He's one of the most amiable, inoffensive comic actors around, but Dave Foley sure does have an unusual résumé. The Ontario native is the star of the low-rated but long-running NBC comedy NewsRadio, an alumnus of the beloved Canadian comedy troupe The Kids In The Hall, and a featured player in movies as diverse as the forthcoming animated epic A Bug's Life, the Saturday Night Live-derived flop It's Pat, and several promising-sounding but as-yet-unreleased comedies. Foley recently spoke to The Onion about his television and movie career, his Kids In The Hall legacy, and various Dave Foley movies that you may one day see.
The Onion: NewsRadio is going into its fourth year, right?
Dave Foley: Well, they call it the fifth, but it's really like four and a half. We came on at midseason when we started out.
O: So you must be nearing 100 episodes.
DF: I think we finished up 75 last year, so if we do a full year this year, we'll be close to 100.
O: Yet it's still not exactly a ratings dynamo.
DF: Um… [Laughs.] No, it's not. It's quite far from a dynamo.
O: Is this its year?
DF: I don't know. I've sort of given up predicting. I mean, we actually started out okay ratings-wise, but after being moved around so many times, most people are of the opinion that we got canceled several years ago.
O: Well, you're pretty firmly entrenched on Wednesdays now, aren't you?
DF: Um, well, not really. Maybe this year we will be. Even last year, I think we moved twice. They moved us to Tuesdays over the summer, and now we're back to Wednesdays, but at a different time.
O: It's funny, because every time I read an interview pertaining to NewsRadio, there's always some NBC executive talking about how it's his favorite show, and how NBC treasures it. Yet, they don't seem to really be cooperating with you.
DF: No, we had some problems with the scheduling department not liking the show, although they claim to like it. I don't think the advertising department is particularly fond of it. [Laughs.] But we're hoping.
O: Now, the first episode dealt with Phil Hartman's death.
DF: Yeah, [Hartman's character] left behind letters for everyone in case anything ever happens to him. So part of the episode is us reading those letters. And the rest of it is based on an actual wake that we had for Phil, where we all got together and hung out and talked.
O: It must have been difficult, emotionally and logistically.
DF: Yeah, it was a hard week. Everyone was okay through the table-read until the end of it, when everyone looked up from their scripts and looked at each other and started crying. All week, we were okay. There was this tacit agreement to ignore the content of what we were doing, and just go, "Oh, this joke doesn't work. What if we did this?" And then, when we were actually doing the scenes on show night, it hit us what we were doing. So that was rough.
O: And then you've had to deal with the inane follow-ups—the people working on their Phil Hartman stories, all wanting quotes.
DF: Oh, my God. I'll tell you, the strangest thing is to see your own grief being used to promote your show. It's strange to be watching TV and suddenly see yourself grieving in an ad. It's an unusual experience.
O: For someone with a background in broad comedy and improv, do you find being a straight man on NewsRadio restricting?
DF: On a certain level, yeah, but I'm often the one demanding those restrictions. I mean, I like that role, and I get opportunities to be funny. But I was like that on Kids In The Hall, too. We always really liked doing the set-ups; that was something we all took pride in. The straight man in a sketch was always really important to us. I enjoy it. That's a lot of the craft of it, you know?
O: And there's a lot of humor in reaction.
DF: Yeah. In most sitcoms, if you watch them, the guy in the middle is almost always the straight man. Dick Van Dyke spent most of his time setting everybody else up. And Bob Newhart… That's kind of the job.
O: So, what's so great about Canada?
DF: Well, you'd have to ask the U.N., who continues to vote it the best place in the world to live.
O: I didn't know they did that kind of polling.
DF: Oh, they do. Every year, the U.N. does a study of all major nations, and does a list of the best places in the world to live. In the last five years running, Canada has come out number one.
O: Do you guys have a sign, when you drive into Canada, like, "Welcome To Canada, Best Place To Live In The World According To The U.N."?
DF: No, it's just a sign that says, "You Suck."
O: Canadians seem downright smug about where they live.
DF: Mm-hmm. That's a very new phenomenon, really, that native smugness. When I grew up, there was this Canadian shame—not so much self-loathing, but definitely no pride. In fact, it was in the '70s that the government started this concentrated effort to create Canadian pride. When I was in school, all our history books were American, so we learned American history, not Canadian history. This went on until I was in high school. Then they started trying to educate people better on history, and about the accomplishments of Canada. Really, it's only been since the '70s that Canadians have had any pride in their country. They've always been sort of insecure about their identity. Canadians still spend so much time discussing what it means to be Canadian. We haven't developed that strong backbone of jingoism that Americans have. [Laughs.] Give us time.
