Sheer acrimony has produced some of the greatest music in rock history. Everybody knows about Abbey Road and Rumours, but there’s also the Replacements’ Tim, the recording of which contributed to founding guitarist Bob Stinson’s total alienation from his bandmates, or the Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come, which pointed to a bold, new musical direction for the group until it led to their demise before even hitting stores.
The Kids in the Hall are, technically, not a band. They are a sketch comedy troupe, founded in Toronto in the mid-1980s. But in every conceivable way short of picking up instruments, they function as a band—from their perfectly complementary skills as individual performers, to their obvious band-of-brothers bonhomie, to the surf-rock-driven mystique of their TV series’ iconic opening credits sequence. And with their 1996 feature film debut, Brain Candy, released 25 years ago this week, the troupe produced its own messy, ambitious version of a Tim or Strangeways, one that would similarly prove their (temporary) demise.
“If the band is writing catchy pop-rock, but they sound like they’re about to split up halfway through the song, like the Replacements or Big Star, that’s my favorite kind of pop music,” says Kevin McDonald, Kids in the Hall’s go-to neurotic and the closest thing the film’s ensemble has to a star. “I think Kids in the Hall are sort of like that.”
The Kids in the Hall share not just a shambolic temperament, but a similar career arc to the indie-rock icons McDonald invokes; even at the height of their success in the early-to-mid-1990s, they were a critical smash more than a reliable commercial bet. They were the group whose dubbed VHS tapes your cool older cousin slipped you when you were deemed ready to graduate from “Lunch Lady Land.” They’d never achieve the blockbuster commercial success of their peers, but they’d earn an almost religious devotion from a fan base all too eager to proselytize on their behalf.
When the fifth and final season of their television series (aired on the CBC in their native Canada, HBO and then CBS in the States) ended in 1995, the troupe’s path forward seemed obvious. They would follow the blueprint left by Monty Python, the Beatles of sketch comedy in their own right: to leave their series behind, pursue their individual muses, and come back together every few years with a feature film. It didn’t hurt that the Kids’ individual stars were on the rise, with utility player Mark McKinney joining the Saturday Night Live cast, the proudly flamboyant Scott Thompson finding a recurring role on The Larry Sanders Show, and everyman Dave Foley scoring a starring role on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio.
For their first bite at the cinematic apple, the Kids would spin a darkly comedic cautionary tale about a Prozac-like wonder drug that sends its depressive patients into “glee comas.” The film is an underrated triumph that’s light-years beyond its contemporaneous peers in its wit and visual style, but like the great bands that preceded the Kids, creating it tore them apart. By the time they began filming, Foley wasn’t on speaking terms with the rest of the cast, his incipient NewsRadio stardom driving a wedge between them. Filming was also marked by numerous personal tragedies among the group, some of which uncomfortably echoed the film’s dark subject matter. By the time of the film’s release, the group would cease to be a group at all.
“There were a lot of breakups and deaths in families, and the breakup of the troupe was happening while we were preparing [the film],” says Kelly Makin, the film’s director and a veteran of the television series. “It was a volatile, emotional time, a taxing time, and it did not make the shoot any easier. … It was a comedy about depression, and certainly there was a lot of unfortunate sadness going on.”
If the Kids’ studio backers hoped to kick-start a Sandlerian money-printing machine, their investment was an abject failure. Much to the chagrin of producer Lorne Michaels (the SNL godfather and fellow Canadian who discovered the troupe and developed their first TV deal), the film has a leisurely, meandering pace and features none of the series’ beloved characters like the Chicken Lady or Head Crusher. But as an ahead-of-its-time satire about mental health, rapacious consumerism, and personal temptation—one that’s now gained the cult following for which it always seemed destined—the film is a wild success. The process may have been messy, uncomfortable, and downright painful, but the end product is just as lasting and rewarding as any of the capstone breakup records it resembles, even more so 25 years later.
In the 1990s Michaels’s Broadway Video, which produced the Kids’ series, was at its apex as a film production company, churning out hits like Wayne’s World and Tommy Boy on a near-yearly basis. Combining their cultural momentum, the Kids set out once again with Michaels as producer to introduce themselves to the world with an ambitious satire that would retain all the humor and scrappy charm of their TV series, but add a cinematic flair and social critique that would establish them as real-deal filmmakers. “The Coen brothers, Terry Gilliam, those were the filmic comedic directors at the time, and so it was a natural influence; we wanted to create a cinematic world that was something slightly askew,” says Makin.
