When Dave Foley smiles at you, you wonder, what am I doing wrong? It’s not just everything that comes out of his mouth sounds ironic, it’s even his mouth just sitting there on his face looks like it’s making fun of you. Whenever he played a sincere character on the legendary sketch show Kids in the Hall (still the best sketch show ever on TV for my money, and yes I do want to fight about it), or throughout the run of the underrated sitcom NewsRadio where he was supposed to be a genuinely naive young executive, something about his expression always seemed to be saying, “I think we both know this is all ridiculous.” That sparkle of sarcasm comes through delightfully in his spate of movie roles since then, and most powerfully on his years hosting the absurd and fantastic Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo where Foley would tease both the celebrities for having zero idea how to play poker and the poker hosts for taking it so seriously and often the game of poker itself for being really boring sometimes too!
When I heard that Foley was going to be touring the country doing stand-up, it seemed to make a lot of sense. More than any other alumni from KITH, Foley seems like a natural fit for talking directly to an audience without a character. It’s partially because he’s been through more public heartache than any of the other Kids–he’s talked before about his two messy and expensive divorces–and there’s nothing like personal tragedy to make someone innately appealing to watch vent onstage as themselves. But Dave’s always had more personality than a sketch chameleon. The flip side to always looking sarcastic is that he also always seems vitally engaged by whatever situation he’s in, whether as an actor in a part, speaking as himself from a stage or just being interviewed somewhere on TV, the smirk suggests not that he’s high above the situation, but that he’s wholly in it and hey you’re trapped here too, so let’s make a joke about it, shall we?
We spoke to the Canadian comedy god on the occasion of him coming to DC to the Arlington Drafthouse this weekend, and he opened up about getting back into standup late in life, why Internet snark isn’t funny, and how to make the perfect sketch.
BYT: So is it true that you’ve only been doing standup again, after starting as a standup in your early 20s, for a couple of months?
Dave Foley: That’s right, I started up again just before Christmas. I took a quick 20 year break.
BYT: You’re of course no stranger to live performances. It must be a similar, but slightly different set of muscles.
DF: It is different, and there has been a learning curve, because it’s not the same as the monologues we used to do on Kids In The Hall.
BYT: I was watching this old monolgue of yours, Canada vs. USA from MadTV, and thinking about what made that joke work. Kind of what made it work is that there were a lot of differences at the time – particularly from the perspective of a Canadian – but I feel like in the past 20 years the differences between the cultures have been disappearing. There are just more and more similarities on either side of the border. Am I just imagining that, or is Canadian culture changing?
DF: I think that the whole world is becoming somewhat homogenized by the internet. I think that’s part of it. If nothing else Canadians will always get their backs up when people say we’re just like Americans. We get defensive about stuff like that even when it’s mostly true. Canada and the United States are very similar places. Canada, in general, is a little more liberal. You know, in fact we have a party that calls themselves “Liberal.” In the United States, nobody calls themselves a “liberal” anymore. They’re “progressives.” The word “liberal” has disappeared from the lexicon. Right now the official opposition party in Canada is the Socialist party. You know, that’s a first time for Canada, though Canada is strongly a socialist country in some ways.
BYT: Do you think that there is still a uniquely Canadian sense of humor? I really felt like as a kid, a young guy, experiencing Kids in the Hall both made total sense to me, but also felt like it came from this very special place. Do you think that you’re representing Canadian comedy – bringing that Northern sensibility to the US – still, after all this time?
DF: I don’t know. I mean, it certainly never felt like we were doing anything “Canadian,” other than the fact that we were Canadian. You know? We weren’t trying – we didn’t sit down and say, “Well, what can we say about Canada? How do we represent our culture?” Which I think in a lot of ways is a trap Canadians fall into, feeling that insecurity of, “Well, how do we capture it? How are we different?” Whereas Americans don’t ever think of how they’re different. They just think that the rest of the world is crazy. Or cute, like Americans view the rest of the world as, “Oh, you. Ooh, you nutty rest of the world…” America is different from any other country in the world, as in you’re oddly the least introspective countries in the world and one of the least outward looking countries in the world.
BYT: That true. What are we looking at?
DF: I don’t know what in the hell Americans are looking at, really.
BYT: Sandwiches, usually. That’s funny, because Kids in the Hall sketches now, they seem completely timeless to me. Not just lack of Canadian specificity, but there’s a lack of references to pop culture that in modern sketch writing – even shows that I really like a lot – you see pop culture references and current event references that Kids in the Hall seemed to avoid doing. Was that a deliberate, conscious effort to do that?
DF: It was a conscious decision not to be topical. Not to make reference to current events, really, except in oblique ways. We definitely steered clear of parody, because we were all SCTV fans and felt like they had done that as well as anybody was going to do it. So, we didn’t parody partially out of respect or in fear of being compared to them. It’s hard for people to get the jokes in a Fantasy Island parody when nobody’s seen it in 30 years.
