Coming Out with Scott Thompson
“Now I may have been born yesterday,
but I still went shopping.”
From coming out of the closet and into The Hall, comedy to cancer, Buddy to bombings, Brampton to Baghdad and all stops in between, Ottawa Life Magazine presents a career spanning interview with Kids In The Hall's Scott Thompson. He makes his foray into standup comedy this week at Yuk Yuks for four shows starting Thursda night.
Ottawa Life: There's all this stuff out there when you Google Scott Thompson, early life. Scott was raised by hippies! Scott was totally out of control. Scott was wild in every way. What’s the truth about Scott Thompson, The Early Years?
Sott Thompson: Hippies? (laughs) I must have been lying to make myself sound more interesting. I was actually raised by very middle classed people from Brampton. I come from a family of five boys. My father was an engineer and he worked at the airport. My mother was a homemaker. They couldn’t have been further from hippies. Back then I was trying to be more interesting. Now I can more honest.
Brampton’s a long way from Woodstock, anyway.
Yes it is. I wouldn’t argue with the wild part, though. That’s quite true. I certainly had problems with behavior. I think I’m a little more calm now.
There was a time in your life where you just might have been a journalist. Is there a part of you that wonders what the path would have been like in some alternate reality?
Yeah, I actually do. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent that went to war-torn lands. That was my dream. That was my idea, to go to places that were embroiled in wars. When I was a child I had a scrapbook of all the dictators of the world. I was obsessed. I actually applied to Carleton University and was accepted for journalism but I also secretly applied to York for theatre. My parents didn’t know about it. When I was accepted at both my parents assumed I would go study journalism but then I told them I had applied to be an actor. They were furious. You know, I think I would have been like a Jan Wong, stationed in different parts of the world. Like I’d have been stationed in China when it was Red China or there at the fall of communism. Right now I’d be stationed in Baghdad covering the Kurdish referendum.
I’m trying to picture it but I can’t help seeing it as a Kids in the Hall sketch.
In a way, I’ve done that. I’ve traveled extensively, sometimes to places that were in chaos. I guess I have in some ways achieved that goal. Buddy Cole in some ways is a foreign correspondent. I’ve always taken him to different parts of the world to learn. I have become a writer, too, right, so I kind of put them all together.
You also thought you might be a dancer growing up as well, right?
Yes I did. Now in my day I wouldn’t say that that would be impossible but I grew up with four brothers in a very rough family. The idea of a boy being a dancer in the 70s meant one thing: you’re a fag. I couldn’t really articulate it because it was too dangerous. Even when I was in high school. I mean, I grew up in a time when a white boy who could dance was a freak. I mean, all these things meant you were gay. If you liked drama, you were gay. If you liked to dance, you were gay. All these things I had to hide. I remember telling one of my brothers that I was going to audition for the National Ballet School and the abuse that I took from him was so extreme that I completely abandoned that dream. I guess now it was good, right, because at this point my career would be over and I would probably be choreographing with very bad knees. But, yes, my dream was that I wanted to be Rudolf Nureyev or Baryshnikov. I wanted to be a ballet dancer.
I had the body for it! When I went to the Banff School of Fine Arts to study musical theatre one summer I was in class, in tights, and the Ballet Master came through and saw me. He said from the waist down I had the perfect body of a dancer. But, you know, I never did it because it would have outed me. Even after I didn’t dare tell anybody that I wanted to be an actor. Well, I ended up becoming a wild dancer in clubs. When I first came out that was my thing. I have very bad knees because of it.
Now it’s different, though. Right? Lots of kids dance. White boys dance and it’s fine.
If only you could have combined those two dreams as the dancing foreign correspondent.
(laughs) That would have been good! That would have been my alternate life. I could be a dancer that retired with bad knees and then traveled to different parts of world writing books. But it’s all worked out for the best.
You've touched upon the difficulties in being gay and being a comedic actor. You came out in your mid-20s or so.
It was a very different time when I was young as opposed to now. I mean, I came out late. I didn’t even come out when I was going to theatre school! I was traumatized by it. I thought the moment I came out I would be changed and I didn’t want that. I came out because I was tired of living in fear, tired of hating myself. I realized if I wanted to be an artist, an actor or a comedian I had to be honest about my life. The only way to do that was to be honest about my sexuality.Also, I came out a year before AIDS started ravaging my community. It had already begun its onslaught but it was about a year before everybody started talking about it and knew what was happening.
