Dave Foley is one of the founding members of the comedy troupe Kids in the Hall, which developed a cult following and earned widespread critical acclaim. The show was nominated for several Emmy Awards and won Canada’s Gemini Award multiple times. He was also one of the leads on the TV sitcom News Radio. Foley came to the Second City in Chicago to conduct a friendly Q&A session hosted by Second City Chicago’s Main Stage performer Katie Rich, who now writes for Saturday Night Live.
In this interview, Foley talks about where Kids in the Hall originated, overcoming rejection, his personal writing process, writing for stand up VS writing for TV & movies, and of course, general advice and wisdom.
KIDS IN THE HALL ORIGIN STORY
So can I say that you dropped out of high school?
I did. You CAN say that. [audience laughter]
Yes but do you…uhh…encourage that for others? [audience laughter]
Yes! I think it’s a complete waste of time, obviously. I say drop out! [audience laughter] Get a career in television, get a couple of ex-wives, and then start doing stand up! [audience laughter / applause break]
You and Kevin McDonald founded Kids in the Hall together. How did you guys meet?
We met at a Second City workshop. I was randomly paired with Kevin for a mirror exercise, and we had to make each other laugh by doing the mirror exercise and that’s when we went, “Oh, we both think this is stupid!” [audience laughter] So by the end of that class he asked me to join his improv team.
And when did Kids in the Hall start?
Kevin and I teamed up with Mark (McKinney) and Bruce (McCulloch)—who had come from Calgary, from a troupe called ‘The Audience’.
The Audience? [laughs]
Yeah…it was a terrible name. [audience laughter]
Where did the name ‘Kids in the Hall’ come from?
The story goes…people would hang out in the halls and pitch jokes for the Sid Caesar Show. And at the time, the young guys pitching these jokes were guys like Neil Simon and Woody Allen. And they would shout out jokes to Sid Caesar trying to get jobs on the show. And Sid would refer to them as the ‘Kids in the Hall’. He’d go, “Hey, let’s go with one of those jokes from those kids in the hall.”
That’s a better origin story than I was expecting actually. [audience laughter]
Yeah…think about how shitty the name, The Beatles is, it’s a pun! [audience laughter] “Hey, let’s make beat music and call ourselves The BEATles!” People forget that that ‘A’ makes it a pun. [audience laughter]
So…Kids in the Hall has what you’d call a ‘Cult Following’?
I guess so…I don’t really know what a cult following means… It means ‘Not That Successful’ is what it really means… [audience laughter]
But everyone WANTS to have a cult following, don’t they?
No! No, they don’t! [audience laughter] A cult following is the comedy equivalent of, “She’s got a pretty face…but that’s it.” [audience laughter]
What was your experience with Saturday Night Live?
Well…umm…we got scouted for Saturday Night Live in ’85. Mark (McKinney) and Bruce (McCulloch) were hired as apprentice writers…which meant they had a desk in a hallway. [audience laughter] They did NOT have offices. And they were there for the ’85-86 season, which I believe is incontestably, the WORST season ever. [audience laughter]
And you guys did not get hired by Second City either…
We all auditioned for Second City, Kevin and I auditioned half a dozen times for Second City…and never got hired. [audience laughter] But they give you the audition right about the time where you’re just about done shelling out the money for classes.
As in, “Hey, you can audition because you paid enough money for classes.”?
No, like they give you an audition when it looked like you were gonna STOP paying. [audience laughter] More like:
“Oh no! It looks like he’s gonna quit paying for classes!”
“Well…give him an audition!”
And meanwhile, they have you thinking, “This is my chance!” And that’s how they keep you there another year. [audience laughter]
Yeah, they still do that here… [audience laughter]
‘Cause dreams are a natural resource, that should be mined. [audience laughter]
KIDS IN THE HALL
After all that, you finally got on HBO. How did that compare to SNL?
Contrary to what they have you believe at SNL, it’s NOT that hard a job.
Ohh you’re bragging…
No, they have A LOT of time off. SO MUCH easier than Kids in the Hall. We worked 13 MONTHS STRAIGHT on our first season without a day off. SNL works like, three weeks and then have a week off…and they really only work like four days a week… I mean, for us, SNL was like a part time job. [audience laughter]
Kids in the Hall lasted five seasons. Did you think it would last that long?
No, GOD no! [audience laughter] After our first six episodes we got a call saying they picked us up for 22 episodes, which was mind blowing! And then we got cancelled… [audience laughter] We actually got cancelled like, almost every year. The head of HBO at the time HATED the show. The show was supposed to air on Friday nights right after Letterman, but in those days our show was considered ‘Too Shocking’ for uhh…12:30 at night on a Friday night… [audience laughter] So they wouldn’t run it till 2-3:00 in the morning.
