‘We are ready’

BEIJING—“Of course I’m excited, how could you not be?” It’s a brisk day in Beijing, but here in the dining hall of Peking University, nothing can cool marketing student Jackie Yu’s enthusiasm for the upcoming Summer Olympic Games. “I’ve never seen Chinese people so excited before, everyone is behind the Olympics,” says Yu. Signs of this fervor can be seen across the city. Crowds swarm the official Games merchandise kiosks at shopping malls. Subway commuters stare agape at flat-screen TVs playing educational videos about the various Olympic sports, many of which they have never seen before, such as equestrian events and kayaking.

For Yu and many other Chinese, interest in the Olympics has little to do with sports. Hu Ming, a computer science major at Beihang University, says it’s about showing his homeland to the world. “There is still a lot of misunderstanding about China—that we’re some underdeveloped people with long plaited hair and bound feet. So everyone sees this as an opportunity to show the world what the new China is really like.”

Of course, China’s path to the Olympics has been fraught with controversy. Despite promises to clean up its human rights record and improve air quality before the start of the Games, the government has continued to face protests and complaints, most notably for its ties with the Sudanese government, its continued occupation of the Tibetan and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions, and pollution around its Olympic venues.

While the central government has tried to appease foreign observers with piecemeal concessions, the mood at home seems decidedly resolute. “Personally I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about,” says Li Qing. As a political science and philosophy student at Qinghua University, Li is well aware of the arguments being put forth by human rights activists. He simply disagrees. “I think China just has a different understanding than the West of what it means to uphold human rights. Would it be better to go back to the old Tibetan feudal system where the peasants were treated like slaves to the Dalai Lama? Or to have offshore prisons like the American Guantanamo Bay?” He adds, “The government is like a person, they don’t always do everything perfectly, but overall we think they do more right than wrong, especially after the Sichuan earthquakes where they acted so quickly. How can you say they don’t treat their citizens right after that?”

Indeed, many see the May 12 earthquakes in Sichuan province as a turning point in Olympic preparations. The Games took on greater symbolic meaning: Not only do they unveil China’s grand debut as a world power, supporters say, but also the country’s strength as a survivor.

Serious concerns arise that this intensely renewed nationalism has allowed the central government to get away with imposing questionable policies. The Olympics have brought a host of new regulations that range from the more innocuous “social courtesy” program of instructing citizens on Western norms—to line up, not wear pyjamas and slippers in public, and avoid noisily spitting on the street—to more contentious measures that some call social cleansing. The latter call for stricter controls on the flow of itinerant workers, police registration of migrant travelers, and crackdowns on such “unseemly” sights as homeless panhandlers and street vendors. To U.S. expatriate Weiling Wong, the measures are attempts to cover up ugly urban realities. “The government is hiding the children under the bed while company’s over,” Wong says.

Li, the Qinghua student, still stands by his government. He argues that the controversy is overstated. “We are the most populous country in the world. One city here has more people than some European countries, so of course our government has to take certain policies that you Westerners find terrible, but without them, we would have total social chaos.”

Though some locals are ambivalent to the Games or oppose them altogether, there is a general recognition of this as a historic moment. “We are ready,” goes the theme song for the one-year countdown to the Olympics. The propitious date of August 8, 2008, holds high hopes for a country that has hurled headlong into modernization—and for protestors demanding social and political change. Let the Games begin.

Ricciardi is off-base

If casual baseball fans were searching for clues as to how the Toronto Blue Jays have fared this season, they wouldn’t have to look much further than the fact that the sole Jay selected for the All Star Game in New York is Roy Halladay.

A perennial candidate for the Cy Young Award, Halladay has been consistent in his ability to give the Jays a chance to win. Despite his best efforts, the past several seasons have been characterized by team-wide underachievement, untimely injuries, and a revolving door of excuses and ‘wait-til-next-years’ given by the front office.

This door is about to come to an abrupt stop, however, with general manager J.P. Ricciardi caught in the middle.

After seven years of respectable results (such as building a .500 club on a lower payroll than divisional rivals Red Sox and Yankees), Ricciardi seems to have run out of rope, and his only hope is a late season surge by the sub-.500 Jays. This year was supposed to be the year, but on-field losses have translated to the overall failure of Ricciardi’s master plan.