It was very soon after that I met the Kids in the Hall. The idea of being openly gay on stage, well, no one did it. I thought, well, this was amazing! Then when AIDS happened I thought that I had no choice. I could have remained in the closet in my career which is what everybody did back then but I thought it would be immoral. To be blunt, there was a part of me that didn’t even know if I would live. Like, I didn’t know if I was even going to make it to 40 so might as well go for broke. If I’m going to die young then I’m going to have a good time. That’s part of what drove me.
You've said in the past that you enjoy comedy that makes people uncomfortable. Was that always something prevalent in you and why do you favor humor, per say, that gets under peoples skin?
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a time where I saw so much hypocrisy around me. I know that that’s what gets under people’s skin the most. I like the truth. The truth makes people uncomfortable. It’s that simple. I wish in some ways that I could be a more traditional comic, less confrontational. It would be easier but it’s just not in my nature.
I think we’re all better for it.
Yeah, well in my family comedy was a big deal. If you wanted to shine you had to be funny. There were two ways to shine in my family, actually. You had to be either physically splendid like a great athlete or funny. I was not a great athlete so I chose funny. Comedy is violence for physical cowards. If you can’t be a warrior the next best thing was to be a comedian. If you’re funny it’s very hard for people to hate you.
Last year I chatted with Kevin McDonald about some memories on the early days of the Kids. What can you share about how the group developed in those first theatre shows before television came calling.
When I met the Kids in the Hall it was love at first site. I knew then that this would be the course of my life. Up until that moment I wanted to be a traditional actor, a movie star. The moment I saw them, though, everything changed. Until then it didn’t seem possible. Then I realized that I could be characters, hide in a way behind them, and use them to express things.
Those were amazing days. I knew from the very beginning that we were going to make it, that we were special. I never had a doubt. There was just no one like us. We were obsessed. We lived comedy 24/7. We’d go to parties and leave a mark. I remember the five us going to a party and we'd fan out so that people would remember us. We just wanted to change the world, in a way, upset the apple cart. The five of us all felt the same way. Remember, I grew up in a family of five boys so when I met the Kids it was the same way. It was like a hockey line up. But unlike hockey I got to do drag! It was ideal for me.
That’s what was great about when those DVDs came out that had the footage of those Rivoli shows. You could see that dedication.
We were incredible snobs. We didn’t think anybody was as good as us. We were adamant that we were the best. We had no false modesty and weren’t very Canadian in that way. We wanted to win and be number one. Individually we’re all nice guys but when we’re together we’re one giant asshole. It’s powerful.
I had to learn how to be on a team and I liked that. I knew that when we were together nobody could beat us. I still feel that way about us. When all our cylinders are firing we can’t be beaten. That doesn’t happen often. Very rarely do you find that kind of chemistry. I’m very grateful for that and lucky to have found it when I was young.
While the others knew one another, you sort of came in as the solo guy. How did you approach your work with the group?
I wouldn’t say any of it was conscious. If anything, I think I became a bridge between the two teams of Kevin/Dave and Mark/Bruce. I’m comfortable in that position. I think because I was the gay one it marked me as different. I needed their protection in a way that they didn’t. The other four could have made it in any group or on their own but the kind of work I wanted to do wouldn’t have been possible in my generation. I knew that I needed them to protect me until the world changed. I thought, well, until it does I need to be in this group because I need to be safe. It wasn’t very safe back then.
What do you feel most changed when you moved to tv?
It took about a year before we really made the transition. That first one is a rocky one. We were basically using all the material in our trunk and it was basically theatrically. Television, as a medium, is shorter and punchier. We had to learn to write for it. By the end of our first year we'd used up most of our material but we were very prolific and lucky we had an enormous amount before we started. By that second season we were really clicking. In terms of the way we related to each, though, I don’t think anything changed.
Television was more of a monster. It’s such a hungry beast and it needed so much material. It made us work a lot harder. It was brutal. By the end of that fifth season going into Brain Cady we were pretty much used up. We were a mess and burned out.
I've always said that KITH was really groundbreaking television. For example, and maybe I'm wrong here, but I feel a character like Buddy Cole was the first openly gay character on weekly Canadian TV.
