By Cory Barker and J Walker
Welcome back to The Squared Circle, a recurring feature where Cory and J Walker discuss pro wrestling as television.
J: When last we discussed pro wrestling, we talked at length about serialization, the way wrestling stories continue from week to week (and month to month, or even year to year). That leads nicely into our next topic of conversation: wrestling characters. And “character” is a word that you’ll hear a far more often from in-ring performers these days than you ever would in the past–when I was a kid, suggesting to a wrestler that he was just playing a character was a good way to get dropped on your head. But since the late ’90s, the business has been more or less completely open about the scripted nature of the product, which has allowed them to be more forthcoming with the idea that the wrestlers are, in fact, portraying “characters” like another actor might be doing on any other show.
But really, a wrestling character isn’t like playing a character on another show. Despite the apparent death of “kayfabe” (the carny-speak name for wrestling’s secret code of silence), wrestlers are required to embody their characters in a way you don’t see in any other medium. When Bryan Cranston walks off the set of Breaking Bad, no one calls him “Walter White”; Vince Gilligan doesn’t ask him to tweet in character, or continue to act like he’s suffering the effects of injuries he’s suffered on the show. But this is a matter of course for pro wrestlers, who have to take on aspects of their characters even when they’re far away from the ring. And also, to keep using Cranston as an example, when the season ends, he can go play another character in another show or movie; the wrestlers, on the other hand, can end up playing the same role for decades, repeating the same moves and catchphrases as long as there are people willing to pay to see them.
With that in mind, I thought we could take a look at one of wrestling’s most iconic characters: the Undertaker. I’ve written briefly about ‘Taker before, but his longevity in the wrestling world really is something special. The performer, Mark Callaway, has been wrestling as the Undertaker since November 1990, an almost unheard-of run that continues to today (though age and injury have reduced him to making fewer and fewer appearances as time goes on). And when you end up playing the same guy for over two decades, keeping the character fresh requires some occasional tweaking…and boy, has the Undertaker gone through some tweaking in his lifetime.
What your thoughts on the Undertaker? Were you watching when he made his famous debut?
Cory: Character is a great place to move to because so much of being a wrestling viewer, just like a TV viewer, is trying to follow the logics of characterization. Like you’d see commenters complaining about whether or not Jesse Pinkman would “really do X” in the comments of a Sepinwall review of Breaking Bad, wrestling fans love to discuss whether or not something a given performer does is within character. In fact, it’s probably more prevalent in wrestling discourse because the TV product can create so many inconsistencies or incongruities, especially for those of us following along very intently for so long.
In theory, televised wrestling makes characterization easier to do for the creative team. The weekly grind means that characters get more time on-screen to develop and get feedback from the audience, and the schedule that TV creates makes arcs easier to track. And yet, it’s almost the exact opposite. Like bad sitcoms, wrestling characters often blown with the week’s wind, saying one thing and then doing another just seven days later, or stalling out mid-story because the fans are bored or someone tweaks an ACL. If there’s one thing that wrestling in the TV era has botched, it’s characterization.
But you’re right, that’s what makes someone like Undertaker so fascinating. I wasn’t quite into wrestling when he made his WWF debut so many years ago, but when I started watching in 1995 and then went back to earlier years, I actually never felt much affection for the Dead Man. As a mortician with supernatural abilities, Undertaker was meant to appeal to kids just like me, but I found it pretty dumb and looking back now, you have to wonder what WWF actually thought because he was mired in one dumb feud after another. His early battles with Jake the Snake and Giant Gonzalez were boring–mostly because Callaway wasn’t the in-ring performer he would later become–but in the mid-90s, Taker was stuck in one unbelievably goofy story after another. At the 1994 Royal Rumble he was defeated in a Casket match against Yokozuna, only then to immediately appear on the arena screen and then there was lightning or something and ugh.
If you come across a WWF gimmick match between 1994 and 2000, chances are it involves the Undertaker and that’s because his character, while consistent in its ridiculousness, didn’t fit in the main stories. In that period, he lost multiple casket matches, a Boiler Room Brawl, and a Buried Alive match, and competed in Hell in the Cell and Inferno matches as well. Along the way, the Undertaker’s characterization was fairly consistent, but it was also non-existent in a lot of ways. He had eerie powers that seemingly came from a $9 ern. That’s all we really knew, and gimmick matches aside, it was pretty boring. Those matches were great spectacle for the television audience, but they added very little to Undertaker as a character. And that’s what wrestling does. It gives us just enough to get us to care about the 10 minutes in the ring (or the boiler room, in Taker’s case), only to give you just a little more to get you to care about the next Raw. If the two things they do to get you to care about those events are not aligned with what we know about an on-screen character, and you still care anyway? Oh well. They have you.
