In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Every member of The Kids In The Hall has their recurring characters: Bruce McCulloch as chittering working gal Kathie Lassiter, Mark McKinney as head-crushing Mr. Tyzik, Kevin McDonald and Dave Foley as The Pit Of Ultimate Darkness-dwelling duo of Sir Simon Milligan and manservant Hecubus. But none of the outrageous personalities in the Kids’ universe is as closely associated with their performer as Buddy Cole, the lisping lounge lizard created by Scott Thompson as a rejoinder to pop-culture personalities who were gay, but not allowed to be explicitly sexual. A fountain of cutting bon mots, flouted taboo, and questionably genuine anecdotes, Buddy’s popularity ultimately transcended the bounds of sketch-comedy monologues, leading to the full-episode fantasia of “Chalet 2000” in The Kids In The Hall’s fourth season and even an “autobiography,” 1998’s Buddy Babylon, co-written by Thompson and KITH writer/towel-wearing mascot Paul Bellini.
Recent years have seen Thompson resurrecting Buddy on Kids In The Hall reunion tours and in a memorable stint as a Colbert Report correspondent for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. This spring, he’s taking his alter ego out for Aprés Le Dèluge: The Buddy Cole Monologues, a road show that begins in New York City this week and stops by the inaugural Onion Comedy And Arts Festival May 30 through June 3. The tour coincides with the reissue of Buddy Babylon, a 20th anniversary addition with new chapters covering Buddy’s exploits beyond his barstool. Answering The A.V. Club’s 11 questions, Thompson hoped for a better response to Buddy Babylon this time around, while also reflecting on a time when you had to ride an elevator to hear music and commenting on the promiscuity of ketchup and mayonnaise.
Scott Thompson: Self-driving cars. I’m really excited about that. I hate driving, and I can’t wait until a robot drives me around.
The A.V. Club: And you’re not worried about the robots’ driving abilities?
ST: Not at all. I’m much more worried about myself. I think people are much safer on the road with me being driven by a robot.
ST: The autobiography of Buddy Cole, Buddy Babylon, the book that I wrote with Paul Bellini in 1998. For many reasons, it didn’t get attention. I think it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever done, but at the time—because of homophobia, people didn’t even review. Or even look at it.
AVC: Even though he was a well-established character at that point?
ST: But he was a very overtly sexual gay character. It came out from a major publisher—Bantam Doubleday Dell—almost nobody reviewed it anywhere. There were like two reviews that came out, and they both just slammed it, completely missed the point of it. And that broke my heart, because, my god, it’s an actual book. We slaved over that book. I’ve never worked so hard on anything in my life, and it really hurt to have it completely dismissed. But I’m hopeful it won’t be this time.
AVC: How are you feeling ahead of the reissue and this live tour of Buddy monologues?
ST: Very excited. The world is so different than it was 20 years ago, particularly for gay people. Just being an openly gay comic, 20 years ago, people were so uncomfortable, and you had to spend the first 20 minutes relaxing them. Now you don’t have to. People are there right away. And the straight male can laugh at me and not cast too much of an aspersion on his sexuality. I really believe that part of the reason Kids In The Hall remain such a cult thing is that, to like us too much was to say, “Hey are you a fag?” I don’t think people worry about that anymore. At least in the circles I run in, and that’s extremely exciting.
Right now, we live in a very polarized time. It’s very similar to when Kids In The Hall were at our height in the early ’90s—a time of great social upheaval and giant change and political correctness really had a stranglehold on popular culture. That’s what I’m excited about, because Buddy is a kind of a character who can say anything, and somehow, people let him. Which is kind of remarkable. I don’t know why, but they let him say frankly appalling things. [Laughs.]
ST: Cat Stevens, Catch Bull At Four. I only bought two albums ever when I was a kid: Cat Stevens and Alice Cooper’s Killer. My family, we’re not music people. It’s not like we were fundamentalist Christians, but we didn’t really listen to music. We weren’t really allowed to—it was considered frivolous, I think. On Sunday afternoon—this is how old I am—my father would commandeer the hi-fi and put on classical music, and all afternoon, there would be classical music playing. Occasionally, I would be allowed to sneak in and put on some of my musical soundtracks like Mary Poppins—that was my other album. But I didn’t buy that, that was a gift.