With the success of the show, why didn’t you keep it going for more than five seasons?
We just felt that five years was a long time—especially doing twenty something episodes a year. (Monty) Python did twelve. And also, we wanted to go onto movies. We did a film called Brain Candy—which ended our film careers… [audience laughter]
Lets talk about that… [audience laughter]
Well, Lorne (Michaels) wanted a movie, so he brought us into Paramount, but the executives hated us… [audience laughter]
Why does everybody hate you guys?!? [audience laughter]
Well, we had this character called ‘Cancer Boy’ who we actually had on one of our last episodes of Kids in the Hall on an episode called, ‘Things We Couldn’t Do on TV’. But…the executive at Paramount was VERY involved with cancer research… [audience groans & laughs]
And the troupe fought to keep Cancer Boy—and so because of that, they took the film down from over 1,000 screens to just 400. And they cut the advertising budget to the bare contractual minimum, and there were no TV ads for the movie. So, they basically buried the movie. Most people had NO IDEA that the movie even came out.
So you basically got fucked?
Yeah, but it was entirely our fault. [audience laughter]
Do you regret fighting for that?
Oh sure, it was stupid! [audience laughter] But also by that point, we had all been working together 10 years straight—like NEVER having a minute away from each other for 10 years. And we never really liked each other that much. [audience laughter]
What? What do you mean? You had to like each other a little bit?
Eh, we were never really nice to each other. We were always a group that fought, pretty ferociously.
How would you fight? Would you do personal attacks?
Oh mostly, yeah. [audience laughter] ‘Cause the idea is not to destroy the work, you want to destroy the HUMAN. [audience laughter] So it’d be like, “That’s a terrible joke—and the reason it’s so terrible is because you are a cunt!” [audience laughter]
Tell us about your writing process. When do your funniest ideas come about?
The best ideas come when you’re NOT writing. During Kids in the Hall, we spent an awful lot of time watching MTV videos and saying stupid things at the TV. And that would end up giving us a great idea for an episode.
But that’s so hard to quantify! ‘Cause you’re sitting around a computer or you’re sitting around your writing meetings, yet NOTHING comes out of it. And all of a sudden at 2:00 AM you fart on a guy’s face and you’re like, “That’s hilarious!” I mean, you don’t write a sketch about that but…
[laughs] No, you’re not Adam Sandlar!
So you’re doing stand up now. Are you doing stand up because you need money? [audience laughter]
Yeah, of course. [audience laughter] That’s why I started doing it…just like every other middle aged sketch comic. [audience laughter]
How do you write your stand up? Because that’s just YOU. Everything else you’ve done, you were collaborating.
Eh, well I just went around all the various alt-comedy rooms in L.A. for a few months, and eventually when I had enough material, I did a one-hour show. And once that worked, I called up my agent and said, “Let’s go on the road!”
Whenever you’re writing, are you ever like, “This is it! This is gold!”
[laughs] more like, “Ehh, this’ll get the job done.” [audience laughter] I mean, I know when something’s good. Usually, if I think something’s gonna work, it does.
Have you always had that instinct?
Umm…I think I’ve had the instinct, but I’ve honed the craft of it over the years to where I’m more consistent in how I develop things. Just doing it so many years, it’s like there’s an audience in your head that’s an amalgam of every audience you’ve ever played in front of. And you can just feel it.
Which is why improv and performing is such an important tool for writers. Writers who have NEVER performed are missing that tool. And they’re missing that ear, that ability to hear an audience react to things in their head. And alotta times with sitcoms, you’re dealing with writers who have never been performers. And they’ll write a line that, on the page seems wonderfully funny, but when you say it out loud you realize that it not only isn’t funny, but it doesn’t even make sense.
WRITING FOR KIDS IN THE HALL
When we write shows here at Second City, we come up with ideas and then we improvise them in front of an audience. What works, we keep, and what doesn’t work, we throw away. For Kids in the Hall, you guys didn’t do that?
No, we never improvised stuff. We would get together and basically shout out ideas to each other very quickly. We would write and hone the sketch in from a writing standpoint. We never had an idea and just improvised it.
Writing for a TV show, we focused on “Tight Writing”. Like, if you wrote something that was three minutes or under, it was MUCH easier to get in the show. If it was five minutes, you had to fight. If it was over five minutes, you would almost NEVER get it in. So the focus was to always be tight.
And with improv writers, sketches tend to be more meandering. And they tend to be more character-based, whereas Kids in the Hall was more premise-based.
How do you “Kill Your babies”? Is that difficult for you, or are you not very prescious about it?
Na, I’m not at all prescious about anything. I mean, you pitch a joke, and if no one likes it, who cares. It’s something where I go, “All right, I have written 1,000 jokes and I will write 1,000 more jokes.” If you’re funny, it doesn’t matter. Everything is disposable.