Did any early Taker stand out for you? And how representative do you think he is of wrestling’s characterization problems?
J: Well, I do actually remember the Undertaker’s debut, and it doesn’t surprise me that you didn’t take much to him, coming in several years afterwards. When he arrived in 1990, the WWF was a very different place, character-wise–virtually every wrestler came to the ring decked out in kid-friendly, cartoonish gimmicks. It seemed like half the roster carried an animal mascot with them to matches (from Koko B. Ware’s parrot, Frankie, to Damien, the giant python that the aforementioned Jake the Snake kept in a burlap sack), and costuming choices seemed based on what would make the most compelling action figure. In fact, during the match where Undertaker first appeared, his tag team partners were “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase (evil cartoonish rich guy) and the tag team Rhythm & Blues (evil cartoonish Elvis impersonators), and he was lead to the ring by his manager, Brother Love (evil cartoonish televangelist).
In that context, the Undertaker felt like the next logical step. Guys like the Ultimate Warrior dressed up like comic book characters, and they could talk the talk when handed a microphone, but they still acted like wrestlers once the bell rang. But Callaway didn’t treat the Undertaker like a costume. He was the Undertaker, all the time, in the ring, out of the ring, during interviews–he never, ever broke character for even a moment. He even seemed to go out of his way to avoid sunlight–if you watch early Undertaker matches, his skin is so slick and pale that he looks made of wax. All the other characters looked like they were on their way to appear in a Saturday morning cartoon; Undertaker looked like he’d come out of one.
And it was wildly successful, right away. In an oddly wise choice, the WWF never explained exactly what the Undertaker’s deal was–if he was supposed to magical, or a zombie, or just a guy with poor skin conditioning. His unique look and gimmick, combined with Callaway’s uncanny performance, made him stick out among the other cartoon characters, and the Undertaker very quickly rose in the ranks of the WWF superstars. A year after his debut, in fact, they put him in a feud with none other than Hulk Hogan, and even gave him an unprecedented victory over the Hulkster at Survivor Series 1991. (Not counting Andre the Giant’s infamous “twin referee” pinfall on Hulk in 1988, this was the first time a villain had actually pinned Hulk Hogan in over a decade.) The WWF clearly saw big, big things in the Undertaker, and by 1992, the audience was so into the character that they actually started cheering for him. The writers responded by casually switching him to a good guy, and he stayed that way until 1998.
But that’s where the wheels came off, as you noted. The problem wasn’t with the character, per se–the fans were still way into the Undertaker, and his arrival in the arena was always guaranteed to get a huge response. But the writers ended up defeated by what made the character so interesting in the first place. Since the Undertaker didn’t act like a wrestler, it proved increasingly difficult to find ways to get him into stories with other wrestlers. The usual things that drove wrestling storylines–friendship, championships, pride, women–didn’t matter to the Undertaker, so his stories never really amounted to more than the rival of the month stealing Undertaker’s magical urn. Worse, the supernatural nature of the character allowed the writers to prove they should never, ever try to write supernatural fiction: that Yokozuna casket match, with the lightning and ascendancy to heaven and what have you, was all an excuse to get Undertaker off of television for a few months so he could heal from a back injury. With anyone else, they could simply said, “His back is injured, so he’s not going to be on TV for a while,” but that doesn’t sit with a character who had been billed for years as virtually invincible.
If anything, Undertaker showed how flawed the wrestling characterization model can be. If you’re booking a wrestling promotion and a character doesn’t fit into the storyline you’re trying to sell, than you change the character. You said that fans will question whether a wrestler’s actions are “in character” or not, and that’s true, but wrestling characters are so fluid–and fans have become so accustomed to abrupt switches in personality–that it doesn’t take much fudging to explain away any discrepancies.
But with the Undertaker, they’d created a character so fully realized that they couldn’t abruptly switch his personality. Sure, they’d turn the dial on exactly how spooky and magical he was supposed to be–the Yokozuna casket match was probably at around an 8–but at the end of the day, he was still the Undertaker, and lines had been drawn too heavily to allow the usual adjustments. If they ever wanted to break out of that rut, they’d need some major changes to the character. But such changes were nowhere to be found.
