Mick Foley: How a wrestler fell in love with the Fringe
It's been almost a week since I returned from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, one of the great experiences of my life. The days I spent at The Fringe – five of them – were hectic. With only five days to spend in the most unique artistic atmosphere I'd ever witnessed, I longed to take in as much, to see as much, to learn as much as I possibly could. I did four shows of my own, guested on four others, did three meet and greets and, in a quest to take in as much of the Fringe atmosphere as I could, took in as many different shows in as many different atmospheres as possible.
I did separate podcasts with Matt Ricardo, an amazing magician, and Rich Herring, a brilliant comic. Matt was a huge wrestling fan who had done meticulous homework; Herring knew very little of me, and just winged it. Two completely different experiences; different styles, different crowds, different feels but I enjoyed them both equally. I was reminded of the David Allen Coe song If That Ain't Country and its line 'where bikers stare at cowboys, who are laughing at the hippies, who are praying they'll get out of here alive.'
Not that there was any hint of danger among the different subgenres of performers at the Fringe. It certainly seemed that magicians hung with dancers, who chatted with the comics – and they all embraced a wrestler. I loved how such a diversity of talent managed to manoeuvre itself, in some surreal form of human, city-wide Twister into venues large, small, and even smaller. Much like the world of wrestling, whose stars occasionally arise from the unlikeliest of places, there is talent and passion to be found in every nook and cranny of the Fringe – from the obvious, the sold out shows of Fringe titans Brendon Burns (my comedy mentor) and Stewart Lee, to the obscure. Perhaps my fondest memory of the festival took place, literally, in a cave.
Let me get my shows out of the way. I loved doing them. They were well-attended, audiences seemed more than satisfied (at this point most of my wrestling fans have no idea what to expect) and reviews, thus far, have been kind. While I wish I could have gotten a fourth star from Broadway Babies, the closing line – 'if you're a wrestling fan, you'll love it, and if you're not, you'll like it' – is an incredibly astute and accurate summation and one I will refer to with regularity when asked in the future to describe my show.
Just a few weeks ago, I may have put up some kind of argument, claiming that I used wrestling as a vantage point to jump into subjects on the world at-large. But then I went to Montreal and Edinburgh, and saw just how fortunate I was to have an audience at all, and just how foolish it would be to chase them away. If you want funny, I could have pointed you in many different directions at the Fringe – to Martin Mor at The Stand, to Billy Kirkwood, killing for free at The Beehive, to Jim Smallman, to Carl Hutchinson, and so on and so forth. Maybe hanging with The Lumberjacks Craig Campbell, Glenn Wool and Stewart Francis for four nights was the best dose of medicine I possibly could have swigged. Campbell, with his amazing insight into different cultures (he had a ten minute conversation with a Polish cab-driver on a cavalry battle in Poland THREE HUNDRED YEARS AGO), Wool, with his way-deeper-than-they-seem observations on religion and politics, and Francis, with his amazing sense of word-play, are great comedians. I had amazing stories that I had learned to tell well. I know who I am now; I am a wrestler telling wrestling stories for wrestling fans. And I'm finally cool with that. Thanks for the wake-up call, Montreal and Edinburgh. I'll apologise ahead of time if this wrestling subgenre ends up overrunning the Fringe in a few years.
Several months ago, I had written a blog about the hardships I was facing as a wrestler-turned-comic; about how difficult it was to convince those people who already liked me to take a chance on watching me try something new. Worst of all, I wrote, I had to continually tweet about my upcoming experiences, which some Twitter followers didn't enjoy. Some simply didn't care to see me anywhere but in a wrestling atmosphere. Some thought I was "whoring myself out" to be informing people of gigs they had no wish to be informed about. Some just thought it was sad. I'll admit that a line from a Las Vegas review from two years ago 'the man who used to play to tens of thousands, now plays to tens of tens' still stings from time to time.
I love how it feels to be up on that stage – creating, entertaining; making an audience laugh, wince, gasp, or even shed a tear every now and then. It feels so much like everything I loved about wrestling but with the type of pain that's usually confined to psychological. No matter how bad the gig – and I've had some stinkers – I believe my work-related late night emergency room visits are a thing of the past. But up until recently, the high of that onstage rush seemed dwarfed by the awful low of having to actually, physically tweet about gigs – and face criticism because of it.
Then... I travelled to Edinburgh. I saw performers who knew going into the Fringe that they had little chance of making money, little chance of drawing large crowds, little chance of fulfilling their dreams. I'd been told going in, that the average crowd for an Edinburgh show was six. Yet, these dedicated, talented performers do it because they love it, and because some chance is better than playing it safe in exchange for having no chance at all.
