TORONTO – Of all the Kids in the Hall fans who have been waiting for the beloved comedy troupe to return to series television, perhaps none has been as eager as group member Scott Thompson.
The quintet brings their absurdist comic mystery, “Death Comes to Town,” to CBC-TV on Tuesday, and the funnyman says if it were up to him it would have come years earlier. He says his own professional pursuits sputtered after the Kids retired their CBC sketch comedy show in 1994 and that his stage career virtually imploded in 2001 when he sunk all his money into an ill-timed show about terrorism in New York City.
Thompson says it was the Kids’ well-received reunion tour in 2008 that reignited the creative juices of the group, inspiring them to brainstorm an eight-part miniseries about a codpiece-wearing demon who arrives in a quirky Ontario town to collect a few souls.
“This show has been the panacea for all five of us…. for me, it’s definitely what I’ve been waiting for,” Thompson says in a recent interview, adding that he long wished for a TV reunion – “probably since ’96,” he jokes.
Thompson says he had hit “rock bottom” by the time Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald, Dave Foley and Bruce McCulloch agreed to regroup, but he was dealt another blow just as the revered comics began work on new material – cancer.
He was diagnosed last March with non-Hodgkin’s gastric lymphoma, an aggressive form of stomach cancer, and told it was inoperable.
“We were getting ready to write the first drafts of the series and I got thrown overboard by my diagnosis,” says Thompson, who was living in L.A. at the time.
“It completely threw me so I had to come home (to Toronto).”
Thompson says he underwent six bouts of chemotherapy and was determined to get well enough to shoot the miniseries before summer was over.
“For me, it was that light in the darkness for all those months,” says Thompson, whose characters on the show include ditsy meteorologist Heather Weather, Dusty the coroner and Crim, the hand sanitizer-sniffing town ne’er-do-well.
“I just kept focusing on it and going, ‘I have to be well enough to shoot this series. First of all, I can’t die – that’s not going to be good. And I’m not giving these parts to Mark and Dave, forget it.”‘
The irony of working on a series about death was not lost on anyone, adds Thompson.
“I got pretty sick and I couldn’t really participate for a certain period,” he notes. “In the writers’ room they just set up a bed for me – they put a mattress on the floor and whenever I would feel well enough to join in I would and then if I was going to vomit I’d go outside, have some medical marijuana, and come back in.”
Shooting was postponed so that Thompson could complete his chemotherapy before appearing in front of the cameras. He wrapped up the rigorous treatments on Aug. 1 of last year and was shooting the series in North Bay, Ont., by Aug. 15.
“They were amazing,” Thompson says of his comedy partners. “They treated me like nothing was different, they mocked me ruthlessly, made fun of my cancer and it’s what I needed.”
Two days after the seven-week shoot ended, Thompson began a four-month stint of radiation. He says he’s now cancer-free.
McKinney, who largely appears half-naked in his role as the surly, single-toothed Death, says the reunion was so much fun there’s talk of more collaborations. In the meantime, negotiations are ongoing to land a broadcast deal for “Death Comes to Town” in the United States.
Of all the Kids, he and Foley have arguably maintained the strongest public profile since the group left television roughly 15 years ago. McKinney built a successful career as a writer on critically acclaimed series including NBC’s shortlived “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” the defunct Canadian drama “Slings and Arrows,” and the dark comedy “Less Than Kind,” which begins a second season on HBO Canada next month.
Foley went on to a steady stream of TV and film gigs, including a starring role in the NBC sitcom “NewsRadio,” recurring guest spots on big-network shows “Will and Grace,” “Scrubs” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” and voiceover work including 1998’s “A Bug’s Life.”
McCulloch moved on to feature film directing, helming Molly Shannon’s comedy “Superstar” in 1999 and the Tom Green farce “Stealing Harvard” in 2002, and later creating and writing the shortlived ABC sitcom, “Carpoolers” in 2007. McDonald’s string of character roles included stints on “That ’70s Show” and “Less Than Kind,” and he recently toured a one-man show, “Hammy and the Kids.”
Interspersed were various shortlived Kids reunions that included the poorly received 1996 film “Brain Candy” and three tours in the last 10 years. Thompson says group members – notoriously fractious when they were together – stayed close even as each went in different directions, with Thompson increasingly eager to try a TV comeback.
“The first few years (after the sketch show ended) I was convinced that the rest of my career would just be an ongoing slope up. And then the slope ended and there was a precipitous drop,” says Thompson, whose post-Kids days included recurring roles on “The Larry Sanders Show” in 1998, “Providence” in 2001, and “Carpoolers” in 2007.
“And then, as I was dropping, about halfway to the bottom I went, ‘Geez, maybe it’d be good if the Kids in the Hall did something more in television.’ And then I hit rock bottom. And then I woke up and the next thing I knew, it was happening.”
Hardly kids anymore, the offbeat comics appear thicker around the middle and greying on top, but a glimpse at the new series reveals the same ludicrous sensibility that earned them a cult-like following. Characters on the half-hour show include McCulloch’s Ricky, a 600-pound, shamed hockey player; McDonald’s Marnie, a senile pizza delivery lady; and Foley’s kindly Doc Porterhouse, who offers a free kitten with every abortion procedure.
Looking back on the past year, Thompson calls it both the best and the worst of his life. But after overcoming devastating health and career woes he says he feels invigorated and excited by the future, and especially proud of returning to the spotlight with his comedy “brothers.”
“I’m so excited, I’m so happy,” Thompson says. “Imagine – I’m alive, I’m cancer free and I’m on the verge of a comeback.”
“Death Comes to Town” debuts on CBC-TV on Tuesday.