In fact, it took until 1999 for anyone to do anything really different with the Undertaker. At the end of ’98, ‘Taker lost one of those silly gimmick matches he seemed to always lose*–a Buried Alive match, I think–and returned in ’99 with the supernatural dial turned all the way to 11. This was the doing of infamous WWF head writer Vince Russo, who was quite possibly the only person on the planet who thought the problem with the Undertaker was that he wasn’t silly enough.
*All those gimmick matches were the bookers trying to write their way around a storytelling problem, just like the wacky way they wrote around Undertaker’s back injury. Since they’d created an invincible zombie who felt no pain, the fans would be slow to buy that an opponent could actually hurt him enough to pin him. So they were forced to invent a bunch of brand new matches where Undertaker could lose without being pinned.
Now, you weren’t watching when Undertaker debuted in 1990, but I’m pretty sure you were around for his dramatic reemergence in 1999, as Evil Druid Cloak Undertaker. What did you think of this period for the character? And can wrestling as a medium even tolerate a character as crazy as this one?
Cory: The 1997-1999 run is probably the most fascinating Taker period. This was a time when the WWF turned to simultaneously more reality-based and more excessive (more violence, more sex, more shock value stuff): Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart’s real world animosity drove big heat onscreen stories; Stone Cold Steve Austin started acting more like his real self than any stereotypical wrestling character. But WWF had a challenge with Undertaker. How in the hell does he fit within an era where people are “real,” and stories are more personal than ever before? Well, it turns out that they could do the same kind of personal story, but keep it within the realm of Undertaker’s universe.
As a result, in late 1997, his longtime manager Paul Bearer (the recently deceased Percy Pringle, who was fantastic throughout his various WWF/E runs) started ranting about the existence of Undertaker’s brother–a brother we never knew anything about previously. Like the soap, wrestling loves long-lost relative stories, but it couldn’t just be some dude that the Undertaker forgot to mention. Oh no. Instead, his brother Kane was reportedly extensively burned in some event that also killed Undertaker’s parents and was, according to Bearer, Taker’s fault. So in one fell swoop, Undertaker suddenly had family–the idea that he came from anything other than Lucifer summoning a zombie with a bolt of lightning was unprecedented at the time–and this demented history that explained quite a bit. It was one massive bit of retconning, in a way that only soap and comic book stories can really do. And yet, it also gave Undertaker more texture and characterization than he ever had, making him both more interesting and sympathetic at the same time (because obviously he didn’t kill anyone). The storyline played out in a way that only a Undertaker story could: Kane debuted at the infamous first Hell in a Cell match, ripping the side of a cage open and thrashing his brother, and later put Undertaker in one of those pesky caskets and lit it on fire. Undertaker got his initial bout of revenge on Kane by defeating him in an Inferno Match, but the storyline continued off and on for a decade, with the Brothers of Destruction turning on one another at least a dozen times.
It was in those months where the depth of Calloway’s performance really took over. Glenn Jacobs, the man portraying Kane, was masked and thus couldn’t express the same kind of pathos, and the character was purposefully stoic and evil as a result. That meant that Calloway had to do most of the heavy lifting, repeatedly allowing his once-invincible character to be not only defeated, but humiliated and emotionally destroyed. For really the first time, Undertaker was a fan favorite because he was a face; not just because people thought his gimmick was cool.
Which is why the 1999 Evil Druid era was the perfect respite. Although the WWF writers didn’t make the connection explicit, you could understand why Undertaker would become evil, turning a section of the federation’s B and C-listers into a cult in the process. He’d been through some pretty awful stuff in his on-screen life. In the aftermath of the feud with Kane, he teamed up with his brother to fight Austin at the behest of WWF honcho Vince McMahon, repeatedly losing to Austin or being berated by McMahon. For most wrestling characters, the reaction to that kind of treatment is to turn heel and to tell the audience to screw off. That’s when we get the speeches about ungrateful fans, suffocating management, backstage politics, what have you. But those things weren’t in the Undertaker’s story realm. He had to turn on the audience, but it had to happen in his way–and that way happened to be by stringing opponents up and orchestrating mock sacrifices. In retrospect, those years were especially good for Undertaker because it showed that his character could evolve in the same ways that others were, but he could also still hold onto some of the more fantastical and ridiculous elements as well. Like most wrestling stories, the Ministry of Darkness derailed eventually, mostly because it fell victim to that late-90s WWF thing where every story ultimately came back to the Austin-McMahon master narrative, but in retrospect, Undertaker’s three-year run there was better than most Attitude Era zealots give it credit for.