I think you’re right! The only gay character I remember on television was Billy Crystal on Soap and that trajectory wasn’t very classic. I mean, he was gay then bisexual and then he was straight! By the end of the run they completely castrated him. The guy on Dynasty was the exact same thing. The only gay people in popular culture on television were the occasion appearances on television. Gay people were absolutely not allowed on television. They were considered very dangerous.
Buddy was very exciting for me. I knew that I was throwing a bomb at the popular culture.
Totally! I even think now of that famous Rosanne episode with the lesbian kiss that had to carry an advisory warning!
And that was women! You couldn’t have even have done that with men. Not even for a second. They had an episode of a show where two gay men couldn’t even sleep in the same bed. It was like Rob and Laura Petri back in the 60s on The Dick Van Dyke Show! If a male played gay in a movie he career was over. You were not allowed to be gay.
There’s a fantastic documentary about this called The Celluloid Closet.
Yes! It was all telegraphed and all secret. People like me were listening and writing and the gay writers and directors would be sending messages secretly. Or if there was a gay character they had to be disgusting or diseased or had to die. Like the queer in Papillon crawling around and mauling guys or the one or Midnight Express assaulting you in the shower.
Or The Children’s Hour.
Right. If a woman was gay she was a witch. If a man was gay he was the devil. There were no positive gay role models anywhere. I mean, that does a number on your psyche. I don’t know if I ever truly will get over it. I try but I don’t know if it’s possible to completely shake that.
I think some have pointed to Buddy being an over-top stereotype but you've said the accent and characteristics were ways to make people take more notice in what he was saying. Over time, while still comedic, the message become more political. Was it your goal to use the character as a megaphone, so to speak, on issues you were personally seeing in society?
Ok, here’s the thing. I think that I actually might have lost the thread for awhile. At the beginning I just wanted him to be funny. You have to understand, for gay men in those days you were in a world at war but you appeared in a society at peace. They were not aware of that war and when they became aware they shut it out. There was so much anger everywhere. I think that that ,in many ways, may have capsized me.
There’s one monologue that I did called Queer Nation where I compare myself to Lenny Bruce and there I become more an activist than a comedian. I look back on that now and I understand it but after that moment I think I got lost for awhile. Then I decided to reign in it. Remember, you can’t really change people’s minds without being funny. Nobody wants to be lectured to.
What you said makes me uncomfortable but I’m trying to own it. I think, and it’s embarrassing to say, but I may have gotten a little shrill. I think that the boys all probably believed that but didn’t know how to handle it. But I also think people felt sorry for me, felt sorry for gay men, with good reason. When I left the Kids years later I think I got my mojo back but there might have been a point when I lost it.
When I came out and did what I did I thought the gay community would embrace me as a hero and when that didn’t happen it kind of broke my heart. I lost it for awhile.
Don’t get me wrong, the character was always funny no matter what he was saying.
Now when I do Buddy Cole I will never allow any moment with him to become shrill. I don’t want anybody to think that I am lecturing. We live in a world where everyone seems to be constantly lecturing. It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like it. I’m not a good activist. I’m a better comedian.
How did you develop the character and how much of Buddy is actually Scott?
A lot of him is me. I’m not really effeminate like that. I was more nerdy then Queeny as a child. Ok, I wasn’t really exceptionally masculine but in my generation a gay man really had to learn how to pass. I mean, I learned how to perform masculinity to survive. Buddy is me with control of his emotions. I’m a very emotional person and Buddy is very stoic. I think that makes him smarter than me. I think my brain gets hijacked by my emotions and Buddy Cole would not allow that.
That effeminate side was always viewed as a side of weakness. I decided to use it as a weapon, to turn it on its head and make it a sign of strength. When I was a kid I had bad lisp and went to speech therapy. I sounded like Buddy. In many ways Buddy is me reclaiming my lisp.
The other thing is that, when I first came out, I fell in love with a guy who was very effeminate. I’d never really been attracted to an effeminate man before but he was very powerful. I never thought a Queen could be like that but he was. And it was exciting. But then he died, one of the first to go. He went like that. One minute he was there and the next he was gone. I loved him and then I started imitating him.