Riccardi has done little to stay on board until his contract expires in 2010, and he has always maximized expectations while downplaying the importance of not meeting them. In the past few seasons, he orchestrated a handful of public relation disasters that have undermined fans’ interest in the Blue Jays brand and their confidence in Ricciardi’s ability to deliver a winner on the field.

The most glaring offense came early last season when, after admitting that he lied to the media about the nature and extent of closer BJ Ryan’s elbow injury, Ricciardi tried to downplay his deception.

Ryan went on to have season-ending Tommy John surgery, as Ricciardi was vilified for disrespecting fans.

An uglier example of Riccardi’s tendency to say the wrong thing happened in June when he answered a fan’s question on Mike Wilner’s radio show about the Jays’ potential interest in acquiring Reds slugger Adam Dunn. A very frustrated Ricciardi went into a tirade, claiming that the Jays had ‘done [their] homework on Dunn’ and discovered that he ‘didn’t even like baseball’.

The outburst received considerable media attention and was subjected to a sharp rebuke from Dunn who dismissed Ricciardi as a ‘clown’ whom he didn’t even recognize by name. After Ricciardi’s remarks, Dunn, a free agent after this season, ignored the possibility of playing in Toronto.

Ricciardi was caught in even more drama after the firing of long-time personal friend and Jays manager John Gibbons, despite his statement that ‘Gibby’ had the ability to lead the team to the playoffs. It was suggested to Toronto baseball writers that President and CEO Paul Godfrey chose to remove Gibbons, which if true, would show a blatant lack of Ricciardi’s authority. Ricciardi claimed the decision was his, and that he is happy with current manager Cito Gaston.

With a background in politics and a keen eye for public perception, Godfrey must know that fans have almost completely lost patience with Ricciardi. Given Godfrey’s mandate to deliver high attendance figures and black bottom lines, it is difficult to imagine that he will be the one to throw Ricciardi a lifeline for next year as the team limps through the dog days of another wasted summer.

Dunlap’s last lap?

By the end of this month, the University of Toronto will finalize its sale of the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill to an undisclosed private third party. The university has already laid off the observatory’s staff.

Governing Council committees had voted for the observatory’s closure and sale starting last November, but now a group called the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders has stepped in, in an effort to classify the observatory and surrounding area as a world heritage site. The group said it will not hesitate to take the matter to the UN, under its UNESCO agency.

Meanwhile, the municipality of Richmond Hill has already approached the provincial Conservation Review Board regarding the protection of the site.

The Defenders group is arguing for protection of 100 per cent of the observatory and its surrounding area, while the municipality is arguing for 48 per cent, which includes the observatory but excludes an adjacent strip of forest land.

The university also wants to remove portraits of David Dunlap and his wife, currently situated inside the observatory, and relocate them to U of T’s new institute for astronomy. The Defenders are opposed to this proposal. They believe the portraits to be part of the building.

U of T has otherwise washed its hands of the matter, saying that the fate of the observatory remains a matter to be dealt between the town and the developers.

Rob Steiner, U of T’s Assistant Vice-President strategic communications, said: “[The observatory’s] historical value is for the town to decide.”

Steiner said the purpose of the observatory is for supporting astronomy, and that it is important for the university to “honour [that] original intent.” He added the observatory has not been able to do world class research over the last 20 years due to light pollution from the GTA. The university has said that funneling the profits it will make from the sale back to its astronomy program will better suit the intent of the Observatory’s original donor.

The 79-hectare site, along with the 74-inch telescope, then the second largest telescope in the world, were donated to U of T by Jessie Donalda Dunlap in honour of her husband in the 1930s. It was donated on the condition that the site be used for scientific research. If sold, the site could be reverted to the ownership of the Dunlap heirs. In 2003, U of T successfully fought for the termination of that clause.

Canadian Copyright Reforms: Made in the USA

The introduction of new legislation regarding copyright should not come as a surprise to any informed Canadian. After all, ours is the country where peer-to-peer downloading is currently legal. Yet the recently released details of Industry Minister Jim Prentice’s Bill C-61 are a shock to many.

