This week, actor, writer and comedian Janet Varney is guest hosting for Jesse! Janet is one of the hosts of the long-running segment Dinner and a Movie on TBS, a writer for the DVD commentary series Rifftrax, and is one of the co-founders and producers of SF Sketchfest (an amazing celebratory festival of comedy in San Francisco).
She’ll talk to Bruce McCulloch, best known as one of the members of the comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall. Since his KITH days, Bruce has written and directed for film and television. Among his projects are movies like Superstar, Dog Park and Stealing Harvard, the ABC series Carpoolers, the KITH miniseries Death Comes to Town, and even a stint on SNL. In this interview, Bruce talks about tracing his musical comedy roots, the dynamics of The Kids in the Hall, producing comedy, and more.
JANET VARNEY: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Janet Varney in for Jesse Thorn.
My guest is none other than Bruce McCulloch. For years he’s been a member of the amazing Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall. They had a television show in the 90s; the movie Brain Candy that was released in 96; and the awesome recent miniseries, Death Comes to Town.
On his own, Bruce has released two comedy albums. He’s directed films like Superstar and Stealing Harvard, and he’s collaborated with Bill Burr, Norm McDonald, and many others. We’ll talk about all that, but first let’s hear this clip from Kids in the Hall with Bruce appearing as Gavin; a grade school boy who’s eager to have interactions with nonplussed adults.
Bruce McCulloch you guys know, of course, as a member of Kids in the Hall, but he’s also released two comedy music CDs, Shame-Based Man and Drunk Baby Project; he created the ABC series Carpoolers, and has written and directed several films including Dogpark and Comeback Season. He also has a young impetuous Standard Poodle named Meatball.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: That’s right.
JANET VARNEY: I’m gonna be a little kooky, I thought it would be fun if we started out by talking about music.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: Oh, what a great idea.
JANET VARNEY: Rather than saying, “Hey, how was Kids in the Hall?”
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: Right.
JANET VARNEY: So just to find a way into that, it seems to me these days that there’s sort of an assumed link between alternative comedy and music. Eugene Mirman and David Cross are on record labels like Sub Pop, which are, of course, also home to indie darlings like The Shins, Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes, but for me you were one of the first comics that I thought as bridging that gap from my point of view; how did that come about?
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: I think it was also that I was never a comedy fan. I think a lot of nerds, I’m a nerd as well, but there’s a lot of nerds in comedy. I didn’t think I was a nerd when I was a kid. The thing that fueled me was rock music. I think there’s something anarchic about it and – – I didn’t like only good rock music. And punk, I was old enough to have lived through the original punk era and got the first Sex Pistols 45 in a record store when I was 12 years old or whatever and it blew my mind.
That was the thing that fueled me in my drunken high school days. I think something in music that was counter-culture made me think that the world didn’t have to be the way it was described to me.
JANET VARNEY: So based on what you just said…can I assume you were an angry youth?
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: I was definitely an angry youth. I was, as almost all people from comedic backgrounds, I had what we would like to laughingly call a terrible childhood. I was an angry young man. I wasn’t a typical comedy nerd where I was acting out the sketches in my room, I was more drinking and fighting and trying to sneak into clubs and doing stuff like that.
JANET VARNEY: Did you also have a relationship to music that was a little bit more soulful on the side of, oh, those lyrics, he really understands!
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: A little bit. I was indiscriminate a little bit. I liked Deep Purple. They were really good. And I liked Slade. But when the time came, I bought into Quadrophenia, and wore the jean jacket, and walked around, and looked at every picture in the Quadrophenia booklet and – – I think The Who, which is the band that I loved, is sort of the lonely boys band.
JANET VARNEY: Did you play an instrument? Did you start playing guitar around that time?
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: Badly. My dad was actually a jazz cat, and his first, his Höfner bass, his Beatle bass, he gave to me, and I sort of thumped out the Daves I Know and other songs. But somehow I also thought guys in bands were sort of silly; like, they jumped around and that, and my ego wasn’t right like that. I don’t think there were bands then that I could be in.
If REM had been around then, I would have understood a kind of, or They Might Be Giants, who are the funniest people in the world, there’s sort of some irony and – – but, you know, rock was pretty stupid when I was growing up.
JANET VARNEY: Speaking of music and bands, you have described The Kids in the Hall as being five lead guitarists.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: Right.