That dedication to their vision would set them on a direct collision course with Paramount Pictures, the film’s distributor. The studio expected another slapstick star vehicle like Tommy Boy, and instead got something closer to Gilliam’s bleak, dystopian Brazil. Creative arguments would eventually cause the studio to cut the film’s promotion budget and distribution to the bare minimum required by contract, ensuring Brain Candy was dead on arrival at box offices.
“When the Stones are making Beggars Banquet or whatever they’re doing, nobody is stepping in and saying, ‘No, you can’t do that, Brian Jones,’” says Craig Northey, frontman of the Canadian indie rock band Odds and composer of the film’s score. “With a studio film, everyone’s stepping in and saying, ‘I need to put my mark on this, I need to make sure the millions being spent are spent wisely.’”
Appropriately enough, the unintentionally polarizing idea for Brain Candy grew from something else straight out of rock lore: a self-isolating retreat to the woods, where the troupe and their collaborators regrouped after the television series’ end to brainstorm their ambitious next act.
“We took two weeks where we went up north together and we rented out these cottages in northern Ontario and we just hung out,” says longtime Kids writer Norm Hiscock, the film’s only non-castmate with a screenwriting credit. (Foley doesn’t have a screenwriting credit, a snub for which the other members of troupe have since expressed regret; he didn’t respond to a request for comment in time for publication.) “Everyone pitched ideas, and for a while anything was possible.”
The Kids’ television series covered topics as mundane as the interpersonal dynamics of a go-nowhere teen garage band and as outlandish as, well, a Chicken Lady; its tone could vary from the joyous camp of Thompson’s Queen Elizabeth to the pitch-black of McDonald’s inspired-by-real-life tales about an alcoholic father. Brain Candy could have turned out to be, quite literally, anything, and it almost did. “One idea that we played with for a bit was that we were the losing team to the Harlem Globetrotters, going on the road and losing to them every night,” McDonald says. “That wasn’t really serious.”
Two ideas they seriously considered were “The Asshole,” in which McDonald would have played an overly polite cop who went undercover as … an asshole, to catch a serial killer targeting only assholes; and “Ship Full of Cowards,” a World War II satire in which a boat attempting to flee combat is commandeered by a tough-guy sergeant played by McKinney (a character who appears in a different form in Brain Candy).
The concept they finally settled on combined their long-time comedic fixations—the depredations of big business, faddish pop-culture hysteria, and the small delusions that help people endure the unbearable mundanity of everyday life—with something new: the pharmaceutical revolution of the 1990s that promised a respite for everything from childhood ADD to pervasive, lifelong depression. “There was a book about at the time called Prozac Nation that we thought was kind of interesting, and we also liked the idea of taking on big business,” Hiscock says, referring to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s classic 1994 memoir.
The plot of Brain Candy is quite simple: A group of researchers in the basement of a pharmaceutical megacorporation develop a drug that cures depression, mentally locking its consumers into their happiest memory. The drug becomes a Prozac-like mega-smash, making its inventor Chris Cooper, played by McDonald, an overnight celebrity. Eventually, however, the scientists discover the drug’s unfortunate side effect: 5 percent of those who take it are permanently locked into a sort of waking coma, leading to a mad dash by McDonald’s Cooper to warn the public before it’s too late.
Dark stuff from the same studio whose producer gave the world Coneheads, to be sure. But it was rooted in real despair. In addition to the resentment roiling the group over their careers, Foley was going through a divorce; Thompson’s brother died by suicide just weeks before the film began shooting; one of McDonald’s parents died, his marriage was ending, and then he too lost a brother-in-law to suicide. In Paul Myers’s (brother of Mike—yes, that Mike Myers) 2018 history of the troupe, One Dumb Guy, McDonald described how the overall mood within the group impacted the film’s production:
“We had gone and done probably the stupidest thing we could do for our feature-film debut—a comedy about depression. Then, my girlfriend Tiffany left me; my best friend in the troupe, Dave, and I broke up; and then my brother-in-law and Scott’s brother kill themselves. It must have affected my thinking because at one point I wanted to write a scene about the lead character’s childhood, and I came up with a funny bit about the father killing himself.”