The bill describes explicitly what consumers can and cannot do. You can record a television program for later viewing, provided that you delete it as soon as you see it. Transferring music to your iPod is allowed, but you can only make one copy per device and keep the original. Copying DVDs is almost certainly prohibited. Media technology has progressed at such a rapid pace, Canadian law can barely keep up—making clear what is and isn’t allowed under the law is a welcome development.

But what the bill giveth, it also taketh away. It allows for an undeniably harsh 500-dollar penalty for peer-to-peer downloading, and an even more ridiculous maximum of 20,000 dollars for illegally sharing content. Illegal sharing includes actions as benign as posting copyrighted material on YouTube, or sharing MP3s on Limewire.

In an astonishingly Machiavellian twist, Bill C-61 removes all the ‘rights’ it gives. If copyrighted material has digital rights management (DRM) technology that prevents the copying or transferring of content to other devices, bypassing this is illegal. Simply put, consumer’s rights are firmly in the hands of media companies.

Accusations that the bill was ‘made in the US’ are well- founded. Pressure over the past few years from prominent American political figures, ranging from California governator Arnold Schwarzenegger to US ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, made it clear that American movie studios and record labels have had a hand in Canada’s recent attempts at copyright reform.

They are also terrified about their future—perhaps with good reason. Ask any record store owner how sales are lately, and the answer will invariably be ‘slow.’ The industry’s figures are indeed dismal: in the first quarter of 2007, CD sales dropped 35 per cent in Canada. According to The Times of London, global music sales last year fell to their lowest levels since 1985. This is only one piece of a multi-billion dollar global industry. But is painting a target on the backs of Canadian citizens a logical solution to the problem of slowing sales?

According to Statistics Canada, 45 per cent of home Internet users downloaded music in 2007. Lobbing lawsuits at otherwise law-abiding citizens will not make the problem go away. Limiting consumers’ freedom by implementing frustrating DRM technologies only encourages further downloading. Anyone who has bought a CD only to find it won’t play in their car stereo or be copied to their computer knows the pain of dealing with an industry trying to protect itself in the laziest way possible.

Rather than lobbying for draconian laws, media companies are better off developing technologies that keep the customer in mind. Consulting with consumer groups and artists—something the government did not do when drafting bill C-61—would be a good first step towards a profitable model.

Already, the backlash against the proposed bill is noticeable: a Facebook group entitled Fair Copyright for Canada, created by University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist, has 85,000 members. By bending backwards for American lobby groups, the Tories might lose a lot of votes in the next election if this controversial bill passes.

“This bill reflects a win-win approach,” said Jim Prentice recently at a press conference. But who exactly is winning?

Troops into Afghanistan

If Canadians want to teach their neighbours down south a lesson on smart, successful foreign policy, Afghanistan presents a welcome opportunity. By increasing troops to combat al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s resurgence before the country teeters on the brink of collapse, as happened in Iraq in 2006, we can humble Americans with our willingness to adjust to environmental changes in a timely fashion. That such an underrated ability could be witnessed is a fundamental lesson to be taken from the near-tragic American occupation of Iraq.

In arguing for a “surge” in Afghanistan, we must provide some context. In 2006, Iraq was suffering from attacks on all fronts. Shiite and Sunni internecine warfare grew so prevalent that a civil war was predicted to be imminent. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was relentless in its inflammatory acts, dealing bloodshed to all Iraqi factions and heightening tensions in an already strained environment. By early 2007, with Baghdad lost to factions and insurgents, it was clear that the calls from various dissenting generals and Republican senators for a larger post-war force had been correct all along.

The premise of the surge was that counterinsurgency requires sustained security. When Robert Kagan and Jack Keane developed the policy at the American Enterprise Institute and argued for it in various publications, they made it clear that providing a safe environment was key: it is only when civilians feel safe that they are able to provide the information necessary to root out insurgent hideouts. Likewise, only when nascent police forces feel they have enough backup can they be willing to follow through on their duties to protect. The American mission in Iraq demonstrated that army forces could take out terrorist strongholds with ease, but the final two components of their “clear, hold, and build” strategy failed to materialize. “Holding and “building” were never ensured because the lack of total troop numbers meant that American forces had to move on to the next hot spot in the country before they could stay long enough to assuage the civilian population and build local facilities for reconstruction. Thus, in due time, once-pacified strongholds were re-infiltrated by al-Qaeda operatives or factional insurgents.

