On April 12, 1996, Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy premiered in some theaters across North America. The film, which was made at the very bleakest point in the sketch comedy five-piece’s now 30-year history, wasn’t exactly an auspicious cinematic debut for the Kids, failing to capitalize on either the commercial or critical success of their iconic HBO/CBC TV show, which ran from 1988-1994.
With little to no promotion – the budget for which was slashed by Paramount Pictures after the group refused to remove a bit featuring Bruce McCulloch as a plucky child with cancer – the film died even faster at the box office than the infamous Cancer Boy himself. It was even more poorly received by critics than a public who may or may not have even been aware that it existed. Roger Ebert, in particular, seemed almost violently disappointed in Brain Candy, claiming that the “awful, dreadful, terrible, stupid, idiotic, unfunny, labored, forced, painful, bad” film never once made him laugh.
Amidst the critical and commercial pile-on, though, Gene Siskel declared that the film, which he hailed as an “audacious, clever, very funny new satire,” would eventually become a cult classic. It was a prediction that proved almost as prescient as the movie itself.
(Read: The Kids in the Hall’s Top 20 Sketches)
Twenty years later, Brain Candy’s darkly comic take on depression and the pharmaceutical industry has only become funnier and more on-target. Written and largely performed by McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson (fifth member Dave Foley, who was already at work on NewsRadio at the time and on the outs with the rest of the group, appeared in a more limited capacity and received no screenwriting credit), the story of a shiny new Prozac-like drug that’s rushed to market works equally well as a vicious satire of the medical and entertainment industries and a weird philosophical treatise on the elusive nature of happiness. Everything from grunge to coming out of the closet to elder care gets skewered along the way, all with a touch of trademark Kids in the Hall surrealism.
On the phone from the Kids’ hometown of Toronto, Canada, Scott Thompson agrees with this assessment. “I think it’s actually as relevant as it always was. I think it was a film that was ahead of its time,” he says earnestly. “Which, of course, as we know,” he adds with a laugh, “there’s no money in that.”
In celebration of Brain Candy’s 20th anniversary, we talked to the comedian, actor, and writer about the making of the film, its less than promising debut, its themes, and its enduring legacy.
It’s becoming such a cliche to proclaim any film that gained any attention or respect after its release as being “ahead of its time,” and yet I do genuinely feel that Brain Candy was ahead of its time in so many ways.
I do, too.
Even Cancer Boy.
Yeah! You know, nowadays people wouldn’t blink an eye. But back then, it was a huge deal. In so many ways, Cancer Boy is what sunk our film. I’m still proud of it, and I still stand by what we did – and I wouldn’t have changed anything – but Cancer Boy was a real game changer with us. Paramount really wanted it gone, and it came down to a standoff and we insisted. After that, they pulled all of their publicity money. So we kind of screwed up, I guess. I guess we screwed up financially, and we screwed up business-wise, but artistically we did not, because we did stick to our artistic guns.
But here we are, 20 years later, and we’re still scrambling … Who knows?
But you still stand by your decision to choose artistry over commercialism?
Yes. I mean, Cancer Boy’s one of the funniest things in the movie, and it says so much about the world and the cancer industry. And I am a cancer survivor 20 years later, so I understand. Believe me, that is a world that really needs to be satirized now. It’s ridiculous, honestly. It’s crazy how much money they take and how little of it goes to cancer and how much of it goes to one cancer.
Even just the way that Cancer Boy himself … I mean, all of it is fascinating to me. The way that people exploit illness and weakness and guilt and cancer. Anyway, I stand by it, and his performance is amazing in it. It’s one of my favorite things in the whole film.
The making of the film was a notoriously dark period for all of you. In other interviews, you’ve mentioned that you were all messed up in some way and surrounded by tragedy.
It was a terrible time. My brother killed himself two weeks before we began shooting, so that was rough. Dave had quit, and none of us were speaking to Dave. Two marriages broke up. It was just a terrible, terrible time. And we were also burned out. We were burned out. We weren’t really in love with each other at the time.
We probably should have taken some time, but we had to get it done. The truth is, it probably wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t done it that way, because Dave already had his foot out the door, and we were pushing him. None of us behaved well, I have to be honest. I think we all behaved badly. But many years – 20 years – later, we’ve found our way back to each other, and now I don’t think there’s any way to destroy us other than killing one of us. I really do believe that.