The bit in question—a flashback to childhood where an abject, catatonic office drone played by, of course, McDonald himself, repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempts to shoot himself off-screen—is one of the film’s most daring. Much like their television series, Brain Candy mined comedy gold from pitch-black caverns, stating directly what had previously been a subtextual thread running through their work: that misery is an inescapable part of life that one might as well confront head-on with laughter, no matter how morbid.
In determining the visual language through which the film would communicate those themes, the troupe and their collaborators opted for a mostly colorful, late-1960s pop-art palette for everything from the movie’s look to its score, in keeping with the Gen X lounge-act nostalgia that permeated 1990s culture.
“We created a look for people who were on the drug and people who were off the drug, sort of a visual arc for society,” Makin says. “A lot of it was through color and design, and through framing, music … we had quite an extensive visual bible; we wanted to make the scale of that world much bigger and much more cinematic, and we didn’t want it to look like a sketch show.”
The film’s theme of masking unhappiness with a Day-Glo smiley face is represented in the arc of Grivo, a misanthropic, Reznor-adjacent rock star played by Bruce McCulloch. The film’s opening set piece showcases a packed concert hall where Grivo, in true 1990s fashion, defiantly crows “Fuck ‘happy’!” to a rapt audience of headbangers. The band performs a super-heavy slab of grunge-rock parody titled “Some Days It’s Dark” (the band Tool would go on to cover the song to perhaps-unsuspecting audiences).
The drug-induced shift between total depression and medicated slap-happiness is depicted quite literally through Grivo, in his transformation into a jangly, happy, jump-suited folk-rock star. The song he performs, “Happiness Pie,” was cowritten by Northey, then-bandmate Steven Drake, McCulloch, and Reid Diamond, the bassist for Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, who composed the iconic Kids in the Hall TV series theme.
That song and “Some Days It’s Dark” fit comfortably on the film’s soundtrack next to contributions from hot indie rock acts of the time like Matthew Sweet, Liz Phair, Stereolab, and Yo La Tengo. To curate the soundtrack Northey teamed up with the moment’s indisputably coolest indie rock label, Matador Records, to compile a playlist that was every bit the aesthetic match for the Kids’ offbeat, eclectic sense of humor.
“They were really flexible about the music. It wasn’t a big record company with an agenda to pump out hits,” Northey says. “They weren’t trying to place songs they felt were important, they were trying to help me get stuff from their repertoire that would work.”
Despite the turmoil that marked the film’s production, everyone who worked on the film says the environment on the set was professional, with each performer firing on all cylinders. Even Foley, who refused to appear on the set for a minute longer than was contractually obligated, enjoys an easy, natural on-screen chemistry with the rest of the troupe.
“[On the set] I felt like we were both being weird and that we didn’t have our usual chemistry, which I think is usually excellent,” McDonald says. “But then when we saw it later it was there, it was just hard to feel when it was happening. I guess we were on automatic pilot.”
In One Dumb Guy, Thompson described a similar dynamic:
“One of the best moments in the movie is this minute-long Christmas scene between Dave and my character, the old lady Mrs. Hurdicure. Despite our fighting, Dave and I rewrote that scene completely while riding in a van to the set, just passing a piece of paper back and forth without speaking to each other. … [It] showed to me that we could overcome our circumstances to do the work.”
The troupe exhausted and nearly broke their personal and creative ties by the time Brain Candy wrapped, but the finished product lived up to the standard of their critical-smash series and then some. What ended up on the screen, however, was the product of not only the Kids’ fights with each other, but with Paramount Pictures itself. Ultimately that clash, more than any amount of infighting or general gloom and exhaustion among the troupe, would seal the movie’s fate as a commercial flop and prematurely put an end to the Kids’ Python-esque aspirations.
Sketch comedy often lives and dies by its characters: Wayne and Garth, Mary Katherine Gallagher, MacGruber, all beloved enough by audiences to at least earn a shot at a major film production, to varying degrees of success. Cancer Boy was not one of these figures.
Bruce McCulloch’s character was a comically sickly, wheelchair-using terminal cancer patient meant to satirize the sentimental and exploitative world of big-money fundraising. He appeared in the series’ increasingly loopy final season, but a recurrence (one of very few in the film by a character from the series, much to Lorne Michaels’s chagrin) in the second act of Brain Candy was too much for the skittish Paramount execs.
