Scott Thompson Brings His Fashion Icon Character, Buddy Cole, to Portland
The Kids in the Hall ran for just five seasons from 1989 to 1995, yet their characters became a litmus test for humor. Can you crush someone’s head without them needing context? Do you make a Cabbage Head joke when making dinner? At the very least, can you quote the Chicken Lady? Scott Thompson delivered several beloved characters over the course of the troupe's show—the Queen of England, Cathy the secretary, and Francesca Fiore to name a few—but above all else, he was known for Buddy Cole. Cole, sporting perfectly coiffed looks, crossed legs, and a perfect martini, mused on the world as he saw it without holding back. The openly gay character, one of the first for that era, lived on after the show through a book, Buddy Babylon: The Autobiography of Buddy Cole, and even as a traveling correspondent for the Stephen Colbert show covering the winter Olympics in Sochi and Russia's anti-gay laws. This week Thompson brings Buddy, his fashions, and his truth telling to town for the Portland Queer Comedy Festival. We talked to him about Buddy’s long journey.
One of the things that I love about you is the distinct physicality that you give your characters. Even if you took your costumes away you could tell a Buddy from a Cathy or a Brian.
I'm better at physicality than I am in voices. I can imitate a person's walk easier than I can their voice. Sometimes it's instinctual. But someone like Buddy Cole is obviously going to have perfect posture and move like a wand in the wind. The thing with Buddy is a lot of it is the way I move truthfully is all the ways that I was trying to hide that kind of movement as a young person, I just let it go. It's like I let my freak flag fly basically.
Like, when I was a kid, I liked to sit on my knees and my father was very angry at that. It was considered effeminate. Those sorts of things. So basically all of those effeminate qualities that I had as a child that I had beaten out of me. When I'm Buddy, in many ways I'm just being natural in a way.
Let's talk about this character. It's something you've been playing since the mid eighties. Did you do Buddy with [writing partner] Paul Bellini before Kids in the Hall?
He and I fronted a punk band and we were both openly gay in the 80s, which was completely unheard of. And in many ways suicidal. And I didn't really know what I was doing in any way. When I started singing with the band, I just didn't have any barriers. Sometimes I’d improvise talks in between the songs and sometimes take on that voice. Basically the really super gay voice. Then Paul Bellini got a video camera and started shooting me—we would just turn the camera on. This is the beginning of the video home revolution, and Paul was first. We would improvise for hours and hours. And the first voice that I improvised was Buddy Cole. Originally he was a thousand years old and a vampire.
Now that I think about it he has some real Vampire Lestat vibes.
In many ways Buddy Cole is timeless because I believe that kind of a character is timeless. He never really changes. He never really ages, not mentally. Part of the premise of the show is it’s over the last 25 years from the end of the Kids in the Hall until now. The premise was that there have been enormous changes in the world, but one thing that hasn't [changed] is good old Buddy. He hasn't budged an inch, and is still exactly where he was then because in his mind he's perfect.
How does it feel for you to be playing a character so long that isn't evolving?
I believe that comic characters, unlike dramatic characters, don't really change. Part of what makes them funny is their immovability. That's one of the things that people laugh at. It's scientific. I took a course many years ago in university about comedy and one of the things that stuck with me was that a comic character never really learns. And one of the joys that people get when they watch a comic character is they watch the character make mistakes over and over and over again. And that triggers laughter.
It's not like there aren’t certain things I might not say today, but at the heart of it, Buddy Cole will always be a truth teller. Hypocrisy will always be around it. It changes shapes and colors and costumes, but it will always be the same. There will always be the same amount of hypocrisy in the world. You have to figure out where it is because the cloak that they wear is always different.
I was talking with our other editors here about this interview and even though we grew up in very different places—from out in the Oregon countryside to Germany—so many of us expressed that Buddy and other Kids in the Hall characters were the first gay characters that we saw and knew and how influential it was. You talked about you came from a punk rock band, like that must’ve felt super punk rock to put yourself out there.
Yeah! I'm a punk at heart. My great joy in life is to bring things out of the darkness and into light and to show that they're not that scary. My attitude is there's always something to fight and it makes me feel vital, I guess. The generation that I came from, it was such a terrible time for us in so many ways that I had kind of a kamikaze attitude. It's not that I wanted to die, but I thought it was quite possible that I would. So, I guess I had a kind of what the fuck attitude? I'm not going make it anyways, so let's jump off this cliff and see what happens. That was part of it. And I also felt that the stakes were so high that I thought if I stay in the closet, I might be able to have it really good career, but I won't be able to live with myself. I really believed at that time, coming out was a moral imperative for me. I honestly did not realize how bad it would be. I didn't realize what kind of repercussions there would be. I was naive.
What kind of repercussions were there?