O: Forgive my ignorance here, but what is The Wrong Guy?
DF: Oh, The Wrong Guy is a very funny movie that very few people have had a chance to see. It's a movie I wrote with my friend Jay Kogen from The Simpsons and David Higgins. We wrote it and produced it in Canada, but Disney was our distributor [in the U.S.], and after we finished the movie, Disney shelved it. I think they're releasing it on videotape in Canada, but other than that, it hasn't come out at all in America. Which is a shame, because the people who have seen it all really love it.
O: What does the movie entail?
DF: It's the story of kind of an idiot executive who things he's going to get a huge promotion, and then, when he's passed over for it, throws a fit during a board meeting. Later in the day, he comes back to confront his boss, and he finds his boss murdered. He's convinced that he has hopelessly implicated himself in the murder and goes on the run, not aware of the fact that there was surveillance-camera footage of the actual killing, and that nobody is looking for him. So he's trying to make his way to Mexico, and he's inadvertently following a similar path as the real killer, who's also trying to make it to Mexico. He keeps drawing the police to the real killer.
O: I hear it's your best work since It's Pat.
DF: I think it is. I know you're being facetious—I can read people's thoughts—but as a comic performer, The Wrong Guy is the best work I've ever done. Now, you want to talk about It's Pat?
O: It's a really, really strange movie.
DF: It is, isn't it?
O: What really got me about it is that there are these terrible, terrible SNL gags, and then there'll be a really funny line. And then there'd be Ween and Camille Paglia. And then, "Is that a banana in your pocket?" It's a movie I think everyone should see.
DF: Yeah. I had the script faxed to me in a hotel room in London when I was on my way home from Africa. I had them fax me, like, 30 pages of the script, and all these jokes had me laughing out loud in my hotel room in London. I flew to L.A. to meet with them right away. I was always a big fan of [It's Pat star] Julia Sweeney; I always thought she was really good. I was skeptical when I heard they were trying to do an It's Pat movie, but then I read the script. I liked the fact that they weren't basing the whole movie on the androgyny; that they were going back to the original idea of the character, which is that Pat was just a person who was oblivious to everyone else's feelings, and who invades people's personal space. Basically, just a jerk. [Sweeney] wrote it with her then-husband, Steve Hibbert, who to this day is my best friend. Julia and I are still friends, and I see Steve every week.
O: The movie is a really fascinating artifact, and it's become sort of a cult hit.
DF: Yeah, it's one of those things that kind of got caught up in the whole Hating Lorne Michaels frenzy, even though Lorne had nothing to do with it. Apparently, that has passed. There were people writing really vicious reviews about it who hadn't seen it.
O: Well, it only opened on, what, 33 screens?
DF: Yeah, but there was a frenzy to hate the picture. And then the other thing is that Disney got nervous because they started to think that they had made a lesbian love story. That made them unhappy; in fact, [Disney executive] Michael Eisner wanted me to go in and do all my dialogue in a lower voice, so people would know I was a guy.
O: Well, to your credit as far as versatility goes, I watched it with my wife last night, and about 20 minutes into it, she saw you from a certain angle, and was, like, "Oh! That's Dave Foley!" She didn't recognize you.
DF: Well, that's cool. Unless, of course, your wife's an idiot.
O: It does sort of illustrate how much attention she was paying to it. Anyway, you've got A Bug's Life coming out, you've got It's Pat, and you've got Brain Candy, which was not extraordinarily well-received…
O: What was the deal with Brain Candy? People tend to think it was either brilliant or the worst thing they've ever seen.
DF: I fell somewhere in the middle. [Laughs.] I think some stuff was really good, but I don't think it was as good as the TV show. Oddly enough, I don't think it takes as many risks as the TV show did. But for me, it turned out much better than I thought it was going to be. I think the movie looks fantastic, and I think there are some really funny, really great performances, particularly Mark McKinney's. I think all his characters in that are really… It was nice to seem him get a chance to do them after seeing him not get a chance to do anything on Saturday Night Live. It was made at a very volatile point in [the Kids'] relationship.