“Bruce’s argument was that we’re making a point, that they’re misusing this unlucky kid who’s got cancer… as a poster boy, in a weird way,” Hiscock says. “It was all part of the satire, and I don’t know how we convinced them, but they agreed to it reluctantly.”
“We were finished editing the film,” the director Makin says. “And there was a consensus that it should be removed from the film. So that character became a focus for the Kids to say, ‘No, this is who we are, this is the kind of thing we write, we think it belongs there.’”
Paramount had already pushed the Kids to replace an astonishingly bleak original ending, where McDonald’s Cooper decides to take the pill himself and ends up wheeled out on a parade float as a comatose mascot—a move even the troupe begrudgingly acknowledges was probably the right one. But Cancer Boy was a bridge too far. So they fought for his inclusion, and won.
The Kids felt that, for their troubles, Paramount massively slashed both the film’s advertising budget and the number of screens on which it would be released.
“[On the TV series] it was just ‘Dying Kid,’” Foley said in a 2007 interview. “For some reason, it’s OK to have a dying kid, but he shouldn’t be dying of cancer. … Paramount agreed to let us keep Cancer Boy in, but they pulled it from about two-thirds of the screens it was supposed to be on, and they cut the advertising budget down to the contractual minimum … it kind of killed the troupe as a film-making entity.”
To wit, Brain Candy was released on April 12, 1996, in 163 theaters, grossing just over $770,000 in its opening weekend; it grossed less than $3 million in its theatrical run. For comparison, the year’s biggest comedies like Happy Gilmore or The Nutty Professor were released in roughly 2,000 theaters. Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls outgrossed Brain Candy in 1996, despite being released the previous year.
Off-beat aesthetes to their core, the troupe knew they weren’t making an Eddie Murphy– or Jim Carrey–level blockbuster. But neither did they think they were making something so esoteric that Paramount would actively try to bury it.
“We were naive. We were like idiots. We just thought it was a good story, and we were confused every time Lorne [Michaels] said, ‘Oh, great, you know, when does Chicken Lady come in? When is Chris Cooper’s head crushed by the Head Crusher?’” McDonald says.
“Lorne thinks we think we’re artists, because we came from the ’80s in Toronto, an area called Queen Street, which was like Greenwich Village in the early ’80s. ‘Yeah, I know you’re Queen Street, you’d rather make a story than anything that’s funny, I understand that, but can we at least have one Head Crusher cameo?’”
It might have been a foregone conclusion that Brain Candy would fail to find as wide an audience as some of Michaels’s other protégés like Adam Sandler or Chris Farley, who enjoyed the stardom of SNL as well as more populist comedic instincts. But at the very least, one would imagine the film would have been critical catnip to the same extent as the Kids’ TV series. Such was not the case.
“I did not laugh once,” proclaimed Roger Ebert in a now-legendary At the Movies pan. “This movie was awful, dreadful, terrible, stupid, idiotic, unfunny, labored, forced, painful, bad.” (“Roger, what happened to your sense of humor?” Gene Siskel protests, powerless in the path of Ebert’s critical steamroller.)
Brain Candy enjoyed a few critical defenders with the likes of Siskel and Newsweek’s David Ansen, who praised its “dystopian vision of a world Prozaced out of its wits,” but pans from the likes of Ebert, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin, and then–Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman kept the movie from achieving the critical mass that would have justified heavier promotion.
A commercial failure would have been one thing, but critics turning on the film was too much to bear. Already roiled by misery and exhaustion, the Kids wouldn’t appear together as a troupe for four years, and largely disowned the film in the interim.
“The group kind of turned on it,” Hiscock says. “They were second-guessing their choice of movie, or why they did a movie. They would go back and say, ‘I guess we should have just done a goofy comedy here, you know?’ And then Lorne’s response was, ‘Well, I guess you did your Life of Brian as your first movie.”
The group went their separate ways, the experience leaving a bitter taste in their mouths.
“You have the Beatles [breaking up] and then they go, ‘Well, maybe we’ll come back,’ but then people go off and do their own stuff,” Hiscock says. “I think people turned on the film within the group, briefly.”
“You know, we had a TV show that lasted six years where the ratings were never great but the critics loved us, and then we get a movie, and it’s going up, and up, and all of a sudden it just stopped,” McDonald says of their career trajectory. “It wasn’t even a slide, it was like a rise and stop, and I don’t know if I blame Brain Candy, but it seemed weird, it didn’t seem like that was the way it should have been.”