AVC: What was it about Cat Stevens that broke through?
ST: Honestly, I thought he was really cute. I thought he was incredibly sexy. He was a big deal when I was a child. But I thought he was hot as hell.
I didn’t really like the popular music that most of my friends liked. I really liked black music, and during my childhood, that was suspicious. “What? You’re a white guy who likes to dance? Well you must be a fag.”
AVC: Did that continue as you got older?
ST: Yeah, R&B, soul music. That’s my favorite music.
I was a book guy. I read books. When I was young, the world wasn’t wall-to-wall music. People didn’t have walk-around headphones, people didn’t have their own personal soundtracks. It was much more broad and society shared pretty much all the same music. It’s much more broken-down today.
AVC: When your main method of engaging with music is through the hi-fi, it’s just not portable.
ST: Not at all. Pre-boom box, for god’s sake! Nothing was portable. You had to really make an effort. You had to put the record on, set it up. It was a big deal. It’s not like you went into peoples’ homes and there was music playing. Very, very rarely. Music must’ve been on elevators. That was it. You had to take elevators if you wanted to hear music.
AVC: Or Muzak in the department store or supermarket.
ST: Yeah! “Where you off to, honey?” “Off to the mall to go up and down on the elevator—I need some music.”
ST: Well, I believe in the afterlife, so I guess I believe in ghosts. I believe that people leave an imprint, and some people’s electromagnetic imprint is powerful and it maybe lingers longer that other peoples’ do. I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’ve certainly had experiences where I believe in the afterlife.
AVC: Have you felt the presence of someone who has died?
ST: I have. I’ve had things where someone died and then I dreamt about them and they told me something. I’ve had some weird stuff happen in my life that I’ve chosen to believe.
ST: Oh, mustard. No question. This might be the first answer that I’m absolutely, 100 percent on-board with and know there will be no backpedaling. I worship mustard for many reasons. I love yellow, it’s my favorite color. What I love about mustard—particularly traditional, yellow hot dog mustard like French’s—is that it’s so tasty and it’s got no calories. I find that remarkable.
What I find amazing about mustard as a condiment is how much class it has. Ketchup or mayonnaise, they’re all over the place. They’re so promiscuous, they’re always telling everybody to put them on, and how great they are. And they’re full of calories. And there’s mustard out there, walking around, doesn’t give you any calories, and it’s never bragging about it. You never see ads on TV like “French’s Mustard: Put a whole cup on your hot dog, and you still won’t have any calories.” They’re so confident in its ubiquity that mustard doesn’t have to tell everybody to use it. It’s like the type of person that goes to a party and goes, “I don’t need to mingle. People will come to me.”
AVC: Was it an acquired taste?
ST: Mustard I loved immediately. When we were kids, my mother used to eat mustard sandwiches. So maybe that might be part of it. We thought it was hilarious: I come from a large family, so my mother also really rationed food—not rationed, but if you had a ham sandwich, it wasn’t like there were five pieces of ham. It would just be one thin, thin slice and lots of mustard. Mustard became in many ways less of a condiment and more of a filling. My mum made sandwiches so thin, that the meat was more of a condiment than the mustard.
This is such a Depression-era thing: My mum, I guess she wasn’t allowed gum growing up, and when she baked, she’d take the wax paper, crumple it up with butter, and she’d chew it for hours. You know, you use the wax paper and you put butter on it to grease the bottom of the pan. “Oh, it’s like gum!” Sometimes she’d eat an onion like an apple!
AVC: That must taste so strong.
ST: Have you ever done that?
ST: I’ve done that.
AVC: What did you think of it?
ST: It’s so delightful. It’s so sweet. Spanish onion? Lovely! [Laughs.]
ST: I would think I would be very uncomfortable at a mixer in a submarine. I think that would make me very uncomfortable. First of all, getting to know all of those people, while at the same time adjusting to the fact that you’re fathoms below the sea, and you won’t see daylight for a long time. That would be a very uncomfortable social situation for me. I’d have to drink an awful lot.
