In SketcHistory, The A.V. Club gets the story behind some of our favorite comedy sketches from the people who made them.
The troupe: Canadian comedy legends The Kids In The Hall, whose self-titled sketch show aired for five seasons from 1989 to 1995. Amazon Studios greenlit a sixth season of the show in March 2020, which is now in pre-production.
The sketch (full video below): “The Pen” from season three of The Kids In The Hall (1991). Written by Bruce McCulloch and directed by Michael Kennedy. An unassuming office employee (McCulloch) melts down upon realizing his pen has gone missing. After rejecting an inferior replacement from his manager (Scott Thompson), he recalls lending the pen to a customer (Kevin McDonald) minutes earlier. The employee dashes outside in time to see the customer step into a taxi. He chases the vehicle down the street and leaps onto the passenger side, pounding on the window and yelling, “My pen! My pen!” When the cab finally stops, the confused customer apologizes and returns the item. The employee then collapses on the street from exhaustion. The sketch ends back at the office, with another customer asking to borrow the pen. After the employee agrees, we pull back to reveal the pen is now secured to his head via an elaborately fashioned helmet and chinstrap.
The people: Bruce McCulloch, Kids In The Hall writer and performer
Kevin McDonald, Kids In The Hall writer and performer
Mark McKinney, Kids In The Hall writer and performer
Scott Thompson, Kids In The Hall writer and performer
The A.V. Club: You guys wrote and appeared in hundreds of sketches over the run of the show. And decades later, “The Pen” still regularly gets listed as one of your most popular. What do you credit that to?
Scott Thompson: I remember when it first got read, we all laughed our heads off because of the way Bruce was saying, “My pen!” That fucking sound of his voice. Like that kind of whiny guy in the office everybody can’t stand. And Bruce does that really, really well.
Mark McKinney: There’s also the almost dreamlike way it’s presented, where we’re all Bruce’s nightmare, leaning in and playing our parts. And that shot of Kevin licking the nib, with the disgusting sound effect.
Kevin McDonald: And everyone can relate to that thing when someone takes something and forgets to give it back. I always wondered if Bruce wrote it about me, because I’m kind of like that when someone takes my pen.
Bruce McCulloch: It really is the universal feeling that everybody is taking our pen. And I got lucky with that, because people do walk off with other people’s pens: It’s a wave that happens every day in a hundred places across North America when we aren’t on lockdown. So I think that’s what makes this one relatable to people.
Kevin McDonald: They say it to Bruce, but because I’m the one that stole the pen, fans will see me and yell, “My pen! My pen!” I’ll hear it four or five times a year. At its peak, I’m sure I heard it 30 times a year.
AVC: Bruce’s character feels like the precursor to Milton in Mike Judge’s Office Space, who’s obsessed with getting his stapler back.
Kevin McDonald: A bit of trivia: During our third season, Mike Judge—before he became famous with Beavis And Butt-Head—sent us a couple of cartoons and pitched the idea of being our Terry Gilliam. And we liked them a lot, but we couldn’t do it, because it would be so Monty Python. Scott really wanted it, but we outvoted him. But Scott wrote a very nice letter to Mike saying, “We really loved them!”
Scott Thompson: Then Mike wrote back saying he was going to be bigger than us, so I wrote back saying, “Game on!” That’s not true, but it could be. He is much bigger than us.
AVC: You guys filmed this sketch on location in early 1991. Here’s a weird personal connection: In 1991, I’m a 19-year-old kid walking down Bay Street in Toronto. I see a camera crew about to film something, and right by me is some guy wearing a bathrobe. And it’s you, Scott. So I ask what’s going on, and you and Mark McKinney tell me you’re filming a sketch for the show and are setting up for the next shot. Which happens to involve Bruce being fastened to the side of a taxicab a few feet away from us.
Scott Thompson: You know what’s funny? I remember this! I mean, I don’t remember what we talked about or anything, but I absolutely remember you—I’m not just saying that. I remember being on the street in a bathrobe, and Mark was there. Very good memories of me and Mark talking to someone—and it was you!
AVC: Wow. It was definitely a surreal moment for teenaged me. Here’s a refresher on the conversation: I’m already a fan of the show at this point, so I ask what the premise of the sketch is. You and Mark explain that Bruce is an office worker who realizes somebody has walked off with his pen, so he chases after him, then jumps on his taxi to get the pen back. End of sketch. I reply with something along the lines of “That sounds hilarious!” Which is kind of disingenuous, because in my head I’m like, “Hoo boy, that ain’t gonna work.”
Scott Thompson: [Laughs.] It’s true.
AVC: And then fast-forward about six months, I see it on TV, and it’s brilliant, and it becomes one of your classic sketches. But you have to admit, on paper the premise doesn’t exactly pop with comedic possibilities.