JANET VARNEY: And I’d love for you to connect that for us.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: I think that’s obviously not a musical phrase as much as it is an ego, a conversation of our egos. People who have dealt with us go, You guys are driving us crazy. Usually a group of people, a couple of them speak and make the decisions, and we all want to play guitar. Nobody wants to be Bonham and take care of the floor. We all think, we don’t think we’re the best, but we all need to be heard, or something. We’re five leaders.
JANET VARNEY: Because you didn’t necessarily dive into the world of performing on stage in band form, was there a time during Kids in the Hall when you thought, “I feel like I’m as cool as a rock star. This is probably how they feel.”
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: It’s a very scary question to me, because then that makes it seem like I feel like a rock star. One of the smartest things we ever did, there was a house band we had called Shadowy Man on a Shadowy Planet, which is the coolest weird surf music in the world. I went to high school with those guys, they were two years older than me and they were the cool guys. They were the guys who said, you better listen to this, and you better listen to that, and when you listen to Johnny Winter, then you should listen to John Mayall or whatever it was.
They made us cool, and we loved their rock, so when we started the show it was like, they have to be our band. It was one of those organic things. They played live for us when we did tapings, and we used their music when we’d do tours or something. Our rock energy came from them, and because of them we had rock energy.
I don’t know if we were rock stars. To be a rock star is a stupid thing, anyone who wants to be a rock star is an idiot, I think. But I have felt the momentum of a crowd, and what it’s like to have a fairly large crowd cheer for you or, you know, I remember when we were doing our first American shows, it was in Detroit, and there’s 500 kids there, people my age, they were kids then. At the end of the show they rushed the stage, and it was like, okay, what are you going to do now?
JANET VARNEY: What did you do?
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: I think we just thanked them and shook each and every one of their hands and left
JANET VARNEY: Oh, wonderful! But no crowd surfing?
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: No crowd surfing.
JANET VARNEY: You didn’t face plant into a bunch of screamers?
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: I should have.
JANET VARNEY: And so when you decided to cut a CD, your first, had you had people suggesting to you along the way because of some of the stuff you were doing on the show? “Hey, you should cobble together some of these and right some new ones, you should do this.” Or is it something that you organically came to on your own.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: I wanted to do it, and I had actually just been approached by a guy – – I had a few approaches actually when we were first putting out Daves that I Know as a single. I was like, no. Then I had a pretty cool guy named Tim Sommer who had Presidents of the United States of America, he had Hootie & the Blowfish, he was a pretty good A&R guy. He kind of approached me and nurtured me, and he knew I had done one man shows somehow, and he came up and hung out and said, let’s do this. I was like, “It’s not all about the Daves I know, you know.” He was like, yeah yeah yeah. That’s how it happened.
I remember, I had a pretty successful TV show, or we did, when I was doing the record, but I remember being in a studio and having laid down a record, and going, this is way cooler. This is way bigger, this is way more important than doing a TV show. As a kid I never wanted to be on a record, or I never wanted to be a rock star. But I never wanted to have a TV show either.
To have a record was pretty great, and when I did my first record, Shame-Based Man, I was sitting having coffee at some point in Toronto and I looked and there was a young kind of weird girl with daddy issues that tends to like me – – I worked really hard on my booklet of weird photos of me with a bowling trophy and me getting married in a fake wedding, people that I was married but it was just conceptual and stuff. She was looking through the booklet like I had, how I would with a Mott the Hoople, record of years gone by, and she was devouring every little bit of line I’d had and who played what and stuff. I thought, that’s pretty cool.
JANET VARNEY: Let’s get into writing a little bit. At any given time it seems to me like you hare always working on multiple projects. Did that happen because you just happened to have different irons in the fire, or is that way that you like to work, where you’re not just focused on one thing and one thing alone, that you’re able to sort of pick and choose and walk away from something but still work on something else.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: I think I’m obsessive. The thing I wanted to be more than anything, and that’s why I’ve never been a rock star in my heart, or a star, or a TV star, or any of that in my heart; I’ve always been a writer. My thing is that if something gets a laugh that I wrote for Mark McKinney or whatever, it’s bigger, it hits me in a bigger way than if I go get a laugh or if I score with the audience or stuff like that. I was, Kerouac and all that stuff, and Hemingway, all the beats and all those people.
