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Interview: Mick Foley Moves From The Wrestling Ring To The Comedy Stage

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 29, 2013 7:00PM

2013_7_29_foley.jpg The number of professional wrestlers with mainstream crossover appeal are few. You have Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who parlayed a career in the squared circle into becoming Hollywood's current top action hero. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin has also put together a successful career as an actor, while legends like Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair are regarded as icons by casual fans of pro wrestling.

And then there's Mick Foley, one of the nicest and craziest men to make a career of professional wrestling. Foley forged a career based on taking punishment few of his peers were willing to, and by making some of the best interview segments in the history of the business. That ultimately lead to his recent induction in World Wrestling Entertainment's Hall of Fame. But his life away from the ring is one of the most grounded and normal—the epitome of the American Dream. Foley has been happily married for over 20 years, has a wonderful family of four and, by all accounts, is a devoted husband and father.

Foley's career outside of wrestling includes being an accomplished author; two of his books reach the top of The New York Times best-seller list. He's also made appearances on The Daily Show and has now started a comedy/spoken word career, paying his dues on the comedy club circuit the same way he did in wrestling rings 30 years ago.

Foley is currently touring the country with his new show, "Tales from Wrestling Past," which comes to Zanie's Rosemont Aug. 8. Chicagoist spoke to Foley about the tour, the differences between performing in comedy clubs versus arenas for WWE shows, and his ongoing obsession with Santa Claus.

Chicagoist How long have you been touring behind this current show?

Mick Foley: This show started taking shape in January. I discarded all of my previous material and wrote new stories for this tour. I debuted the new show in Australia in February, adding and discarding as I went, including elements from my WWE Hall of Fame induction. I try to make the shows different each night, even in multiple cities. My feeling is if I'm not bored, the audience isn't bored.

C: How much does this differ from your memoirs?

MF: I have one or two stories that come directly from the books, but I’ve adapted them for the stage. Fans who own the books will know what happens in these stories and how they end. But they’re more like extended jams. The title indicates there will be oldies in there but no one is coming to see me read directly from my books.

C: What are the audiences like? Is it mostly wrestling fans or a mix of wrestling fans and comedy buffs?

MF: I would say 95 percent of the audience are wrestling fans, along with a brave few dragged out in support of significant others. I do get comedy club regulars who report to the owners that they're happy. I recently did four shows in South Bend, Ind., and the club was full of regulars .

"I enjoy going out and doing my thing in WWE, but I wouldn't say I enjoy it more than playing in front of a club of 200 people."
C: Does the response from non-wrestling fans inspire you to branch out into working on material not based on your wrestling career?

I don't often venture out from my comfort zone. Again, it’s because people aren’t coming out to hear me tell stories about non-wrestling issues. I do describe how my career in professional wrestling has given me a unique perspective on traveling abroad, politics and pornography, but I have a tether that pulls me back in.

C: Response to this tour, from reviews I’ve read online, has been largely positive. What has your take been on the reviews?

MF: I’ve been very pleased by the reviews. I did shows at the Montreal Comedy Festival and Edinburgh Fringe and Chortle, which is a respected UK comedy website that is notoriously tough in their reviews, made it a point to say "while he gives the fans the inside information they want to hear, he could do a little editing " Another site, Broadway Babies, said my show was “great even for the loving dedicated spouse dragged against her will by husband.”

C: Have you received any helpful tips from other comedians.

MF: I’ll take all the advice I can get. (Comedian) Jay Mohr said he was tentative to see me perform because he didn't want to be embarrassed for me. You figure out what works for you and what you like and try not to take it away from the game at hand, which is telling a good story.

C: How has your ability to speak in front of a crowd at WWE events prepared you for the smaller audiences of comedy clubs? Have you had to tone down your delivery playing in front of smaller crowds as opposed to projecting to the far reached of arenas of wrestling fans you find at WWE events?

MF: The two share as many similarities as differences. I enjoy going out and doing my thing in WWE, but I wouldn't say I enjoy it more than playing in front of a club of 200 people. There are points in my current show where I'll whisper for effect and seeing the crowd hang on my next words is very powerful. Skills I've developed in the ring with a microphone are used to achieve that effect, but I can't go into a club and start cutting (loud, boisterous) in-ring promos.

C: How have your successes as a wrestler and author help you with showcasing your other showbiz talents, such as your appearances on The Daily Show?

MF: It’s a double-edged sword, to tell you the truth. Name recognition does open doors but it doesn't make it easy for people to walk through. I’m amazed by people who recognize me from Daily Show segments. I don't try to force myself to do anything that isn’t comfortable. It’s like seeing Mick Jagger doing a solo show without playing any Rolling Stones tunes.

C: What is your position on working blue versus performing straight comedy?

MF: I don't work very blue, but I’m not against using profanity for effect when necessary. I’ll drop one F-bomb a night and make it count and try to find ways to work it into my set. I know several comics who enjoy working blue. Ultimately, I'd like show to be open to teens as well as adults. Once upon a time I worked bluer, but it's a sign of insecurity. The key is to make the stories funny without having the crutch of profanity to lean on.

" I don't try to force myself to do anything that isn’t comfortable. It’s like seeing Mick Jagger doing a solo show without playing any Rolling Stones tunes."
C: Do you have aspirations to grow your audience to a point where you can play smaller concert halls, similar to how Henry Rollins does with his spoken word shows?

MF: The tours have come long way in the past year. With one phone call, my agent has me in any city I happen to be geographically linked to with WWE performances and other travels. As for future shows, I don't know what kind of halls Rollins plays but there are few comedians who can play places like Zanies without handing out comps. To think about broadening at that point is kind of wasted energy. I’ve played bigger halls in the U.K. but found 400-500 seat halls are my sweet spot. In the U.S. 200-300 seaters are great.

C: Looking back, do you see the skits you performed in WWE’s Attitude Era as planting seeds for comedy/spoken word career?

MF: Oh, sure. It was during that era that my knee joints started giving out and lower back got worse. I had to find a way to connect with the audience that didn't involve physicality. And when my book (Have a Nice Day! A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks) became successful, I had the opportunity to speak with colleges and larger audiences. That’s when I realized I could entertain people through the spoken word.

C: I heard you were producing a documentary on the lives of professional Santa Clauses? Is this true?

MF: Absolutely. It’s called I Am Santa Claus and it follows me as I transform myself into Santa Claus, along with five other professional Santas. We (Foley and director Tommy Avallone) successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign and our plan now is to complete as good a movie as possible. I do discuss Santa from time to time in the show, but I’m not sure if he'll make his way to Chicago.