With the increase of 32,000 troops, American forces could follow through on the “hold” and “build” portions of their operations. Instead of leaving once enemy forces were rooted, the army placed enough troops to “hold” a given city for the long term. With the aid of the Americans, each pacified city was able to subsequently rebuild and restore normalcy. By now, the results have been positive. Sunni militants have turned on their al-Qaeda collaborators and violence has fallen to 2004 levels.

In Afghanistan, we have a similar problem on a much smaller scale. The issue is less about security breakdown, instead resting on a lack of military progress. As The Economist reported, the primary danger in Afghanistan is “that the war will settle into a stalemate, one in which the Taliban controls much of the countryside in the Pushtun belt and Mr. Karzai’s government runs the rest.”

More troops would allow the multinational mission in Afghanistan to focus on Operation Enduring Freedom’s task of hunting out al-Qaeda along the Pakistani border and the International Security Assistance Force’s efforts to attend to humanitarian and reconstruction needs. It would also increase the likelihood of sustained success, just as in Iraq, halting the downward spiral of public opinion regarding the war in most of the countries involved.

Some say that the most pressing issue is political stagnation. This is due to the lack of credibility that president Hamid Karzai commands. While more troops will not fix endemic corruption or a lack of will among politicians to make deals with Pushtuns, government credibility can be bolstered when security and stability are extended to all parts of the country. In Iraq, one overlooked aspect of the surge was its theoretical implication that without security, political power would shift from democratically elected leaders to factional and sectarian war leaders. Since the surge and the security that came with it, the White House has now reported that 15 of 18 benchmarks have been met, most concerned with political reconciliation. In the beginning, only 3 of 18 benchmarks had been achieved.

One has to wonder if the troop increases in Iraq came too late. Those who believe that the future security and stability of millions of Afghani civilians living in an infant democracy is worth fighting for should act quickly to prevent mistakes in Iraq from repeating themselves. Instead of drifting along the course of attrition and prolonged failure, Canada should revitalize its mission in Afghanistan and make an effort to increase the number of troops so that success can be attained.

Who says you have to be elected to be president?

In a controversial move, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union board of directors has recently hired and ratified Zuhair Syed as interim president until September 30. During SCSU elections earlier this year, the election committee disqualified Syed from the presidency after he received three strikes for election violations, and recommended Jenna Hossack be ratified as president. However the board chose to ratify only the committee’s recommendations for directors, leaving the presidential position temporarily vacant until the next by-election in the fall.

Or at least that was the plan.

Earlier this summer the SCSU board decided to hire an interim president rather than have the VP academics temporarily fulfill those duties. After a brief interview and hiring period, Syed was ratified as interim SCSU president and CEO at a board of directors meeting on June 20. Under the contract, Syed will be president for the rest of the summer until September 30.

In a telephone interview Syed expressed this as a correction of a faulty process. “It seems that by the actions of the election committee that they were definitely incompetent in terms of the presidential election.” He holds that he was unfairly disqualified by the elections committee, and the board recognized this.

Responding to the accusations of bias and unfair disqualification, Elections Committee chief recruiting officer Dawn Cattapan said that the entire committees for elections, hiring and elections’ appeals would also have to be biased for that argument to be valid. “I don’t think we’re biased and quite frankly during the director elections there were way too many [candidates]. We didn’t know anybody’s name. Until counting night we didn’t know half the candidates’ names.”

Cattapan admits that her favourite candidate was neither Syed nor Hossack. “I was actually hoping that Edward would win. He had some really cool ideas and really went in there and got to know people. He only got like 50 votes though.”

Cattapan thinks that aside from the results, the election went pretty smoothly. “I didn’t expect it to be thrown out – it was a great election that we ran. I would hope that future elections would be run very similar where they would have that sort of luck where things would stay so organized but without the controversy,” she said, pausing for a second on the phone. “But it’s student politics, controversy always seems to ensue.”

One thing is for sure, debate and controversy definitely have not deterred Syed’s aspirations in student politics. The well-known management student has already announced plans to run for president again during the SCSU’s October by-election.