And in a scene, you can have a joke that you absolutely LOVE, but if it’s hurting the flow of the scene, you hafta cut it. You just hafta cut great jokes. You hafta throw great jokes away if they don’t make the scene better. So you hafta just…not love anything. [audience laughter]
How do you avoid writer’s block?
The way to avoid writer’s block is to take acting work.
[audience laughter] To procrastinate by acting…
Yes, as a way to avoid writing. [audience laughter] Because acting’s easy. Writing is just the shittiest thing on Earth to spend your time doing. Writing is just horrible. I don’t understand people who ENJOY writing. I think you hafta be some sort of an egomaniac to enjoy writing…to just sit back and find your own thoughts interesting. [audience laughter]
Having written something is great! Especially if you’re a performer. Getting to perform something you’ve written is a very pure thing. You’re saying things you thought were funny and then you’re doing them in the way you think is funny. As a comedian, that’s the best—doing your own work.
But you don’t like to sit down and write?
No, I HATE it. I put it off as much as I can.
You say you get distracted a lot. So is that where you find ideas?
Yeah, I think distraction is a great tool. Brain studies have shown that you get moments of insight when you are distracted from the problem you are trying to solve. And it’s good to give yourself that opportunity. For Kids in the Hall, when we had ideas that were going nowhere, we would often just leave and go go-karting for a few hours.
And usually, while we were just hanging out go-karting, we would come up with two or three ideas that were actually usable. It’s just that once you take your mind off it, it actually gives your subconscious a chance to come up with some decent ideas.
I love to take a nap.
You know, my favorite thing to do drove my SECOND wife crazy…because she never believed I was actually working. It was when I would wake up in the morning and be in that phase when you’re drifting in and outta sleep—THAT was when I would get my most productive work done for the entire day.
And as long as I could keep myself from thinking about any other real world problems I had to deal with during that period of time, when I would get out of bed at the end of that, I could go up easily pump out 10-20 pages. And of course, my wife would be like, “When are you gonna get outta bed and write?!” And I’d be laying there like, “I’m working, go away!” [audience laughter]
Do you think everything’s already been done before, and that there’s nothing worth writing anymore?
NO! [audience laughter] The infinite variations in ANY art form is AMAZING. I mean, you have the 12 tone scale, which is the basis of all music, right? Yet, every day somebody writes a new melody with this limited tool of these same 12 tones. No, not everything’s been done.
Everything can be varied. It’s like DNA. DNA is a very tiny bit of information, but it can be recombined into different figurations to create every living thing on Earth. Nothing is entirely original and new, just as every life form has evolved from something earlier. Every idea has evolved from something earlier and everything is seeded by things you’ve seen in the past.
Would it be terrible if I went pee really quick? I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee…
[Dave Foley leaves to take a quick pee break, audience gives him a standing ovation upon his return]
We thought you just left for good.
I can’t, I still hafta do a show… [audience laughter]
Out of all the Kids in the Hall sketches, who were your favorite characters that you played?
Hmm…well I did a sketch called “The Escapist”, about a terrible escape artist. And I loved doing that. Umm, also the Sizzler sisters, and Simon and Hecubus. [audience laughter]
How would you describe your evolution of when you first started all the way up until now?
I think I have become more skillful, but beyond just acquiring technical ability, I don’t think I’ve really changed much from when I was 17 years old. There’s definitely a through-line to what I thought was funny then, and what I think’s funny now. And skill is mostly about avoiding stealing—as in learning enough about what other people have done that you don’t just flat out steal from them.
So you’ve done sketches, you’ve done stand up, TV shows, and movies—all of it. Is funny ALWAYS funny, no matter what?
It’s always the same gig, no matter what the venue is. It’s all about understanding HOW to deliver a joke. To me, it’s about clarity too. Alotta people think that comedy doesn’t hafta be sensible. But I think comedy has to be watchable. Comedy has to make sense. People hafta understand the thought process behind the joke for it to be funny. They hafta know WHERE it goes off the rails and becomes a joke.
The audience has to understand the logic of the joke. And if you can’t convey that logic in a concise way, it’s not gonna work. You must understand that the people hearing the joke are NOT in your head. They don’t know your back story to your joke. Their entire universe exists from what you write down. And if you don’t have the information in the joke, no one’s gonna get it. And you hafta find a way to get the information out in a way that doesn’t interfere with the joke.
Best advice for us youngsters?
It’s really useful to study what you love—really intensely study it and understand everything about what they did and how they did it. And THEN, totally just throw it away.
Like for me, it was understanding EVERYTHING about what (Monty) Python does and with Kids in the Hall, we just threw it out. We literally went as far as we could structurally from (Monty) Python, because we loved it so much. So really, just study the people you love, and then just throw them away.