The Return of the Champ
Mick Foley swaps the wrestling ring for spoken word
By Richard Whittaker,
7:00AM, Sat. Jul. 12, 2014
Mick Foley is a legend in the wrestling community. The hardcore icon, the reckless daredevil, the master of Hell in a Cell and the Japanese death match, a former WWE world champion. He's also a respected stand-up storyteller, a multiple New York Times bestseller list author, and, as real fans know, a huge fan of Santa Claus.
This Sunday, he better leave the red suit behind, as he heads to Austin's Cap City Comedy Club to perform his one-man show of anecdotes and humor about his life inside, outside, and after the wrestling ring. He said, "I have an especially warm spot for Texas, because that's where I really learned to love the wrestling business. I had a great time and was allowed to grow, and was a proud part of World Class Championship Wrestling. It will be really good to see at least one, if not more, of my colleagues when I'm in town."
He's not just popular in Texas. Recently Newsday held a competition, and Foley came through as the sixth most beloved celebrity in his native Long Island. "I ended up beating the singer Ashanti," he said, "But I'm being crushed by Dee Snider. But you know what? Even if I do lose to Dee, it just allows me to avoid the true crushing that either one of us will get at the hands of Billy Joel, Jerry Seinfeld, or Billy Crystal."
I mentioned to Foley that, a couple of months ago, at the Texas Frightmare Weekend, Snider had complimented my beard. He audibly perks up and asks me about it, is it big, have I ever considered being a Santa. When he's not on the road, he's been working on a documentary, I Am Santa Claus, about five men who spend all year preparing to be the jolly old man every holiday season. Foley himself has a dedicated Twitter feed, @FoleyIsSanta, where every day he posts a picture of himself dressed in something Christmas-related. He said, "It was surprising to me how many kids were shouting 'Santa' to me, even though I was only wasn't dressed as Santa and was wearing a Christmas T-shirt.
Austin Chronicle: How's the documentary coming along?
Mick Foley: I think it's going to be great. I'm not at liberty to say who's going to be executive producing, but we impressed someone with a lot of credibility. We think it's going to surprise a lot of people. One of the Santas is from Texas, which has caused a lot of concern within the Santa community, but he's a big part of the film and a very touching part.
AC: You started with the story telling in the books, but what was the original motivation to say, "I'll give this stand-up thing a real shot"?
MF: I kind of eased into it. The success of the first book made me somehow a credible college speaker. So over the course of seven years, although it was never my job, it was just something I did, I talked to probably five or six dozen universities in the U.S., including some of the top ones in the country. That dried up around 2007, so when I was given the opportunity to try my hand at stand-up, I just went onstage and told some of the stories that I had told in colleges, combined with some ideas that were not fleshed out. In retrospect, I realize that was a big mistake. You don't go onto the stage of the Improv with some ideas, including a parody of a song I didn't even have the lyrics to. I realized I owed the people better than that, and really started working on trying to create a set.
AC: When anyone moves from one field to another, sometimes it can be a rough transition, not least because people say, "You're doing well, why tread on my turf?"
MF: I can understand initial resentment, but I think that any comic who has come out to see me walks away realizing that I really care about the show. I'm not using it as an excuse to get to the merchandise table.
I daresay I get rave reviews from the club owners, not only for the show I put on, but for the least demanding rider in entertainment history. I need a bottle of water and a diet Monster, and that's it. I try to make it as easy for everyone involved, owners and patrons as well.
The other answer would be that I'm not taking anyone's time. I usually go in on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Sunday, when clubs are not even open, or have some kind of open mic or benefit show. I'm not really taking anyone's time. I'm making my own little slice, and there's plenty of pie left for anybody.
AC: Does that make it difficult to be seen as part of the stand-up scene?
MF: I try to distance myself from the term stand-up, because I don't want to chase away the wrestling fans. I have to come up with some kind of label that tells them that it is exactly the kind of show they want to see, whether they realize it or not.
AC: It's like when Henry Rollins started doing his spoken word stuff, and there really wasn't a term for it.
MF: He really invented spoken word, that was his moniker. It's a great term, because it allows the artists to fill in whatever blanks they like. I should have a contest and see if we come up with a name, because I don't really know what to tell people. The stories are largely humorous in nature, but I'll go off on a sensitive path now and then. The sensitive route will usually pay off with a joke at the end, but I love the fact that I don't have to subscribe to a jokes-per-minute or laughs-per-minute ratio. I wouldn't put any more credence in that than I would a reactions-per-minute ratio in wrestling.
AC: It's like Bill Hicks. When he was in one of his longer narratives, he'd stop and say, "Don't worry, there are dick jokes coming soon." How much do you have to talk about wrestling in the set, considering you've been basically retired since 2001?