BYT: That seems so great to me and I really wish more sketch shows still did that. I feel like there’s been a cheapening of sketch, even though there’s still some great stuff out there. What are some other cardinal sins in sketch comedy that you see nowadays that you guys completely avoided?
DF: We didn’t do parody and we didn’t do celebrity impressions. Those we consciously didn’t do.
BYT: Did you ever have to battle with a network that said you should do more?
DF: Not really. I think the only thing really is that folks wanted more reoccurring characters. And our thought was a character will reoccur when we have an idea for it. Probably one of the things I hear about most from my years at Kids in the Hall was a monologue called “Bad Doctor.” You know? And I only did one, I only played “The Bad Doctor” once. In the whole 5 years. But people still come up and talk to me about it.
BYT: I was going to say, I think another one of my other favorites of yours is “The Sizzler Sisters.”
DF: Yeah, and I think we did two of those.
BYT: Yes, the first one and then there was a sequel. Like two mini-movies. You must have people still come up to you now, telling you what they loved about this and that show. Have you ever had someone really unexpected drop that on you? A celebrity or dentist that surprised you?
DF: I was surprised when to find when I moved to LA that Kids in the Hall was pretty popular in the Latino community. It was surprising that somebody growing up in East LA would relate to a bunch of white guys from Canada. There are tons of Kids in the Hall fans in the Latino community and lots of fans in Mexico and South America, like down in Argentina. Kids in the Hall rules down there.
BYT: You guys and Morrissey are the two favorite pieces of Northern culture down there, I guess. So, I wanted to get back to you. You’ve always been the master of smiling but with sarcasm. I’ve always admired that ability. But these days, there’s so much amateur comedy on the Internet and comedians who confuse being snide for being funny. If I had to explain the difference to one of them, how do you think I could do that?
DF: Well, I know what you mean. I think part of it is that a lot of people don’t realize that what we did on Kids in the Hall was never mean-spirited. It could be really dark and maybe uncomfortable, but it was never mean. Never going out and shitting on people and just being cruel. I think there is a lot of empathy in our work, through the characters we play and subject matter we deal with. I know I don’t like dealing with comedy that’s like, “Hey look, aren’t other people stupid?” You know, I’m not a big fan of watching YouTube videos of people getting hit in the balls or falling off buildings. That just doesn’t make me laugh to see somebody to get hurt. When I see somebody get hurt, I think, “Ow, that would be horrible.” And I think that detachment from other people allows for that snideness you’re talking about. I guess is just a lack of empathy.
BYT: Yeah, there are people who think that’s all you need for comedy is that detachment. But, it seems like that is just such a failure of empathy.
DF: I think that any art form should be imbued with empathy. Whatever it is. I think comedy should have empathy. To me that’s just the core of humanity that you should not lose for any reason.
BYT: Well, one place where it might have been difficult to maintain empathy was on Celebrity Poker Showdown. I’m a poker player, so I really appreciated your role on that show – where the celebrities often seemed like they had no idea what they were doing in terms of poker and many other things. I think Star Jones thought she was playing blackjack at some point.
DF: Haha right…
BYT: You always seemed like you had this undercurrent in your expression of, “what in the hell is going on with this show?” Was that a stance, or did you just find yourself bemused often?
DF: Well, when they asked me to host it, I was like, “Well alright, I don’t play a lot of poker. I don’t really know anything about it.” If I could be the co-host to represent the idiots who don’t get poker at all, so I can be the one there asking dumb questions who doesn’t really care about it, and let Phil (Gordon) be the expert, then that would be good. I don’t want to come in and like, try to pretend I really know a lot about poker. Or even that I care about poker. Yeah, the director would say “Well, Bravo gave a note saying that sometimes during the show you look bored.” And my reaction was, “you should tell them that sometimes I am fucking bored!’ I’m watching 10 hours of poker every day, of course I’m bored.
BYT: This is just a totally nerdy poker question, but when you’re commenting on a show like that, you’re commenting on a recorded version of it? Or live? Or a combination of both?
DF: Oh no, we’re commenting live. We’re there right next to the tables in another room, but we’re there live watching from another room. So, a big part of what I’m doing is thinking of funny things to say for – and again, the first year of the show before I took over as a co-host, the average game was 2 hours, because none of the celebrities knew how to play poker. But by the time I got there, they got tutors – so these games went from lasting 2 hours to 5 hours. And we shot two of them a day. So, my job was to try and think of funny things to say about people playing poker for 10 hours a day. And it was all ad-libbed. Very little of what I said on the show was ever scripted. The occasional throw to commercials was scripted, but even then those I would usually ad-lib.
BYT: You’re not seeing the hole cards live?