Bruce McCulloch: I think you’re right. I’ve probably come up with a million sketches, and sometimes you know which ones are killers. But with “The Pen” it was like, “I don’t know... I’ll write this up, but I don’t think this is going to get in the show.”
Scott Thompson: If it was in a pile of sketches and you were reading them, you might not think it would be fantastic.
Mark McKinney: Sometimes the way some of our stuff comes off isn’t really about what’s on the page. It’s what happens in rehearsal or when we’re shooting it.
Bruce McCulloch: And sometimes those end up being the best ones. I think it’s partially because the comedy isn’t really obvious in the title or the setup.
AVC: It’s not even a particularly nice pen, which only heightens the joke.
Bruce McCulloch: It’s a 90-cent BIC pen. I think that’s what makes it.
Mark McKinney: In the first season [of The Kids In The Hall], we were a bunch of guys taking our live sketch show and clumsily trying to make it work on TV with our performances. By the time “The Pen” came around, we were more comfortable using direction and cinematic techniques to create funny moments.
Scott Thompson: The sketch is beautifully shot and edited and directed. And it’s very simple. It never hangs or veers from the premise, as slight as it is. But I think it’s Bruce and the way he says, “My pen!” He approaches Kevin’s kind of voice genius there. There are things Kevin does where you think, “No one could make this work!” But because of Kevin’s voice—the timbre of it—it works.
AVC: Is there a name for that high register Kevin hits with some of his characters?
Kevin McDonald: TKB—Typical Kevin Bullshit. [Laughs.]
Scott Thompson: We improvised a bit too. On the day of the shoot, we came up with the idea of [office manager] Ms. Unloop wrapping Bruce in the blanket.
AVC: She suddenly appears out of nowhere, like a mile from the office.
Scott Thompson: [Laughs.] I remember we had a discussion about that. We were like, “Yeah, that doesn’t matter.”
Mark McKinney: I believe her first appearance was in “Head Crusher Rehab,” where she was Nurse Unloop.
AVC: And here she’s Office Manager Unloop. It’s a gig economy. You go where the work is, I guess. Mark, you had a pretty small role in “The Pen,” but you —
Mark McKinney: There are no small roles! [Laughs.]
AVC: Which you prove here. You score a big laugh with “Heard you lost your pen—maybe you lent it to someone,” which on paper is a pretty straight line.
Mark McKinney: It’s probably the way I slide into the scene to keep Bruce’s character’s nightmare going. That I’m suddenly there out of the blue, like I’m the thought occurring in his head. And my character’s amused by it. He’s totally getting off on a guy losing his pen in the office and wants to see what will happen next, because life is so fucking dull.
Kevin McDonald: I remember the shoot was pretty frantic. We had one day to shoot the sketch, and we had to be quick because it was a lot of setups. The reason we got Michael Kennedy to direct was that he’d shot a lot of B-movies where he had, like, 30 setups a day and three weeks to film. We needed someone quick who had a good sense of humor. I had been up all night writing another sketch, and so I fell asleep for, like, two hours. And then they woke me up, and it was my turn to go inside the bank, so I was really sleepy. I was just waking up, and you can see it in me: I’m not being over-the-top like I am sometimes. Being a person just waking up gave me an un-edge to my performance.
AVC: Which reminds me of another classic sketch of yours. Another memory: At one point during the setup for the taxi scene, Scott and Mark were joking with me about the various ways Bruce could be killed if the stunt went wrong.
Scott Thompson: I remember Mark and I were joking with a little bit of glee, like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Bruce fell off?” Bruce was strapped to that moving car like he was Tom Cruise. I don’t think they’d let us do stunts like that today. It was ridiculous.
AVC: Viewers might assume you used a green screen or a stunt double, but I can confirm Bruce was actually harnessed to that damn car as it drove along a major downtown street. And the street wasn’t closed off either, so even if he didn’t fall, other drivers could have freaked out at the sight of him and caused their own accidents.
Scott Thompson: You’re right. And that was a busy street, too.
Mark McKinney: These days that would all be done on green screen.
Kevin McDonald: Yeah, I was in the car while Bruce was strapped to it. Maybe there was an outdoor shot where you don’t see me. But then again, you must see me. [Laughs.] I would say there was a 70% chance I was in the car.
Bruce McCulloch: I was just sort of strapped in with a little piece of metal they got on the car somehow. With a stunt driver who was really having fun driving fast. He was either a little tipsy or really hungover and still kind of drunk. I remember liquor on his breath.
Kevin McDonald: It definitely wasn’t an Eddie Murphy movie, where you could get all of Fifth Avenue closed down.
Bruce McCulloch: You would never get away with that now. There would be 19 stunt coordinators and that wouldn’t be me in that shot. That’s the fun of doing a show before people catch up to you: You can do wild shit in the streets until they realize what you’re up to. I think that was one of the joys of the series up until that point.