The Art of Comedic Female Impersonation
In 1969, Monty Python formed and astonished the world with its particular brand of off-the-wall humor and use of men in drag. The male actors were often made up (though still distinguishable as males to the audience) and dressed in women’s clothing. They altered their voices to be shrill and hysterical, and often the punchline was simply that these were men dressed as ladies. While this was groundbreaking at the time, the female characters portrayed by males weren’t “fleshed out” or completely realized.
In 1984, another comedic troupe began a different sketch comedy show. Kids in the Hall, a Canadian TV show ran from 1989 until 1995 in the US, employing the same technique of dressing most of their main players as women instead of using female actors. (They occasionally used female actors, but most female characters on the show—and virtually every recurring one—was portrayed by one of the male comedians). Although the show maintained the randomness and quirks of Monty Python and clearly was influenced by the English comedy show, Kids in the Hall perfected the art of creating believable female characters and choosing the right male actor to play a character. This careful casting indicated a respect for the characters that went far beyond an urge for a cheap laugh. Monty Python is hilarious, certainly—but Kids in the Hall, although still absurd, attempts to convey realism along with its absurdity; especially, when it comes to female characters.
My favorite female characters in Kids in the Hall are recurring secretaries named Kathie and Cathy, played by Bruce McCulloch and Scott Thompson, respectively. Kathie is the younger, mousier secretary who gets easily flustered and clearly suffers from low self-esteem. Cathy is a slightly older, blonde secretary who is more street smart and conveys a certain two-faced cattiness–like telling (because they’re “friends”) Kathie “people” around the office were saying she was fat, even though it is obvious to the viewer that she was the author of the rumor. The two secretaries are always on the prowl for a single man, with Cathy being more adept at flirtation than Kathie.
Ultimately, the actors capture both the humdrum nature of office life and how easily people get caught up in the most minute of dramas. The portrayals also focus on the very specific class of pink-collar females, and because the characters are fully realized, developed and well-acted, they are reminiscent of people whom we all know actually exist. In the end, the joke isn’t that two male actors are (ha ha) wearing dresses and using female names–the jokes exist between and around the nuanced and layered characters they created, making them relatable even in absurd circumstances.