Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Femulators in the Hall


The Kids in the Hall
 was “a Canadian sketch comedy TV series that aired for five seasons from 1988 to 1995, starring the comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall. The troupe, consisting of comedians Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson, appeared as almost all the characters throughout the series, both male and female, and also wrote most of the sketches.” (Source: Wikipedia)

I watched the series for the humor and more importantly, to see the males impersonating females – the same reasons I watched Monty Python's Flying Circus. I preferred Monty Python’s humor to The Kids in the Hall’s humor. However, when it came to female impersonation, there was no contest; I greatly preferred The Kids in the Hall to Monty Python.

Monty Python parodied women, whereas The Kids in the Hall femulated women. Their femulations were so good that they could pass among the civilians if they desired.

In his review of the Kids' film Brain Candy, Roger Ebert notes that the female characters in the film ‘are played “straight,” in the sense that we’re supposed to relate to them as women, not men in drag.’ Mia Steinle on Canonball blog observes that the troupe’s humour derives not from the fact that these are men in dresses, but rather that ‘situations involving women can be just as funny as situations involving men.’ For instance, the recurring ‘Kathie and Cathy’ sketches, featuring Bruce McCulloch and Scott Thompson as the titular secretaries, tend to work via character comedy, playing Kathie’s flustered giddiness off against Cathy’s sarcastic confidence. 

This conforms to the views expressed by the various Kids in interview regarding the way they performed as women. Scott Thompson states that they were not ‘winking at the audience’ […] these were playing ‘real women’, not ‘drag queens’. Bruce McCulloch relates their ease of playing women to the fact that the troupe is composed of  as he puts it  ‘feminine guys’. Kevin McDonald corroborates this opinion by explaining that because he’s a ‘feminine guy’, it makes it easier for him to become a ‘masculine woman.’  

What is interesting here is that the Kids position themselves in opposition to the strategies adopted by ‘drag queens’ who are assumed by them to be ‘fake women’. If Monty Python often adopted the same costumes – permed grey wigs, handbags, etc. –in order to represent types, the Kids’ costumes... are impressively varied. Strapless dresses; wedding dresses; jumpers; denim miniskirts; boots; t-shirts; pyjamas; waist-coats; trousers; the costumes often accentuated by subtle make-up techniques and convincing wigs. 

The rhetoric the Kids adopt indicates that they place gender on a spectrum to be performed – thus it is possible for a feminine man to move a few notches to become a masculine woman – rather than a binary system under which gender simply flips between male and female. This rhetoric by which the Kids are keen to demonstrate that they play women as women would do often results in them positioning themselves against the notion of drag. Dave Foley interviewed by Fred Topel about (the Kids’ film) Death Comes to Town makes this clear: ‘We kept working with our makeup and hair and wardrobe to get it as far away from drag as possible. We didn’t want to look like drag queens and we didn’t want to look at (sic.) men in dresses.’ 

When, in Mother Camp, an older performer critiques a younger boy’s drag performance, for ‘looking too much like a real woman,’ this is a critique I can imagine the Kids embracing as a great compliment and solidifying their position against drag.

The five indented paragraphs above are from an essay written by Adam Whybray titled “‘I'm Crushing Your Binaries!’ Drag in Monty Python and Kids in the Hall.” I urge you to read the entire essay if you are interested in Monty Python versus The Kids in the Hall femulating; it is excellent.



Wearing St. John
Wearing St. John


Bob Seagren femulating in a 1977 episode of television’s Soap
Bob Seagren femulating in a 1977 episode of television’s Soap
You can view the episode on dailymotion.

14 comments:

  1. when i saw today's "femulator" pic, i thought "i know that name from somewhere! but not as an actor". so i dug deep into the recesses of my mind, where in the early 70's as a (british) boy on the verge of puberty i owned a book on the history of the olympics. i used to pore through it again and again as i was already a massive fan of athletics both as a viewer and participant, and i made mental notes of the many all-american olympic heros featured - including pole vaulter bob seagren! i also sporadically watched "soap" a few years later when it was used as late-night filler on british television, but presumably missed his drag appearance? as a budding tranny at that point, i am pretty sure something like that would have remained rooted in my memory otherwise!

    anyway: this obviously has relatively little to do with transgenderism, but all the same i thank stana for re-awakening a fond memory. alas my own copy disappeared into the ether decades ago, but as a result of this have discovered several more available on ebay at reasonable prices. so i am tempted to replace it half a century on!

    https://www.antiquesportsbooks.com/product/the-olympics-1896-1972/

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  2. Agree, "The Kids in the Hall" were all fabulous femulators, but especially Dave Foley! He easily was one of the prettiest women on TV. Later on the sitcom "News Radio" he does full femulation for Halloween, wearing his girlfriend's dress and she is livid that he looks better in it than she does!

