The border virtues of Buddy Cole

It was the perfect time and place to discover Kids in the Hall. In 1990, I was ten years old, and had spent the last three of them insomniac, sneaking downstairs, only sometimes with my mom’s grudging permission, to catch bits of Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

It was my introduction to sketch and stand-up comedy. It was funny and sarcastic and risky, but it was also, importantly, grown-up, intelligent, polished. I watched Phil Hartman’s take on Ronald Reagan, live, peeling away the kindly old wrinkled man who’d been President almost as long as I’d been alive to reveal a diabolical mastermind. It dissolved authority. I didn’t know you were allowed to do that.

I wanted more. On Carson, I’d seen George Carlin do ten minutes of stand-up, and convinced Mom to rent his HBO special What Am I Doing In New Jersey? Carlin’s linguistic freedom and disintegrating precision just blew Dennis Miller’s sarcastic cynicism right out of the water. I also convinced her to rent Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. We then made the mistake of watching it with my dad.

One glimpse of Rosie Perez’s chest and Dad declared that I was no longer allowed to go to the video store. PG-13 nudity and jokes about sex or farting in Revenge of the Nerds or Blazing Saddles were one thing, but an actual erotic encounter with a foul-mouthed, dark-nippled Puerto Rican girl in a movie that seemed to advocate throwing trash cans through pizzeria windows was simply too much for his ten-year-old son to watch in the family living room with his full knowledge.

Not everyone in the family agreed. Along with taping bootleg cassette copies of a few Public Enemy albums, I probably learned as much listening to my dad and uncle argue about the merits of letting the kids watch Do the Right Thing as I did watching it.

Especially since I’d already had plenty of chances to see exposed nipples, and didn’t know exactly what to do with that exposure anyways. “I just want to see them! And touch them! And some other stuff! And then… well, I don’t know what happens then!” Is anything quite like that mute adolescent desire?

I knew that there was plenty about the world that I didn’t like — that things had simply gone very wrong and nobody was willing to say it. I knew I was different from everyone around me at school, who were all navigating ascending puberty by adopting a kind of tribalism of race and gender as certain of its right to bully anyone who seemed different as it was uncertain about everything else. Hip-hop only got me part of the way there. I needed something as smart and broken and skewed and dislocated and new as I felt. And I needed it to be on prime-time broadcast television.

We didn’t have cable, and my parents clamped down on my late-night TV fests, sending me upstairs to read myself to sleep instead. I plowed through paperbacks and old encyclopedias, reading Mark Twain and Dostoyevsky and The Swiss Family Robinson over and over again in torn-cover mass-markets donated to Detroit’s county jail, where Dad worked. In the long run, being condemned to literature was probably a lucky break, too.

TV wasn’t completely lost to me, though. Luckily, I lived in metro Detroit, five big blocks north of the city’s border at 8 Mile Rd, and just a few miles further, over the Ambassador Bridge, the neighboring city of Windsor, Ontario, which broadcast CBC television and radio.

I was at living the border of city and suburb, childhood and adolescence, America and Canada, mainstream and alternative, disaffection and affirmation. So for me in 1990, flipping the knob on my family’s 17” TV and discovering Kids in the Hall on CBC Windsor’s Channel 9 was like wandering into a seedy record shop in 1967 and pulling out The Velvet Underground and Nico from the bins. I wanted to start a band.

***

I’ve since binged on KitH in waves: first on the CBC in middle school, then in Comedy Central reruns in high school (we got cable! hey!), late-night back-to-back episodes courting a college girlfriend, and again on Netflix today. It’s impossible to list all of the KitH sketches and characters I love, and difficult for me to separate the ones I saw then from those I discovered later.

But I keenly remember Scott Thompson’s Buddy Cole. There are three things that overpower you (or at least overpowered me) about Buddy:

  1. His overt sexuality, which I’ll also break down into three parts (little nesting boxes, this): the fact of his homosexuality, his embrace of a gay/queen-ish identity, and his frank discussions of sex itself. (Would I have used those words to describe all those things at ten? No. But I remember all three pieces, because each of them were rare.)
  2. His sheer delight in language, perhaps especially his own. Watch how Buddy doesn’t just craft his words, but reacts to his own jokes and phrases. Listen to Buddy tell a story — his teenage adventures in Montreal are a good start — and think about how difficult it is to craft a compelling comic sketch that is all words, all third-person, and how effortless and entertaining it is when Buddy does it.
  3. His intelligence, which could just disintegrate you.

