By Cory Barker and J. Walker
In a new bi-monthly TWTV feature, Cory and J. will discuss pro wrestling’s place on television. This first post is something of an introduction to both wrestling and wrestling on TV.
Cory: J, we’re the two resident pro wrestling fans of TWTV (or at least the only two who are willing to admit such a thing), but that’s not abnormal. Outside of a few short periods in the mid-1980s and late 1990s, wrestling has been left outside the pop culture nexus. In some ways, that’s really unfortunate because wrestling has a lot to offer. In other ways, that’s probably for the best because wrestling can be unbelievably terrible, regressive, offensive, etc. But even when wrestling is considered by cultural critics or commentators, one thing that is almost always gets left out is its wrestling place on television or as a television product. Now, wrestling isn’t exactly a television show. It was happening long before TV and even today, there’s more wrestling happening off television than there is on it. There’s a lot to be said for its performative aspects for the live audience, which we’ll get into at some point. Yet, I’ve been a big wrestling fan since at least 1996 and I’ve never seen a live show. Every single one of my wrestling memories (of which there are thousands) come to me through the television. When wrestling hits in pop culture, it happens through television. So, you and I are here to talk about wrestling as a television product, with a television story, television characters, sets, etc. But before we get into the details, it seems best to set this all up for the non-wrestling fans in our readership. So for you, why is this endeavor valuable? What makes wrestling a compelling text to analyze through the prism of television conventions?
J: It is indeed strange that it never gets talked about this way, especially considering — as you pointed out — wrestling long predates television. In fact, professional wrestling was often a handy way for early TV stations to fill airtime with cheap, disposable programming. (Mel Brooks said in a recent podcast interview that when Sid Caesar told him he’d been offered his own show, Mel asked if it was a wrestling show, because that’s all there was on TV at the time.) But anyone attempting to approach wrestling from any analytical angle usually runs aground on its more sensational aspects: the violence, the steroids, and the like. And that’s all a shame, because wrestling makes a fascinating form of TV (even when the programming itself isn’t all that great).
I find it interesting that you’ve enjoyed the product for so long and yet have never seen a live show. I’ve often heard wrestling compared to soap operas, but more anything else, wrestling really makes me think of all those toy-based cartoons that make up the bulk of everyone’s childhood. By that, I mean that every wrestling show ever put on by anyone was primarily constructed as a commercial for itself. The point of any given episode of Monday Night Raw is to get you to watch next week’s Monday Right Raw, and maybe buy this cool T-shirt, or perhaps this CD of the performers’ theme songs, and also there’s a live show coming soon to your town, and hey, don’t forget about WrestleMania this month on pay-per-view! Like those old episodes of, say, M.A.S.K., wrestling requires a ruthlessly mercenary outlook, and that approach colors virtually everything that ends up on screen. And that may be part of the reason it’s often difficult to take seriously. I mean, sure, every show on TV is designed as a money making enterprise, but Jon Hamm never strolls on screen in the middle of an episode of Mad Men wearing a DRAPER 3:16 T-shirt.
And that’s why I think our approach here can be valuable. When you get past the surface level, pro wrestling reveals itself to be a confluence of all sorts of storytelling styles and influences. By breaking them apart and examining the trees, we can gain a better appreciation for the forest.
So let’s get to those trees! Cory, since, as you said, we’re probably addressing an audience unfamiliar with wrestling, how do we get them up to speed on the basics? What do you think is central to understanding how your average wrestling TV show functions?
Cory: I hope that people recognize that wrestling is A.) scripted by a bunch of writers (or in wrestling terminology, bookers) and then B.) subsequently planned out further by the performers and middle-level behind-the-scenes talent (typically former wrestlers known as agents). I don’t think there is much of a need to talk about wrestling’s real-ness or its fake-ness, and if there is, I’m sorry I just ruined everything for you.
