by Lori ‘Zakariyya’ King (2012)
Professional wrestling is a pugilistic assemblance of a theatre-in-the-round-staged set of grappling contests fuelled by melodramatic/folk drama-like storylines. Having come to the attention of television networks in America in the 1950s, wrestling is now a multi-million pound industry, spanning every continent.
The discipline evolved from a fighting form that we would now term mixed martial arts, when travelling carnival organisers saw the potential financial incentives in creatively luring members of the public to test their skills against their contracted wrestlers. The dialogue of enticement was therefore a key factor in the conception of rigged wrestling bouts. It moved even further away from sporting legitimacy when a later generation of promoters felt compelled to introduce popular non-wrestlers into the contests and choreograph their ring victories. This is the point where professional wrestling abandoned the strict sporting model and turned into what would later be cleverly, ambiguously termed ‘sports entertainment’.
Feeding further into audience allegiances, the wrestlers began to act out characters in order to present a consistent good guy versus bad guy dynamic. Eventually the character roles or ‘gimmicks’ became an even more important aspect of the success of professional wrestling than the grappling itself. Soon enough the structures of television production prompted wrestling personalities to deliver snappy monologues to camera to promote upcoming shows or threatening inter-wrestler dialogue to build anticipation for a bout.
Today, wrestlers are actors, often even crossing over into the theatre and the stage, as their adopted personalities or under their real names. During wrestling events, wrestlers are required to portray a variety of stereotypical and outlandish roles to excite their audience. The delivery of monologue and dialogue is often part of this performance. In bygone years a charismatic wrestling ‘manager’ or ‘valet’ would be assigned to wrestlers that were unconvincing with a microphone in hand, to speak on behalf of them. Nowadays though, wrestlers, especially in the biggest wrestling company – the WWE – are not given the chance to hide away from uttering the lines, often written for them by a team of creative personnel, and their value as a performer hinges on this.
The issue of authenticity in representation, broadly speaking, is the biggest reason for people not to engage with wrestling. “It is fake” is the oft-repeated phrase to criticise the product. As much a part drama, in the emotional ups and downs of successes and failures of competition, plays in the enjoyment people take in watching sporting events, these same groups of people cannot conceive of the value of the mixture of dramatic theatrical performance with the illusion of violence that characterises wrestling today. This is understandable – wrestling is a deception of the (willing) viewer and its inner workings are guarded secrets.
Roland Barthes wrote in Mythologies that professional wrestling is “real Human Comedy, where the most socially-inspired nuances of passion always felicitously find the clearest sign which can receive them, express them and triumphantly carry them to the confines of the hall. It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not.” However, for the decrier of wrestling, they refuse to participate in the suspension of belief prior to the passion being “triumphantly” carried to “the hall” and so, without appreciating that “pitch”, to them it is still important “whether the passion is genuine”.
Yet, Barthes’ point should not be over-emphasized. Wrestling consumers, like me, are still critical observers and so are interested in being convinced by a “genuine” performance. As I stated earlier, the wrestling performance is two-fold – the ring wrestling and the character acting. Wrestlers must play their part with skilled portraying of their gimmick, primarily through believable dialogue.
The temptation at one stage in the composition of this essay was to indulge in the numerous crossovers between mimesis – the act of expressive resembling – as chronicled across the ages by Erich Auerback in Mimesis, and the multiple layers of ancient ritual expression and regurgitation persistent in the spectacle of wrestling – some academics have suggested that “professional wrestling provides us with the… richest symbolism in popular culture” . Although worthy of bachelor degree level focus, I feel this would have rendered the points raised herein as mimicry itself. I do not wish to make this study redundant from the outset by repeating the sentiments of others, and as such a contemporary reading of authenticity in representation using the very best of examples will hopefully result in a unique and useful contribution to drama criticism. In my research stage I found that previous chapters published in journals and books addressing the subject have been all too brief and written from an unfamiliar perspective – such as the misleadingly titled ‘Fifty Million Viewers Can’t Be Wrong: Professional Wrestling, Sports-Entertainment, and Mimesis’ by Michael Atkinson (although I should note that Atkinson’s contention that sport is potentially mimetic because of the social and emotional significance in resembling war-like competition is highly astute.) This lack of familiarity of these authors with the appeal and history of wrestling has caused the analyses, from which I have drawn some of my research myself, to have used uninspiring ring/storyline examples, and ahead of the advent of the most recent technologies and challenges to the wrestling product.
