Trying to quantify Canadian comedy can be a challenge. At best guess: It’s a lethal combination of matter-of-factness and surrealism, seasoned with just the right amount of fart jokes. Or it’s anything Bruce McCulloch has his name on.
The 58-year-old is the perfect example of what makes Canadian comedy so unique. From his years as a member of consistently wonderful sketch troupe the Kids in the Hall to his short stint as a filmmaker to his continued work as a TV director and producer for shows like Schitt’s Creek, Brooklyn Nine Nine, and Trailer Park Boys, McCulloch’s singular tone pulses through each project, with jokes arriving at odd angles alongside moments of sincerity and naked emotion.
To experience McCulloch’s particular style of entertainment in its purest form, you’d do well to get to the Alberta Rose Theatre on Friday, January 10. McCulloch will be presenting his latest one-man show Tales of Bravery and Stupidity, which, as he told the Mercury, is “part stand-up, part storytelling,” and filled with his “weird observations of the world.” And there’s music.
MERCURY: Something I admire about your work is your willingness to blend your personal life into your art. I’m thinking of the monologues you would do for The Kids in the Hall or the series Young Drunk Punk, which was based loosely on your teen years.
BRUCE MCCULLOCH: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found an ability to lay it truthfully on the line a little bit more. I think even as a young Kid in the Hall, I hid my love for the world with my dark sense of humor. I have that conversation in this show, and I think people quite seem to like that.
Tell me more about the music element of the show. Will there be songs from your past albums or more new stuff?
Just a little bit of music now and then. I do a kind of beat poetry. I always have a musical element to all the stuff that I do.
"I do a kind of beat poetry."-Bruce McCulloch
You maintain a good balance between stage shows, live performances, working on camera, and working behind the scenes. Is it important for you to flex all these muscles?
I’ve had a resurgence in my love of my work. I had a very close friend, Gord Downie, who was the singer of the Tragically Hip. I actually discuss this a bit in this show—with his passing, I’ve really found a new fire for the work. I was in LA for many years, and I got a little like, “Oh, NBC didn’t do my pilot this year. Okay, well, there’s always next year.” Now I feel a bit on fire. And nothing is more important to me, truly, than communicating with an audience. I want to be like Mavis Staples. Not in terms of importance, but in longevity. I remember seeing her eight years ago, and she was, I think, 75. And she just knocked it out of the park. And then she said, “I’ve got CDs for sale out front,” and I thought, “I think that is so cool.”
Post-Kids in the Hall, you transitioned into working behind the camera. You directed some films, and lately you’ve been directing episodes of Canadian comedy shows like TallBoyz and Schitt’s Creek. Was that something you always had in mind as a career goal?
Well, no. I got myself in a development rut when I lived in LA, where I would sell lots of projects to studios or networks, and they would end up not doing them. And I just want to work. So that’s when I started doing Brooklyn Nine Nine and some other shows. I realized I really love directing. I did Superstar as a young man, and the stress got to me. Now that I’m older, it’s fun. I just did a season of Trailer Park Boys out in Halifax, and it was fantastic.
Do you see yourself settling into more of a mentor-type role, working with younger comics like the guys from TallBoyz, or the Northey siblings with whom you co-created This Blows?
I’m part mentor, part cautionary tale. When we did The Kids in the Hall, nobody ever told me that I couldn’t be prickly, or I couldn’t come in late. No one told me I couldn’t yell at the head of Paramount. I just didn’t know because I came from a jungle of a home. I came from a drunk dad. We all had drunk dads. We fought our way up. So it’s wonderful to be able to go, “Here’s how I think you should do it, guys. And watch out for this, and make sure to thank that person. And be compliant, but not too compliant.” I really enjoy that now.
"I’m part mentor, part cautionary tale. When we did The Kids in the Hall, nobody ever told me that I couldn’t be prickly, or I couldn’t come in late. No one told me I couldn’t yell at the head of Paramount." -Bruce McCulloch
How did you get involved with TallBoyz?
Every so often, I drop into Humber College here in Canada, which, believe it or not, has a comedy program. They show me their work and I re-block scenes, or we write together. Vance Banzo, who is one of the four people in TallBoyz, was there and he was just so funny. I found out he had a comedy troupe and I just literally said, “let’s try to do a show together.” We got lucky. And we’re very close to a pickup for our second season. It went fast for them. The Kids in the Hall took probably seven or eight years before we got on TV. These guys have only been together a couple of years at most.
What about the Northey siblings from This Blows?
Their father, Craig Northey, composed a lot of music for Kids in the Hall and does the music for my new stage show. His daughter is a friend of ours, and his son was a young director, so I thought, “Let’s try do something.”
Will there be more This Blows?
There may be. I don’t know if I’ll be able to once TallBoyz kicks back up.
I want to ask about your experience working for Saturday Night Live. There was a period in 1985 when you and Mark McKinney were apprentice writers. How was that for you?
As I said, I was not always the best young person. I left the [Kids], but I didn’t know how important they really were for me. I thought I was just gonna go off and find other great comedy brains. And when I went to Saturday Night Live, I realized that the only comedians I truly bonded with were Mark and the other guys in the troupe. I kind of failed there. I got a few things on, but I didn’t set the world on fire. It just reaffirmed how much my sense of humor was the troupe’s.
"I was not always the best young person. I left the [Kids], but I didn’t know how important they really were for me. I thought I was just gonna go off and find other great comedy brains." -Bruce McCulloch
I remember George Meyer—who went on to be a big Simpsons writer—he would always get mad at me because my ideas were so weird. Then he finally saw The Kids in the Hall and said, “I get it now.”
You directed five feature films. Is that something you’d like to do again?
I’m actually discussing something now. I don’t know if I’ll end up doing it. But, you know, I just did Trailer Park Boys. We did 10 episodes in 20 days, and we really didn’t have scripts. That’s the most fun I can have. There’s something about the two years of making a film that I don’t think is really my speed. I love how fast TV can be. But I’m writing a film now.
Are there movies of yours that you think didn’t get the attention they deserved?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve learned so much more about story and directing, that I would want to redirect all of my films. I saw Superstar recently and I thought, “Ow, that’s a weird film. Who let me make that film?” The elephant in the room a little bit is when I did a Tom Green film [2002’s Stealing Harvard]. That’s when it was not that easy for me to get films. He was a big star when I signed on to that, and it tanked. And I went with it. That’s when I realized TV was what I loved.
Is there anything else on the horizon following this tour?
We have a blinking little light on Kids in the Hall. We’ve been in discussions to do another mini-series, so that may be happening.
I keep hoping that the Criterion folks will come knocking on your door to do a big deluxe DVD of Brain Candy.
Sadly, we never kept all the other endings and cut scenes. We ran out of the sinking ship of that editing room so fast.