crowded genre.