Unfortunately, the next Undertaker era wasn’t as good. Looking for another new way to go, he returned in 2000 as….a motorcycle-riding, denim-wearing redneck, complete with the Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit songs. That didn’t track quite as well did it?
J: Ugh. No, no, no. Gods save us from Bikertaker.
You know, you hit upon something interesting with that late nineties period, when the Kane storyline started. In the first part of the ’90s, the WWF struggled with Undertaker, since it was so difficult to give him a reason to feud with their regular cast of villains. For some reason, it took them until 1996 to hit upon the idea of creating brand new villains for Undertaker to fight, ones who would fit in the weird alternative universe the Dead Man seemed to exist in. With Kane and Mankind (and really, we have to mention Mankind–Mick Foley did just as much to humanize Undertaker as Kane did, and without the Dark Shadows-esque backstory), the Undertaker had enemies with a reason to hate him, and the character finally gelled. Even the ultra-silly Evil Druid Undertaker worked on this level–that story, as you noted, was undone less by bad characterization and more writer Vince Russo’s lazy, nonsensical, “The mortal blood enemies were secretly working together all along!” ending. (That’s how virtually every storyline he ever wrote ended, really.) But it was a sign that the WWF had learned what to do with Undertaker; they needed to tailor his enemies to suit him, rather than trying to make him fit in with the pro wrestlers.
But I guess they changed their minds, because in May 2000, Undertaker returned from another one of those pesky injuries dressed in full leather biker gear, riding a motorcycle while “American Badass” roared on the speakers. When he took the microphone to cut a promo, all the old talk about resting in peace was gone, replaced with generic-sounding trash talk. His Texas accent became incredibly pronounced, and everyone he addressed was suddenly dismissed as “son” or “boy.” And it all happened without explanation or, bizarrely, even a mention from anyone. In 1999, he was burying people in pits and enslaving an army of followers; by 2001, he was being called “Mark” on camera and being involved in stories with his real-life wife. And at no point did anyone stop and say, “Aren’t you dead?”
To me, this is the true flaw with wrestling characterization: the legendarily short memories of wrestling bookers and writers. If something happened more than a year ago, then it never happened. Old enemies become best friends without anyone bringing up their past relationship; Steve Austin and the Undertaker headline a big pay-per-view event, and no one seems to recall that they headlined the same event the year before. In its less impressive moments, wrestling storytelling can feel like high school theater, where the roles are simply filled with whatever performers are available. In 2002, the WWE–as they were calling themselves by this point–created a group of anti-American Canadian villains and needed an American hero to challenge them. The Undertaker had nothing better to do, I guess, and suddenly started strapping a flag to the back of his motorcycle to America’s stalwart defender from their evil Canadian attackers (this despite having long since dropped “American Badass” as his entrance theme, thanks to the expiring of both the rights to the song and Kid Rock’s tenure as a pop culture figure). The de-evolution of the Undertaker from living comic book character to flag-waving patriot had nothing to do with logical character development and even less to do with narrative necessity. Even if it was something as simple and understandable as Calloway growing tired of the gothic gimmick and wanting a change, swapping it out in an instant and running it through wrestling’s perpetual retcon machine just makes it look stupid.
I hate that. Wrestling has a difficult time enough with the suspension of disbelief without deliberately provoking the audience. Inexplicable character shifts like this can hurt not only the storyline in question, but can ripple out and affect others in odd ways–after all, if it turns out the Undertaker is just a beer-drinking biker, what about his flame-tossing zombie brother, Kane? Did he also think his brother was a zombie? How can we take any of it seriously now? And in 2004, when that gets tired and boring and they decide to switch Undertaker back to being a zombie (because why not), what are we to make of the motorcycle years? Was the Undertaker just going through an experimental college phase, or what?
Am I taking the whole Bikertaker thing too seriously? Is wrestling just doomed to this kind of shoddy, blink-and-you-miss-it character development?