AVC: There’s no easy escape in that scenario.
ST: Exactly! You go to your little room, you’ve got a bunkmate there. Day two, I think I’d be all right, but the first party would be very hard.
I think also I’d be uncomfortable [Laughs.] at a child’s funeral.
AVC: That seems an objectively uncomfortable situation.
ST: Don’t you think? If you’re someone that’s comfortable at a child’s funeral, maybe I don’t want you at my mixer.
ST: Working for Carol Burnett. Making sure that no one got into her dressing room while she was performing. “Wait a second, get out of here, Carol doesn’t want you in here!” That would’ve been a great job, doing anything for Carol Burnett.
And working in a bookstore. When I was a child, I just loved books and I thought that would be great. Just recommending books and telling people, “No, don’t take that book! This is a better book.” Having the whole day to sit there and pet your big fat cat and read books and recommend books and find them. I still think that’s how I’m going to end up, in my old age—I’m going to run an old bookstore, where nobody can find anything but me. Whenever I’m on the road, I always seek out a secondhand bookstore. That’s what I usually like to do during the day, just go look for books.
ST: I quite often find myself with that stupid channel that keeps repeating, plugging what’s on. I find that could be on for hours and hours. I like to watch movies when I’m in a hotel. Movies that I haven’t seen.
AVC: Do you find yourself reading more than you would watching TV?
ST: I definitely read on the road. Sometimes I don’t even turn the TV on. That’s why I have a book.
AVC: Have you read anything good lately?
ST: I just finished a science-fiction book that I really enjoyed, called Mars Bound. Before that I was reading one of Isaac Asimov’s robot books. I love science fiction, I love fantasy.
ST: Yes. Can I enjoy art from someone whose opinions I don’t agree with, that sort of thing? Of course. It’s ridiculous, it’s like, “Oh, I’m not going to drive over this bridge because this person that designed the bridge was not pro-choice. I can’t take this elevator—he didn’t believe in women’s rights.” Human beings are very complicated creatures, and everybody’s bound to have something you don’t agree with. That’s the beauty of life. I hope that hopefully people will extend that courtesy to me. There might be things that I say that people might be outraged by, but I still hope that they would look past that and enjoy the Buddy book or whatever it is.
I absolutely do separate the two. Unless the person killed someone I knew. [Laughs.] “Oh, I can’t read that book because he once tried to kill my mother.” That I would have a hard time with. How about you?
AVC: It’s been affecting the work that we do at The A.V. Club, especially in the last few months, as allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse against people we cover surface and resurface, and the #MeToo gained renewed momentum. It’s a constant conversation among our staff now about how much attention we should give someone like Louis CK or Woody Allen—artists whose worked we’ve championed for a long time—who have these very serious allegations levied against them.
ST: In time, you’ll see. First of all, Woody Allen, it’s all conjecture. We have no idea. None of us know. If you go down that rabbit hole, my god, eventually you’re not going to like anyone.
Times change and people are always of their time. There’s things that we all agree now that in 50 years, people are going to think are outrageous. I believe, within reason, we should give people the benefit of the doubt, or have a little more empathy, I think? I guess those are different issues. For me, it depends on how awful those people’s crimes are. If I discovered that Louis CK had 12 bodies in his basement, that might make it a little more difficult. I still think he’s a brilliant comedian. I think Louis CK’s somebody, if he waits enough time, he will come back, and I think people will be really interested in what he has to say. What do you think about that?
AVC: Once again, it’s a really tough thing: With the benefit of the doubt and empathy, I also want to extend that to the women who’ve come forward and said he exposed himself to them in a way that made them uncomfortable. At least in Louis’ case, he did come forward and say, “Yes, I did these things.” The apology could’ve been handled a little bit better, but, to have come forward and made the apology, that raises his esteem in my mind, at least just a little bit.
ST: Oh, yeah, totally. Absolutely. I guarantee you Louis CK will do something. He’s too much of a comic artist not to. I think it will be fascinating to see what he does.
ST: For me, coming out was be the biggest decision I made professionally. Whether or not to stay in the closet back in the day. Because I had a choice. I could have, and I think I would’ve had a much different career. I think eventually I would’ve been yanked out by a scandal.