JANET VARNEY: The rock stars of the literary world.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: They obsessed me in my youth. Henry Miller and reading all that stuff. I think I really fashioned myself as a guy who would sit – – that had his own world. I would sit down in my weird way and write my weird things and write poems and cartoons, and then I started doing sketch comedy, but I guess it could have been something else. It could have been some weird theater if I’d lived in New York or something. I think I’ve always written a lot. I sometimes can’t help myself with writing.
I think the other part of the answer to that is an ego question. That as soon as I was part of the creation of the – – a wonderful group, which fulfilled all my dreams in a creative way in a sense, I didn’t want to be defined by that. If we were doing the kids in the hall, then I needed to do my show in the Tarragon extra space on the months off, and I might not come back for the third season because I have to, you know. I think it was as much – – I’ve always kept consumptive, maybe it’s like treading water because I’m – – because we all secretly don’t think we’re any good. Just want to keep working and writing and doing and, I’m okay, aren’t I mommy? I think there’s a little bit of that , but I can’ help but love ideas, and think about them at night sometimes.
JANET VARNEY: I’m trying to think of anything more juxtaposing then going from that to writing for SNL, in terms of going from something that was so uniquely you guys, and born so much out of a little bit of separation that you might have had geographically and culturally from the stuff that was around at the same time or before, to then go into an environment where this show has established itself for X amount of years, is in the heart of New York City, is referenced and copied and is sort of referencing and copying itself it’s been around so long. Was that hard?
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: Well, yes. I was, in case you didn’t know, I was a writer for Saturday Night Live for one year. It was really hard, and I think it was one of the defining things I think for the troupe working for as long as it did, is I always knew I would be a writer, and I was actually ready with a writing package in case anything ever happened and I wrote all the time with my little Selecta typewriter and all that stuff. When I went there The Kids in the Hall was functioning. We had come out from Calgary to make it in Toronto and then got sort of plucked by Saturday Night Live after quite a good theater show we did. I thought I would find a lot of people like me, not just hardworking and talented or whatever but had the same sensibility, and I didn’t. It was a different thing.
It sent me back to my wife happy after a bad affair. Not because the people weren’t great or whatever, just the structure of – – I mean, we were always just making it up as we went. That’s always been – – any success I’ve had, even when I was – – I directed Superstar with Molly Shannon and Will Ferrell, it was like, we just make this up, and we get to do it. The more you can always remind yourself of that spirit that isn’t really serious, and I forget that constantly because I’m in the world of business now as much as I’m in the world of comedy. Saturday Night Live didn’t seem so much like my gang, even though I have loved Lorne Michaels. We wouldn’t be around without him, he’s still a good friend and I watch him get a haircut every two years still. It just wasn’t The Kids in the Hall.
We’re five losers in a room eating Kentucky Fried Chicken trying to come up with an idea. We’re not putting a Versace suit on that’s going to look really good on the update desk. They seem similar, when it’s all put together it seems similar, but it’s not.
JANET VARNEY: Now you have also produced – – we talked about directing a little bit, but in terms of directing and producing other projects that maybe you didn’t necessarily write and aren’t in. Are we allowed to talk about the Bill Burr, Kevin Hart project? How did you get involved with that? And before that you also did The Norm McDonald Show, so those feel similar to me. Could you talk about both of those?
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: It’s like when I did Superstar for Molly Shannon, it was – – I looked at it and it was so weird and funny and I thought, oh my god, who’s going to do that, nobody can do that but me. No, I’m busy now, I can’t do it, I can’t do it, okay, I’ll do it. And doing a movie with Tom Green as well. Talented people I just, you yourself from SketchFest in San Francisco, you know the attraction to people.
Half the time I spend in my own lonely upstairs office, sometimes with my assistant Neil, who my four year old son often fires as a running joke, thinking about what I’m thinking about. But then – – it’s kind of lonely and kind of beautiful, and then every so often you see someone and you go, I want to partner with that person, I want to help that person, I want to rub up against that person. It’s what I learned in Kids in the Hall is that it’s so fun to talk about stuff, and joke and have fun.