Cory: It’s funny how most conversations about wrestling eventually circle around to the lack of institutional memory. Wrestling fans who are active online are often mocked–generally by other wrestling fans online–for complaining about everything and for trying to retroactively book failed or aborted stories, and as a passive observer in these communities, those conversations can drone on. If I have to read another forum thread about re-writing the WCW Invasion story, I’ll bury myself alive. However, wrestling fans act like this because they know that everything will eventually break down. Long-term plotting will fall apart and characters will switch gimmicks with little context because Vince McMahon’s bored, or perhaps in the Undertaker’s case, because the performer is bored. Very rarely are wrestling stories or characters consistent or consistently successful over an extended period of time.
What was especially frustrating about the biker era (and later the Big Evil era) was that the Undertaker was the perfect television wrestling character. His entrance is unbelievable cool for the people in the live audience, but it looks even better on TV when you can see the entire arena draped in purple light and smoke and when the camera can follow him down the entrance ramp at low angles. All of his powers–controlling light and lightning most notably–are basically special effects that play in the arena but seem so clearly part of television. The big late-90s feuds he participated in wouldn’t have worked as well without television. The live audience watched the Boiler Room Brawl or the bury portion of the Buried Alive match in the same way that I did–on a screen.
So by the time that Undertaker became a dude that rode a motorcycle and defended his wife from creepy stalker DDP in the post-WCW WWE, the stakes were there, but they weren’t on Undertaker’s sphere. Whereas wrestling fans often want the product to be more “real,” the best Undertaker stories eschew traditional conceptualizations of reality–even wrestling reality–but still work because the emotion and catharsis was still present. Thinking of Undertaker as a patriotic family man certainly gave wrestling fans an inside look at Mark Calloway, the man; it gave them some semblance of real. But that’s not what they wanted, and those stories didn’t really work on TV.
Character inconsistency aside, the final era of Undertaker’s career has perhaps been the best wouldn’t you say? And more than that, this version of the character almost exclusively exists on TV (and PPV). That’s interesting right?
J: I’m in full agreement with you there. The Undertaker’s best years have definitely been the last few, despite his increasing age and declining mobility and ability to perform. While there were a few goofy speed bumps after the return of zombie Undertaker in 2004 (I’m thinking of silliness like Taker’s enemies trapping Paul Bearer in a glass box and slowly filling it with cement, like a Tales from the Crypt spec script), on the whole, the WWE managed to combine most of the Undertaker’s various elements into one mostly cohesive unit. He has the cold detachment of the early years, the emotionally compelling development of the Attitude era, and even a shade of the down-to-Earth, “I’m’a make ya famous, boy” roughness of the Bikertaker. For such a comic book character, it’s a perfect reboot and a good way to try to be all things to all people.
Best of all, the Undertaker’s never around anymore. That sounds cynical, but I really do mean it–as Undertaker’s physical state has deteriorated from injury, he’s been forced to wrestle fewer and fewer matches. That’s lead to the increasing focus on his television-friendly qualities, as you said–lots of dramatic video packages, lots of stare-downs on Monday Night Raw, and lots of atmospheric skits and scenes that have to take the place of the wrestling matches he can’t do anymore. Best of all, since he wrestles so infrequently, the Undertaker’s longevity gives him the mythical status he was meant to have from the beginning.
Sometime around the turn of the century, the bookers realized he hadn’t yet lost a match at WrestleMania, and turned his “undefeated streak” into the stuff of legend. Now, the Undertaker rarely wrestles more than once a year, just to dispatch some troublemaker at WrestleMania, and he’s become the WWE’s legendry Black Beast of Arrgh. And since the writers are freed from having to sustain any sort of drama or suspense in his stories save for those few weeks in the spring, there’s no more scrambling for excuses to involve Undertaker with the other wrestlers. “I want to beat the Undertaker” is a strong enough hook to carry weeks of television.
So after two decades of trying to build his character around inexplicable supernatural forces and power from beyond the grave, the Undertaker became a mythical creature just by staying around. Looking back at it all at once, as we’ve done, reveals a pocked mess of inconsistencies and bizarre choices, but in many ways, wrestling is so much about the present moment that it doesn’t matter as much as maybe it should. The Undertaker is who he is today, and even a character with as much backstory and development as his could change on a whim. The number one rule of writing a wrestling character is that you go with whatever works. And as long as that doesn’t mean the Undertaker gets back on that motorcycle, I’m sure whatever comes next will work just fine.