“I understand comedy wasn’t your first
calling,” I begin. It's an understated opening gambit.
“Yes, that’s true,” Mick Foley confirms, equally understated. “I
did something else for quite a while."
We're kind of hovering, shifting weight from one foot to the other, swaying from side to side slightly as we square off. Metaphorically, of course, because my interview 'opponent' Mick Foley, happens to be in another continent, talking to me over the phone.
Yes, the Mick Foley: the author, comedian, actor, voice actor and 'colour' commentator (the one that fills in the boring bits with comic relief and levity while also being an expert on the stats, facts and figures of each sporting contestant) who was in fact a champion wrestler first. That in itself is interesting when you first lay eyes on him, all hairy-beardy-weirdy lookin' like Jeff Lynne or the Lyndsay Buckingham of classic ’70s-era Fleetwood Mac. But he's a wrestler. Turned comedian. About to tour Australia with local-comic-who-conquered-the-world Brendon Burns. And, Mick says, "it's still largely a wrestling-oriented comedy show that I do." But it still doesn't make the concept of a wrestler-turned-stand up comic any easier to unpack.
"I loved it!" Foley enthuses of his wrestling. "From the time I was a teenager it just felt like something I wanted to do."
Mick's sense of humour was apparent early on, too:
"You find out, when you're trying to appeal to an audience and trying to do it over a length of time, you have to have a multi-dimensional character. Especially as I got older and more beaten up, I realised it's actually easier to make people laugh than it is to make them wince. So I started incorporating a little humour into my matches."
I hope when Mick's on the comedy stage, it's still easier to make his audiences laugh than to make them wince.
"Oh, they wince every once in a while too, when something doesn't work," Mick says. "I try a lot of new things out, and not everything works. But there's only one way to find out what works and what doesn't and that is to try stuff out. And there is some wincing; there is some wincing occasionally when I'm on stage."
Spoken like a true comedian - one who isn't afraid to break new ground - at least for himself, if not always for his audience. And I guess that bravery comes a little easier if you've had to already front up on stage and win an audience over. While fighting. Mick concurs: wrestling's "another profession where you get judged on what you do, and reactions can be harsh. If you're not performing and giving people their money's worth in wrestling, they'll let you know pretty quickly, and they'll let you know the same comedy. I've had my feelings hurt in both wrestling and comedy. But you get a kind of 'thick skin' to it."
You do if you're gonna last in that industry. In either industry, I guess.
You're probably intrigued as to what would prompt a guy like Mick to make the cross-over, to do it all from a different stage where you're not expected to jump from the ropes onto someone quite as often, just to please a crowd. The transition is in fact quite logical: Mick was given the opportunity to speak at American universities in 2000, and he took it up as a new career, touring educational institutions. But for reasons unknown to him, those speaking engagements dried up in 2007. "I don't know why, but he requests stopped coming." So when a similar opportunity arose, in 2009, to get on stage and do proper stand-up," Mick says, "I jumped on it, man!"
"It felt a lot like doing the talks at the colleges, except that I actually had to be funny, not just 'interesting' or humorous'."
That was the challenge: it's easy to be interesting and humorous, funny's harder. More so to an audience actively seeking it. Go to see a sportsman or sportswoman you admire give a talk, they can be funny more easily because you're not expecting it. Under those circumstances, Mick says, "being funny was easier because it was just a 'bonus'. People didn't know what to expect. I'd be addressing the National Librarian's Conference, and out would come this wrestler who'd written a few books. But they're not expecting me to be funny, they're expecting me to be mean because that's their basic understanding of wrestling. And then when I'm kind of charming or humorous, it's all, 'Aah, I like him!' You're not being judged upon how much your making them laugh."
That's the rub: when you've crossed over to being labelled 'comedian', the audience comes expecting you to be funny, and being 'just a bit funny' or 'merely humorous' doesn't cut it. So on the stand-up stage, Mick has to "weed out the 'interesting' and stick to stuff that's funny!" But, he says, "I still don't like being judged on how much I make people laugh. It's more the quality of the laugh, and the way people feel when they leave." And for Mick, that makes it more like wrestling. "I don't judge matches by how much people boo or cheer, but how they feel when they leave and how much they enjoyed the match as a whole. And I intend to do that when I come and visit you guys over there."