My approach will be to interpret the performances, the basis of performance studies, as performative texts and through close reading of the transcribed scripted (or unscripted) content. I intend to examine how the challenge of sincerity and authenticity are addressed by wrestling performers. The three prime subjects of my reading will be the late Andy Kaufman and his forays into the world of wrestling; current WWE performer CM Punk; and retired wrestler Dusty Rhodes’ most heralded in-character television interview. The ideas raised by Roland Barthes in his ‘The World of Wrestling’ essay shall be compared to the living examples I analyse. Additionally I will attempt to show that Kaufman’s influence can be found in CM Punk’s work despite the decision of the WWF not to make use of Kaufman’s talents when the latter was alive. In the final chapter I interview British wrestling trainers for a factual assessment of how they go about teaching their trainees to deliver dialogue.
Wrestling as a topic of academic study is still somewhat rare despite the decades that have passed since Barthes’ iconic essay. In a relatively brief discussion such as this I must rely on the terminology and practices of other mediums, borrowing from the perspectives and opinions of drama experts, theatre studies lecturers, critical theorists and philologists, as well as wrestling industry insiders, like the wrestlers themselves, both current and retired, and their trainers, in order to formulate an approach that can bring to light the strongest features of this genre.
The Kaufman wrestling connection
Andy Kaufman was an American actor and experimental, avant-garde, comedy performance artist. His career peaked during the late seventies and early eighties as a cast member of famed sitcom Taxi. During his short life he strove to garner controversy through his innovative performances and elaborate hoaxes. One such act involved him wrestling almost exclusively women around the US to compete for his self-made, self-awarded ‘Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World’ title belt. He would taunt audiences and feign a misogynistic attitude, defeating challenger after challenger (some of whom were ‘plants’ too) at a variety of performance events.
A typical Kaufman diatribe to entice a challenger would be:
I just don’t feel that a woman is capable of beating a man in a wrestling match. [crowd groans] And, I’m not trying to be chauvinistic or, you know, make fun of the women’s lib movement or do any kind of thing like that but what I’m trying to say is, I just can’t conceive of a woman having the capabilities to do that. Even if a woman was to train hard for a long time, I don’t think that she could be physically capable, and also I don’t think that a woman is mentally capable to… [crowd objects] No, no, no, wait! Because you really need a certain kind of way of thinking to wrestle – strategy and all that. I just don’t think women think that way. I think that they’re mostly good for – and, I mean, you might laugh when I say this – but I think they’re good for scrubbing the potatoes and washing the carrots… putting it in the pot… [crowd groans, hisses, objects, some clap] Please. Uh, mopping the floors, raising the babies…
What might strike you here are Kaufman’s attempts, within this speech, to be convincing as a common-sense misogynist. He is not immediately embracing the extreme end of such an opinion to starkly illustrate the colours of his (wrestling) character, as you would find in most cases with wrestling personae. He is instead interspersing his points with rhetoric devises that suggest he is almost willing to be swayed in debating with another person or the audience in general, that he has come to this bigoted conclusion through considered reasoning. Establishing a sense of authenticity in his performance was a common trait of Kaufman’s. People are still scratching their heads about the autobiographical truths in his act to this day. In the above example he is taking one of the very earliest of professional wrestling monologue practices and putting his own unique spin on it. Worked wrestling bouts basically took form within a period where the industry relied primarily on ‘barnstorming’ – a touring, carnival-based wrestling scheme. As Sharon Mazer writes in Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle: “In the version presented by [veteran wrestler] Johnny Rodz and echoed by others, professional wrestling in the United States began with the strongman in the circus sideshow: “There was always a big guy with a guy behind him saying, ‘Anybody come up and stand up [survive in the ring] five minutes with this guy gotta put up a hundred dollars, and if he wins we’ll give him so much,”… The exaggerated character of the wrestler was part of his stock-in-trade, a self-promotional device to draw the crowds and build a reputation that would precede his entrance into town…”
Kaufman too attempted to entice challengers by taunting his potential opponents, while positioning himself as a superior, but not unbeatable athlete, and at the same time creating an entertaining spectacle for non-participants, in what he wanted to be perceived as an authentic voice. Adding to the ambiguity of the situation was his uncertain professional role. Kaufman would have struggled to state one specific profession he belonged to. He had fallen into comedy acting, without even an audition for his first part – it provided the best income for him. He had started off in stand-up comedy clubs, performing routines in a variety of character roles, but he would always insist that he was not a comedian. In the biopic Man on the Moon, starring Jim Carrey, his touring performances take bizarre turns on stage. Sometimes he would unexpectedly start reading from The Great Gatsby for hours in order to confuse, frustrate and bore his audience away. Nobody was quite sure of how to describe Kaufman. Stemming from his other performance interests, his means of establishing authenticity in his wrestling promos and interviews were therefore manifold, but located somewhere in the general uncertainty he worked into all equations.