I think where we should start is where you alluded to: the serialization. While each wrestling show is a commercial for a half-dozen things, it is primarily set-up to keep you watching the following week or in a few weeks on Pay-Per-View. In that regard, wrestling, like the soap opera or any long running serialized show, has an unbelievable history that it can draw on. Stories, especially in the pre-internet era, dragged on and on for months, sometimes even years. The developments can be small, but there’s an expectation that prior knowledge of the characters, the story, and even the world as a whole, is a necessity to fully appreciate what’s happening on-screen. Take for example, one of the seminal moments in modern day WWF/E history: Shawn Michaels turning on his tag team partner Marty Jannetty. After years of team success as The Rockers, Michaels and Jannetty reached something of a glass ceiling and eventually, frustrations boiled to the surface. Michaels turned on Jannetty by throwing him through a glass window on an on-screen talk show set (so a show within a show; wrestling is so meta) and went on to become in my mind, the greatest wrestler of all-time not named Ric Flair. Watching that segment again, it’s clear it relies on the audience having full knowledge of the team’s history — their triumphs, their failures, all of it. Michaels tossing Marty through the window is a cool visual in a vacuum, but it’s so much more impactful when you know exactly what it signifies. This is why the tag team break-up is one of wrestling’s most successful long-standing stories. The writers know that we get invested in characters and their relationships, so breaking them up plays on that. In that regard, serialization not only keeps us locked into the plot, it stokes our investment in the characters as well. It might be wrestling’s biggest tool as a television show. What would you identify as important to our conversation?
J: Ah, Marty Jannetty and the Barber Shop window. That takes me back: definitely one of those I-remember-where-I-was moments in my personal history. But it’s good you brought up Shawn Michaels, as he also shows off the other side of wrestling’s storytelling coin: its wildly unpredictable sense of tone.
Wrestling began at the carnival sideshow, and it still clings to elements of its come-one, come-all roots. Wrestlers like to say that their job is to “tell a story” in the ring, and on a night of wrestling, you’ll see seven or eight matches, all with vastly different stories to tell. There will be tales of triumph over adversity, of brutal vengeance, of cold betrayal (like Shawn and Marty up there), of friends reunited, even — if The Undertaker is in the building — supernatural horror. It is, by definition, a mixed bag. This is where a lot of the soap opera comparisons are most valid, as a serialized wrestling show has to keep just as many plates spinning as the writers’ room on Days of Our Lives. But while on a soap opera the action can cut in and out of various storylines to keep the show moving from beat to beat and day to day, a wrestling show is segmented into indivisible blocks. Each match is its own universe, each interview segment a little show all its own, a tiny story with a beginning and an end. The task of the bookers is to tie all of those individual miniature tales into the larger framework. And with so many wrestlers but so little airtime, it’s never easy.
That divergent tone also requires a lot from the performers. Shawn Michaels has been playing the character of “Shawn Michaels” for close to thirty years, but that character has slipped in and out of dozens of different roles over the decades. He started as a hip youngster, then evolved into the conceited jerk who tossed his friends into windows, and later seamlessly merged that persona back into a good guy pose, and then back again several times.
And that’s a challenge, because being a good or bad guy is dependent on more than just the script you’re handed. Part of being a great wrestler is learning how to adapt your performance to fit the tone of whatever miniature story you find yourself in. Shawn Michaels wasn’t great only because of his extraordinary athleticism, but because he knew how to use those physical gifts to best suit the story. This is part of the reason wrestlers so often fail when they attempt to cross over into mainstream acting: wrestling acting is an art and a science that requires its own toolbox, and it doesn’t usually translate well to staged performances.
So while wrestling is definitely serialized, a large part of the heavy lifting that goes into telling that story is in the hands of the performers. The writers may have given Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty the script, but it was on them to sell it. And if we’re going to look at wrestling as television, then the unique art of wrestling acting is key.
So now that we’ve talked about the writing and the acting — and how critically they go hand in hand with wrestling — what’s our next step?
