There isn’t much to recommend The Strip, a new indie movie that opened in select theaters last weekend. The comedy about minimum wage employees at a strip mall is practically begging for comparisons with the cult hit Office Space but actually comes across like a less funny Employee of the Month. The Strip would be guaranteed a spot in the dustbin of late-night cable if it wasn’t for a surprisingly touching performance by Dave Foley. Foley plays the middle-aged manager of Electri-City, an electronics store in a desolate, possibly Californian strip mall. His character is a caricature at best, but there are flashes of genius in Foley’s performance. When an Electri-City employee violently shakes one of Foley’s collectible snow globes, Foley becomes flustered by the unexpected chaos. “Why don’t we wait for this to settle,” he says, apparently needing the flakes to settle down before he can think clearly.
Later, in the movie’s most heartbreaking scene, he flirts with the female manager of a fabric store, somehow thinking she’ll be impressed with his encyclopedic knowledge of batteries. “The nine-volt batteries,” he tells her, smiling smugly. “Or as I like to call them, the forgotten battery. Which they shouldn’t be, because they are literally a life saver. I mean, every smoke detector built before 2002 uses those.” It’s a performance that’s so painfully hilarious, you’ll almost forgive Foley for giving it in the otherwise most forgettable movie of 2009.
I called Foley ostensibly to talk about The Strip, but I really just wanted to grill him about Death Comes to Town, the eight-part comic murder mystery created and performed by the Kids in the Hall, which premieres in January exclusively (at least at press time) in Canada. For those of you who didn’t watch Comedy Central during the 90s, the Kids in the Hall were the greatest sketch comedy ensemble since Monty Python, and Dave Foley was their coffee-drinking, dress-wearing, baby-faced breakout star. He went on to achieve semi-fame in semi-TV hits like NewsRadio and Celebrity Poker Showdown. But those of us who love him have just been waiting for the inevitable Kids in the Hall reunion, where he’s able to put on women’s clothing again and give his loyal fans yet another reason to feel sexually confused.
I called Foley at his home in Los Angeles, as he was enjoying an early morning breakfast of cold pizza. “When you’re in this business,” he told me, “you have to take your health and your physical appearance seriously. And that’s obviously something that’s very, very important to me.”
Eric Spitznagel: You’re a Canadian actor, and in The Strip you’re playing a struggling American electronics store manager with humorless patriotism. At one point, when he realizes that a grocery chain is now selling electronics, he screams, “That’s not the kind of America I want to live in!” Are you making fun of us?
Dave Foley: And by “us” you mean…?
Oh no! (Pause.) What sort of emphasis will you put on that last line? What sort of italics?
I don’t know. Do you have a preference?
Could you put both words in italics? So it reads “Oh no!” I want to really express my shock and disagreement.
So your intention wasn’t to mock American small businessmen?
No, I didn’t say that. But… first of all, I didn’t write the script. An American did. But yeah, my character definitely looks at his job selling crappy electronics as a patriotic duty.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re in a recession. We’re not in any mood to be insulted by foreigners.
Yeah, but you can’t afford to do anything about it. Sorry. The rest of the world is laughing at you. Are you just hearing about this now?
As the title implies, The Strip is about strip malls. Do you enjoy shopping at strip malls, or does it feel like someplace where dreams go to die?
There’s something about strip malls that just reeks of my childhood. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, where everything was in a strip mall. You had to cross that sea of tarmacs to get to anything. Architecturally, a strip mall is one of the most barren structures you’re ever going to look at. It’s just depressing.
You must feel lucky to live in Los Angeles, the strip mall capital of the world.
It’s an aesthetic I’ve learned to appreciate over the last fifteen years. The thing that really surprised me about strip malls in California, specifically Los Angeles, is that they have some really fantastic restaurants. I don’t know if that happens in any other city, but in L.A. most of the great four-star restaurants, where you can spend $200 for lunch, are in strip malls.
When I lived in Los Angeles, my favorite strip mall was on Sunset and Ventura. There was a sign out front that just read “Kazakhstan.” I had no idea what they were selling. Every time I drove past, I wondered “Did Kazakhstan move into an abandoned Panda Express?”
(Laughs.) I think that’s possible. There are definitely strip malls in L.A. that could pass for foreign soil. They look like embassies. I’ve been at strip malls that are almost entirely Persian.
