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culture

Pro Wrestler Bret Hart Does Improv

Bret "The Hitman" Hart judged a Catch-23 improv show at Comedy Bar.

In many ways, Bret “The Hitman” Hart is the last of his kind. When professional wrestling ushered in a new era of in-your-face attitude and increasingly grey morality in the 2000s, he was the dyed-in-the-wool hero who refused to sacrifice the integrity of his character in the face of a shifting culture. And for his efforts, he was infamously screwed over by World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.’s president, Vince McMahon, and ousted from the company that he helped build—as chronicled in the excellent documentary Wrestling with Shadows. But through it all, even after suffering a stroke almost 10 years ago, the man they call “The Excellence of Execution,” the self-described “best there ever was, best there is, best there ever will be,” has remained the consummate babyface in a world full of heels.

So if anyone would be qualified to judge the difference between good and bad, it’s certainly him. And that’s true even when the thing being judged is improv comedy.

It was only October of last year when Hart flexed his comedic muscles as host of a weekly show called Sunday Night Live at the Comedy Bar. On Friday night, he returned to sit on a panel with Comedy Bar regular Sarah Hillier, where his task was to help decide the fates of the three competing teams—The Pride Cops, The Ossingtones, and the appropriately masked Luch-Adores—all of which were vying for comedic glory as part of the Catch23 improv show.

According to Hillier, it was no surprise that Hart decided to return after the camaraderie that was established the first time around.

“We’ve actually kind of become friends with him, oddly enough, over the last six months,” said Hillier. “He just had the best time [hosting Sunday Night Live], so he called me up in February.”

Andy Hull, the show’s host on Friday evening, felt that the first experience made this second one that much easier.

“Bret was my favorite wrestler,” said Hull, “so when I first met him, it was a ton of pressure. He was actually pretty nervous so that put a lot of us at ease. He gave as much time as we needed to do the show.”

This time around, Hart’s role may have been a little more limited, but his presence was consistently referenced and he made the best of a few opportunities. As a judge, he often agreed with Hillier’s expert analysis. On more than one occasion, though, he praised scenes for possessing a great deal of “ spontaneity.” In the third of the contest’s four rounds, Hart was asked if he had any improv experience, to which he amusingly replied, “not verbally.” The Pride Cops ended up winning the competition after featuring Hart in a piece called “Cock Stretchers: the Musical.”

We spoke to Hart after the show.

“I always thought I had a decent sense of humour,” said Hart, citing his 2007 autobiography, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, as a prime example. “You get a lot of people saying my book was kind of sad, and you can’t change how your life goes, but I thought there was some great humour in there that no one else could deliver unless you lived my life. Broken down in the middle of the highway, you’d always find something to laugh at.”

Asked about his comedic influences, Hart admitted to being partial to British humour (he’s a huge fan of Ricky Gervais’ The Office), but also credited everyone from Robin Williams to his mom to other wrestlers like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper with helping to develop his funny bone. He’s also grateful to theatre producer Ross Petty for giving him an opportunity to take the stage in a 2004 Toronto production of Aladdin.

“My stroke [in 2002] kind of sidetracked a lot of things for me. I didn’t necessarily have the confidence to get up in front of people and perform,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’ll do it under one condition: if I’m not very good, just tell me. But I’ll give it everything I got if you want to take a chance on me.’”

It’s that type of commitment that made him such a superlative performer in the ring. And to hear Hart tell it, the similarities between wrestling and more conventional showbiz pursuits don’t end there.

“It seems that everyone that does [comedy] does it because they love doing it,” he said. “And, funny enough, I was like that as a wrestler. In a lot of ways, what I got paid for the event was irrelevant. If I had a good crowd at the Kitchener Civic Centre, that was just as good to me as 60,000 people at some football stadium.”

“Wrestling is like a stage,” he said, furthering the metaphor. “All you got is some ropes, some steps going up, a referee, and that’s about it. You’re dressed in some swimming trunks, a pair of boots, and you go in there and tell this amazing story.”

Having just shot an episode for the second season of the Bite series Comedy Bar, and with plans to return to Toronto in June, Hart hopes he can continue down this comedic path and turn these shows into a regular occurrence.

“It’s good for me,” he said. “I’m around a lot of sourpusses. I’m a guy who’s been subjected to 30 years of guys like [King Kong] Bundy walking past me naked in the dressing room. I need a little bit of humour to keep me going.”

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