Believe it or not, Bruce McCulloch of The Kids in the Hall fame is a Mount Royal alumnus. And he happened to learn a thing or two while on campus.
Growing up in Calgary during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bruce McCulloch’s wacky — but deeply observant — sense of humour flew in the face of his hometown’s conservatism, which he describes as “an oilman’s and businessman’s playground.” His unique outlook led to him being labelled as “kind of weird,” but McCulloch didn’t run from the epithet. In fact, he continues to revel in oddity.
“I never felt more ‘alternative’ than I did in Calgary,” McCulloch says. That dichotomy just might be one of the reasons he ended up so darn funny. He credits — with much feeling — his time doing improv with Calgary’s Loose Moose Theatre Company as instrumental to his career, saying the long-time bastion of original stage performances launched his development as a comedian, actor, writer and producer. McCulloch’s TV show Young Drunk Punk (which unfortunately only ran for one season) was an award-winning semi-autobiographical series celebrating McCulloch’s interpretation of growing up in Calgary, a place where he says fisticuffs were thrown often, but where it was also easy to explore individuality. McCulloch went so far as to shoot part of the series in Brae Glen, a complex in the southwest community of Braeside where he grew up.
McCulloch left the city in 1984 for Toronto, where he and fellow Calgarian Mark McKinney joined up with Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald. Together, they were already known as The Kids in the Hall, a moniker they kept for the sketch comedy troupe McCulloch is perhaps best known for being a part of. Scott Thompson became the final member, and the gang went on to have their own self-titled show on CBC. The series, which also aired in the U.S. on HBO, CBS and Comedy Central, ran from 1989 to 1995.
We all have our garbage bags to bear
His personality often leads him to get into trouble “just for the sport of it,” says McCulloch, who took public relations, journalism and business courses at Mount Royal in the early ’80s.
“I throw myself into situations for the hell of it and always have. I was talking to my sister about Bagels and Buns in Calgary and how I put my grad suit out the window on a fishing line above the street high enough that no one could grab it, and I just kept it there for weeks until someone stole it. For no other reason than it was interesting to me.”
That tendency unexpectedly folded nicely into the journalism courses McCulloch took, which resulted in being “profoundly important for what I ended up doing,” he says, even though he didn’t realize it at the time.
“I remember having a teacher ask, ‘Well, what’s interesting about that? Why should I care about that?’” McCulloch says. “And that’s sort of one of the tenets as I write or oversee shows as I do. It’s like, ‘OK, well, why is that interesting, why is that important?’
“Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s important. It doesn’t mean it’s important in terms of fiction or creativity. It has to resonate with people or be funny to people, whatever that is. So, it’s not really about you.”
While he did manage to absorb that life lesson, McCulloch says, “Mostly I wandered the halls of Mount Royal with all of my work in a garbage bag because I was such a mess.”
Where the laughter comes from
Human nature can be a combination of audacity and irreverence that results in high comedy, and McCulloch is an expert in its examination. He’s working on his second book, Tales of Bravery and Stupidity, and performed vignettes from it during a January appearance at Mount Royal’s Bella Concert Hall. The show was kicked off by Cathy Jones, who is most known as a performer and writer on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and contained several references to Mount Royal, Calgary and Alberta. It was a hilarious, but touching, trip down memory lane, with McCulloch mentioning often that society only works if people support each other, and that comedy only succeeds when society’s boundaries are tested.
“The stories (in Tales of Bravery and Stupidity) are really about how I get myself into situations, in some ways, almost to create material,” McCulloch says, but he is well aware of this idiosyncrasy and how it makes him, well, himself. His first book, Let’s Start a Riot, was released by Harper Collins in 2014, and contains a quote that McCulloch’s good friend Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip would eventually incorporate into a song.
“The love that you get will flow right through you if you don’t know who you are.”
McCulloch has also written and performed for network and cable television, including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schitt’s Creek and Trailer Park Boys. His robust show biz resume includes the one-man shows Jazz Stenographers, The Two-Headed Roommate, Slightly Bigger Cities and The Pink Dot Stories.
Although he recently moved back to Toronto after 20 years in the Hollywood Hills, McCulloch says Calgary will always be home to him. Of the city’s current economic woes, he says, “It’s interesting. I left in ’84, which is kind of the last ‘official’ economic bust that Calgary had. Some of my best friends in the world are at One Yellow Rabbit. And I feel like, obviously, some of the boom helps fund the arts. But a booming economy sometimes isn’t so good for artists. They can’t find places to play, they can’t find apartments, they can’t find things. A downturn can help balance out a city because the people who aren’t just the rich people ordering $15 glasses of Malbec on a Friday get a shot.” He definitely doesn’t want Calgary to struggle, but he points out the city might just be more resilient than people think.
“We want Calgary to be fine, and of course it will be fine,” McCulloch says, noting the good stuff will stick around. Or come back, just like he did.
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