Let’s talk about the real reason for this interview: the new Kids in the Hall miniseries Death Comes to Town.
I’m very excited about it. I’ve just seen a few rough cuts and it’s looking really good.
Is it possible to see the show without moving to Canada?
Actually, I don’t think that’s a terrible idea. Just pack up everything and move north. For a lot of Americans, it’s probably your best shot at getting health care.
That’s a tempting offer. I can finally get that colonoscopy and watch some first-rate comedy.
We also have great hockey. And after ten o’clock on Canadian TV, every single show has nudity. Even the news. Everything. The religious channel is mostly nude. Everything in Canada after ten p.m. is about sex. It’s a very sexy country.
“Sexy” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think of Canada. Isn’t it too cold up there for anybody to have sex?
The weather doesn’t stop us. We just love sex in Canada. I know we seem like a very mild-mannered people, but the two things we love more than anything are sex and hockey fights.
What about those of us who don’t want to give up our U.S. citizenship? Are we ever going to see Death Comes to Town?
Well, I think the first thing to do is start a letter-writing campaign to Congress. I’m hoping we can somehow confuse all the teabag people into storming Washington and demanding that the Kids in the Hill get a television deal in the U.S.. Maybe if we can convince them that the show is anti-health care reform, that it’s a scathing polemic against the Canadian health care system.
If that doesn’t work, just claim that Death Comes to Town has an anti-abortion message. That ought to do the trick.
Actually, that’s pretty easy to disprove if you watch the show. One of my characters is a kindly old abortionist. (Laughs.) He’s like the Marcus Welby of abortionists. I think it’s my favorite scene in the entire miniseries. It’s definitely one of the silliest scenes.
Silly isn’t an adjective that’s usually used when describing abortion.
You’ll just have to see it. I don’t want to ruin it. But yes, it’s definitely silly. I haven’t seen it cut together yet, but if it works the way we think it did, it’ll be the best abortion scene done for comedic effect ever in the history of television. I’m very proud of it.
Death Comes to Town is being billed as a murder mystery. So it’s like Harper’s Island but with cross-dressing?
Yeah, maybe. I never watched Harper’s Island.
I don’t think you were the only one who missed it.
Well, then I guess our show will be like it in that regard. No one will watch it. (Laughs.) There’s a murder in the first episode and a trial that goes on throughout the series. I suppose it could be called a murder mystery, but it’s not a good murder mystery. I don’t think Ruth Rendell fans are going to be lining up to watch it. P.D. James is not going to write the blurb for the DVD release.
Can I make a wild guess at whodunit?
Okay, uh… Cabbage Head!
See, I think you just don’t want to spoil it for us. One more guess. Mr. Heavyfoot!
No, no, sorry. Although that would’ve been an amazing chase scene. I’m going to help you out. There are no characters from the TV show in this series. Wait, that’s not true. The clueless cops from the TV series make an appearance. But that’s it.
Why reunite the Kids in the Hall at all? Was it because you realized that these guys are your comedy soul brothers, or because you realized they weren’t making A Bug’s Life 2 and you had bills to pay?
(Laughs.) A little of both, I guess. We’ve been doing live theater shows together off and on over the last ten years. And for our last tour, we wrote new material and it made us realize that we still liked writing together as well as performing. When Bruce (McCulloch) and Kevin (McDonald) came up with the idea for Death Comes To Town, we decided to do it as an eight-part miniseries rather than a movie because that’s something we haven’t done before. And unlike an actual show, it has an ending, so it’s not something we’d have to do forever. It just seemed like a fun thing to do. (Pause.) Also, and this is probably the most important reason, all of our careers are kind of tanking.
Kids in the Hall had an explosive relationship during the early 90s. Who’s still a prick in middle age?
Any one of us on any given day is still a prick. But we’re all less pricky in general than we used to be. We still have little skirmishes every now and then, but not in the same way we used to. It used to take us months or even years to admit that somebody had a good idea. That’s been cut way down. Now usually by the end of the day, we’re able to say, “Alright, point taken.”
Is it possible to create comedy in your mid-40s that’s as edgy and dark as the comedy you did in your 20s?
I don’t know. It’s hard for me to tell. A lot of stuff we’ve done for the miniseries I think is just silly, but then later people tell me it’s dark and offensive. So we’ll see what happens. We never set out to be edgy. We just write what we think is funny, and hopefully at least a few people will be very, very upset by it.
