Teaching Cultural Geography with the Kids in the Hall

girl_drink_drunkLast week, my Cultural Geography: Core Concepts class tackled the relationship between gender and space. Many of my students volunteered personal experiences when their movement through space reminded them (some harshly) of their gender performance. One student mentioned a male friend of hers who specially requested cocktail drinks in a brandy glass in order to mitigate any ridicule he may receive for having a “girl drink.” So, being me, I decided this would be a good excuse to show this classic 1991 sketch from Kids in the Hall.

For a quick overview, the Kids in the Hall were a Canadian sketch troupe with a hit TV series that ran between 1989 and 1995. They released their motion picture Brain Candy in 1996 and have reunited on multiple occasions. All five members – Scott Thompson, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCullough, Dave Foley, and Kevin McDonald (the latter two co-star in this sketch) – are still working regularly on television today.

I had the opportunity to interview Kevin McDonald at a live show last summer, and I asked him about the changes he’d observed in sketch comedy over his decades in the industry. Though the satire and humor holds up, this sketch is reflective of a major shift he had noticed in how comedy was written, produced, and presented since the KITH show was on the air.

“One thing we were lucky about was that there was no YouTube. We couldn’t film stuff, so we had to do it the old Vaudeville way. We had to get our stage legs, and we performed all the time… It forced us to strengthen muscles that aren’t strengthened [as much today]. People on YouTube – they strengthen different muscles. They know how to be filmic. They know how to write for film; they understand “cut-to:” right away.”

Watching this sketch on YouTube in 2019, it’s easy to notice how much space they gave this short film to breathe. The dialogue is just as important as the visual gags, and the story builds slowly over a handful of scenes. Though memes (in the internet sense) did not exist at the time, the characters and cinematography lend themselves surprisingly well to that medium today. When I asked McDonald about what he thinks has contributed to the characters’ cult longevity (even early-era spots like The Eradicator, a Bruce McCullough character with a recent punk band themed after him), his answer was pretty simple: “I think that we found a rhythm in the troupe that was halfway between absurdism and real…”

The concept of what is and isn’t a “girl drink” brings a focus to that interaction of gender and place via multiple dynamics: namely, bodily comportment and subconscious “gendering” of flavor and decoration as ‘feminine.’ As they did in their strongest moments, the Kids in the Hall blended the real/tragic (a guy falling off the wagon and losing his job) with the absurd (needing some fruit and a tiny parasol in his booze). The sketch could easily be distilled (heh) down to one joke at its core, but playing to their strengths, McDonald and Foley inject masterful character work and subtle jabs. Though Foley and McDonald are hardly the punching-down type of comedians, having Scott Thompson in the writing process certainly provided a valuable voice in modulating their humor about sexuality and masculinity to avoid reinforcing gay tropes (unlike some other sketch comedy of that era … Buddy Cole, martini at his side, always dominated that conversation, anyway).

In general, alcohol plays a crucial role in geography, and vice versa. Obviously, site characteristics inform how and why brewers decide to open up shop, and local tastes often determine how certain brands of alcohol are marketed and distributed. A number of geographers, including my mentor Tom Bell, have published studies about regional dynamics in alcohol marketing, and the latest issue of the Journal of Cultural Geography contains an overview of brewing in New England. My friends Dave and Steph spoke to me and Bret Hartt about the relationship between beer and place on Episode 6 of The Casual Geographer back in 2011. I also include a case study/focus on alcohol and localism in my American Popular Culture course, especially the imagined geographies of Eastern TN and the legalized moonshine trade.

This is just one of many classic comedy sketches I use to teach cultural geography. I’ve previously written about how I introduce my Popular Culture lecture on Minstrelsy with my favorite SNL sketch of all time. I’d love to hear any examples of sketches and scenes you’ve found useful in your classes.

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