The Kids wouldn’t perform together again until 2000, when they reconciled with Foley and went on a warmly received North American stage tour. Another tour in 2008 led to the IFC miniseries Death Comes to Town, released in 2010 also directed by Makin and featuring much of the same pitch-black humor as Brain Candy, if not its cinematic scope and ambition. They’re working now on an original miniseries for Amazon Studios, announced last year but delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s fun to come back together. We’re all older, we’ve all had varying careers,” Makin says. “I was just on the phone with them yesterday and it wasn’t that different from 25 years ago.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film where the stars knowingly compare themselves to the Replacements over the course of those 25 years, Brain Candy became a cult classic among both die-hard fans and those who were too young to catch the original series on anything else but Comedy Central reruns years after the fact. Just ask the scores of commenters adding their fond remembrances to the numerous YouTube uploads of its most memorable segments—or ask the Kids themselves.
“As my pretty wife says, everything we touch turns to cult,” McCulloch McCulloch told Canada’s National Post in 2014. “The last time we toured America … there was a lot of people coming up and talking to us about Brain Candy, and I even noticed a lot of people in my life who really like Brain Candy and who aren’t really Kids in the Hall fans. … It’s obviously us, and the humor is like us, but it’s somehow like a weird album we did on a riverboat or something.”
McCulloch spoke ahead of the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, where the troupe performed a live reading of the film’s script along with the first official screening of the film’s original ending. The evening also featured a performance of the score conducted by Northey, with a band that included Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie and Sloan’s Gregory Macdonald.
“Even when I visited the set [during filming], I could just tell that they cared for each other so deeply, and that things were going to be OK, and that something was going to come out of it that was good,” Northey says. “I realized when we performed it live … and at the end we were all arm in arm, watching the old ending with a crowd of a couple thousand people, and everyone was smiling and friends, and you just had this feeling that it had all worked out.”
“After the table read we all said the same thing, which was that it was funnier than the movie,” McDonald says. “I’d love to tour doing that when the world isn’t crazy anymore.”
But in typical underdog fashion, he demurs on the film’s cult status.
“I guess some people still like it,” he says. “I’ll give it semi-cult status. People remember it, and there are lots of good movies that people don’t remember anymore.”
“The audience defines what it is,” Northey says. “It’s been fun for me to see it have an audience now, and with people you’d never expect. It comes up all the time. People will say, ‘You did that?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I did that. Before I even knew I did it, I did it.’”
With the Amazon series forthcoming, at least some portion of a new generation of TV watchers and comedy fans will be introduced to, yes, the Chicken Lady and the Head Crusher, but also simply the Kids’ unique comedic perspective that deftly blends the mundane, morbid, and absurd. And instead of flaming out on top, like the Smiths or the Beatles, the Kids in the Hall have become something that seemed improbable to say the least in 1996, when fame, pressure, and tragedy were tearing them apart—long-running catalog artists, like Neil Young or New Order, with a rich, varied discography that rewards repeated listening from newbies and old fans alike.
“With Brain Candy, Lorne wanted us to have a hit, and then you call your shots, you know?” Hiscock says. “And he was kind of right, but we just kind of said, no, we’re an indie band, or whatever. We’re the Replacements, and we just came out like, ‘We’re gonna rock!’ and then people either liked that show or didn’t like that show.”
“I remember Lorne saying to us, ‘You know, you can make this film for your friends, and that’s all well and fine, but if you want to do another film you should consider a wider audience,’” Makin says. “The Kids decided to make a film that satisfied them, and as a result it was a cult hit. That’s who they are.”
When the Kids’ new series premieres, that cult will inevitably expand. New fans will dive into the original series, which is already streaming on Amazon Prime. But true to cult form, they’ll have to dig a little bit deeper to find Brain Candy: It’s not available on any streaming service. It hasn’t even been released on Blu-ray Disc. On April 20, Paramount will start printing a bare-bones, manufactured-on-demand DVD of the film, but its true spirit is better channeled by the experience of trying to watch it now: seeking it out via surreptitious, unauthorized YouTube uploads and dusty VHS copies in used bookstores, digging through the virtual crates for that weird album they did on a riverboat that still hasn’t quite received its due.
Derek Robertson is a writer and critic, the digital editor for Indianapolis Monthly, and a contributing editor to Politico Magazine.