DF: No, the Gaming Commission won’t let you see the hold cards live. So, that then we had to go watch in post and then comment on game-play once we knew what the hole cards were. Sometimes Phil would guess on the floor, which was amazing, he would just guess what people had. And a lot of times he’d be right – we could use some commentary he did during the taping. He’d be like, “oh, and she has a pair of queens!” and then we’d watch after and she would have a pair of queens! Phil is a genius.
BYT: This is a rhetorical question, but how annoying is Phil Helmuth?
DF: I know Phil very well, I wound up being pretty fond of him actually. It was weird, because when we first met all he ever talked about was, “Oh, I met some billionaire friends last night in Vegas!” and how he planned to be a billionaire soon and just talked about money and how rich people live. And he’d say things like, “well, sometimes I don’t know how to get to where I’m going because, you know, you’re always in a limo. You know what it’s like Dave,” and I’d be like, “No, no, I don’t, Phil. I’m not always in a limo, and I do know where I’m going.” He’s a weird guy, but I wound up really actually liking him.
BYT: Hard to imagine. Getting back to a favorite sketch: The Bruce McCoullogh sketch, “You Lost Me” guy, that might be my favorite Kids in the Hall sketch.
DF: Oh yeah. All I remember from that is “You Lost Me.”
BYT: Your reactions in that really key, vacillating between anger and this stare-down that you do. You just have a knack for those kind of reactions, particularly on NewsRadio, where you bounced off of all these personalities–Andy Dick, Vicki Lewis (ed. note: Oops, we thought Kathy Griffin was in this show!) Joe Rogan, Stephen Root…
DF: Well that was my whole job. I did a lot of eye acting. “Matthew!”
BYT: Haha. To me that’s such an underrated skill. What’s the key to a great reaction like that?
DF: Gosh, I don’t know. I know what you mean. Paul Simms wrote the role of David for me, because he liked my straight man from the “Chicken Lady” sketch, so he liked the fact that I was getting laughs off of reaction shots and taking pauses. To me the greatest in the world at that kind of comedy were Bob Newhart, and before Bob Newhart, Jack Benny. It’s really just knowing how long to hold a pause and being able to know how to convey what you’re thinking without saying it in a clear way so the audience knows what you’re thinking before you say what you’re going to say.
BYT: I feel like there’s a kind of humility in being a great straight man, and it’s impossible to do that without really listening to the other person’s joke.
DF: Oh yeah, your job is to set the pace for the scene when you’re straight-manning a sketch. In Kids in the Hall we all had great respect for the craft of being a straight man. Everyone on Kids in the Hall was a great straight man. Whenever you were in a scene, if you’re doing the set ups, everyone worked really hard and took real pride in it. In sitcoms, the central character is generally the straight man. Jack Benny was the straight man in The Jack Benny Show, he was mostly setting up the other characters. It’s the same thing with Bob Newhart. You can watch a Bob Newhart episode and you’ll see he has no jokes in the entire episode.
BYT: That crook-eyed look that he gave was always really devastating.
BYT: Last question. Do “The Kids” have any projects coming up? The last big one was Death Comes to Town, the CBC show, which was great. Is anything else coming up like that?
DF: You know, we don’t have anything planned right now. We’ve been talking about doing something. I just did a short film with Scott Thomas a little while ago. Scott and Kevin are actually going on the road together doing stand-up. We were talking about getting together and doing another theatre tour together, or trying to do another mini-series. We liked the dynamic of that, with the story ended in 8 episodes. It was a nice feeling.
BYT: Without having the pressure of having to sustain some kind of long-term thing. Like, “let’s get it done.”
DF: Yes, also without the horror of thinking you have to work together non-stop for another 5 years. We can get together and then stop, get together again when we wanted to. I think we all really like the idea that Kids in the Hall is something we can come back to whenever we want. But, if it became a full-time job again I think we’d all be horrified.
BYT: You might all try to kill each other.
BYT: So, no plans to work with the rap group “Kidz in the Hall,” with a Z.
DF: No, I can’t believe we haven’t tried to sue them. They’re the worst.
BYT: Well, they have a Z.
DF: It’s weird because we had to buy the name “Kids” when we got the copyright on the name we had to pay off an Australian band called “Kids in the Kitchen.”
BYT: Really? Not “New Kids on the Block?”
DF: No, I think we were out before them. But there was a band called “Kids in the Kitchen” when we did the search on it and we had to pay just to use the name “kids.” We basically had to buy the rights from them, and the band wasn’t even together anymore, but they had the name registered. So really, there’s no legal way they can have the exact same name as us.
BYT: But with a Z.
DF: Gotta have that Z.
BYT: Thanks for your time sir!
DF: OK. See you at the show!
Dave Foley will be bringing his new but razor sharp comedy talking abilities to the Arlington Drafthouse tonight and tomorrow (with two performances each night: 7:30pm &9:55pm). Do not miss your chance to straight-man him silently!