MF: I think of wrestling as my tether. I can run off for awhile in other directions, so long as I remain attached to that tether. I have to bring it around. To paraphrase Bill Hicks: Don't worry, there will be wrestling references coming soon.
AC: There's a certain irony that you were a wrestler, living on the road, then retired, and took up another job, stand-up, that keeps you on the road. How do they compare as traveling experiences, considering there's still a lot of strange beds and staring into strange faces?
MF: This is 15 cities in 15 days. I drive from Florida to Texas; I do three dates in Texas, including an independent wrestling show in Galveston; then I drive 11 hours to Hunstville, Alabama. I'll do all 15 days by car, by myself, in a different room every night. I imagine if you didn't love it, it would be a really tough way to make a living. But one of the biggest challenges I have is that, in the past couple of years, the shows have really started being successful, so I have to remember to keep my dates down.
AC: The big difference between the road then and now is that there's social media.
MF: You can never again say, "Oh, I can't be reached," because you can be reached 24/7. Quite frankly, I could not be doing these shows without social media. It's a little easy to get too involved, and the truth is that it doesn't take many really harsh comments to throw you off a little while. So I feel fortunate I grew up in an era when you weren't reachable. I wasn't even reachable by WWE most of the time when I was on the road, and I preferred it that way.
AC: How did your family react to you being away again so much?
MF: I want to be home at least half the month, and that becomes difficult when you have offers and you know how lucky you are to be making a living in a tough economy, doing something you love. My balance is that, when I'm home half the time, and I'm really home, playing with the kids, taking them places, working with them, I'm pretty happy with that.
AC: Your audience got to know your kids in your time in wrestling, through stuff like the your ECW promos and the film Beyond the Mat. Now they're older, are there points when they say, "Don't tell them that"?
MF: My daughter's only fault is, "Dad, why didn't you tell a story about me?" I was really fortunate, she came on the road with me, we did four dates and two of them were fundraisers for a group called RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.) We went to the Bethesda Naval Hospital, and one wounded warrior I've known for years said, "I'd love to come, but I don't have a babysitter." My daughter said, "I'll babysit," so it was nice to have her babysitting a 4 month old so that a wounded warrior and his wife - who's like Superwoman and volunteers 40 hours a week for the USO - can have a night off and have some laughs.
AC: You've done a lot of work with charities like Make a Wish, but recently you've become a very vocal advocate for RAINN. What was it about that cause that struck such a chord with you?
MF: I got involved just because I'm a big fan of singer Tori Amos, and I realized that she had co-founded the group in 1994. But A) I thought that the issue, important as it was, was for women and survivors, and B) I didn't know how to use a computer. It was fall 2008, after I met Tori, I went on her website - it was the first time I'd ever been on the Internet by myself - and I hit the link to RAINN. I came away thinking it may be an unlikely way for me to make a difference, but it was probably the way that I could make the largest difference. There's no shortage of great A-list celebrities doing great work, but there wasn't a long line to help wade in with RAINN. So I jumped in as a donor, then did online volunteering for two years, and really think of it as as important as anything I've ever done, inside the ring or outside.
What's really nice is that, once a week, I'll put out something late at night on Twitter saying, "Hey, if you're a victim of sexual assault, feeling lonely or confused, there's help out there," and I'd include the website. I used to get two or three retweets when I had something I feel is important, and now I get up and there's a hundred retweets. People realize that this is something that's important to me. About once every show, I'll get someone who walks up and thanks me for working with RAINN, and it's known without being said that they're a survivor.
AC: I've got to ask you the obligatory wrestling question. It seems like the WWE is getting behind guys like Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Daniel Bryan, the Wyatt Family, guys who come from the hard knock, indie, CZW, Ring of Honor style. They remind me of your career, and I wonder how you feel about them.
MF: I think it sends a great message to the guys out there, that breaks do happen. The odds are always against a guy, especially considering how subjective pro-wrestling and WWE can be, but sometimes the cream really does rise to the top. Specifically with the Shield, you're looking at a team of three people who seem poised to go in different directions and all land as major singles stars for years to come. And I remember Bray Wyatt telling me about this thing he was doing, looking for feedback, and I thought, this is just great. When people say, "Do you see a little of yourself in Bray Wyatt," I'd like to think that he was a kid watching TV and I made some kind of impression on him.
Mick Foley performs Sunday, July 13, 8pm, at Cap City Comedy Club, 8120 Research. $25. For more information, call 512/467-2333 or visit capcitycomedy.com.
For more about the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network visit rainn.org.