You don’t seem to be shying away from controversy in your old age. Just a few years ago, you almost did a scene called “Happy 25th Anniversary, AIDS” for the Just For Laughs Festival.
Oh yeah, yeah. I still think it’s a brilliant idea. We basically wanted to do a tribute show to AIDS. We might still do it, but I guess we’ll have to wait for the 30th anniversary.
I guess that means you’re not rooting for a cure?
It would seem so.
When did it become okay to laugh at AIDS?
I don’t think it’s ever been okay. But we were doing comedy about AIDS back in the early 80s, when the disease was still relatively new. We had our famous AIDS fairy scene.
I’m sorry, your what-now?
That was a scene we did in our stage show in Toronto. We tried it in New York but the entire audience walked out on us. (Laughs.) We did a version of it for our pilot that didn’t have the AIDS fairy in it. It was about some parents who’d just found out that their son is gay. The mother gives this long monologue about it, and the father is standing on the side, kinda lost in a daze. At one point she asks him, “Penny for your thoughts, dear?” And we go into his fantasy of what it means that his son is gay. It’s me as the young gay boy and Mark (McKinney) in a leather jacket, who comes out and pretends to be an airplane flying into my ass. (Laughs.) And while he’s doing that, Kevin would come out dressed as the AIDS fairy, with wings and a bucket filled with sparkle dust with AIDS written on it. When we did the scene in Toronto, people got it. They understood where we were coming from, I guess. But when we did it in New York, they didn’t really get the joke. Our entire audience at the West Bank Café walked out on us.
In one of your early Kids in the Hall sketches, you more or less predicted Glenn Beck.
Oh yeah, I think somebody posted that online. That’s the one about communism, right?
Was that just a lucky guess, or do you feel like you have a responsibility to predict the conservative douchebags of tomorrow?
If predicting them would somehow prevent them, I would make more of an effort. But predicting Glenn Beck doesn’t seem to have in any way forestalled his success.
Unless you did something about it. It’s a tricky ethical line. If the Marx Brothers predicted Hitler in one of their early movies, does that mean they had a moral responsibility to assassinate him?
I honestly don’t know. Are you asking me to go back in time and murder Glenn Beck? I guess you don’t really get into a time travel paradox, do you? Because when I ostensibly knew about Glenn Beck, he was already alive, so it’s not like I needed to go back and confront his grandfather. I don’t know, if I could go back and do it all over again and there was some means available to me to stop Glenn Beck, I would definitely do it. Not that I think he has any real impact, I’m just sick of seeing his face.
The Kids in the Hall do many of their scenes in drag, which seems like a dying art.
I think a few comedy sketch groups are still doing it. I’ve heard that the Whitest Kids You Know do a lot of their stuff in drag, although I haven’t watched them yet.
They don’t really pull it off with the same finesse.
How do you mean?
When you did a character like Jocelyn… I don’t know if I should be admitting this… it was a little bit hot. Is that wrong?
It’s only wrong to say that Jocelyn was just “a little bit” hot. I believe the term you’re looking for is “fucking hot.”
That seems unusual. When Monty Python dressed up in women’s clothing, I never thought, “Damn, I wouldn’t kick John Cleese outta bed.”
Speak for yourself. (Laughs.)
Did you ever stare at yourself in the mirror when you were in drag and think, “I would totally fuck me right now?”
Oh yeah, all the time. Especially with Jocelyn, but there were a few female characters I did for Kids in the Hall that I would’ve tried to date… if it wasn’t, you know, me. (Laughs.) Kevin got a little obsessed with some of the women I’d play. He’d stare at me with these puppy dog eyes. Even some of the crew members would come in and go, “You gonna be that redhead tonight?” If I said no, they’d get all sad.
Were you trying to sexually confuse your audience?
Our philosophy about doing drag was always the same. Even back when we were doing shows in the clubs—when we didn’t wear dresses and we tried to play women with just our body posture and voice—we wanted audiences to see these characters as women, not as men playing women.
And when an audience would inevitably find these women to be attractive, they’d be forced to question their own sexuality?
Yes, that was our goal. And hopefully that’d lead to actual homosexual acceptance. Especially with Glenn Beck. (Laughs.) I think there could be nothing crueler on earth than for somebody who looks like Glenn Beck to be gay. That would be the greatest punishment ever. He would not do well as a gay man.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com