That was definitely a decision I had to make before television. Like I remember Kevin had to make a decision before television, which was when we were first discovered, and Lorne Michaels was going to put us on TV, Kevin was fat. And he had to decide, “If I’m on television as the fat guy, I will be the fat guy forever. And I’ll never be able to lose that weight because the audience will have been in love with the fat guy.” I think this was a very interesting decision, Kevin decided he was going to lose the weight before TV, so that he would not be the fat guy. So Kevin went on a very, very restricted diet, very quickly, with no supervision, just me saying, “Maybe you shouldn’t eat donuts for breakfast.” I remember very clearly: We were living in New York and Kevin, every morning he would have a Yoo-hoo and two sugar donuts and I would look at him with disgust, like, “What you doing? Who does that?” And I remember Kevin making a decision very quickly, “Okay, I’m going to stop eating donuts, I’m going to stop eating this food, I’m going to go on a super restrictive diet,” and he did it immediately. And by the time we went to television, he was not fat, and so he’s never been seen as that guy.
He thought, “I don’t want to be John Candy, I don’t want to have that,” because it’s very difficult for the larger comedian. For their health, it’s like “Oh, I should probably lose the weight, but the audience loves me as the fat guy.” And I think for me, the decision was, “Do I stay in the closet and have a more mainstream career, or do I come out and have a more interesting career—but probably less mainstream.” And it’s what happened.
AVC: Were you doing Buddy before you came out?
ST: They’re all the same thing, basically. In many ways, Buddy was coming out. I think a lot of people at the beginning, when I started doing Buddy before we were on TV, a lot of people just assumed I was just taking the piss out of that type of gay guy. Back then, the idea of someone actually being openly gay was outrageous. In show business? Outrageous. So I think people had a hard time wrapping their heads around it, so they just assumed that I was making fun of a character like that.
But when I went to television, I could have, I guess, stayed in the closet. I don’t see how I would’ve done it. I guess I could have, if I wanted to. “Oh, the Buddy character is just like the characters they do on In Living Color. They’re just characters.” But Buddy was more than a character for me. He was much more of an alter ego. So I don’t think it was possible. But I remember having to sit down with Lorne Michaels about “What do I do?” And I said, “I have to come out.”
I also think that it was the times. It was the late ’80s. It was like gay men were in the middle of a war, embedded in a society that was at peace. The idea that I would actually stay in the closet while this virus ravaged my community just seemed immoral. It felt like the only thing I could do was come out. So that’s what I did. And I think I paid a huge price, professionally. But I think my soul got a little bigger, if that makes sense.
ST: I guess it would be 39. It’s the same age that Jack Benny always said that he was. And it’s just before 40, which is when everything starts to go downhill. And I’ve always felt that I always looked 40. Even when I was 25—or even when I was 55. That to me is the sweet spot. I think that is when a man is at his most attractive. I never liked super-young guys. I’ve always liked a man with a little meat on him, a little age, a little wisdom. Just a little pain in the eyes. I find that attractive. Thirty-nine, because you’re always just about to celebrate your 40th birthday. And everything’s working physically and I think it’s just a great, great age.
Those are always the ages of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands, too. When she was 20, when she was 60.
AVC: And your bonus 12th question, from Aparna Nancherla…
ST: I would ask them to let me communicate with my brother. I’d want to know if my brother was—I wouldn’t say all right, because he’s dead.
And the question would be, “Does he still have his hair?” He had a good head of hair, so I imagine he would. Because I’m the brother who still has his hair, too, and I thought, “If he still has his hair…”
AVC: And what would you like to ask the next interviewee?
ST: What’s your favorite bird, and why?
AVC: What’s your favorite bird?
ST: Oh my god, you bastard! [Laughs.] A hummingbird. Just so tiny and beautiful. They don’t seem real. They seem like fairies.
AVC: The way they move is like an optical illusion.
ST: Yeah! I just find them remarkable. I’d never seen hummingbirds growing up. I don’t think I ever saw a hummingbird until I came here. I was mesmerized by them.
[Gasps.] Or eagles! I like eagles! That’s quite a difference.