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  3. Monty Python made fun of everything and everyone. They followed the British tradition of "Pantomime", especially when the men were in women's clothes. When they wanted an actual female character they used Carol Cleveland for those roles. My favorite of these was "The Milkman". The bit involved the old trope of luring the milkman into the bedroom, but when he went into the bedroom he found the room was filled with dozens of other trapped milkmen. Well, it works wonderfully on screen. What I came to realize was that the Brits know how to do "silly" and we don't. Our attempts at silly most often turn out to be just plain dumb. For me, seeing "silly" actually work was what hooked me and kept me so eager for the next episode.

    The Kids in the Hall followed the Shakespearian tradition of a troupe of actors (men) playing all the roles. Plays were written with male and female roles and while some were come4dies, all the parts were realistic rather than wide parodies. That other approach was readily available in the rowdier beer halls. Watch the film "Stage Beauty" to see where Ned Kynaston, the pre-eminent male actress of his time, ended up after King Charles allowed women to perform on the stage. Both of these British stage traditions spread throughout the Empire and exist to this day. I guess because we broke from "the Empire" it didn't stick here in America.

    From time to time theaters here will do a "traditional casting" Shakespearian play and they approach it with great reverence and appreciation for the history. A couple years back the Washington Shakespeare Company did a "traditional casting" production of "The Taming of the Shrew". Take a peek at the link to see how well it turned out. https://www.shakespearetheatre.org/events/the-taming-of-the-shrew/

    I loved the production and went back for a second time. The actors played the women straight with nothing to tip off the audience. They took care of that issue by having the ladies of the play mingle in the lobby prior to opening the house. I don't think that was necessary. And at the end of the play there was no "reveal" with wigs coming off. Actors and actresses took their bows just as any cast would do. Shakespeare's words worked and there was no distraction at all. My only little distraction was that I thought Bianca was hot!

    Around the same time Washington's Scena Theater did a cross-gendered version of "The Importance of Being Earnest" in the same theater tradition. As with "Taming", a couple minutes into the play the words took over and we barely noticed. There has been another tradition of a male actor playing Lady Bracknell for a long time, which was part of their imepetus for their going all out. Again, no "reveal" at the curtain call. I saw this one a couple times, once getting some ladies from my Meetup group to join me.
    https://dctheatrescene.com/2015/08/24/scenas-cross-gendered-importance-of-being-earnest-review/

    So The Kids in the Hall were a throwback theatre troupe doing funny skits with male and female characters by an all male cast. Sure we knew, but again the words carry us away and the play's the thing, not the actors. I always enjoyed watching episodes and had great appreciation for their portrayal of the characters. The writing was genuinely funny and the delivery of the lines right on the spot. The "Kids" were really great at playing their parts, male or female.

    By the way, Stana, I LOVE the photo you've chosen for this posting. The reason the skits worked so well is that "The Kids" really got into their parts both, in looks and delivery. I think the people of the Shakespearian age would have loved them!


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  4. I nominate Dave Foley for the Not A Civilian Award.

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    1. i heard or read somewhere that once dave foley had acquired his reputation for being the prettiest and most convincing KITH cross-dresser, he stepped back from that and requested that his less-cute-in-drag colleagues play the majority of the female roles instead!

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    2. gina v - interesting. I'd never hard that. Maybe by the time BRAIN CANDY came round, he felt he wasn't as pretty anymore so he didn't mind. (giggle)

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    3. Brain Candy was released in 1996. The same year that Dave appeared in the “Halloween" episode of “NewsRadio" dressed in “office girl drag” (https://tinyurl.com/y6qu6y3w).

