Fifty shades of Foley

Dave Foley, the ’90s star of “NewsRadio” and “The Kids in the Hall,” reinvents himself yet again —this time with his stand-up routine. He’ll talk funny stuff tomorrow for “Wits.”

by Joseph Kleinschmidt

What: MPR’s “Wits” with Dave Foley and Mike Doughty

When: 8 p.m., Friday

Where: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul



One skit from the first season   of the late 1980s sketch-comedy show “The Kids in the Hall” tells the story of Jesus’s crucifixion in the style of Dr. Seuss. Dave Foley, dressed in a red and white top hat and a cartoonish suit, reads from “The Dr. Seuss Bible” with the wide eyes of a Sunday school teacher.

Foley, who co-founded the influential cult-comedy troupe and television show in 1984, will take part in Minnesota Public Radio’s live program “Wits,” a series that pairs musicians and entertainers.

“The Kids in the Hall” broke television ground. Tackling subcultures like Generation X-ers with surreal comedy, the show’s influence extends from “Mr. Show with Bob and David” to contemporary sketch comedy like “Portlandia” and “The Whitest Kids U’Know.” But the show initially struggled to stay on the air due to battles with networks.

“The impediment to doing anything unique has been TV itself,” Foley said. “You’ve got it pretty squarely right there in the hands of the people that run television.”

A descendent of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “The Kids in the Hall” skewered historical and social issues rather than parodying popular icons in the vein of “Saturday Night Live.” “The Kids in the Hall” never shied away from tackling issues deemed controversial for television at the time and was a show executive producer Lorne Michaels constantly fought to keep alive.

 “I think we were canceled in the middle of our first season, at the end of our first season, at the beginning of our second season, at the end of the second season — we were pretty much constantly being canceled,” Foley said.

Foley also knew when to explore new territory — he quit after the series’s fifth season, worried the material would start to ask, “What can we do to shock America this week?”

Instead of reiterating the same material, Foley said he still prides inventiveness even after he and the rest of the kids grew up.

“I guess we didn’t want to feel like we were starting to imitate ourselves,” Foley said.

His boyish charm, coupled with the sardonic tone he gives his characters, may be an image he cannot distance himself from — but it’s still something he acknowledges as central to his personality. Foley’s recent foray into stand-up comedy finds the veteran comic less concerned with shtick, a tenet he’s held since the days of “The Kids in the Hall.”

“The weird thing was sort of trying to figure out what I sound like doing stand-up and trying to sound like someone who’s doing stand-up,” Foley said.

Foley’s voice in his stand-up comedy reflects his time in past marriages. He maintains the same personality-driven and self-conscious humor of “The Kids in the Hall,” just with more grown-up themes. Characters on the sketch-comedy show often broke the fourth wall and pointed out their own one-dimensionality, something Foley still aims for with a self-deprecating edge to his tone.

“It’s not like I could suddenly develop a wacky stage persona,” Foley said.

He even challenges himself by not writing any pre-conceived jokes. Foley cites fellow comedian and “Mr. Show” alumnus Paul F. Tompkins as his inspiration for his spontaneity on stage.

“He just sort of goes on stage knowing what it is he wants to talk about and roughly how he’s going to talk about,” Foley said. “He lets himself come up with the actual wording on stage.”

The ’90s idol known for “NewsRadio” and his role as that ant in “A Bug’s Life” knows his stand-up tour may not last too long, but his insatiable need to find new comic territory makes doing one thing a dull prospect anyway. If the history of “The Kids in the Hall” may lend anything to understanding Dave Foley’s impact, it’s that whatever strange comedy exists might be too bizarre for current audiences.

“Unique is always great in retrospect,” Foley said. “People love unique things after they’ve been successful, but boy, they sure hate them starting out.”