My original idea was that Buddy Cole was a vampire. I started first doing Buddy with Paul Bellini. The first thing I said was “I’m a vampire. I’m thousands of years old”, imitating this man I loved who just died, and that was it.
Why do you feel Buddy remains your most memorable character?
Well firstly, I did him the most. But if you look at the LGBT community over the years it’s been a remarkable march, a huge civil rights movement. I think Buddy Cole is part of that. Of all my character, he came out of darkness. He shone the brightest because he lived in the darkest cave.
Well, you did say that you didn’t feel that form of acceptance when you first came out. Here in Canada, now, I’d say you are a gay icon.
I’m not sure about that but I’ll take it. (laughs)
You mentioned the advances in community and society as a whole. Looking back at where you started out, how do you see that acceptance of LGBTQ as it relates to media, tv, movies, etc.?
It’s huge! It’s not even the same world. It’s hard for me to even relate, to be honest. The way young people are today is so far removed from how I was raised. I am very happy for them but there’s a part of me that’s very jealous. I’ll be honest. I look at them and thank, wow, that’s just life. I mean, I can’t imagine growing up and not hating yourself every moment of the day or wanting to kill yourself. I can’t imagine. I think it’s wonderful for them now but it’s hard for me to relate to.
Despite the burn out you mentioned, what was your overall outlook when Kids went off the air?
It was a wreck. The end of Brain Candy, I can’t even express how tired I was. We’d done so much, created so much, made this beautiful film that no one went to, I was feeling abandoned by the gay community, burned out from the work, I felt abandoned by all the Kids, my brother had just committed suicide. I was a mess. An absolute mess. We took a long time to come back from that.
But I was very lucky. I went onto the Larry Sanders Show. That first season I barely remember though because my brother killed himself just before it started and I was in a fog. I’d say it took about five years to really recover. I know that sounds crazy but it did.
(The Kids) weren’t talking to each other and I don’t know how that happened. I loved them like brothers. How did that happen? I think our work was very intense. Like brothers we ripped each other apart.
It’s interesting because you’re often compared to Monty Python and, well, that happened to them too!
Yes it did! It’s hard. I always go back to the five brothers, right, where I come from. You want to prove yourself. But the truth is the world doesn’t really care about you individually. They wanted the team. That’s hard to accept. I know there’s lots of things I’ve done outside of Kids in the Hall that was really good, I’m very proud of it, but I know damn well on my tombstone it will read: A Member of Kids in the Hall. I’m fine with that now but it took awhile to accept. It was about five years when we came back together and it was tentative. You realize that chemistry is rare and that kind of connection may only happen once or twice in your lifetime. When you’re young you think it will happen over and over again but it doesn’t. We realized in our travails in Hollywood and elsewhere that that might not happen again. Ever since we came back together in 2000 we’ve never been apart. Right now, even, there’s something in the work.
It’s like family or the mafia. You leave in a coffin. That’s the only way you get out.
You could see that chemistry continuing with Death Comes to Town. Sure, there may have been some naysayers but I think that show is up there with some of the best KITH material.
I think Death Comes to Town is completely underrated. Like Brain Candy I think people will eventually realize that it’s pretty good. I think that’s part of our curse. We kind of do things a little before their time and it takes time for people to realize how good it is. In terms of that show, I was really ill during it but I consider it some of my best performances ever.
As a show that was often so out there, was there anything you look back on now and think "why did we do that" or "we shouldn't have crossed that line"?
No. Well, the only thing, for me personally, is that there were a couple of times –like that one Buddy Cole monologue– where I can see that I’m full of myself. But in terms of all the stuff we did that pushed the envelope or wouldn’t be allowed today? No, I have no regrets about that. There’s no area of life that comedy can’t touch. If you have the right context and funny enough you can say and do whatever the hell you want. It’s a beautiful thing!
Let’s take a more serious turn for a moment. Things turned pretty scary for you in 2000 with the whole house surveillance and firebombing? You parlayed all this into the show The Lowest Show on Earth and, right on the heels of this, came Sept. 11. What was going through your mind during this time of your life and what were ways you were dealing with it all outside of creating the show?