The late ‘Classy’ Freddie Blassie, who spent nearly sixty years as a wrestling professional, stated in his autobiography: “Before World Wrestling Federation exploded, Andy Kaufman asked me for a favour. Could I talk to Vince, [McMahon] Sr. and see if the [WWF] wanted to use Kaufman as a talent? I told Andy that I’d look into it, but I never did. I knew how the old man thought. The company was selling out arenas everywhere. Why did he need this nut running around?”
The WWF may not yet have “exploded”, but they were still a company on the ascent, at the period that Blassie described – likely 1981-82 – they were incredibly busy and showing clear signs of testing the fading power of the National Wrestling Alliance . 1982 WWF shows numbered close to 250, some of which took place in regions outside of their NWA-era jurisdiction – Toronto, Maryland, Hawaii, etc. McMahon’s son – Vincent K. – was on the verge of purchasing the majority of his father’s shares in the business and McMahon, Sr. had just committed a major faux pas by falling out with the man that would soon become the most popular wrestler of all-time – Terry Bollea, also known as ‘Hulk’ Hogan. Vincent J. had disagreed with Hogan’s wish to act in the boxing franchise film Rocky III, alongside Sylvester Stallone. Hogan left the WWF as a result and his appearance in the highly profitable feature propelled him into the national spotlight. To complicate matters further, McMahon, Sr. was elderly and ailing. By 1984 he had succumbed to pancreatic cancer. As such it could be argued that Kaufman had caught Blassie, McMahon Sr. and the WWF at the wrong time. Blassie writes that “Andy wanted to get in in the worst way, and pleaded his case to Bill Apter, a well-liked wrestling magazine writer and photographer. Apter told Kaufman to go down to Tennessee, and do something with Jerry “the King” Lawler. Lawler – the number-one babyface and part owner of the Memphis territory – wasn’t as conservative as Vince, Sr., and was usually up for anything.” The collaboration between Lawler and Kaufman led to two major wrestling matches between them.
New Yorker Kaufman would have been well aware of the WWF. Not only was he a competitive gimmick wrestler and dedicated wrestling fan, but the WWF ran their shows primarily on the East Coast, Kaufman’s home patch, including regular events at the famous Madison Square Garden. Without Blassie’s recommendation the WWF did not recruit Kaufman. Vincent K. took over the company, re-signed Hogan, established an innovative merchandising revenue stream, with that money lured across the rest of the most celebrated wrestlers in the industry from other companies and founded the annual extravaganza – Wrestlemania. Vincent Jr., was obviously forward thinking and populist and we see now he was trying to establish relationships with mainstream, recognisable performers, although not the type that included Kaufman. Early on the WWF head honcho used figures from other mediums like pop singer Cindi Lauper, boxer Mohammed Ali, musician Liberace, dance troupe The Rockettes and actor Mr. T (to reunite him with his Rocky III co-star) as a means to create a far-reaching spectacle. Blassie relates of his friend’s alternative destination:
Kaufman travelled south, called the people “hicks,” and taunted them by twisting up his face and slurring out interviews in a fake southern accent.” Bob Zmuda explains further: “Several weeks before the match [with Lawler], the promoter got in touch with Andy and gave him the bad news: ticket sales were dismal. “We need to create some heat [audience interest – buzz] here,” he said. “You got any ideas?” Well, being idea guys, Andy and I sat down and came up with a series of videos designed to exploit the strongest aspect of pro wrestling: the good guy versus the bad guy… Using the backdrop of a palatial (but rented) home in Beverly Hills, Andy approached the camera, clutching a piňa colada adorned with a tiny umbrella, and started in. “I’m from Hollywood, I’m smart, I make movies and television shows… I’m not a hick like you people from Myemm-phiss Tenn-uh-seeee…” He really hammed up the enunciation when he named their city and state, hoping to inflame people just by mocking their speech patterns…
It is interesting, I feel, that this approach seems on par with post-2005 youtube-based, attention-grabbing techniques. Indeed, one wonders just where these vignettes were broadcast and seen in the absence of said video-sharing website. This is dialogue of audience interaction, borrowed from the diatribe of wrestling characters like Gorgeous George and refashioned to appear novel and almost vaudevillian. Zmuda continues with the story:
The reaction was exactly what we wanted. The people of Memphis were driven insane by the cocky television star, and suddenly tickets were vacuumed out of the drawers of ticket agents and into scalpers’ pockets. Almost overnight it became the hottest event in years. Enjoying the hype, the promoter encouraged us to send more tapes. Since it was so much fun we complied.