O: Yeah, we recently interviewed Scott Thompson, and he kind of indicated that it was a troubled time, both during and after the filming of the movie.
DF: Yeah, and even just before. During the writing process, things were already disintegrating. For me, I was becoming really disheartened by being in the group.
O: And you were busier and busier with other stuff.
DF: Well, I was writing The Wrong Guy at the same time, and really enjoying that, and not enjoying writing Brain Candy. [Laughs.]
O: How is your relationship with the Kids In The Hall guys now?
DF: Now it's good. I run into Scott and Kevin [McDonald] in L.A., and we hang out. I talk to Mark on the phone every once in a while, and run into him when I'm in Toronto.
O: Any talk of an HBO special or anything?
DF: I don't know. It occurred to me the other day that next year will be the 10th anniversary of when we went on the air. Maybe we should go out and exploit it. We've been talking in the last couple years about trying to put together a tour.
O: Everyone used to talk about the horrible state of contemporary sketch comedy. But now you've got Mr. Show and Upright Citizens Brigade…
DF: Yeah. I love Mr. Show, and I just watched Upright Citizens Brigade for the first time, and it was really funny.
O: Yeah, and Saturday Night Live isn't the fetid cesspool it was a few years ago. Do you feel like sketch comedy is back?
DF: It seems like every few years, people pronounce the death of sketch comedy. I mean, when we were starting out, everyone was telling us that sketch comedy was dead. I remember, people were like, "What are you going to do that's different? You can't just do sketches. How are you going to make it different? What's your hook? What's your angle?" I would always say, "Well, it's going to be different because we will be doing it." Bob Odenkirk [of Mr. Show] said a funny thing about sketch comedy, which is that sketch comedy isn't about a great concept for the show; it's about having a group of people who have a similar vision. You can't just hire a bunch of people and throw them together and hope that will happen.
O: And the ones that have done that, like Roseanne's show [Saturday Night Special], seem to fall apart, because it's a bunch of hired guns.
DF: Yeah. "Let's get someone to fill this role," as opposed to people who sort of wander into each other and stick.
O: You've got A Bug's Life coming out in November. Is there a feud between you and Woody Allen, star of Antz?
DF: Um, there would be, but he's terrified of me. He's pretty much the only man on earth who is. No, I think there are some suspicions over at Pixar about the release of Antz. You know, what with [DreamWorks executive Jeffrey] Katzenberg's involvement in that, having been at Disney. I think that for those of us who did the voices, the time we put into it is… I've been doing voice sessions for this movie for the last couple of years, but it's four hours at a time, whereas the people actually making these movies spend four years of their lives making them. It's the most incredible amount of work. They dedicate their whole lives to it. I went up to the Pixar studios in San Francisco, and it's all these little cubicles where guys work all day long. They decorate them in much the same way prisoners decorate their cells. They were far too decorated. Too much thought put into it.
O: What is Hacks?
DF: Yet another movie of mine that isn't released. Now, when I go to meet people about movies, I tell them right up front, "Hire me if you will, but know that it will not be released." Hacks is an independent movie about a group of television writers, and it has kind of film noir elements to it. The plot of it is built around a group of television writers who have a regular poker game. One of the guys is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and he gets a job; it's like a 12-episode on-air commitment for a one-hour anthology series. And essentially, everybody in the poker game is trying to angle for a spot on the show. But at the same time, this guy, who they all think is crazy, has witnessed something from his bedroom window, and he comes down trying to figure out what he saw. He starts describing it to them, and they think he's trying to get them to pitch story ideas. So they all split up that night, and he's trying to investigate what he saw—he thinks there might be a story in it—and everybody else is off trying to invent what happened and come back to him with the best invention of what happened.
O: I saw in the Internet Movie Database [http://us.imdb.com, the best on-line resource in existence] that you were on My Three Sons when you were three years old.
DF: Huh? No, that's wrong!
O: And I saw on another site that your first paying gig was My Brilliant Career.
DF: Oh, that's true, but it's not the movie; it was an educational short for TV Ontario. I was never in My Three Sons. [Foley's IMDB filmography has since been revised. —ed.]
O: Are you sure that when you were, like, three, your parents didn't take you to the set of My Three Sons, where you were…
DF: No, because you know what? They didn't shoot that show in Etobicoke, which is a borough of Toronto. There's a little shout-out for you.