I was writing about things I really didn’t understand. I actually don’t understand where many of those things came from. We were firebombed by an Islamic fundamentalist group a year before 9-11 and no one even believed us. I remember when it happened. Police came to our home and we told them it was an Islamic fundamentalist group and they didn’t even know what that meant. We had to explain it to them. Pre-Taliban. Pre-9-11. Pre-Isis. Before the world changed.
It screwed me up. I look back on it now and can see now I had PTSD from this. I was terrified for a long time. I went back to Canada. I wouldn’t say anything controversial on the phone. I always made sure I sat with my face to the door. I had to had a window that was close enough where if I needed to I could escape. No one understood it and then 9-11 happened and everybody understood it.
I kept thinking, why am I writing about these things. I mean, The Lowest Show on Earth began with Buddy Cole going to Afghanistan and taking on the Taliban then buying Anthrax. There’s a nuclear suitcase bomb. These were things that nobody was talking about and I couldn’t even explain it. I couldn’t explain why I was writing about these things.
I think that that was a time in my life where I was somehow given some kind of a gift where I got close to some kind of collective consciousness. I had weird dreams back then. I know it sounds creepy but that’s what happened. When we got firebombed I decided I would write about terrorism.
Then my show was supposed to open in lower Manhattan on September 19th, the posters went up on the 10th. Then when the towers came down so did my career and my mental state. That was the second time I lost it. Here I am, on my way to New York, and the towers came down and the guy that did it…my show is about him. He did it! Then came the FBI. I was on a no fly list. I was writing about things I wasn’t supposed to be writing about, that I wasn’t supposed to know. It thew a complete monkey wrench into my personal and creative life. It was very, very difficult. Sometimes you get too close to the fire. I got burned. Between 1995 and 2005, those 10 years were pretty rough.
Then on the heels of that in March of 2009 you were diagnosed with lymphoma. People deal with such news differently. Some try to have a positive outlook, some swing to disaster, some overcome it with comedy. How did you move forward?
All three, in a way. Death Comes to Town I wouldn’t say saved my life but it certainly helped. The things that saved my life, I’d say, were the love of my friends and family, the treatment itself and art. Death Comes to Town gave me something to work though.
When we were working on it I was so focused. I didn’t know if I’d live and do anything again. That was the second time. When they yelled action I was never more alive but when they yelled cut I was never more dead. When I wasn’t on camera those eight weeks in North Bay I was sleeping or in the hospital or doing some sort of treatment. It was only in those moments between action and cut that I was fully alive. I’m truly grateful for that.
What’s funny is that it was about death. My character, Crim, is marked for death. I identified with him. I was him. He was supposed to die but he doesn’t so I used that, took that on. People may think he’s not going to make it but I will make it. I was very, very positive. During my treatment I never wavered. Well, there were a few dark, dark days but mostly I was absolutely geared to survival. Part of survival is believing you’re going to survive. I’m a fighter. I believed it. You know, I’ve slain other monsters and this was just another one I had to take down. So I did.
Making Death Comes to Town was a joy because I was back in North Bay where I was born, living with The Kids in the Hall on the shores of Lake Nipissing, so it all felt very perfect for me. It felt like this was my past, I had come home to where I was born and now I was going to be reborn.
And now cancer-free! Amazing news. Everyone is going to have a different answer to this but, for you, how did becoming a survivor change the way you looked at life?
Life is very short and you don’t have a lot of time to waste. The one thing that’s changed in me now is that it gave me my mojo back, in a way. After that I decided to take on standup comedy. I’d always been afraid of it, dabbled in it, but I have nothing to be afraid of anymore because, well, an audience not liking you is not a tumor. Before failing on stage used to upset me but now it doesn’t. I guess you could say one of the things cancer did was that it gave me that power. It freed me to be myself.
You are returning to Ottawa for a stand-up show at Yuk Yuks. How does the act differ from, say, your past stage productions?
It’s different. I don’t do characters. I didn’t want to be one of those comedians that uses their past, talks about how they once met Leonardo DeCaprio. I’ve never met Leonardo DeCaprio, by the way. I have met Kurt Cobain but I don’t tell a story about that. My point is, I wanted to have jokes, an act, and that took years to figure out.
Speaking of celebrity meetings, if Buddy could have a conversation with Donald Trump, how do you think that would go?
Better than you’d think. How about that?
That leaves things open to interpretation, doesn’t it?
That’s where I like to be.