We hired a very sizeable young woman, and she and Andy stood on a small wrestling mat poolside at the rented house. “Okay, Mr. Lawler, you think you’re so tough?” taunted Andy. “I’ve wrestled women tougher than you… and bigger! Like her.” He turned to the hefty girl…
They then proceeded to grapple, and Andy quickly slammed her to the mat and then got her on her stomach and began “bashing” her head into the ground. I, as the [“]lawyer[“], raced out and stopped him, but it was too late – the poor, endomorphic young lady was “unconscious.” I leaped up and, before I could stop the camera, yelled, “Andy, I think you’ve really hurt her!” To which the callous Kaufman snapped off, “So what? She’s poor, she doesn’t have any money, she can’t sue me.” And with that, the image of the prostrate whale-like victim and the strutting “bad guy,” the camera went to black. That video was a big hit. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imOJaSzTAcA)
Having seen this video, I spoke with British wrestler Greg Burridge , a mainstay of the British wrestling scene for a decade, who also mentored WWE Champion Sheamus, to assess whether character performers, like himself, today still have Kaufmanesque goals in putting together their own homemade youtube-destined films. Burridge told us: “I’m just trying to create interest in wrestling. People (have) gotta think outside of the box to create something fresh and original and just something that people want to see. You’ve gotta try and manipulate people to watching wrestling without actually realising that they’re watching wrestling, (which) unfortunately is what we have to do to give wrestling credibility and interest again. I’m trying to do something a little bit different… and maximize the technology I (have) got at hand and plus I like making them.”
Burridge views his own efforts as original, which may be because of the type of films he has produced, or because of the dearth of wrestling talent prepared to invest time and funds into short, unorthodox on-camera promos. Independent wrestlers, with exceptions, are less skilled and/or confident as actors, whereas the big two American wrestling promoters relatively strictly control the extracurricular output of their contracted performers.
In Kaufman’s case, he was achieving his goal of winding his audience up by stretching his character to the most vicious manifestation, insulting them beyond ‘safe’ limitations, which is a confirmation of Barthes’ view from Mythologies that “everything is presented exhaustively.” As would sometimes occur with the most hated of heel personas, Kaufman’s promoter and prospective hotels for him would receive bomb and death threats leading up to fight. Kaufman had gone further in his polemic than any other up to that point though. The authenticity is established by Kaufman in that his audience absolutely believe he is their enemy. We can interpret the Memphis reaction to be their side of the dual interaction. One of a host of placards at the match, Zmuda reports, read “Kill the Jew” . This was a manifestation of their response, their collaborative dialogue with him. Says Blassie:
On April 5, 1982, he and Lawler wrestled at the Mid-South Coliseum. The match ended with Lawler turning his skinny opponent upside down and driving his head towards the mat with [two] piledriver[s]. Kaufman claimed that he had a broken neck, and wore a brace everywhere. When the two appeared on David Letterman’s show a few months after the incident, they got into another brawl. It was a lot like [John] Tolos and myself on The Steve Allen Show, with one notable difference. Kaufman was screaming one obscenity after another, and wouldn’t shut up. He and Lawler left the set in a shambles, and NBC executives had serious discussions about banning Kaufman from the network.