Two great comedians, Kevin Hart and Bill Burr, I saw them, they were going to do a show on Comedy Central, and I was like, I have to do this. It was like, well, it will kind of take you out of network season and it’s not that much money. It was like, I really want to do it, it’s just…you’re right, I can’t do it, I can’t do it. Okay, I’m gonna do it. That was a single camera show that I did and it just didn’t end up getting on the air for whatever reason. Same with Norm McDonald. I did a pilot for him as well, I’m attracted also to funny people, because I’m not thinking about things I’m going to be in, and I don’t feel like an own act, I’ll act with you or The Kids in the Hall. That’s my stuff. It’s good every so often to have the power of people that you really like.
JANET VARNEY: In terms of seeing people that you really get excited about – – obviously sometimes you see them and the opportunity doesn’t arise to do something with them. What was it about Kevin Hart and Bill Burr and Norm and Molly, can you just talk a little bit about what excited you about those people and what made you want to get involved?
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: It’s quite easy actually, it goes back to music again which is good, it’s soul. I remember there’s a comedy troupe that I had been asked about to work with, and I talked to Kevin, I wasn’t sure and he was like, Well, I don’t know if they have soul. I was like, that’s it. That’s it. I just met on something today, and it’s like, that person has soul, I want to work with you because you have soul. Whatever that is, The Kids in the Hall have never been about success. Saturday Night Live is. They’re all people from weird little families in the Midwest and all that, but that show is a bit about success. We have soul, and obviously most of the people on Saturday Night Live have soul, too.
There’s something about people who are kind of weird and wounded and lovely and human, who actually, there’s, I did stand up for a while, I love stand up comedians. About half of them. And the other half – – because they’re kind and curious and interesting, and the other ones just want to make a joke and wait for you to stop talking and just want to cut you down and watch TV and smoke a joint and make jokes at the TV. I’m not attracted to the people that want to win and score, I’m attracted to people who just can’t help themselves. That’s certainly like Bill Burr who’s obsessed with all the things he’s obsessed with, and Kevin Hart who’s a weird sweet guy who acts like a star, but he knows it because he’s full of [expletive]. I didn’t get involved in this at the young age to make money, and I’ve done – – I’m so lucky that I actually bought my house with my imagination. I just can’t help myself sometimes. It’s those people that I am attracted to.
JANET VARNEY: I’m getting the impression that you do not go out to a lot of calls and auditions for other people’s projects.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: No. I’ve only auditioned I think a couple of times. When I was doing my first feature Dog Park, and all these people came in for me, and I had auditioned maybe twice for things before that, and I realized, wow, I’m terrible at acting. The other thing is, actors are supposed to know their lines. These people would all come in and they’d have fifteen pages memorized.
I did it a couple times, and I’m a tough guy. I framed houses in the winter, I’ve run marathons, I’ve birthed children, my own, out of my own body. I’m tough and fearless and I can take no, and I can take being fired by someone phoning me from a corporate jet, I’ve had all that happen and I can rock with it. I just can’t sit on a couch next to Bob Goldthwait, and I’d go like, you should hire him, he’s really funny. My connection to material is usually from myself in outside. I’ll read a script, and I’ll go, I don’t understand it. I can say these lines, but maybe somebody else should say these lines. I don’t know. The process of, when The Kids in the Hall was sort of first over I came here for a little while and rented a Ford Neon and had a little place and would try and go to the odd meeting and I’d get lost, and I had two or three auditions and then it was just like, no, I can’t do this.
JANET VARNEY: I won’t be able to forgive myself if I don’t ask this question, and I am hoping that there are some awesome, nerdy ladies out there who will be glad that I asked this question.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: Give it up, nerdy ladies.
JANET VARNEY: Please tell me about the process of booking your role on Anne of Green Gables.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: Yes, I was on Anne of Green Gables the sequel. I still get the checks, the nice gold checks hit my floor every few months. The Kids in the Hall had started, and our casting director, Diane Polley, was also casting that. I did audition for that, but I went in and I said, I had nine days, which was great, but I was like, I only have a few lines. I think I’ll just read them all in a row. I just don’t think I should stand up, I’ll just read them to you once and see if you like it or not. I just read these weird lines and said thank you.
I didn’t realize that you were supposed to be dismissed or asked questions or something. It was like, I came in like a gunslinger. I said, there’s only nine lines, I know it’s nine days, but I’m just going to read them all. It’s sort of like intervention. I’m gonna say what I’m gonna say, you’re gonna say what you’re gonna say, and then we’re done. And they gave it to me. I learned how hard it is to be an actor. Being in a little tiny cubby all day waiting for my line, and there’s nothing worse in the world as you must know, having had a few bit parts yourself, dear.