So yes, it was a very difficult time, but comedy quite often is created in dark times. For God’s sake, it is a comedy about depression! So, you know, it probably did feed the film. In some ways, for me personally, the film was a blessing, because it allowed me to pour my sorrow into something.
You’ve spoken quite openly and thoughtfully about mental illness over the past two decades. When you reflect on those themes and the way they were dealt with in the movie, what do you think of them now?
Well, I think we’re overly medicated. Back then, it was just beginning. The whole anti-depressants thing was just beginning, and for me personally, I think much of it is a load of shit. Life is up and down, and depression is something that usually you just work through it, and I just don’t really believe in the Western way of looking at illness, that everything can be medicated or cut out or operated on. I don’t really believe in it. I believe that there is such a thing as clinical depression, and I believe that there are people that need medication, but I think the vast majority of people that are on anti-depressants should not be. And that’s just my feeling. I just really believe that people … you have to accept that life is dark and light. There are terrible times, but generally you move through them. And when you move out of the darkness, then you appreciate the light more. Maybe that’s an artistic way of looking at life, but that’s what I feel.
How did you personally feel about Brain Candy when it was first released?
Oh, I loved it. Loved it! I loved it then, and I love it now.
It had a certain lack of joy in it, which I think might be because of what surrounded the film. It’s a very intellectual film. It’s a real satire. So there’s not an awful lot of … it doesn’t have an awful lot of emotion to it. It’s a cold film. But I think that’s what comedies are, in a way, unless they’re rom-coms. Comedy is a pretty cold field. It’s very mathematical, and you have to … in some ways, the emotions can get in the way of comedy.
Is there anything about it that you wish you could change?
Maybe the ending? No, not really. I guess what I would change is that I wish that we hadn’t been so punitive with Dave. I’d love to have Dave back in the credits as one of the writers. That’s one of my regrets. And that was punitive, and that was us being children. We were very angry at each other, so we punished each other. So now, 20 years later, I go, “Maybe that was petty.”
Time tends to give you perspective on things like that.
It does. And even Dave, it’s given him an incredible perspective, too. I think Dave was … I’m not going to put words into his mouth, but I think he would be like, “Wow. I was a bit of a dick.”
Yeah, you were! But we all were. We were all kind of dicks at the time.
Were you surprised by the critical reception it received?
Shocked. I was shocked at how it was received. I was heartbroken at how badly it was received and how little play it got and how it disappeared. Particularly in Canada. I was shocked at how the Canadian public… not the real people, but the way that the industry received it was disgusting, actually.
And in Hollywood, I think it hit nerves. I think it really did hit a lot of nerves. I mean, you think about it: Hollywood is run by closet cases with depression. That movie is filled with that! There’s a lot of anger towards the medical establishment, and the medicalization of depression. Anyway, I think that it hit a lot of nerves, and I was quite surprised at how badly it was reviewed. And it really was.
I mean, my God, Siskel and Ebert! Oh, poor Roger Ebert. I do a joke about him, going: “He hated that movie so much, I think that’s when his jaw started to fall off!” That’s a terrible, funny joke, but come on! I can say that. I had cancer. I’m allowed.
But I was disappointed.
Another way in which I feel like Brain Candy was ahead of its time is that it strikes me as extremely gif-able. With the way that we disseminate and share media now, I think the movie could have gained a lot more recognition if it had come in the social media age. Even if the critical response had been the same, it would have been able to find its audience.
Oh yeah, I think it would. I do. Because it’s filled with great little gifs and memes and great little bits, great lines, and great little moments. I think it would have done much, much better. But if we’d made a film now, who’s to say it wouldn’t be a film that would review better 20 years later? That’s just our nature.
Is that something you’re considering or would consider? Another film that might be popular 20 years from now?
I would love to! We’re always talking. We’re talking about maybe doing another limited series. I’d like to do an eight-episode series on Netflix where we just do sketch comedy again. That’s what I’d like to do, and I think we all would, but I think we’re all trying to figure out a way to do it. That’s what we’re working on now.