Canadians fell in love with the brilliant CBC series, the Kids in the Hall (1988 – 1994), a hallmark of Canadian comedy.
We all had our favourites, the Chicken Lady, Sausages, the Pit of Ultimate Darkness, the salty ham, the head-crusher, Gavin, the Kathies, Buddy Cole, and Bellini, the portly, hairy-chested man in the white towel who walked out of a condom box and sparked the “Touch Paul Bellini” contest. If you’re straight and live outside of Toronto, you probably don’t know what happened to Bellini after he dropped his towel.
When I met with him for coffee in the gay village of Toronto, I was expecting a deep voice for some reason, but what I got instead was a very pleasant speaking voice, lovely blue-green eyes, and a beautiful round face. There is a softness to Bellini that I wasn’t expecting – sometimes these comedy types can be bitter and hard-boiled but Bellini’s got a maternal Old World aura about him – he prefers rosé varietals, movies make him cry, and he loves to cook (bouillabaisse no less). Bellini is the type you’d want taking care of you.
He surprised me when he said he wore the towel on air to get over his shyness about his body, to get a break from the “adolescent horror” of self-consciousness. Amazingly, the man walked semi-nude in front of a TV camera and become a mascot for the best comedy show Canada has ever seen. Bellini’s white-towelled image is forever burned in our memory, “but it never got me laid,” he says.
People still recognize him from the Kids in the Hall (KITH) days, with the odd die-hard Bellini fan here and there. “I met one guy in Buffalo, NY, a modern primitive covered in tats and piercings who had Bellini emblazoned on his forearm,” he says. Bellini has had his share of psycho stalkers too but he doesn’t go into details.
We talked about the state of comedy in Canada and Bellini went off on a tirade.
“Political correctness is destroying comedy,” he said, “comedy is born from suffering, ugliness, and anger.” It sounds like a recipe for bitterness, but surprisingly, Bellini says that the Kids applied deep thinking to even the stupidest of their characters because they were interested in the human condition. Scott Thompson’s characters for example, are all figures that want to be desired (Kathy, Fran, or Buddy Cole).
Canada is the birthplace of sketch comedy but like Bellini says, “the arts are under fire and artists are treated terribly in Canada”. He says that KITH was an anomaly because CBC was never supportive of the show – it only happened because of Lorne Michaels (SNL) and US dollars.
“I love fame,” Bellini wrote in 2004, “It’s the coolest thing, even though it’s not available in Canada. You still have to go to the States to get it.”
It’s sad and strange that we’re perfectly willing to consume, share, and sometimes steal entertainment – comedy, music, literature, and film – but no one is willing to pay for it. It’s a stinging disregard for the artists who put so much passion into their work.
“Marry money if you’re an artist in Canada,” Bellini says.
Paul Bellini has a BFA in film from York University and when he talks film, I see a side of Bellini that was never depicted in KITH – this man’s passion and knowledge of film is remarkable. He goes on about John Ford’s Pilgrimage, Rosselini’s Stromboli, and Fellini’s Stray Dog moving him to tears.
“I want to watch as many films as possible,” he says, “then I want to write about them – film appreciation from a fan’s point of view – their dimension, stylization, and what they say about humanity.” He wants to broaden the public’s knowledge of film, explaining that “lesser” films need to be acknowledged and respected.
He works his love of film into his stage work. I attended his one-man show, Biopic recently, a depiction of his life as a Hollywood movie. He built the performance around the nostalgic vignettes of Fellini’s Amarcord, and Night and Day, the musical biopic of composer, Cole Porter (homosexuality was illegal in 1946 when the film was made, and so a fictitious reworking of the gay composer’s life starred Cary Grant in a str8 relationship with Alexis Smith). In his show, we were treated to bits of Bellini’s life as a youth in the 60s and early 70s in Timmins, Ontario, proving that there is glamour anywhere you look for it.
The Fab Columns
Since the demise of KITH, Bellini wrote for This Hour Has 20 Minutes, won a few Gemini awards, received a few Emmy nominations,wrote, produced, worked on animated productions, puppet shows (Bit & Bob), and appeared in film and television productions. He hosts award shows, festivals, and does a radio show Sunday afternoons on Proud FM.
He’s been writing a column for Fab, a gay lifestyle magazine, for the last 10 years. To celebrate this milestone and a hefty body of work, Bellini is giving himself a little party by publishing The FAB Columns, a 90,000 word book featuring his favourite columns.
“It’s a good bathroom read,” he says, “people can read a couple of columns while they’re taking a dump.”
While seated, you can read Bellini’s interviews with some of the most interesting people in entertainment – Tab Hunter (Bellini had a crush on Tab as a boy), Petula Clark, Bea Arthur (“My favourite TV show as a fat gay kid was Maude…”), Bob Mackie, John Waters, and Jim J. Bullock (“I’d blow a monkey to be back on Hollywood Squares…”).
While not exactly fun for the whole family, Bellini’s columns face the issues that other people are scared to talk about – relevant things like the size of Milton Berle’s dong, sex cabarets in Amsterdam, gay rodeos, and male prostitutes.
Of his column, Bellini says, “It gets me out of the house and allows me to meet people. It brings me free booze and theatre tickets, and it has made me famous for something other than wearing a white towel on The Kids in the Hall show.”