JANET VARNEY: Indeed, indeed.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: There’s nothing worse than one line. Mumbling through the line, something about going off to the wedding, and I’m reciting it and reciting it, and then they’re calling, okay, okay, we’re going, you gotta go. You gotta ride a cart and say that line. It was like, okay, I don’t know how to ride a cart. Horses are drawing this cart, and I’m saying this line, and we got it, and you’re done. Oh, this is a terrible life.
JANET VARNEY: I’m so glad I got to ask about that. I just love that you worked with some of the most amazing people in the world in show business, and all I care about is you telling me this story of Anne of Green Gables.
It’s definitely fair to say that a lot of artistic folks living in Los Angeles have the sort of love hate relationship with it. I know that grouping you in with The Kids temporarily, some of them now live back in Toronto, a couple of you live here, some people go back and forth. Do you feel like you have that sort of love hate relationship, and if you do is it enhanced by your Canadianism.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: Love hate relationship with Los Angeles?
JANET VARNEY: With Los Angeles.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: When we were doing Kids in the Hall I said, I’m never moving there. I’m not gonna move there. Why do I have to move there? I found myself coming here and – – I’m a staunch Canadian, but when I got here I thought, oh, give it up. It’s fantastic here. People are working here. There are hawks flying in the sky. I’m not a guy that does that much. I have dinner, I watch a show, I go to sleep, maybe go for a drink. I can do that anywhere, so why not do it here? I’m a family man, so it’s pretty easy, I don’t have some weird thing about like, why am I here and it’s soulless?
Most of the people in the business are quite nice and they work really hard and there’s lots of good people and there’s a lot of compromise you have to make and it’s a business and sometimes people will fire you over the phone or fire you by telling your manager or not picking up your thing and you still get paid and all that. There’s some bad things about it, but I like that it’s an industry. It was great to do the Canadian miniseries, doing Kids in the Hall there, and I’m going to hope to do some other stuff. I’m a grunt, I’m a guy that worked at Canada Dry warehouse. I just want to work, and this is where the work is, and it happens to be actually beautiful. Every day as I get my newspaper, every morning at noon – – no, every morning when I get my newspaper I pick it up and I look at my house and I go, wow. This is pretty cool.
JANET VARNEY: Well it’s funny you would say that, and I don’t mean to be the person that’s like, Hey listeners, I’ve been to Bruce McCulloch’s house! But in the interest of tying things up in a little bit of a circle, I will say about that and that it doesn’t surprise me that you have that relationship with Los Angeles and to your home in particular, because you have one of those wonderful Los Angeles hilly, canyon homes that feels to me like what I would imagine the Laurel Canyon homes of the 60s that the musicians felt like. It feels like a safe, beautiful, inspiring place where you can create and you bought it with your imagination and that you are then able to give back to your imagination in that regard. It’s this wonderful environment that cultivates great ideas.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: When I first came here it was Tim Sommer, the guy who had signed me at Atlantic, and he was kind of saying, if you think of Los Angeles as just being about show business and film and TV business, it’s kind of doing it a disservice. When you start to think about – – I’m obsessed with Laurel Canyon, having just read the book about The Eagles and all that stuff and all those people that were around there. It’s the music scene that made this amazing place. You can be – – a lot of great writers from Hemingway had been eaten up and chewed out by Hollywood in some way, but California, Los Angeles, as a place, for me it’s the best place in the world. Those people, all of them with their creativity and their spirit, and not just that music, but sort of a counter-culture. A counter-culture army. When you think about that, what it’s built upon, then you can love it here.
JANET VARNEY: I think that’s a wonderful way to round up the interview, and I can’t thank you enough for spending a little time with me and with the listeners of The Sound of Young America. Bruce McCulloch, you are amazing.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: Thank you. Listeners rock.
JANET VARNEY: Bruce McCulloch is a member of The Kids in the Hall, plus a writer, producer, and director. You can find him online at Brucio.com.
Our transcripts are provided by Sean Sampson. If you’re interested in contacting him for transcription work, email him here.
About the show
Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.
Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.
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