Kaufman was borrowing techniques from his mentor, buddy and idol Freddie Blassie, but developing the form in line with his understanding of how to grab the attention of the mainstream. He was taking the wrestling technique of ‘building heat’ then exhibiting it to a non-wrestling audience on a popular chat show, where they would not have easily recognised the ‘worked’ nature of the performance, and then he took the momentum back to the Memphis wrestling platform to complete his mission of filling the venue with paying, emotionally invested customers.
Kaufman’s actions on the Letterman show were virtually unprecedented for television, let alone in the building of wrestling ‘angles’ (storyline narrative threads). It seems apparent that Kaufman recognised the established limitations of this form, which could still be called the ‘promo’ (promotional speech), and identified just what was taboo enough to elicit the audience response he wanted, particularly the contents of the dialogue and then wittingly broke those rules to achieve perceived authenticity, just as he did in the build-up to his first encounter with Lawler. This can be interpreted as hyperrealism – as Umberto Eco phrased it – the authentic fake, or “To speak of things that one wants to connote as real, these things must seem real. The “completely real” becomes identified with the “completely fake.” Eco’s understanding of stateside entertainment demands was such that he suggested that “the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake; where the boundaries between game and illusion are blurred.” In intense examples of wrestling performances like Kaufman’s the ‘hyperreality’ of the scene aims for authenticity of portrayal.
The Kaufman-Lawler-Letterman segment is still widely aired as an example of an unscripted, authentic, on-screen dispute, despite the participants later revealing that the events were pre-planned. The irony is that wrestling is critically panned for its false presentations and unconvincing storylines, yet the revelations from the insiders that one of those storylines, albeit atypical, was choreographed are still disbelieved by the viewing public.
Kaufman is frequently labelled as ‘twenty years ahead of his time’ and this is highly significant to in terms of my discussion. The passion that Kaufman had for wrestling was apparent for those that met him. This wasn’t merely a throw-away part of his act for him. Although accounts of his life and interaction with wrestlers don’t suggest an extended training period, what Kaufman latched onto was the incredible capacity of the wrestling character to take hold of the audience. Two of the most powerful characters in wrestling history are Gorgeous George and the aforementioned Blassie. Both Gorgeous George – The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture, penned by John Capouya and Blassie’s Keith Elliot Greenberg-assisted autobiography Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks go into great detail about the evolution of their characters to provoke the required response from the audience. Hulk Hogan would generate ticket sales by the popularity of his persona and how idolised he was by millions of young people. He was renowned for regularly addressing the camera to exhort children to: “train, say your prayers, eat your vitamins! Be true to yourself, true to your country, be a real American.” Hogan would take that unelaborated Christian message into an almost cult-leader vernacular and tone by terming his fans “hulksters” or “hulkamaniacs” in an incredibly, intense, deep-voiced excitement, sweating and spitting out his words. My point about Hogan is that his audience bought into him as an iconic person and believability was achieved by their trust.
Wagner and Blassie went the other way. They were so despised by crowds virtually wherever they went that fans would be paying to get to (and inevitably fill) the venue solely in order to loudly espouse their abhorrence. Male and female audience member alike would spit, swear, swing punches, lob vegetables and waste all in the direction of these heels. There were numerous occasions where the wrestlers would be confronted with a mass ring invasion or individual fans wielding weapons (usually knives). Their characters personalities and the words they spoke that fed it were convincing enough to leave a town (the latter two wrestlers were more associated with the touring era) in a focused, anticipated uproar that would last only the duration of a single wrestling bout. This is a pantomime tactic, a back and forth between the performer and audience, that goes far beyond the bounds of that medium.
Kaufman witnessed and marvelled at these artists as heels in particular. Lynn Margulies, Kaufman’s girlfriend says: “Andy and my brother… were fanatical Freddie Blassie fans… Freddie was so raucous, had perfect comic timing, and personified everything Andy loved about wrestling: the circus aspect of it, and getting people riled up over something that’s maybe not real… Andy based his entire career on pro wrestling. He’d point at his head and say “I’ve got the brains,” like “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. And just like wrestlers – who took what they were doing so seriously that they wouldn’t admit that it was a show – Andy didn’t let people in on the joke. Of course, that pissed them off even more. But Andy would say, “The more they hate you, the better you’re doing,” like he was a wrestling villain instead of the star of a sitcom.” What the McMahons in the 1980s would not have known and that Blassie had not yet come to appreciate was that Kaufman understood, appreciated and adhered to these inner-circle wrestling traditions, even if it seemed to take the form of a boyhood, geeky fascination.