Well, I never had the career that I wanted. I really thought I would have a career where I'd be in movies and television and all that sort of thing. I mean, yes, I did all those things. But I thought I'd have a career that my contemporaries would have and even the others on Kids in the Hall. But that never really happened. I never—this might sound like sour grapes—I never got big parts. I never got on sitcoms. I never was in movies. I carved out a career at the margins. I've done my best. And even when I did get hired in great shows—I have to be very delicate about this—but I was always quite a gay character.
In those days the gay character was there to support the straight character, to make them look good and to listen to their problems. In many ways I was a tool of an agenda rather than an artist. I think I was used a lot by different people to show how liberal they were rather than actually let me do what I can do. They never hired me to play a womanizer or a cad; they hired me to play the gay man over and over and over again. And if it was a great gay role, those always went to a straight man. So I was very much caught in the middle. I lost a lot of great parts in movies because the studio never would submit to an openly gay man in a million years. And the ugly truth there is that many of those executives were gay men who still did that. And those were hard things to come to grips with. It's taken me a long time and I'm still not sure that I've forgiven. I understand I've done wonderful things and I'm very pleased with what I've done. But I wanted to play everyone and with the Kids in the Hall, I thought that people would say, wow, this guy can do anything but that did not happen. And that was on all sides. It was liberal and conservative homophobia. They manifest in different ways, but they're still homophobia.
Do you feel like that's changing now?
Oh yes. But now I'm caught in a game because in some ways I'm too old to take advantage of it. And now it's being a white male that's hurting me. I'm like, are you kidding me? I waited for 30 years and now people just see me as a white man. That's so frustrating because it's not fair. Me and my ilk, we didn't get those privileges, so why should they be denied to me now? Right. A gay white man from my generation, we went through hell and we don't have to apologize. We went through hell and now it's so odd to have youngsters who aren't really quite aware of what happened. I think that the world is in a state and that's why I brought Buddy out of mothballs because really, he's here to help.
With things such a political disaster right now, does it feel punk rock again to bring Buddy out again?
It’s interesting that it does. Because Buddy's not a young gay man who's grown up in a world that's much more accepting. He's a war vet. Right now there's so much ugliness on every side that it does feel very exciting. People from all types of thinking can look to love Buddy because he has a lot of empathy for different ways of thinking. The left and the right are both capable of going down the wrong path. And, Buddy is there to say you took the wrong path. This is the way to go. He just doesn't have time for bullshit.
You're coming to town as part of the Portland Queer Comedy Festival. You've been to Portland before. What's your impression of our city?
Well, it's an interesting place because it’s so liberal in some ways that sometimes it can be a drag. Like when Kevin (McDonald) and I went to Portland, that's the only place I remember people attacking me for things that I said. I expect some people will be a little upset at some of the things that Buddy says, but that doesn't really bother me. It's just comedy. Life is short. We're all here to have fun and I'm looking forward to it because I love to unleash Buddy on places like that.
Who do you find is in the audience for these shows? Is it a big mix?
It is a big mix and there are a lot of young people, which surprised me and something I want more and more of. Some of them don't even know who he is and at first are like, what the hell is happening? But then as I go along I soften them. Often by the end they're cheering and laughing for things that they would've said before they entered, no, I do not laugh at those jokes. Those jokes are beyond the pale, but by the end people are laughing at the most appalling things and I have to say I'm very proud to have taken them there.
I can't think of another character that could take people literally around the world. And last so long.
I like to say it’s an international show because he is a real world traveler, his lovers are from all over the planet, and he's very cosmopolitan. Another thing that Buddy does, unlike comedians today, is he doesn't hesitate to jump in anywhere. The whole idea that we should stay in our lane is absolutely not Buddy. To him that’s an appalling idea. I think the whole idea of identity politics to Buddy is kind of appalling and not human. And I, that's where I think the show goes by the end. I want people to have laughed their heads off. I want them to leave thinking, 'Wow, I can't believe that character made me laugh about that topic.' I find that very, very rewarding.
I can't wait to see what you're wearing. Who did your costumes?
I'm wearing some amazing stuff. You'll see this jacket is really quite something. My director Robin Collins a number of years ago was at an estate sale and there was a bin filled with wild clothes. All handmade shirts and handmade jackets all being sold for nothing. It was like 200 bucks for seven jackets, twelve shirts with leather and all these application, and beautiful sequins. I mean, some of the jackets would be worth thousands. Then we did a little bit of research and the designer, we think, is Arthur Padilla. And we discovered that he was a designer for Prince. So clothes I'm wearing—I mean they weren't for Prince, I'm not tiny—but I believe that the clothes were made for somebody in his entourage. They fit me like a glove, so I must have the exact dimensions of Sheila E or Morris Day or something. But somehow, they used to be in the orbit of Prince.
I think he’d be so pleased that they are still out there kicking around on stage.
I hope he would be.