April 7, 2013

True Confessions of a WrestleManiac

Late last month I read at Writers Night in America, a monthly series held by Dan Bruskewicz of the Philadelphia band TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb. I read alongside my friend (and Daily News gossip columnist) Molly Eichel. Since today is WrestleMania 29, here’s essay I wrote for it. (What I read was a little different—I always ad lib a bit during performances.) I’m a big fan of bad television, and pro wrestling is among the best in that genre. My picks are Cena, Brock Lesnar, Del Rio and Undertaker. I reserve the right to change this title, which I don’t like.

In the fall of 1990, the World Wrestling Federation began carting around a giant egg.

They’d bring it to every event and show it on weekly TV. No one from the WWF explained what was in the egg, but they promoted it for months: At the Survivor Series pay per view on Thanksgiving night, the egg would hatch. Since the egg was person-sized, most wrestling fans figured it would be the debut of a new wrestler.

I tuned in to Survivor Series on Thanksgiving. Announcer Mean Gene Okerlund explained the excitement. “Everybody has speculated to what might be in the egg,” he said. “Is it a dinosaur? Is it a rabbit? Balloons? Is it the Playmate of the Month?” With such hype — It could be a dinosaur! It could be a naked woman! — this 7-year-old wrestling fan was quite excited.

The egg hatched. Out popped… well, a man in a turkey costume. What followed was a horrible, 7-minute segment where the Gobbledy Gooker — yes, that was its name — danced around with Mean Gene. The crowd hated it so much they booed instantly. Look it up on YouTube. As soon as that turkey leapt out of its egg, the crowd turns on the segment.

There are not very many performances where you can attend and, if you don’t enjoy the act, you may let loose with hundreds or thousands of other fans and boo the execution. You haven’t booed me, not yet at least. Booing is uncouth at plays, musicals, the opera. I’ve never been to a concert where someone booed. Sure, fans boo at sporting events, but they’re booing bad performances, blown calls. They’re booing real life.

That night in 1990, the crowd wasn’t having any of it. It’s events like these that make me believe pro wrestling is America’s most underappreciated art form. It is not just the wrestlers, managers and announcers who are in on the act. The fans know pro wrestling is scripted, too. Sure, they care who wins and loses, but they’re in on the con. They are holding up signs to get on TV, booing and cheering almost on cue and, yes, occasionally rejecting the product entirely and trashing everyone involved in it.

Don’t believe me that wrestling is art? I have none other than French philosopher Roland Barthes on my side. “There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport,” he once wrote. “Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows.” I don’t know what Foucault’s theories on wrestling were, but let’s just assume they were similar.

Furthermore, mock combat has a storied tradition in entertainment. In between gladiator-versus-gladiator and lion-versus-Christian battles, the Romans sometimes flooded the Coliseum to hold pretend naval battles. Most of the highest-grossing movies feature extensive combat scenes. War re-enactors pretend to fight at Gettysburg and cross the Delaware. And, who cannot enjoy the cutest mock combat of all, that of puppies and kittens.

I ask you, how is wrestling different from HBO’s Girls? Intense conflicts over something stupid, copious amounts of nudity and incessant flame wars on the Internet by fans. The only differences I can see: Wrestling has more violence, Girls has more nudity, and several million more people watch wrestling every week.

I probably enjoy pro wrestling more than Girls, but I guess I don’t think wrestling’s as artistically good. But that’s the beauty of it: Wrestling makes for great bad TV. When it’s good, it’s enjoyable. When it’s bad, it’s even better. The current flagship program of the WWE, Raw, is three hours long. Do you know how hard it is for them to fill three hours of content? I usually DVR it, later fast-forwarding to the parts I’ve heard are bad.

Hell, it’s even hard to come up with storylines for their big shows. Sunday, April 7, is the WWE’s flagship event, WrestleMania. This year’s top four matches are:

  1. John Cena vs. The Rock, for the WWE Championship. Rock is the wrestler-turned-movie star, Cena is the WWE’s current top good guy who popularized wrestling’s biggest crossover hit since The Rock, the ‘you can’t see me’ gesture. Rock beat Cena at last year’s WrestleMania. He wants revenge. This is standard wrestling stuff.
  2. Triple H vs. Brock Lesnar. Triple H is the chief operating officer of the WWE and is married to Stephanie McMahon, owner Vince McMahon’s daughter. He’s a former wrestler — Triple H stands for Hunter Hearst Helmsley, as his character used to be a pompous Connecticut blue blood — but still suits up for matches once or twice a year. Naturally, the storyline for this match is: Despite rarely wrestling, Triple H’s career is on the line. (My co-worker David Onda noted that Triple H is returning to avenge his father-in-law, claiming this is a story worthy of Shakespeare. I say this is better than a third of Shakespeare’s plots.)
  3. Alberto Del Rio vs. Jack Swagger. Alberto Del Rio is from Mexico, and he’s the World Champion. His opponent is a Tea Partier who wants Del Rio deported! This is only about two years out of date, so for WWE it is cutting edge. You’ll be happy to learn Del Rio is the good guy in this feud, and even when he was the bad guy he played a Carlos Slim uberbillionaire-like character. For wrestling, this is progress.
  4. The Undertaker vs. CM Punk. The wrestling PPV with the giant egg? The Undertaker debuted at that pay per view. He’s actually undefeated at WrestleMania, with a 20-0 record. In a fake sport, this is an actual result that kind of matters. He only wrestles once a year now, simply to prolong the streak. That would normally be the storyline. But a few weeks ago, in real life the man who once played The Undertaker’s manager, Paul Bearer — get it? — died. It’s since been turned into an angle, with Punk stealing the ashes of Bearer and carrying them around to torment the Undertaker. That it was done with the expressed consent of Bearer’s family doesn’t make it any less awkward to watch, though incorporating real life tragedy into wrestling storylines is a tradition. When Punk was WWE Champion, he mocked Jerry Lawler’s real-life on-air heart attack just a few weeks later. (The son of William Moody, the man who played Paul Bearer, said he was ok with it, but it was hard to watch.

Perhaps things like that don’t make WrestleMania sound very good, or even make any wrestling sound very interesting. Yes, it is frequently bad, offensive, disgusting and just plain lame. But it is the rare entertainment that is often better when it’s bad. I can’t really explain it. It must be art.