I met Carly Tarett while looking for my buddy Carl Hutchinson's gig. She was handing out flyers, and was being most helpful, until having to inform me that she had her own show to go to. So I followed her a few blocks, to her one-woman show, Sinful, and watched her act, imitate and sing her way through a labyrinth of complex characters – in front of an audience of ten. Suddenly, sending out a couple tweets a day didn't seem like such an imposition. The theatre I was performing in actually paid people to hand out my fliers.
I emerged from that small show with a better understanding of the dedication and the talent that runs rampant in this town every August – and with a heightened resolve to take in as much as I could while I still had the chance.
Half a block in front of me, I saw a yellow flyer fall from an anonymous backpack. Not intentionally discarded, but seemingly not such a valuable item as to be safely tucked away. I thought about yelling to the backpack guy. Instead, I promised myself that, time permitting, I would see whatever show was advertised on the flyer. I picked it up, saw an attractive blond woman, and the words Kerry Gilbert: Triumphs. Hmm, interesting, but slightly too chick-humor looking; like the Sex and the City type stuff that I watched, but not too often, that I liked but never loved. If I'd picked up the flyer two hours earlier, I would have taken a pass. But the spirit of the Fringe now seemed to have a grip on me, making me wonder if it might not be fate leading me into a Cave to see the attractive woman on the yellow flyer. So, instead of taking a pass, I took a chance – and really haven't been quite the same since. The Caves are aptly named; they are a series of small, musty theatres, seating a maximum of fifty, but usually inhabited by far less. I was one of only six to see Kerry Gilbert: Triumphs on that particular evening. Yet when Ms Gilbert took to the stage, it was with an enthusiasm and a joyfulness that immediately pushed the less-than-stately ambience from my mind. Within minutes, I no longer felt like I was in a tiny crowd; I felt, instead, like I'd been fortunate enough to have been led by luck or fate into this intimate audience with such a unique and charming talent.
Wrestlers sometimes have a tendency to look out on a small crowd and adopt an "F- them" attitude, taking their frustration out on the wrong people – the ones who had the audacity to show up. There was not even a whiff of that attitude from Ms Gilbert that night, as she dove head-long into a menagerie of delightfully kooky characters, stories and songs – turning the dingiest of venues into the most spectacular of theatres, and transforming a beaten-down 47 year-old wrestler into the most starry-eyed of children. But transformations of this type aren't unheard of. Disney's Magic Kingdom does it for me. So does the occasional Broadway show, or the annual Radio City Music Hall Christmas spectacular. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter does it for others. But those transformations are achieved through the work of hundreds, sometimes thousands, with staggering budgets and elaborate productions. Kerry Gilbert accomplished it, by herself... in a cave. And in doing so, she reminded me of one of the things I used to like about myself, but had lost along the way – the idea that every match was my most important match, no matter if it was in front of 26 fans in Poka, West Virginia (I counted) or in front of 65,000 at The Tokyo Dome.
I'm rediscovering that same passion I used to have for professional wrestling through the art of comedy. Some will say that what I do isn't actually comedy – which is a fair criticism. The Skinny gave my show in Edinburgh 4 stars, but pointed out that what I do might be more accurately described as 'spoken word' – which is probably true. But, that's one of the thrills of the Fringe; figuratively watching the bikers stare at cowboys, who are laughing at the hippies, who are praying they get out of here alive.
I saw some of the very best comics in the world while I was in Montreal and Edinburgh. Comics who made me laugh uproariously, and chuckle and giggle, and all of the things that a good punchline or well-crafted callback will do. I'm not sure I laughed more than once or twice out-loud while watching Kerry Gilbert. But I smiled from ear-to-ear for 55 minutes, and know I'll think back often to that wonderfully wacky web she wove for me inside that dingy cave/spectacular theater. I may not be an expert on comedy just yet, but after 27 years in sports-entertainment, I believe I know 'it' – those two tricky letters that can spell the difference between good and great – when I see 'it.' And Kerry Gilbert has 'it.' I hope some of you reading this – especially you reviewers – will venture forth into Just the Tonic at The Caves, at 6.30 pm and see if she can't weave a web of similarly wacky wonderment just for for you.
There's something for everybody at the Fringe in Edinburgh, be they biker, cowboy, hippie or magician, singer, comic. Friendship, laughter, good food and drink are abundant. For the lucky few, there is money. But I think it was the wrestler who walked away from this particular Fringe with the best booty of all. The wrestler found his passion. And I don't intend to lose it anytime soon. Thanks for an amazing, invigorating five days. I can't wait to do it again.