Here’s one of my favorite Buddy monologues, from season one:

They say… That blacks are inferior, because they like to dance and screw around. Excuse me? I love to dance. And as far as I’m concerned, screwing is next to godliness. And I’m the smartest person I know. They say that orientals are superior, because they’re better at math and have smaller families. I guess that’s why there’s only a billion people in China. I mean I’m certainly not having any children. Yet I don’t hear a lot of people running around touting the superiority of faggots…well, just *me*.

They say that *whites* are *smarter* than blacks, but dumber than orientals. I guess we’re just right. Hmm? We’re the porridge that Goldilocks chose. Not too hot, like those saucy Africans, but not too cold like those chilly Chinese. They say that heterosexuals are better than homosexuals, because we’re so promiscuous. I guess that means we’re also black. It makes sense, ’cause we can really dance. And boy, do we understand the blues.

People make fun of me because I lisp. Really. Such a lot of fuss over a few extra s’s. They say that every different group has their own language. For example, fags say things like “Girl”, and “Sister”, and “What’s her problem?”. Another example, another example, foxy black mamas. They say things like “Girl”, and “Sister”, and “What’s her problem?”…makes ya think. And straight men say things like “No”, and “Too expensive”, and “Touchdown”, and “Scoooooore!”. They’re so together.

So let’s recap, shall we? Blacks are inferior because they supposedly commit more crime and test lower on white people’s I.Q. tests. I don’t know about you, but if I was raised in the ghetto, I’d be out there ripping off whitey and forgetting the capital of Maine. And orientals aren’t supposed to be as sexually driven as blacks or whites. Hmm, I guess all those tourists who flock to the flesh pots of Bangkok are there for the food. And blacks, because they apparently have larger than usual genitalia, are called stupider. And orientals, because they supposedly have smaller than usual genitalia, are called *smarter*, not cheated. And whites again have perfect wieners and buns. I guess we’re just smart enough. Smart enough to stay out of trouble, but too dumb to run convenience stores.

I don’t know what all the fuss is all about, we’re all just here to find love. I just think the world would be a lot better place if the scientists could keep their slide rules in their pants. It reminds me of something that Yoko Ono once said to Malcolm X in a bistro in Rome. “Oh the food’s terrible. But the waiter’s hilarious.”

No trash cans through the window, but he leaves you demolished all the same.

The literary references make no sense, which became a running gag in Buddy’s sketches. It always seems like a joke he’s making only for himself. And that was the point. Buddy is smarter than you. Buddy is always in control. As Scott Thompson says, Buddy was an “alpha queen.” When it’s time to close the bar, he’ll burn the fucking thing down.

In an interview with The Sound of Young America’s Jesse Thorn, Scott Thompson elaborates on how radical and unwelcome this was, even to gay audiences:

I was very aware that I was out there almost alone, and I knew that I was breaking new ground which can be very exciting, but also can be very painful. I was shocked at the negativity that I got from people, particularly gay men. I got an awful lot of grief from gay men during that time…

It was mostly really queenie guys that were most upset with me. They were like, I can’t believe that you’re always playing gay men like that; I think it’s very insulting and stereotypical. I would be like, why don’t you play your voice in a tape recorder and listen to it, because they’re ridiculous. People were in denial. It was such a polarized time. AIDS was ravaging the gay community, so there was no room for humor. Everything was so deadly serious and earnest and it was life and death, and I think I was seen by a large proportion of the gay community, particularly the Mandarins — and I love to use that word — who lorded over the movement as sell out, or the Uncle Tom, or the enemy.

To this day it’s still painful for me, because for me I’m like, wait a second, what’s wrong with being effeminate, number one, and number two, lots of gay men are effeminate! It’s crazy! No matter how many weights you lift, you still carry your books like a girl. Grow up! Get a grip! Accept it! I think people were in such a — it was such a terrible time that Buddy Cole was seen as the enemy. At least Buddy is sexual, he was not neutered, he was never a neutered gay guy. And he was smart! He’s smarter than I am. That queen up until then — they were always stupid and you laughed at them, and you never laughed at Buddy, Buddy was always in control. He was an alpha queen. I couldn’t understand it; to this day I think they were dead wrong.

I couldn’t be a queen like Buddy — I knew I was hopelessly condemned to teenage heterosexuality long before Rosie Perez publicly confirmed it — and I couldn’t be Canadian. But then, I couldn’t be as smart, as charitable, as self-controlled, or as fearless as he was either. But those virtues, at least, were something I could work on.

This essay is part of Border Town Online, a digital complement to the Border Town Design Studio which will be on display in Detroit starting on September 21st, 2011. You can find the rest of the posts at dividedcities.com

Tim Carmody is a technology and media writer for Wired and Wired.com, recovering academic, and resident bookfuturist at Snarkmarket.

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