After five seasons of their HBO show (a long-time fixture of Channel 4's post-pub programming here in the UK), the Canadian comedy troupe known collectively as The Kids in the Hall reunited for a one-off shot at big-screen immortality that remains among the most outré projects producer Lorne Michaels signed his name to in the Nineties. So outré, in fact, that 1996's Brain Candy has languished unseen in distribution hell for much of the intervening quarter-century. At some point in the last decade, a generous soul uploaded a workable print to YouTube for general viewing; one wonders if the recent Prime Video reboot has renewed interest in such an artefact. Later seasons of the show demonstrated a fondness for sequences rather than traditional sketches, trading in mini-narratives instead of the usual catchphrases and punchlines, in segments often directed by the Kids themselves. The movie extends that urge into a post-Ecstasy, pre-Prozac fable about the corporatisation of happy pills and science gone wrong, while playing squarely to the Kids' established strengths: markedly disparate personalities assigned to multiple characters, an easy facility with genre parody, an element of queerness that differentiated the Kids from their sketch-show contemporaries, and a viciously sharp eye for semi- or fully sociopathic men in suits. Having recently revisited the original series ahead of the reboot, I think it's evident that this gang were anti-capitalist before that was really a word - or at least wise to the fact absurdist comedy might provide a cheering alternative or counterpoint to the way the world was turning heading into the millennium. (It makes sense that these Kids should hail from the same country that would give the world 2003's The Corporation, with its assertion that corporate enterprise is inherently psychopathic.)
Michaels' Nineties slate was a scattershot selection that extended from the broadly adored Wayne's World series to the largely reviled Coneheads, but - as the new two-part Prime doc Comedy Punks underlines - the Kids were savvier script editors than most, a five-headed hydra with an eye and ear for what played, what didn't, and what was at least worth trying. Brain Candy benefits from a strong narrative throughline that also doubles as a joke about the checks and balances central to the North American worldview. For the evils of wonder drug Gleemonex to become apparent, what's required is a specific combination of corporate ruthlessness, scientific complacency and public distractibility; what the movie offers us aren't sketches that come and go but riffs on this theme, a series of societal observations that add up to a goofball vision of fin-de-siècle American life. Kelly Makin, a regular director on the series, does a lot with a modest budget. Scenes at a concert (underlining that very 90s idea that comedy was the new rock 'n' roll) get a bit familiar through repetition, but also yield one of the film's strongest gags: the effect of these happy pills on a certain grungy mindset. (Brain Candy was also post-Cobain, the work of outsiders coming in from the Canadian cold, while themselves wrestling with the perils of selling out.)
Elsewhere, we get a deft, fun sketch of the high life head scientist Chris Cooper (Kevin McDonald) is uncomfortably thrust into; a musical number in which Scott Thompson's closeted family man Wally finally comes out as gay; and flashbacks to the latter's time in the Army which rank among the funniest origin stories American cinema has ever given us. (Ellen DeGeneres might disagree, but Thompson's contributions to the original show comprise one of the strongest arguments television has ever made in favour of diversity: his position and presence, as one of the few openly gay men on TV in the early 1990s, gave sketches a whole new inflection, voice and line of thinking. There was something of the cabaret about him, which there wasn't in, say, The Mary Whitehouse Experience or The Fast Show, notable as those shows were.) Maybe it's the creative freedom Michaels facilitated, but Brain Candy never quite goes in the directions you anticipate, and there are elements that don't fit the genre template at all. Chief among them: Bruce McCulloch's Cancer Boy, trialled in the final shows of the series (by which point the Kids had nothing to prove or lose), and now given fuller expression as the poster child for the kind of grisly, sickly exploitation the satire is getting at. Cancer Boy remains as close as this troupe got to 21st century edgelordery, but here, as elsewhere in Brain Candy, a point is being made beyond the initial, confrontational shock, about our desperate need to mitigate against the sadness in our midst; it's backed up by an exceptionally confounding "happy ending". (No sell out.) Still, laughter remains the best medicine, and there remains plenty here to chuckle and smile at 25 years on: the Big Pharma publication calling itself "Drug Variety"; the young Brendan Fraser, uncredited as a testy guinea pig; Thompson's impersonation of Elizabeth II; and a dash of Matthew Sweet (the Nineties one) over the end credits.
Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy is now available to stream on YouTube.