Joey Cassata on Wrestling, Music, & Acting
Joey Cassata is a multi-talented artist. He’s a gifted musician, actor, and writer. He wrote Wrestling With Joeylicious, which is the novelization of an upcoming TV series that all wrestling fans will love! I had the chance to interview Joey about this project, as well as his time touring with KISS, being part of a major Broadway production with Josh Groban, and more. Enjoy!
What was it like sitting down to write Wrestling With Joeylicious and how did this book come to be?
We released the book, and it was the number one wrestling book on Amazon for a few weeks. We passed guys like Jim Ross, Chris Jericho, and Guy Evans’ Nitro book. It was crazy how well received the book was when it came out. The book wasn’t really supposed to be a book. Wrestling With Joeylicious was, and still is, a television series, by me and my partner, that’s in development. We have some shorts filmed and they’re on Amazon Prime Video right now. They feature some of the greatest legends in wrestling history like Roddy Piper, The Iron Sheik, and Mick Foley.
We were in the process of getting a big production deal out of this — whether it be through Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. However, because of COVID and everything shutting down in the entertainment industry, we pivoted and decided to take the first half of season one and used it to write a comedy novel. This first book goes up through episode five in the TV series. Think of it as the novelization of the soon-to-be television series.
So, the subsequent novel will cover the second half of the first season?
Yes, it was too big to do just one book for season one. That’s why we broke season one into two books, and the first book ends at a really cool spot. It ends with a cliffhanger with Joey, maybe, getting a shot at the bigtime against Chris Jericho. The second book will pick up right from there. It’s literally the second half of the first season, and it will end on a big cliffhanger, yet it will sum up everything else all at once. The second book is completely written already. It’s in the can. That’ll be coming out, probably, in the new year. But first we’ve got to see how everyone responds to this first book, and so far, so good.
What was that process like, having to translate a screenplay to a novel?
A comedy novel is, usually, written in third person. So, it was a little difficult, at first, to figure out how to get the dialogue correct and describe the scenery. In the scripts everything is mapped out visually, so you don’t have to describe every little detail. In a book that detail is needed to make sure the reader is immersed in the world you created. It was a little difficult, but it was a lot of fun.
Have you considered doing an audiobook version of Wrestling With Joeylicious, and, if so, will you be narrating it and doing all of the voices of the wrestlers?
(Laughs) That’s a great question. An audiobook is definitely in the works, I believe; I’m just not sure how to go about it. With a comedy novel like this, if you don’t have the wrestlers to provide their voices, I’m not sure if it’s going to be stale. I definitely will not be doing other wrestlers’ voices (laughs). I’m a good actor, but I don’t think I can do that. If there’s an audiobook, which I think there will be, it’s just going to be me reading the book with inflections. It’s not going to be acted out like a play on audio.
You got to film Wrestling With Joeylicious with Roddy Piper and Jimmy Snuka, who are no longer with us. Did you get enough footage for the full episodes?
Yes, I did. As you know, the premise of the show is that Joeylicious is an alternate-reality version of me. He’s a guy who has wanted to be a wrestling superstar his whole life. He’s struggled and never been able to make it to the bigtime. He’s in his 40s now, still struggling to make it but keeping his dreams alive. He’s wrestling on the lowest rung of the ladder — in grammar schools and churches. If he can get a match, Joeylicious is wrestling. Throughout the show, wrestling legends appear to him in his imagination to help him along his journey. Of course, it always backfires. They never give him the right advice, and it always leaves Joeylicious worse off than when he started. That’s the premise of the show. So, all of the shorts that are currently on Amazon Prime Video starring Roddy Piper, Jimmy Snuka, and others, are just snippets of what full-length episodes will be. We have plenty of Roddy Piper material on film for a full-length episode. So, we absolutely have enough footage with these legends to complete the full-length episodes.
When Roddy Piper and Jimmy Snuka passed away, how did that make you feel, knowing that you had filmed a TV show with them? I imagine you must have felt very grateful.
I had so many different emotions. Of course, I was so grateful that I got to work with them and become friendly with them. To be colleagues and work together was an amazing dream come true. At the same time, selfishly, I was crushed because Roddy was going to be one of the big stars of the show. He was so excited about the project. One of the reasons I included all of these 80s wrestling legends in the show with me is because I know there are superstars that aren’t getting the work they deserve in front of the camera. Hollywood is not breaking down their doors. Wrestling companies are not breaking down their doors to use them as advocates, managers, interviewers, or behind-the-scenes guys. They’re not getting enough accolades when it comes to what they can still do. So, that’s one of the things I wanted to do. I wanted to give all of these legends an outlet to show off their talent. When guys like Roddy and Jimmy, who were so excited about the project, passed away, not only was I crushed because they passed away, I knew it was an opportunity they were missing out on that they’d never get back.
You’re also a musician. How did you get into drumming and music?
The way I started in music is I was five years old and I went to Madison Square Garden. It was 1979 and I was there to see KISS on the Dynasty Tour. I didn’t know why I was going there. I didn’t know anything about KISS or their music. I vaguely knew of their images in makeup, but that’s it. My brother was a KISS fan and my parents were taking him to see the band, and I was just this chubby five-year-old kid tagging along. That’s when my music dream started. I saw Peter Criss’ drum set rising up in the air and he was doing a drum solo with fireworks shooting all around him. I said to myself, “That is exactly what I have to do for the rest of my life.” That’s really the path that I’ve followed in my life. I became a musician. I toured the world. My band opened for KISS on a couple tours. I opened for every band I admired. I played on Broadway for a couple years. I did all the things I ever wanted to do in the music industry. The Wrestling With Joeylicious show and book is an alternate reality. What if Joey Cassata followed his dream of becoming a professional wrestler, rather than becoming a musician?