Kaufman’s ideas would prove to be “twenty years ahead of his time” . The late 1990s saw a distinct shift in sports entertainment storyline themes and dialogue. A lot of this had to with television audiences peaks, the rivalry between the big two organisations – WWF and WCW – and the introduction of a sensationalist TV writer by the name of Vince Russo. At the time Vincent K. McMahon made a deliberate attempt to compete on a stronger footing with the introduction of what he labelled ‘the Attitude era’, a direct shift in programming content to incorporate an edgier, raunchier, more offensive dynamic in line with young television viewer expectations, at the height of popularity of Jerry Springer-type productions. The WWF (soon to be rebranded WWE) sought to mirror society and young adult culture, and to establish a level of realism in the wrestling product. Vince Russo was a man described by his fellow writer Jim Cornette as “a moron… pitching twenty million ideas… with no filter” and as a direct result there were many, many bizarre plotlines brought in during his tenure on the creative team and in order to appeal to an adult audience more firmly, the acceptance of swearwords. However, Kaufman had been doing the same thing, albeit in a more tasteful manner, two decades previously. In hiring Mike Tyson, just out of his Evander Holyfield ear-biting controversy, or having Brian Pillman threatening another wrestler’s wife with kidnap and murder with a gun, Triple H simulating intercourse with what appeared to be a corpse, or having “police” arrest ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin for attacking McMahon, the WWF were vying for that cross-platform, frightening, Barthesian ‘spectacle of excess’ that they felt would attract viewers and help trump their rivals.
WWF programming didn’t only consist of continuous swearing/cursing throughout the broadcasts of ‘the Attitude era’. The top star ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin would label himself a “tough S.O.B” with regularity, then there would be the occasional employment of soft curse words. For example ‘The Rock’ Dwayne Johnson would be deliberately suggestive by using the word “pie” as a euphemism for cunnilingus. There was one particular segment that broke all of the rules. It isn’t regarded as a watershed moment because of the playful nature of the recording, but the 1997 D-Generation X ‘Election Speech’ on the Monday Night Raw programme, where the wrestlers Shawn Michaels and Triple H mockingly delivered a manifesto of their rebellious intentions in regards to their future use of vocabulary:
HHH: “We will only use the words ‘ass’, ‘damn’, ‘hell’ and ‘bitch’. We will never, however, use the words ‘shit’, ‘fuck’, ‘goddamn’, ‘jesus-christ’, ‘faggot’ or any other racial or sexual slurs. Now then, as it pertains to video, we promise there will be less dick references…”
Michaels: “Ah shit!”
HHH: “Watch your fuckin’ mouth.”
Michaels: “Wh… fuck me!”
HHH: “Goddamn it! Fuck! Anyway there will be less penis references…” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juuiIznD5ZA)
Backstage individuals have since revealed that the address was, in fact, directed towards the USA Network, the channel that aired WWF programming in the US. The network were threatening cancellation of their broadcasting contract due to the previous months’ flouting of inappropriate content regulations. Rather than abide by their demands, the WWF decided to challenge their host channel in explicit vernacular, but with an implicit message. Viewers would have been astonished, had they watched the uncensored version, and regulatory bodies would have been stunned. The shock value of the language is what is establishing authenticity in the piece, and those with inside knowledge of the purpose would sense the ‘realness’ even more vividly because the subject is a muddy mixture of reality and an ambitious attempt to sound ‘real’.
Andy Kaufman isn’t recognised as an industry trend-setter or even a wrestling innovator within studies of the medium, and it is therefore difficult to argue that his early 1980s performances were borrowed from by later talent. However, the parallels are distinct. His infamous Late Night with David Letterman appearance garnered such a widespread response that its notoriety and progressiveness could conceivably have filtered through into contemporary understandings of storyline and dialogue, especially given that his chief co-conspirator Jerry Lawler has remained a persistent figure in the industry, primarily with the WWF/WWE.
