Legendary wrestler Chris Jericho has practically become the definition of a multi-hyphenate: besides being a 6-time WWE World Champion and veteran of nearly 30 years in the squared circle, he's also the lead singer of the metal band Fozzy, a bestselling author of multiple books, a prolific podcaster (Talk is Jericho), a past Dancing with the Stars contestant, a host of his own reality show (Downfall), and an actor. While many one-time wrestlers have branched off into acting (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Dave Bautista) or writing (Mick Foley), none have done so many different things at such a high level.
But how about comedian?
Chris Jericho returns to his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba to host the "Game On!" Gala on Thursday, April 12 at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival alongside stand-up comics Erica Sigurdson, Simon Rakoff, and Rob Pue. While bringing in a recognizable show business name with local ties is a no-brainer, the festival can also count on his legitimate comedy chops, too: in the mid-2000s, he spent a couple years studying improv at The Groundlings Theatre; he co-starred in the comedy cult classic MacGruber; he made multiple appearances on comedy panel shows like Video on Trial, VH1's I Love the 90s, Attack of the Show, and @midnight; and he even did some improv on the CW's Whose Line is it Anyway?. To top it all off, CBC Comedy recently launched the second season of the web series, But I'm Chris Jericho!, where Jericho stars as an over-the-top, ridiculous version of himself trying to become an actor after getting blackballed from wrestling (friend of the site Andy Kindler co-stars as his bumbling manager).
Last week I got the chance to chat with Chris Jericho over the phone a couple hours before he went on stage with Fozzy to talk about his upcoming gala taping. We chatted about getting to return to Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Jets, how the wrestling world actually set him up perfectly for improv and comedy, his experience working on But I'm Chris Jericho!, and the improv comedy royalty he has in his own family.
A few tickets remain for the TV taping in Winnipeg, but if you're somewhere else in the world, you can watch it next spring on CBC's Winnipeg Comedy Festival series. For more info on Winnipeg Comedy Festival shows, including 4 other TV galas and live tapings of CBC's The Debaters, visit winnipegcomedyfestival.com.
Paul Little: I'm sure you're always excited any time you get a chance to return to Winnipeg professionally -- it must have been great whenever WWE or Fozzy have come through over the years. How will it be coming back to your home town with something a little bit new for you, hosting a TV comedy gala?
Chris Jericho: Well it's new in some ways, but the last time I was in Winnipeg was for "The Words of Jericho", a spoken word show that is basically a 90-minute comedy dinner. And you know, I've done a lot of hosting over the years, whether it be music award shows, podcasting award shows, comedy festivals, that sort of thing -- it's almost become a third job for me at this point. But hey, listen, any time I get to come back to Winnipeg is fun, even if it's just to come and hang out.
It was great last time, in the summer, like I said, I was there for that "Words of Jericho" show, and it just so happened the night before Guns 'n Roses was playing in Winnipeg. This time, we've got the CBC taping for the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, and it just so happens the night before that is the first game of the Winnipeg Jets playoffs. It always seems to work out -- it's like killing two birds with one Winnipeg stone.
PL: So you're planning to go to the first playoff game?
CJ: Yeah, absolutely. I've done some voiceover stuff for the Jets' playoffs, and that was part of the reward -- getting some tickets. So I will be there; I'm excited. It'll be the first Jets playoff game I've been to since the '90s.
PL: Yeah, I was at the last Jets playoff game of the first iteration of the team as a teenager in 1996, so I'm excited they might have a good run this year.
CJ: Whenever they seemed to go to the playoffs, they didn't last long, but it's different this year. This is our year.
PL: I agree! So a lot of people know you from wrestling, and then your music, but of course you do have a long comedy background, especially the last 10 years or so. You spent some time studying with the Groundlings at one point. How was that experience with sketch comedy and improv?
CJ: It was great, because we do a lot of improv in the WWE. Back when The Rock and Steve Austin were really popular, you would go from the match into another 15 or 20 minutes of material after the show. And working with the Groundlings was just a natural extension of that. I remember when I did a show with them, the director Mindy Sterling -- who was Frau Farbissina in the Austin Powers movies -- she was like, "You're great at the advanced things, but your basics are really bad. Why don't you come train with us and learn that type of thing." So that really helped; it kind of honed my improv skills. And when I do the "Words of Jericho" shows, it's all comic timing, getting laughs, long stories, which is basically what great comedians do. And of course, doing But I'm Chris Jericho! for CBC and Nothing to Report for Comedy Central, the digital series that we did, it's just about timing with comedy. It's about committing to what you're doing, and just making it work. Even if it's not the most hilarious thing, its own delivery, repetition, timing, all of that stuff matters. And you can be really funny in the most minimalist way if you know what to do.
PL: Let's talk a little bit about But I'm Chris Jericho. The second season of that has been shared all over social media, and it looks like it was a lot of fun. I know you worked with comedian Andy Kindler a lot on that show, so how was the experience overall and working with Andy?