There was another instance in my life where I saw Hulk Hogan wrestle The Iron Sheik for the title at Madison Square Garden. That’s when Hogan won the title for the first time. Much like when I saw KISS, that opened up another dream for me, which was to become a wrestler. Unfortunately, I didn’t pursue that. I didn’t have the size to be a wrestler. I didn’t really have anywhere to train to be a wrestler. I didn’t have the wherewithal to even know how to become a professional wrestler. As a musician, I bought a set of drums, learned every song that KISS ever recorded, and that’s how I started on that. With wrestling, I knew how to take a bump, but I never fully explored that avenue. So, Wrestling With Joeylicious is this “What If?” alternate reality of my real life.
Which tours did you open for KISS?
We opened for KISS on the Rock The Nation Tour in 2004 — my band, ZO2 — along with Poison. And we opened for KISS on the Alive 35 Tour as well in 2008 or 2009. Those tours were a dream come true for me. I got to spend the whole summer with KISS, being on the road with them. I had lunch with Gene Simmons every day. I played wiffle ball with KISS, and debated and argued every day with Gene about KISS facts and trivia. Anything you can think about, we argued or talked about. It was just a dream come true for ZO2 because our favorite band of all time — all three of us — was KISS.
How did this opportunity come about?
Somehow, we got our CD into Paul Stanley’s hands. And the third band that was slated to be on that tour, which was Brides of Destruction, either backed out or was thrown off the tour at the last minute. Paul happened to have our CD in his hand and gave our manager a call. He said, “Hey, is ZO2 available to do 45 dates this summer with us?” We said, “Of course!” Our heads exploded, and the next thing you know we’re in Texas opening up for KISS.
Did you get a chance to talk about drumming a lot with Eric Singer?
Yeah, when you’re on the road every day with a band, those opportunities arise. I learned a lot from Eric about drumming. One piece of advice he gave me, I still use to this day. That was my first big outdoor summer tour, so every day my hands were killing me because I was over-gripping because it was so hot and my sweat was making my sticks slippery. Eric was using this wax at the time that he’d rub on his sticks. It was made by Zildjian, and I absolutely fell in love with it. He gave me an even better tip. He said, “Joe, don’t waste your money buying this expensive wax. Go buy surfboard wax that surfers use to put on their surfboards, which is basically waterproof. You rub a little layer on your stick handles, right before you go on. You will not only not lose your group, but when you sweat it will become stickier and it makes a better grip for you.” I’m still using the same wax that he turned me on to back in 2004 to this day. I don’t think I’ve played a show since then without this wax, and I’ve played, probably, 2,000 or 3,000 shows since then.
You were also in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra too, correct?
Correct. I never toured with them but I’ve been a backup drummer for them for almost 15 years now, which is crazy to think about. They have backup musicians because anything can happen and the show must go on. I’ve never been called out in 15 years, knock on wood, because their drummers have been in great shape and never missed a show. I’m always on call, if they need me. I’m on retainer and in the wings whenever they need me.
Tell me about your experience on Broadway. What exactly did you do and how did it come about?
The entertainment business is a much smaller world than people think. Once you’re in a certain circle of people, things start becoming more readily available to you. I’ve always believed that hanging out with people who are way more successful than me would lead to my own success because I can learn what to do and what not to do.
Broadway happened because a fellow backup musician from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was playing a key role in an upcoming Broadway show and he asked me if I’d be interested in joining the production, since he already knew how I played the drums. Just by coincidence, I was already researching how to break into the Broadway community. That’s the one world that’s very hard to break into. But once you’re in, you’re in. He called me, and I came down and auditioned. They loved me. The next thing you know, I’m on Broadway playing in one of the biggest Broadway productions — Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 — and we lead the Tony Award nominations for the year. We did it with Josh Groban on lead, and we did over 600 shows together.
You also had a TV show on IFC with ZO2. What was that like?
Coming off the KISS tour my band, ZO2, played a bunch of shows. But what lot of people didn’t realize is we were a kids’ band by day and a rock band by night. To fund us going on the road with KISS, we’d play bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, communions. We’d play anything that called for entertainment for kids, and we’d sing some kids songs, as well as songs by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, a KISS song or two. An agent happened to be at one of these parties and he came up to us and said, “You guys look like rock musicians. You don’t look like a kids band. Why are you playing this birthday party?” We explained that we are a real rock band at night and these gigs, during the day, are just to pay the bills. We told him to come see us play at BB King’s in Time Square that night. Sure enough, he came to our show and liked what he saw. So, he came up to us afterward and said, “I’m with William Morris, and I’d love to do something with you guys.” Our eyes lit up because we thought this meant more tours or a record deal. He said, “Unfortunately, I don’t have things like that. I’m in the TV division.” So we said, “OK, why don’t we do a television show, then?” He said, “What do you mean?” We said, “We have this Clark Kent/Superman personality of being a kids band during the day and a rock band a night, so let’s do something with that.” He responded, “Great! Write me up a treatment, and let’s try and get something going.” Just like I’m doing with Wrestling With Joeylicious, we wrote a treatment, created a little sizzle reel, and pitched it to networks for about a year or two. We had bidding from IFC, Comedy Central, AMC. All of these networks were interested, but IFC gave us the best offer.
We filmed two seasons of this whacky, crazy comedy that was based on our real lives, and it was called Z Rock. It was the number one show on IFC for two seasons. We had guest stars galore, including Dee Snider, Dave Navarro, Joan Rivers, Gilbert Gottfried. All of these guests came on and played exaggerated versions of themselves. Even Chris Jericho came on and did a wrestling episode with us, where I played the character of Joeylicious. That’s where that character was born, and it’s when I realized he could live in his own TV show.