I know that sounds like the perfect sign-off, giving you some indication of just how good a public speaker, presenter and performer Mick Foley is. But I'm not finished. He said he 'got an offer' to do stand-up, and I find that interesting. Who saw this former wrestler on the lecture circuit and realised he ought to be on the stand-up stage?
"It was just a guy…" Mick casts his mind back, starting to laugh. "He was called 'Joe Schmoe'. I don't think that was his real last name. I never asked for I.D. But he asked me if I wanted to do the Improv in Hollywood. I said, 'yeah, sure'."
That initial foray was a tester really. Mick paid his own way to LA, and donated his gig income to charity. Small price to pay, given that it opened him up to his new incarnation as a comic. Mick agrees: "It seemed like a good reason to go to Los Angeles, I did have fun, and I decided to pursue it."
More interesting is the connection to Brendon Burns, with whom Mick's touring.
For the criminally uninformed, Brendon Burns is an Aussie comic who left Australia some years ago, somewhat under-appreciated (some would say rightfully so, but they may be wrong) heading to the UK where he made his name as a brilliant stand-up, coming away from Edinburgh Fringe with the top award just a couple of years ago. He returned to Australia triumphant. And was, to a degree, under-appreciated. (Some would still say 'rightfully so', but this time they are definitely wrong!)
When I ask Mick how they hooked up, he chuckles at a whole body of reminiscence that I'm sure we'll never be privy to. But the short version is, they have a mutual admiration thing going and after Brendon did some unannounced support slots that pleased Mick's fans no end, he then campaigned to get Mick to the Montreal Just for Laughs festival. Now they're touring together. And, truth be told, Brendon's not shy of a scrape, either. I'm sure he'll bang heads together with the best of 'em when necessary. But he's seen another side to Burns.
"Brendon was mad at me because I was trying out new material in Montreal," Mick says. "He was like, 'Mate, you don't try out new material in Montreal…'. I said, 'why not?'"
The reason is because Montreal is where you do your most 'showbiz' show to hope world tours, film and television deals and other untold riches flow accordingly. It's for your very best, most polished, fail-safe stuff. Not for taking risks with untried material that may not fly, thus making you look less phenomenal than you actually are.
Brendon didn't take the time to explain this to Mick, instead demanding Adam Hills, also present, support him in the position.
"He said, 'Hillsy, tell him; tell him, don't try out new material!'"
Turns out Hillsy was all, "Why not? Why not just go for it?'"
"I can't believe Brendon Burns was the conservative guy in the group saying, 'Don't do this, don't do that, it's disrespectful'."
To put it in perspective, Mick explains that he will ensure he only drops one - maybe two at most - "f-bombs" in his show. "Brendon has that in his opening 'hello' to the audience!"
There is one last issue to explore, and I'll raise it as politely as possible.
Like comedy, a lot of work goes into making wrestling look improvised - as if it's being made up on the spot - when really there's a lot of choreography involved.
"It's a lot like comedy," Mick assures me. "There are a lot of styles involved. You will see someone on the stage who will look like his style is completely ad libbed, then you find out he's worked for months to make it look that natural. There are other guys with the one-liners who you can tell have been doing the same thing for a long time. In wrestling, it's the same way. You want it to look natural. How you get to that conclusion is up the the individual to do the best work he can."
Mick Foley wanted to try new stuff in Montreal. I reckon his wrestling is 'more real'. But, he says, it's behind him.
"I'm done. I had a good time exchanging words, but I can't exchange blows anymore."
Wrestling's loss is clearly comedy's gain as Mick himself assures us:
"You will, you will cry, you will kiss some hard-earned money goodbye!"
Mick Foley & Brendon Burns tour Australia with Good God Almighty! February 2013. Check out www.livenation.com.au for tix and info.