Cory: I think the last two important elements to think about, at least for now, are the commentators and direction. Although most of what we see in wrestling happens in front of that live audience and performers certainly aim to work the live crowd first, the cameras and the announcers explicitly mark wrestling as a televised product for a television audience. In this regard, wrestling feels like a combination between a sporting event, a soap opera, and a reality television show. Let’s go back to the Michaels-Jannetty example. The camera frames the two of them in what amounts to your basic two-shot and having them on a set-within-a-set certainly adds to the “TV”-feel; it’s almost as if they’re on a sitcom sound stage. But when certain heated exchanges of dialogue occur, the camera zooms in on the faces, letting us see the performers’ emotions (or in Jannetty’s case, lack thereof; there’s a reason why Michaels went on to be one of the greats and Jannetty mostly flamed out). The extreme close-up is a pillar of the soap opera, but it has been taken up by the documentary-style reality program as well. But unlike soaps and most reality shows, wrestling’s television broadcasts are happening “live.” I believe the Michaels-Jannetty clip was taped before actually airing because of the nature of WWF’s programming at the time, but you can still see the precision at which the camera guys and the guys in the truck are working together to move from close-up to two-shot to wide-shot and back again. It’s just like a sports broadcast.
The commentating is an intriguing thing. Contemporary commentating is pretty bad, especially in WWE, but role’s function also embodies wrestling’s weird in-between location. The commentators purport to be our proxies into this world, providing play-by-play and color analysis just like our favorite (and least favorite) sports announcers would. In the Michaels-Jannetty confrontation we only hear legendary commentators Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan at times. The supplement the action as needed (again, like sports commentators do). But towards the end, when the action climaxes, we hear them more. Monsoon keeps reiterating how much The Rockers need to stay together, noting that “they need each other,” while Heenan flip-flops from half-agreeing with his partner to ultimately saying that “I knew he [Michaels] was going to do that.” In reality, Heenan absolutely knew Michaels was going to do that, and that’s what makes wrestling commentating so tricky; they’re playing dumb and playing a role at the same time. It’s tough sledding and only greats like these two can actually add something to the telecast. When Heenan, the heel commentator, celebrates Michaels’ move and Monsoon, the face, groans at it the performer’s heel turn is complete. The in-ring performers can do a heck of a job making a match or an angle (a story) great; but for those of us home, great announcing can really put those moments into a greater context and make them feel bigger than they already are.
Anything else you would add as part of our primer?
J: One last thing: music. We can all remember moments when a television show used the perfect song in the perfect way — Miami Vice deploying “In the Air Tonight” in its pilot episode, for instance. It’s a well-worn staple, and wrestling shows also get a lot of mileage from their music department. Of course, they can’t do it the same way — a sad song over a slow-motion montage to end an episode of Monday Night Raw wouldn’t exactly fit their style. So they have to use music in a much more direct way: entrance themes.
When done well, a theme song will give the audience everything they need to understand the wrestler it goes with in a few seconds, even if they haven’t been caught up on the personal history and backstory. A good entrance theme helps to do some of the lifting that would normally fall on the commentators, and can go a long way in setting the tone for the character. And themes can also be used as lines of demarcation in a wrestler’s career: when the character is spun in a new direction, they usually get new theme music. Continuing with using Shawn Michaels as an example (and that does seem to have been an inspired choice, Cory), one can listen to the theme music he used as part of The Rockers and get a good sense of where he was coming from. It’s a pretty generic piece of ’80s arena rock, sure, but hearing it, you get a feeling for the kind of wrestlers the Rockers were, even if you’ve never seen them in a match before: fast and full of energy, just like the song.
But after Michaels dumped Jannetty, he needed a new opening number, and the difference is pretty amazing. Gone is the high tempo rock, and in is a swaggering, taunting track that keys to the new attitude change. And we have lyrics: now that Michaels has shaken off the anonymity of a tag team, he won’t have his personality stifled even for a second, not even by his own theme song. (That’s the very early version, with the vocals performed by “Sensational Sherri” Martel, who would briefly become his manager; after they split, they re-recorded the song with Michaels singing the lyrics himself, and he’s been using it like that ever since.) When a theme song is matched up well with a performer, the audience response is practically Pavlovian — watch any episode of Raw from the late 1990s, and watch what happens to the live crowd when they hear the opening moments of, say, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s music. And the truly great pieces of wrestling music can cue that same emotional response even years later: I hated Shawn Michaels when I was a kid, and the opening strains of “Sexy Boy” can still put my teeth on edge.
Writing, acting, directing, commentating, and music — I think we’ve set the table as well as we can.
Cory: I agree. Over the next few entries, we’ll dive deeper into these individual pieces of the wrestling-on-TV puzzle. But for now, we’re good. Ring the bell.