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Don’t ask why it’s funny

A lot of funny people would call Bruce McCulloch a comedy legendjust none of them named “Bruce McCulloch.” For more than 30 years, the writer, director, actor, musician, and founding member of The Kids in the Hall has been an influential voice across comedy mediums. A punk aficionado with a love of the inexplicable, McCulloch is touring his latest solo storytelling project that examines the necessity of putting oneself in harm’s way.  This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dan Jakes: Why does “The Daves I Know” make me so happy?

Bruce McCulloch: It’s probably the ridiculous tall pants that my children are still making fun of me for wearing. I don’t know. I really do think it’s just a celebration of the average person. It’s not about the Nigels I know, because we all know Nigel is a very stuffy, particular person. But Daves are everywhere. Just the fact that, “Is this guy really going to sing about this? Yep, he is.” And it’s a pretty catchy tune that I thumped out on my dad’s bass. But it’s just stupid. [Laughs]. 

It’s such a satisfying stupid, though. The almost-ASMR close-mic singing, the laid-back joy about something so mundane, the broken rhymes, the unremarked-upon reveal of David Foley in the crowd shot . . . what a perfect specimen of good comedy.

Well, thank you. It was funny, I grew to hate that song. And I remember when it was out, a lot of record labels approached me and said that they wanted to make it a single. And I said, “Ugh, why? Just to sell records and make money?!” And then, I finally did my record, Shame-Based Man, it was like, ”Yeah, they want ‘Daves I Know’ on it.” And I said, “OK, put it up in the studio. Let’s hear it.” I thought “I’ll re-record it,” because I didn’t love it, or something. And then I played it, and it was like, “No, this is really good. So let’s just put it on the record like this.”

Bruce McCulloch
Tales of Bravery and Stupidity 
Tue 3/14 8 PM (doors 7 PM), Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, thaliahallchicago.com, $41, 17+

You’ve spent more hours in drag than a lot of young professional drag queens. Which wig style feels the most right?

I think a red blunt cut really just is my look. But, of course, because I’m a comedian, I don’t always go for what looks good. Usually I go for, like, a curly wig that isn’t that flattering. Kathie shouldn’t have a flattering haircut.

You’ve said that you find it easier to feel soulful when playing a woman.

I mean, without question, it’s freeing. And what’s nicer than a peasant dress? [Laughs]. Doing women characters, I got closer to the women in my life. You know, Kathie, my secretary character, is essentially my sister. I would play all my girlfriends that I was being a bastard to, and I would kind of get closer to them. And because we’re not a gay comedy troupe, I thought it was almost even more interesting that we were doing drag. Because, you know, here I was dressing like a woman in the AIDs-ravaged mid-80s kissing Scott Thompson on the lips in scene after scene, and Kevin McDonald as well.

I was a closeted teen when Kids in the Hall was playing on Comedy Central, and at the time, I remember thinking that anything on TV that even acknowledged gay people felt scandalous. Watching it again now, I’m taken aback by how empathetic and down-to-earth the series is about queer people for the 80s and 90s.  

That’s for you to say, not me. But I can say I agree. And I think the complicated thing with our hero, or heroine, Buddy Cole, is that it’s so complicated for gay audiences then and now. He’s not playing something that’s more palatable to some people. He would talk about his love of male sex in a very effeminate way. And also he was kind of a boss. So it was very complicated for people because if you’re allowed to be gay, you’re allowed to be gay in a certain way. You were supposed to be talking about, you know, interior design. Or your love of Doris Day or something. No, he wants to talk about taking swarthy men home with him.

After you turned 50, you said that the preshow nerves you felt in your career prior to that point went away. What about your creative process and relationship to performance changed after 60?

For some reason, for me, I just want to do it more now. I don’t feel like time is running out. One of the heartbeats of Tales of Bravery and Stupidity is a friend of mine named Gord Downie. He was in Canada’s biggest band called The Tragically Hip, and he died of brain cancer a few years ago. And one of the things I do in my show is read the actual emails that we sent back and forth late in his life. And it’s me using gallows humor saying that they’re going on tour clearly for the money and obviously he wasn’t sick. [Laughs].  

One of the things in the show is a conversation about how we use gallows humor. I have two teenagers who’ve just been through, you know, the rough machine that is COVID. I’m really talking to them and everybody about the idea that we get through [despair] with humor. I remember when I saw Mavis Staples, you know, she was 75 at the time, well over 80 now. And she did a great show, and then at the end, she said, “Oh, there’s CDs for sale in the lobby.” And that’s what we’ve got to do. I’m lucky to be playing quite lovely theaters in Chicago and Boston, but that doesn’t matter. I’m just there to lay it out, whether it’s 100 people or 800.

Thalia Hall is going to be your kind of crowd, too. I know you premiered the solo show at SoHo Playhouse in New York. What are the differences between being up in front of a theater house versus a stand-up and sketch club audience? 

They’re subtle, but important. I actually started telling stories as soon as I started doing comedy. For me, storytelling is kind of the most joyful thing that I can do as a performer. Scott likes to inhabit a person. I like to tell a really good story that’s really funny and has a really good twist. And I’m good at it. I did a lot of The Moth series. Half the people knew me, and half didn’t, but they liked my story. And so there is something about storytelling and theater that can be richer. 

Somebody said my show is a magic trick. It’s like the funniest stand-up show in the world to start, and then it turns into a theater show, which I think is a great compliment, because I love a big, juicy joke onstage. There is something about storytelling and revealing universal stories or truth, where you didn’t see the hook coming or whatever, that is kind of more fun than anything. It’s why, crossing 60, I still am anxious to go do shows, because it’s so fun to commune with an audience.

At this point in your life, you’ve been referred to as a legend for more years than you spent as a punk kid outsider. But being an outsider has informed so much of your comedic and storytelling voice. Do you still identify as one?  

I’m certainly not a legend. I actually grimace when somebody calls me a legend. It’s like, yeah, I’m a legend who is trying to sell tickets. [Laughs].  But outsider. That was the great thing about the troupe. When we make the show, we’re making it for ourselves and our friends. And that’s one of the themes of my stage show now, is outsiders: there sure are a lot of us. We’re not filling Wembley Stadium, but we can always fill some size theater because there’s a lot of us who are outside. I don’t think anybody who sees our show wouldn’t kind of describe themselves as an odd duck. So yes, I’m firmly an outsider and everywhere I go, even selling a show to ABC, I’m still this weird little guy from Canada who can maybe do it.

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