Comedy·Oral History

Between two fingers: Kids in the Hall look back at creating 'Headcrusher'

Oral history of The Kids in the Hall's famous character Headcrusher as told by the troupe.

“We sort of had a big argument and I had to convince him that it was good.”

(Left to right: Bruce McCulloch, Scott Thompson, Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald and Dave Foley)

2020 marks 36 years of Kids in the Hall's existence as a troupe and 31 years since the eponymous award winning television show aired on CBC — from '89 to '95. 

It was SNL's Lorne Michaels who recognized the troupe's unique talents and proposed turning it into a sketch comedy show. But then this Monty Python-esque group of extremely talented and versatile comedians/actors/writers (Bruce McCulloch, Scott Thompson, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Dave Foley) proceeded to take it to revolutionary heights.

They seasoned the comedy sketch scene with an absurdly bizarre, ahead of its time, Canadian flavour, stamping the country's collective memory with seminal characters.

To the troupe's surprise, one character rose above all to become an instant hit. 

The Headcrusher (echo here)!

"I'm crushing your head, I'm crushing your head! That's what I'm doing, flathead!" are the words synonymous with a desolate Mr. Tyzik (a.k.a. the Headcrusher), whose bane of existence seem to be those who he deems better looking, more successful, cool or even those he pities. He expresses his resentment by using his thumb and index finger to crush their heads while making the cracking sounds effects as he does it.

The 'forced perspective' filming method dates back to the '50s but the way it was used in Headcrusher (from a first person point of view) was one of the first times it was attempted and most likely ended up instigating a new creative movement of object-holding, head-crushing, face-pinsching Instagram influencers.

CBC Comedy gathered the cast of Kids in the Hall to look back at Headcrusher, and how this character came to be.

Note: All interviews were adjusted for context, clarity and flow.

Mark McKinney: I used to squint through my fingers as a child (I was myopic) and thought it neat that I could get the family car or a building between my digits. [It was] 1984/5? Kevin and I were writing in a café around Bay and Dundas [in Toronto]. The lunchtime crowd were pretty prosperous looking, Bay Street types, and we were riffing on our relative inferiority when I think I said something like, "You may have all the money and cars etc. etc. but I am crushing your head! — Ha ha!" We laughed and promptly forgot about it. But Kevin (who has an elephant memory and can help flesh this out) remembered it when we were writing our HBO special in the Brill Building in NYC.

Scott Thompson: I don't think Mark really understood that it was good.

Kevin McDonald: He thought of the character, and I remember a few years later when we were writing a pilot, we sort of had a big argument and I had to convince him that it was good. 

And usually, I can't convince Mark, but I guess somewhere deep inside he realized that he had a good character and I talked him into writing it up and he did. 

Bruce McCulloch: When he wrote it up, I didn't even understand it. But then I realized the brilliant part of it was: you could see the perspective of the fingers which I never thought about and so that's why I think it became so interesting.

And generally with us, whoever thought of something would play it — with the exception of the odd little thing. And I think, for [Mark], it was all about when he found a pair of glasses that that character came to life for him. I remember, it was, 'Yeah I'll wear these weird glasses'. 

I think once you do a costume fitting — and certainly for Mark, he is kind of a consummate actor, or Scott for sure — once you find an object or the clothing you can kind of become that character or you figure out that character in a certain way.

Headcrushing their way from TV to the stage

New beginnings beget new challenges and doubts. And filming Headcrusher certainly had its moments before the dust settled.

MM: When we were filming the first Headcrusher we wanted a dolly for the shot but I think some CBC regulars didn't like us very much because they sent us a wheelchair.

BM: I was a biker and got my head squished. It was probably one of the very first things we filmed and it was just like, 'What am I doing, am I just standing here?'

So, it was one of those ones that early on it didn't feel like much or didn't feel like a funny scene until we sort of cut it together.

ST: That's the only character that Lorne Michaels ever wanted us to repeat. Because he said that that was the kind of character that could take off. [He] knew it has a great catch phrase, 'I'm crushing your head,' and we were never about that, we were such contrarians. 

If we had a catchphrase that worked, we would deliberately kill it. We just thought that was too easy. We were very much like, 'Let's take the hard way.' So when Lorne Michaels asked us to repeat it we were like, 'No! We're not going to!' And then we eventually did.

MM: The powers that be wanted more of Headcrusher after it hit. It was briefly a 'hook' for the whole series. We were loath to repeat the idea but after a couple 'meh' retreads of 'headcrushing' we actually wrote a couple good ones.

ST: And we've done the character a few times on tour but it was very interesting taking a character like that which is so dependent on the camera and technology, because you have to have a camera to see those fingers sprained that way. 

We've figured out a way where Mark would be on stage with a camera that he could put his finger in front of and then it would be projected on a screen behind him so that he could crush people in the audience that he didn't like. 

And that became a 'closer' for us. It really worked because the audience would see themselves on screens, their giant heads, and then fingers would be there as well and then Mark had a microphone to talk to them. That was really cool. And then eventually Mark would turn his eye on us. 

It became this very funny way for Mark, well for the troupe in a way, to ridicule each other's careers — for Mark to ridicule each person as the character and then kill us. And potentially at the end he realizes there's no one left but himself and so he has to attack himself and then commits suicide.

I remember it as such a fun thing to do live. I never thought that the Headcrusher could be a live piece but it really worked.

A universally comical character

ST: All comedians, no matter how specialized they are, I think we all want to write that joke or that thing which makes the whole world laugh.

ST: What makes [Headcrusher] work for people is that everybody can relate to a misanthrope like that. Everybody has those kinds of misanthropes, whatever community you're in, there's always a crank like that.

I think its simplicity is its brilliance.- Bruce McCulloch

ST: And to reduce it to something so simple and silly as 'crushing your head' makes it really comic because some of the things that the character says, you go, 'Wow!' If it wasn't done with that crushing your head, you might think, 'that guy's an asshole!' 

You realize when you're so stupid and so silly that it makes it automatically funny.

BM: We sort of make fun of it because it is kind of simple minded like a little kids' thing.

ST: It's absolutely from like seven to 90 [years old]. Although, after 90 you're not gonna like it. After 90 you don't like anything where you have to use your hands like that [says laughingly]. 

BM: Would any of us say it's our favourite thing? Probably not. We have more complicated things but, of course, it's one of our most successful things so for that reason we have to make fun of it.

It just was the perfect character for universal comedy.- Scott Thompson

KM: It's our big character, I would think.

MM: I didn't see Headcrusher being huge but it really tickled the common consciousness. I guess there were a lot of kids squinting through their fingers!

Watch the first five seasons of The Kids in the Hall on CBC Gem now.

About the Author

Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic is a producer, journalist and a perpetual optimist who loves a good show/film, breathes music, writes poetry, and dabbles in tech and innovative ways of storytelling (including through XR/VR/AR/MR). You can find her stories at cbc.ca/television and cbc.ca/comedy or follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @neptunes_blues.

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