The Battle of the Flip-Floppers

As the Democratic presidential primaries have finally winded down, and as senators Barack Obama and John McCain proceed with their general election campaigning, those of us who have followed this phenomenal race with exuberance and anticipation have witnessed the candidates take some serious political punches from the left and right. If it wasn’t a preacher’s conspiratorial remarks, it was some conservative network unleashing false rumours within the blogosphere. Every statement has been publicly scrutinized and carefully investigated under the media’s microscope. We’ve watched the contenders grace our television screens on a daily basis, at times delivering rousing speeches, and at others making one too many gaffes. It’s not unusual for politicians to backtrack on certain positions, or simply refine their policies to suit their audience. That’s the nature of politics, where upholding integrity is low on the list of priorities and political expediency reigns supreme. While both candidates are vastly different, in terms of ideology, policy, and personality, neither has proven his innocence. Accusations of flip-flopping have already begun their vicious circulation in the news.

Senator John Kerry was famously characterized as a flip-flopper during the 2004 presidential election, which proved to be disasterous for the candidate. Although Barack Obama and his campaign are confident that they will not repeat past mistakes, his recent change on issues like public campaign financing, the death penalty, gun control, and illegal federal wiretapping are driving the media haywire. Being labeled the most liberal senator by the opposition didn’t hurt Barack Obama in the primaries, but now he faces the challenge of breaking away from the liberal progressive wing of his party to reach out to independents, a key constituency that may hold the fate of both candidates. Some identify this as a flip-flop, others as a move to the centre, but either way it’s a move towards the right. With a campaign built on progressive ideals and a strong anti-Bush sentiment, this strategy appears disingenuous.

His Republican counterpart doesn’t fare any better. John McCain has flip-flopped on almost every significant issue: tax cuts, abortion, the Iraq War, torture, public campaign financing, offshore drilling, and the list goes on. The senator from Arizona paints himself as the maverick from the Straight Talk Express, not afraid to stand alone from the Republican establishment. However, this political chameleon has reversed any and all moderate positions he once supported as a senator, and now as a presumptive presidential candidate, he has taken a hard-line Republican approach to policy. He’s denied any allegation of inconsistency, but his gaffes and slip-ups can be easily accessed via YouTube. As a self-proclaimed straight-shooter (but more of a sweet talker than anything else), John McCain has always been the darling of the media, while Barack Obama’s treatment is indicative of serious media bias.

A politician who changes their mind does not merit unyielding persecution. We should expect our political figures to remain open-minded and watchful of the changing global climate, and make their judgments accordingly. But when politicians shift sides frequently and then have the audacity to deny any changes of heart, the public has a right to question their sincerity and the media has an obligation to examine their political motivations.

The Kids Are Alright

A hysterical Dilbert look-alike flies by College Park, clutching the side of a taxi in pursuit of a misplaced pen. The flashing Silver Dollar Room sign cues the start of the next Buddy Cole monologue. Two lackadaisical cops talk nonsense by the Leuty Lifeguard Station. The Kids in the Hall have a cult following that spans continents, but Torontonians have the distinct pleasure of seeing their neighbourhoods used as a backdrop on one of the funniest, most original and daring shows to ever air on mainstream television. In a way, the setting was the most shocking part of the routine—people that funny rarely stay here. Perhaps they shouldn’t have.

You could argue that the Kids in the Hall show existed in a bubble—the Kids would have sooner performed a sketch about sausages than made fun of Brian Mulroney’s jaw. The first Canadian show to utter the word ‘fuck’ on television, they were bizarre, unscrupulous and sexually uninhibited, inspiring American and British imitators like Mr. Show and Chris Morris’s next-level Jam. Here in Canada, staid issues like equalization still provide the inspiration for many a prime-time joke.

