Comedy  |  Features

From the Cage to the Stage: Professional Wrestlers Turned Stand-Up Comics

April 12, 2012  |  4:10pm

It’s a long way down from the top of the cold, unforgiving steel of the Hell in A Cell cage. It’s a longer and even more unbelievable trip from a wrestling ring to the stages of Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival. And the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And the set of The Daily Show. Former WWE World Champion and best-selling author Mick Foley has made all of these journeys, solidifying his reputation in the disparate art forms of professional wrestling and stand-up comedy. And though he acknowledges that comedy can be tough, he’s never left a stand-up gig with a concussion. Or a tooth stuck in his nasal cavity.

Foley isn’t the only wrestler to moonlight in comedy. Surprisingly, it’s something of a trend. Eighties legend and They Live star Rowdy Roddy Piper was performing stand-up before Foley, as was WrestleMania 2 headliner King Kong Bundy. Indie wrestling superstar (and brand new NWA World Heavyweight champion) Colt Cabana’s entire persona is based around comedy, from his in-ring antics to the stand-up gigs, podcasts and tour documentaries he might now be best known for. There’s a wave of wrestlers looking to comedy both as a potentially lucrative side gig and as a safer way to get the same high they feel when wrestling in front of a crowd of screaming fans. “Wrestlers, especially those who’ve performed for years in all types of different cities and venues, find that the gratification they get from stand-up is very similar,” Foley admits. “There is something very addictive about what we call the ‘pop’ from the crowd. By just tweaking a few things we can usually get that fulfillment long after our best days in the ring are behind us.”

Comedy has long been a part of wrestling. Some of the most famous wrestlers of all time, including such legends as Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Randy Savage and The Rock, regularly cut promotional interviews that were part threat, part hype, and as hilarious as they were serious. Some wrestlers’ entire act is comedic, like the “Boogie Woogie Man” Jimmy Valiant and current WWE U.S. Heavyweight Champion Santino Marella. Comedy has always been a goal for both managers and color commentators as well.

It’s a relatively recent phenomenon to see so many wrestlers transition into traditional forms of comedy, though. Perhaps Duane “The Rock” Johnson’s success broke down some of the walls between wrestling and other, less culturally maligned forms of entertainment. Or, perhaps, in the case of Foley and Cabana, the two most notable wrestling comedians, it’s simply that their skill-sets are a good fit for this type of performance. Both are intelligent, well-spoken men who have regularly used comedy in their wrestling work. Foley in particular has a high profile outside of wrestling, thanks to his books and his work for such charities as Tori Amos’s RAINN organization. And, like professional comedians, wrestlers are used to traveling constantly to perform.

Still, both Foley and Cabana sort of backed into comedy. “I got into stand-up as an extension of my first book, which came out in 1999,” Foley says. “That made me seem like an acceptable college speaker, and during 50 or so dates at some pretty major universities I found that humorous stories were the ones I enjoyed telling the most. I took an advantage of an opportunity to try my hand at the Improv in Los Angeles. I enjoyed it and did a dozen or so dates afterward but pretty much thought it was an experiment that I had finished and enjoyed. Six or so months later I got asked out of the blue to do stand-up in Plattsburgh, New York. I didn’t prepare very much, but had one of those nights that probably every comic will remember forever where everything just seems to click. I left that show thinking I’d be selling myself short if I didn’t give stand-up an honest-to-goodness try.”

Cabana’s wrestling character has been comedic for years, but he made his stand-up debut at that same Improv show in Hollywood in 2009. “This guy Joe Schmo [former WWE writer Joe Schmociosi] had ties at the Improv in Hollywood and he wanted to do a comedy show before [the major WWE event] SummerSlam with Mick Foley headlining,” Cabana explains. “I had just been fired from WWE and Joe said he’d pay me to open for Mick. I knew I needed money because I had been fired, so I said yes before I had time to think about a set or anything. And then I started developing material and testing it at local places in Chicago and had a successful show at the Improv. People started asking us to tour and before you knew it I was doing stand-up comedy about wrestling.”

Foley and Cabana debuted on the same show and have toured together, but have different philosophies about comedy. Foley’s material isn’t always about wrestling. “I use wrestling as a way of jumping into other subjects,” he says. “I might do 20 minutes about politics but make the wrestling fan feel like I’m talking about wrestling because I’ll offer examples of how candidates can benefit from a WWE superstar on their staff.” The first hit for Foley’s stand-up on YouTube shows this technique in action, starting off about how useless The Karate Kid’s crane technique would be in a wrestling match before turning into a three-minute bit about how Mr. Miyagi would’ve trained Daniel differently if he worked in a massage parlor instead of as a maintenance man.

Foley compares stand-up to cutting a promo in wrestling, but notes various crucial differences. “Both can leave me with a similar feeling, which is either near ecstasy or downright frustration,” he says. “The difference is in WWE I always prided myself in coming up with something different every time and finding different ways to make people think or laugh or react. In comedy there is absolutely no shame in taking material and refining it and polishing it and making it as good as it can be over the course of weeks or months.”

Cabana, who also performs improv comedy and hosts the popular podcast Art of Wrestling (think WTF with Marc Maron, but about wrestling) deals solely with wrestling. “When I do stand-up or improv or any of my comedy shows, it always has to do with wrestling,” he says. “I never take it out of the wrestling element, because that’s what I know best. When I started comedy I didn’t say I was doing stand-up for the first time, I said I was performing, just like I had for 13 years, only instead of a wrestling ring, there’s a stage. I don’t perform out of my element at all. I always go on stage as Colt Cabana, and that’s the persona I’ve been doing and making my living with for years now. I’m not trying to do this for people who have no clue about wrestling.”

Cabana’s focus on wrestling might limit his potential audience, but it provides a comedic persona unlike any other stand-up comic. And though you might have to be a wrestling fan to truly appreciate his stand up or podcast, his Wrestling Road Diaries documentary, which follows Cabana and current WWE superstar Bryan “Daniel Bryan” Danielson on an independent wrestling tour, should fascinate anybody interested in weird and unusual jobs that require a lot of travel. Moreover, Cabana feels a pretty serious kinship with those on the fringe. “I based my career off alternative comedy,” he says. “I was addicted to comedy podcasts. I’d listen to 25 podcasts a week and wonder why wrestlers weren’t doing anything like Marc Maron, Scott Aukerman or Paul F. Tompkins. They moved me to start my podcast, and it’s been the greatest business move of my life. My movie alone has made it where, if I didn’t want to work for a couple of years, I wouldn’t have to. It was based on the Comedians of Comedy, with Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn and Maria Bamford, who are like the kings of the alternative comedy scene. That movie was based on the same idea of ‘this is a great thing, we have the same lifestyle, we travel the same roads, we are complete unknowns to the world, but when you get us in a basement we become gods in front of 200 people.”

“I don’t follow any kind of wrestling model,” he continues. “My path to success is through comedy. Wrestling is so stuck in the’80s. It’s a generation behind. If I can do what’s cool in this day and age, I know the world of wrestling won’t be doing that and I’ll be ahead of the curve in wrestling forever.”

Cabana’s comedy is funny and smart enough to attract fans from outside of wrestling, and Foley has long been known and respected by people who otherwise would never watch professional wrestling thanks to his charity work and mainstream media appearances. Comedy might never completely eclipse their wrestling careers, but both buck the common stereotypes of the professional wrestler. They prove that, if a wrestler has the right skills, he doesn’t have to beat himself up to make an audience truly feel something.

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