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Q&A: Kids in the Hall’s Bruce McCulloch on being a young, drunk punk

Bruce HeadshotIt’s been a rich season for Can-comedy titles, with memoirs from SCTV’s Andrea Martin and Martin Short, and now Kids in the Hall’s Bruce McCulloch. Let’s Start a Riot: How a Young Drunk Punk Became a Hollywood Dad is a collection of personal essays that ruminates on McCulloch’s personal and familial relationships. (Fun publishing fact: the young butler on the book’s cover is the offspring of HarperCollins Canada’s non-fiction editorial director, Jim Gifford.)

McCulloch will launch the book tomorrow night at Toronto’s Isabella Bader Theatre where he’s performing a stage version of Young Drunk Punk, while on break from shooting a 13-episode television series to air in January 2015.

Q&Q spoke to McCulloch about the genesis of the book.

Why did you initially decide to start writing the essays? The whole thing came from the impulse that I wanted to write some stories about myself. If you drew a pie chart, I’d be at the centre. I think it was in response to some things I was doing in Hollywood, like writing pilots that I got paid well for but didn’t end up happening. I thought, “I just want to write some silly stuff that I don’t know where it’s going to go, and I don’t care where it’s going to go.” So I followed that impulse and in a general way it’s worked out. I’ve never been able to do it any other way. I didn’t get into this business to pitch a TV show to NBC – I got into it to connect with people. It was the same impulse that drove me to this book.

What is the connection between the book, theatre production, and TV series? I wrote a couple pieces for Calgary’s Swerve magazine, and out of that discovered I really enjoyed telling stories about my weird family. I put that on stage, and publishers came and said, “This should be a book.” TV producers came and said, “This should be a TV series.”

LetsStartARiotWhat was the biggest challenge in writing for the page? It’s one thing to write a funny monologue, but for me – who knows if you’ll rip me a new one when you review it – it’s to tell a larger story about family and finding one’s place. There isn’t a literal narrative, but there’s an emotional one. That was the challenge.

As Kenny Rogers says, “Know when to hold ’em… know when it’s time to be really funny and when to stomp it down and say something really serious.”

You recount some intimate moments, especially with your wife (such as drinking her breast milk). Did she set any limits? She knows that she’s with an artist and that’s part of the game. I would never want to hurt someone, but you have to pull punches. It’s not a tell-all book, but some of the people who have responded to the book like the way I talk about having a loving marriage, but also that it’s hard to be married. It’s not polite. It’s a real conversation about relationships and family.

Some of it’s slightly surreal, but some of it is absolutely true and most of it is at least emotionally true. The framework may be true, but the punchline is something I thought of.

Was it therapeutic to write? Absolutely. People just become names in our stories at a certain point and to actually go back and see what they meant to you – like the story of my first love moving away – can take you right back there. Our own archeology is fascinating. There’s always more there than you think there is.

Did you face pressure to turn the book into a Kids in the Hall memoir? I’ve been asked to write such a book – I’m sure the other guys have, too. We’ve always talked about but never gotten around to it. But I don’t have moral permission to write that book because our story is not my story. That’s why almost the hardest stuff to write was the Kids in the Hall stuff. I could probably write a whole book about how shitty Brain Candy was, but it would have to really be about something else, like success and failure.

The emotional story of this book is about family and the Kids in the Hall is my second family. It’s more interesting for me to talk about being in Seattle for Kurt Cobain’s vigil, which isn’t really about Kids in the Hall, but it kind of is.

How does the television series connect to the book? The series is based on specific sliver, which is Calgary in 1980. It’s a composite of all the people I knew who were young searchers. There are two young guys trying to find their way. In the pilot, they play the Buzzcocks for the entire school and think it’s going to move them, but it doesn’t.

I play the father, and we’re actually shooting the series in the townhouse community that I lived as a teenager.

Has it changed much? It’s more beautiful that I remember.

This interview has been edited and condensed.