The Kids in the Hall was kind of a flukey show in a sense,” says Mark McKinney, the Kid behind some of the show’s most beloved characters (the Chicken Lady, the Headcrusher.) McKinney is on a smoke break from his latest show, Less than Kind, on which he’s producing, not performing. Even in a sweatshirt and shorts, he’s a living myth to me. I had talked to him years before, when I approached him outside the Labyrinth Lounge to say that his show had “played a big role in shaping my psyche.” He backed away slightly, arched an eyebrow and told me that he hoped I was healthy. “We really got— and this is unheard of —kind of a playground to do whatever kind of sketch comedy we wanted for five years. It’s sort of irreproducible,” he says. McKinney has worked extensively in both Canada and the United States since KitH ended. Some of his projects have been great (Slings and Arrows, the Saddest Music in the World), others just big (Saturday Night Live, Spice World.) His fellow Kids Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch and Scott Thompson have charted similar career paths, performing, writing, character acting and occasionally nabbing starring roles. But unlike the cast of SCTV before them, none of the five have become superstars. Their work doesn’t seem to have impacted mainstream TV the same way it’s affected their rabid fan base and the hoards of alternative comics who venerate them.

Toronto is a funny city, but it rarely retains its talent. Comedians like Norm Macdonald and Harland Williams take their dirty jokes south, and the ones who stay behind build their careers on a secure base of Canadian political satire. Things were no different in the 1980s, despite the high volume of local talent. “There was a time at Yuk Yuk’s when you had Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, Norm Macdonald and more, performing at the downtown club. And, in fact, the CBC’s casting office was across the street, and they never went and saw them,” says Andrew Clark, former EYE WEEKLY comedy columnist and author of Stand and Deliver: Inside Canadian Comedy.

Clark is also the Director of the Comedy Writing and Performance program at Humber College, the only such program in North America (and possibly the only field of study where using the word ‘cocksucker’ is part of the learning process). It says something about Toronto’s comedic aptitude, but more about how the city has finally come to embrace its character. Clark was the first comedy columnist in Canada; when he started writing in 1991, “comedy wasn’t really taken seriously as something that was worthy of comment or criticism,” he says. Yuk Yuk’s had been well-established as a haven for “edgy” stand-up comedy, but improv and alternative sketch had only recently emerged as viable genres, largely due to The Kids in the Hall show itself.

When the Kids in the Hall came together officially in 1984, Toronto comedy was a professional game; independent troupes like the Frantics were few and far between. “I remember the NOW Magazine comedy listings would be tiny, maybe five or six little events… now it can be half a page,” says Jane Luk, an actress and improv teacher with the Bad Dog Theatre Company. Like the Kids (and many others), Luk got her start at Theatresports Toronto in the early ‘80s. Held at Harbourfront and the Toronto Free Theatre, Theatresports was a game night in which improv teams competed for humour points. “Stand-up people didn’t associate with anyone in the improv community. Certainly the only game in town, as far as improv, was Theatresports,” says Luk.

In Calgary, where the events began, Theatresports’ star attractions were the Audience, a troupe featuring Mark McKinney, Bruce McCulloch, and future KitH writers Garry Campbell and Frank Van Keeken. The troupe moved to Toronto to pursue acting careers and joined their big-city equivalents, the Kids in the Hall, a teenaged troupe featuring Kevin McDonald, Dave Foley and Luciano Casimiri. Foley, an alternative school dropout and aspiring stand-up, met McDonald, a Humber Theatre School dropout, at a Second City workshop. The two were paired at random for an exercise; by the end of the workshop, they had decided to form a troupe. The Audience subsumed the nascent Kids, and the supergroup became crowd favourites at Theatresports nights. “Back then, when you heard the Audience were playing, you wanted to be there on that night,” Luk says. “This was before they were doing anything else—you just knew they were a good team.”

“I think everyone in the troupe had a different thing they were drawing on,” McKinney says. “Me, I’ve always been a fan of really good actors and Scorsese movies and stuff. Bruce probably draws a lot of his inspiration from punk music and Iggy Pop, and Dave and Kevin were comedy historians, steeped in [tradition] all the way back to 1930s movies. But the ultimate influence is whether you can make the other four people laugh, and that determined what got into the show and what didn’t. Synergistic style, I guess.” Everyone I spoke to insisted that McDonald was always the funniest. “Everybody always wanted to work with Kevin, because you’d know it would be funny,” says Casimiri, who, along with Van Keeken and Campbell, left the troupe in the early days.