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  5. My first experience with Monty Python, happened about age 14/15, and the scene was at an adult party, where one of the characters announced: "Hey, that's a nice pair you got there" and the man then groped her breast! I was astounded! This was happening on our version of PBS, in our small-ish city!
    It was obvious that NOBODY was tuned in, as the local 'bible-belters' failed to burn down the studio...
    Then I experienced the immortal "Drag Race", two of the actors at a real drag strip, in heels, fishnets, garter belt, bra, revving their engines, waiting for the green light...
    Velma

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  6. I absolutely loved Kids in the Hall, and being in the UK bought a multi-region dvd player just so I could watch their dvds. I love Monty Python too, but for female characters, KITH wins hands down. Both Dave Foley & Mark McKinney en-femme were 2 of my teenage crushes, and even now watching them either via dvd or YouTube, they still have the same impact (especially Mark as the "white trash" female & Nina Bedford in Brain Candy!)

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    1. i agree that although he didn't have the natural attributes that dave foley possesed, mark mckinney really impressed when he dragged up for the show. in the dvd extras i watched in recent times, he remarked that whilst ready and waiting to do a skit dressed that he told the director in a husky voice that thanks to having flu he didn't feel up to doing the job. but that until such time he opened his mouth, people on set were observing him and wondering "who is that woman?"

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    2. Sorry to be a nit-picker Gina. We know the spectrum of our community is wide and includes crossdressers -- like me, for instance -- transexual women and drag performers. There's not a lot of overlap there outside of the clothing, perhaps. But when I look at the KITH (vs Monty Python, lets say) I just don't see the word "drag" really being accurate. Since everybody is on to the joke about a man satirizing a woman in drag, but it isn't really what the KITH do. They're actors playing female roles The characters they play are not doing drag, they're female characters.

      Maybe I'm being more than a little picky here, but I've gone to countless Drag/Female Impressionist/ straight plays with male actors playing female parts. I enjoy them all but especially the much more rarely seen plays. I love the distinction between the two British "schools", pantomime (drag) and straight acting in the old Shakespearian tradition. I have enormous esteem for the KITH and their adherence to the latter tradition.

      Now as far as the KITH pulling off believable female roles, certainly some are better than others -- just consider the "feminine man" characteristics of the actors. But they are all very earnest and do very credible work, no matter the sex/gender of the character they're playing. They make their characters very believable. I never get tired of watching them.

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    3. sorry if i stepped on any toes here, but if i use terminology that offends then that is a cross us self-deprecating brits have to bear.

      with the likes of cleese and chapman in their team, monty python were never going to give KITH sleepless nights in the pretty boy department. but even the less masculine members such as palin, idle and jones didn't make any serious effort to be believable whilst in female character, as back then the average brit only found it comfortable as a form of clowning about, and those concerned wouldn't think about wearing a dress otherwise. python were from a generation where homosexuality (which of course many see transvestism a form of - rightly or wrongly) had only just been legalised, so joe public was still a long way from any kind of acceptance or even tolerance (as a teenager in the 70's, i remember all the "poof" jibes and similar slurs - both in real life and television & films).

      it's a shame there wasn't an american or british version of the kids around at the same time, as it would have been interesting to see in what manner cross-dressing was depicted. that they were apparently a big hit in the states (at least when it came to more switched-on places like new york) suggests that it wasn't a massive culture shock. however going from other instances of it happening here in sitcoms or suchlike at the time, things hadn't moved on much (if at all) since the days of the original python series 20 years earlier. also as i mentioned before, KITH was a well-kept secret thanks to being used as late night filler on a minority tv channel. was that because it was felt the humour didn't translate across the atlantic, or that convincing-looking guys in dresses might be a bit too much for a prime-time british audience to handle?

      one thing that hasn't been mentioned yet are the voices. whilst python shrieked away in falsetto (thus making it obvious they were men parodying women), the kids merely subtly softened their natural (male) speech. and as a result, were as convincing in that manner as they were in appearance and movement!

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    4. Thanks for the background Gina! I find it interesting that the "Shakespearian" casting that KITH seemed to be following didn't work when it went back to Great Britain. I'm still fascinated by all one gender casting. We've had a couple all female plays done in the DC area over the years, but they never gained an audience beyond women's groups. Too bad. I didn't intend to "scold" you, Hon' I'm just so into this genre of entertainment that I draw sharper lines. I put the so-called Shakespearian casting at the top of the scale in this genre. I really do admire KITH!

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  7. TKITH, in addition to being funny, really did break down the gender roles. They seemed to have no trouble kissing each other during skits, and the drag was never played for laughs. They were simply taking on another role as actors. I never thought Kevin Macdonald really passed, but I always had a crush on Mark McKinney's naive teenage girl (as well as the male version of McKinney).

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