CJ: Yeah, it was great, man. Andy was so funny -- we have great chemistry together. I had the idea for the show, and it took me eight years to sell, then it was four years until Season 2, so hopefully in two years, we'll get Season 3. (laughs) Andy's a great guy, and I really enjoyed the But I'm Chris Jericho! universe. It was a lot of fun, and hopefully we get the chance to do more of them. It gave me the chance to be an over-the-top, kind of "asshole" version of myself -- a primadonna. I was almost a straight man in this universe filled with all these wacky, hilarious characters all played by super talented actors, and it turned out really well. The second season was just an official selection for the Los Angeles Web Festival, Andy actually got a best supporting actor nom, I got a best actor nom, and our director Mike Fly got a best director nom. So once you start getting those acclamations and those awards, that helps to spread the word about the show, as well.
PL: One of the great actors you worked with on the show in the second season was Kevin McDonald, who will also be appearing at this year's Winnipeg Comedy Festival. How was that experience working with him, and were you a big fan of Kids in the Hall before that?
CJ: Of course! Everybody who grew up in the 80s in Canada was obsessed with Kids in the Hall. It was such a weird show -- it was the epitome of Canadian humour. And once again, in Season 1 we had Scott Thompson come and play my acting coach, and in Season 2, to keep the tradition of having a Kid in the Hall, we had Kevin McDonald come in to play this uber producer named McGloin. And they're two completely different sides of the comedy coin. Scott came in very quiet, just kind of keeping to himself, didn't know any of the lines, and just improvised the whole thing and blew the roof off -- just super funny. Kevin was gracious, friendly, and learned every line of the script exactly as it was written, and was absolutely funny as well. So you kind of saw a couple sides of the Kids in the Hall between those two guys. It was a brilliant experience to work with both of them and really hone my skills as an actor and as a comedian, because if you're in there with those guys, you better keep up or they'll eat you alive.
PL: (laughs) Some people reading this -- if they're familiar with improv circles or listened to our interview with him a few years ago -- know of improviser Lee White of CRUMBS. He's a famed improviser and teacher worldwide, especially across Canada and in Europe, but he's also your cousin. Have you ever gotten any comedy tips from him?
CJ: Here's the thing: whenever I'm around Lee, I'm 7 years older than he is, so we always grew up -- not to say he idolized me, but I was his older cousin, and I introduced him to Star Wars --
PL: Wait, you introduced him to Star Wars? Because I don't know if I've met anyone with more Star Wars knowledge than Lee.
CJ: Well yeah, but I was there when it came out. And I know he had a childhood issue with the fact that I had more Stormtroopers than he did. (laughs) He always accused me of being spoiled, because I had five Stormtroopers, and he only had one. And I said, "Dude, I'm not spoiled, I'm just smart." When my mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I said I wanted five Stormtroopers, because I wanted my own fleet. She said, "Well you're not getting anything more," and I said I didn't want anything more, I just wanted those Stormtroopers. So when Lee would come over, he'd get mad at me for having more Stormtroopers, and I'd tell him that I used up all my Christmas presents on Stormtroopers. So it's not my fault you didn't think ahead. (laughs)
But the funny thing is, he never really told me -- I knew he was doing improv classes in Europe and all this stuff, but I never really knew just how famous and well-regarded and acclaimed he was as an improviser, until Mike Fly, who directed But I'm Chris Jericho!, told me, "Lee White is a legend in improvising." I was like, "What? Really? Why don't I know anything about this?" And nobody in my family really does -- he's just super humble. And then when I met Kevin McDonald, and mentioned Lee as someone that came up through Mike Fly, he goes, "Oh my God, Lee White is a legend. He's a comedic genius." And I called my dad and said, "Do you know Kids in the Hall? Kevin just called Lee a comedic genius. Those guys don't throw around those terms lightly. Why don't we know how famous Lee is in his chosen field?" So only now do I know more about it from the people I've met doing comedy. Obviously we didn't expect him to say he's a comedic genius, but we just never knew the extent of his talent.
PL: For people who are maybe fans of your wrestling or music, or listened to your podcast, what can they expect from you at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival at the gala you're shooting?
CJ: Well if anybody knows anything about me, you know that I have a sense of humour. My characters, no matter what I'm playing, always have a comedic element to them. Comedy is all about timing and delivery, like I said earlier, so it's just gonna be fun. Obviously hosting a show, there's a certain art to that, and it's not easy to do, but it's something I've done probably about a dozen times now at this point. So I'm excited for it, and I think it's going to be a blast! And the one thing is, as the host of the show, I don't have to be the star of the show. I just have to be Johnny Carson and just sit in the back, make sure everybody gets the spotlight, keep things flowing, and just have a good time. That's what I do, so I'm really excited about it, I'm going to be super happy if the Jets won, I'll be super sad if they lost (laughs) [Note: They won.], but either way we're going to have fun.
I'm excited that they called me to do this, because I have a really busy schedule, and as soon as I got the call and the offer, I was like, "All this other stuff that I'm doing, I don't care. But the CBC thing, that has to happen."
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)