Just as the group was dwindling down to a foursome, a young gay punk named Scott Thompson began vying for the troupe’s attention. Fresh out of theatre school and up for anything, Thompson had been performing sketch and playing in a punk band called Mouth Congress. “Scott kind of bullied his way in,” says Paul Bellini, a former writer for the show and Thompson’s former band and dorm mate at York University. Thompson’s brash personality was precisely the troupe’s missing element, and the five men began to provide each other with fierce competition to be funnier than everyone else. “Scott and Mark used to fight over wigs to the point where things would be thrown across the room,” Bellini says. “I’ll never forget, one time Scott kicked in a filing cabinet. I said why, and he goes, ‘Mark’s stealing my wig for that character!’ [I said], ‘Well, you know, you kicked in a filing cabinet.’ ‘Well it means a lot to me!’ I thought, wow, he’s crazy, but he’s sincere.”

After a while, Theatresports became a little too amateurish; the troupe developed a reputation for showing up audience participants who shouldn’t have bothered to take part. “Theatresports became like community theatre,” Casimiri tells me. “There weren’t a lot of rooms to play in like there is now.” By 1985, the troupe had begun performing weekly shows at the Rivoli, then the centre of the Queen West art scene. At the time, the notion of an alternative comedy scene was vague at best. A connection with the band Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, old friends of McCulloch’s, made the Kids honorary members of the city’s alternative music community. “We did shows where Scott [Thompson] as Buddy Cole, long before they had a TV show, was a guest vocalist for us. Kevin McDonald did a magic show,” says Don Pyle, former drummer for Shadowy Men and a long-time veteran of the Toronto indie-rock scene. “I think for a lot of people, it was a very natural thing. Partly because the Kids in the Hall were very much acting like an independent rock band—I think they were accepted by a lot of people within the music scene.”

Shadowy Men, who were releasing records and playing alongside the likes of Fifth Column and Beat Happening, had a steady following. At the very beginning, the Kids did not. The alliance helped draw neighbourhood scenesters to the Kids’ performances, although they struggled to build an audience. “I think that we drew on whatever the Queen Street scene was back then. I mean, we did play, for years, to nobody—we had audiences of nine, 17,” says McKinney. “We tried lowering our price from three to two dollars—didn’t work. And then it just kind of caught on, we became the thing.” The Kids’ earliest superfan was Bellini, who made posters and worked the door every week. “When it came time to do the TV show, it was like, ‘Why don’t we take Bellini with us?’ It was like—you take the dog on a family trip. You just do!”

Whatever the door count, the Rivoli performances began to draw the right people. Word channelled back to Lorne Michaels, who had been looking for a Gen X-oriented show to follow up Saturday Night Live. Out of all the off-beat comedy troupes in North America, he chose five guys from Canada to fill the role. “You can’t underestimate the degree to which what the Kids in the Hall were doing was really new, and kind of edgy,” Clark says. Michaels whisked off McCulloch and McKinney to serve as apprentice writers on Saturday Night Live. When the Kids reunited in 1986, they played a sold-out run at the Factory Theatre. Michaels himself was in attendance, and he was impressed. He flew the Kids down for a year of comedy training in New York. “I remember when Kevin left, he was overweight. And when he came back, I didn’t recognize him,” Luk says. “He said to me, ‘Basically, I didn’t have any money to eat!’” When the Kids returned to Toronto, Michaels sent up talent from SNL to help the troupe make a pilot. Using his connections with Ivan Fecan, a former NBC executive and then Director of Television Programming at the CBC, Michaels secured the pilot a slot on Canadian television. Using his many connections in the States, he did the same with HBO. “When it aired on HBO, John J. O’Connor of the New York Times wrote a four-star review. And that four-star review bought us our first season,” Bellini says.

The Kids were on TV, but Los Angeles remained a different universe. They stayed in their ratty downtown apartments, drank beer on the Queen Street strip, and continued to make fun of its denizens. Despite the high-profile professionals backing the show, the Kids chose a low-key, sketch-centered approach to television, ensuring that their combined talents remained the show’s primary appeal. “The Kids in the Hall were very strong people, and very uncompromising little bastards,” Bellini says. “Even in their early 20’s, they thought they were the cat’s pajamas. And they had a very unshakeable vision. They went into that show—and would have done this with any producer—[with] certain things in mind…you had to accept their terms. And that’s probably one thing that makes them great, but it also prevented them from becoming more than successful cult comedians.” Plenty of characters were simply lifted from the stage show, including the Headcrusher and the mincing, smart-assed Buddy Cole, who had sprung from Thompson and Bellini’s handheld camera improvisations years before. Other characters, like the Chicken Lady, were hatched out of the show’s unusually high budget—at the Rivoli, the only costumes had been “a sweater and a wig,” Bellini says.

Toronto was, in many ways, a kind of sixth Kid in the Hall. Bumper videos showed the Kids goofing around downtown. Toronto sports teams were namedropped (“took me to a Leafs game” became a euphemism for gay sex), and one of Thompson’s characters read a magazine called Xcrete (an embittered take-off on Xtra). Even Bellini’s trademark character was borne out of a Toronto landmark: the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, a police target during the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids. Bellini had described his bathhouse routine to McKinney, who “laughed for about 20 minutes.” When the show organized its first contest, he suggested Bellini in a towel as the prize. “The Kids fought to stay in Toronto,” Bellini says. “The stardom never got to you, because there were no limos, there were no groupies, there were no parties with cocaine on the table.” Once, Thompson demanded Madonna tickets; an assistant bought them and pretended they were free. McKinney agrees that the show’s location was a blessing. “I think if we’d been in Los Angeles, by year three, somebody would have got an offer and split… I personally came out of Kids in the Hall incredibly naïve about how the business ran, and I probably paid the price. Because I just thought, well, you do whatever you want, right? And people give you money? No. I mean, that’s kind of what was unique about the show—we were allowed to stay business naïve for a long, long time.”

Michaels took a laissez-faire approach to the show, but his name (and the support of American networks) made all the difference. The show had “so little censorship it’s ridiculous,” McKinney says. There were coke binges, cold-blooded murders, naked asses galore and sex scenes complete with very believable sex faces. A scene in which Thompson (after declaring himself “not gay”) received a blowjob from Casimiri was cut —but only in the States, Casimiri says. The hardest jokes to get past the censors were questionable due to social taboo—abortion, religious jokes—ironic, considering the Kids’ steadfast rejection of topical material. Canadian content was also deemed inappropriate for American audiences. In one skit, McDonald and Foley make reference to Canadian cities—“Regina, Saskatoon, just really goony Canadian names. Medicine Hat! And they said we couldn’t do that—there has to be an American version,” Bellini reports. A sketch called “Screw You Taxpayer,” a riff on the CBC’s public funding, was cut in the States for being “too Canadian” —but not due to either McCulloch’s risqué portrayal of a Chinese rickshaw driver or the skit’s allusions to necrophilia.

As Bellini points out, the show’s ending was far from glorious. The movie Brain Candy was meant to be a grand exit; it was a belly flop instead. Foley was offered a starring role on News Radio right before production started, and several of his parts had to be re-shot. The script was rewritten multiple times, McDonald’s wife left him, and almost every member longed to desert the project. McKinney was the only one who wanted to soldier on. He had reason to; Kids in the Hall quickly proved to have been one-of-a-kind. “We had a vote at the end of the fifth season, who wants to do another year, and I was the only one with my hand up because I really liked doing sketch comedy. So I went on to SNL, but I found that sort of a different experience—it was harder to do my stuff there.”

You might compare the Kids in the Hall to the Velvet Underground—as the old adage goes, not many bought their records, but everyone who did started a band. The Kids’ ingenuity meant that they were nowhere near as big as they could have been. But everyone who watched the show was inspired by it—from the fans riffing on its lines to the alternative comics, in Toronto and elsewhere, who have sprung up in its wake. “Someone said our audience is narrow but deep. In other words, our fans are real fans, but there’s not tens of millions of them,” McKinney says. The troupe’s latest tour (and the two tours that preceded it) provided ample proof that the show still has a steady base of admirers, not to mention posthumous momentum thanks to syndication and DVD. “They all thought they’d go to the next level and become big stars, and it never really happened. No one hit that Adam Sandler level, like a hundred million dollar opening for a comedy. It just didn’t happen, and it’s kind of sad, but what are you going to do?” Bellini says. “They’re still together, they can still perform, they can still write. You’re still interested. It’s been 20 years, you know? So it worked out okay. I just wish we were all richer.”