Kaufman had an alter-ego, a character he was so invested in that he insisted on having him written into some Taxi scripts. This persona went by the name of Tony Clifton and in many ways was the antithesis of the celebrated personality of his creator. Tony Clifton was the tool that Kaufman used to offset a growing adoration for his work. The character was a foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking, cigarette-smoking, off-key lounge singer (conversely Kaufman was tee-total, abhorred smoking and sung Elvis songs in what was said to be Presley’s favourite impression). Bearing similarities to the wrestling heel that Kaufman would play, Clifton’s seemingly sole intention was to anger his onlookers. Whether it meant the mild sexual molestation of staff in the venue, the verbal abuse of spectators or merely halting his performance mid-song to sip his drink, Clifton was deliberately infuriating.
In Andy Kaufman Revealed! – Best Friend Tells All, Bob Zmuda describes Tony Clifton opening for New York stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield. In order to build up the tension in San Francisco’s Fillmore West auditorium Zmuda delivered the performer introductions, teasing that Dangerfield would have no warm-up act, but instead sending on Clifton following a chorus of disappointed boos that delayed his entrance. After threatening to stay on stage “all night”, rather than let the main act come on, he began his set with a typically nasal rendition of ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’. Zmuda relates: “Tony occasionally stopped singing long enough to scream “Shut up!” After each interruption he would go back to the beginning of the song. If the audience members had been insanely mad before Tony sang, they were now much worse.” This mutual dialogue with the audience was wrestling-based, prodding the audience with a stick from the distance of the stage, prompting “an old man (to) climb onto the stage and (go) after Tony with a pocket knife”, literally. Clifton had some popular appeal of his own by that point, but he was unlikely recognisable enough to the audience in question. The mystery of the character and the probable lack of exposure to this kind of hoaxing made the action seem exceedingly real to the spectators in the above scenario – enough to be driven to a violent attack even.
From my point of view, Kaufman epitomises the struggle for authenticity within wrestling. The extreme nature of the wrestling ‘angles’ he devised and acted out, his usage of taboo words and phrases, their application in innovative scenarios provide proof of the lengths wrestlers have to go to appear as believable. I believe Kaufman to be so skilled in delivery and so creative that his videos demand to be studied by later generations, if they are not already.
The WWE wrestler CM Punk, real name Phil Brooks, is considered an inventive and talented sports entertainer. A claim he is making at the moment is that he is the “best wrestler in the world”, obviously debatable, but certainly somewhat merited. He is technically impressive as an in-ring competitor, his grappling skillset and move arsenal have been heralded for years. As if he recognises fully the conventions of wrestling, Punk also broadly fits into a particular traditional incarnation of a wrestling character and with his choice of ring pseudonym. In Professional Wrestling as Ritual Drama in American Pop Culture, Michael R. Ball lists over a dozen oft-repeated gimmicks in professional wrestling, one of those being ‘The Punk’. He cites the “close cropped beard”, the tattoos and the indecision of the “lone punk” performer to choose between supporting “the forces of good” and “villain(y)” as the recognisable traits of this stock character, all of which are reflected in CM Punk’s image. Ball uses the prime examples of Bam Bam Bigelow and One Man Gang respectively to illustrate his point, the latter’s ring introduction striking the same chord as Punk’s – “hailing from the back streets of Chicago” .
His promo monologues incorporate edgy themes and uniquely focus on the normality of his character, rather than the exaggerated gimmicks of his peers. The Chicago native (‘Chicago-Made Punk’) is certainly treasured as a talent, but a monologue he delivered in 2011 is easily the most memorable moment of his career. The storyline was that Punk had been at the WWE for a number of years and had yet to reach the heights he felt were warranted. His contract was coming to an end and on the way out he would be granted one last title defence match against the franchise babyface John Cena. The company being in apparent disarray, with Vince McMahon unfocused, Punk would be unlikely to re-sign. This meant that, given the wrestler’s straight-talking personality and aggrieved mood, verbal fireworks were likely in the weeks leading up to the contest. A moment that would distinguish Punk came on a June 27th Monday Night Raw broadcast . There are two elements of his actions on that night – I shall begin with the second to occur and less analysed of the two, because it relates to the point in the discussion I have reached. The event was taking place in the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. The cameras filmed CM Punk standing on the stage of the walk ramp, referred to in the WWE as the Titantron, facing the audience, and by extension the empty ring. Punk begins by asking the crowd if they like Frank Sinatra, to which they loudly respond in the affirmative. He goes on to say that Sinatra was a fan of Las Vegas. The crowd then cheer even louder. Punk reacts immediately by retorting that “there’s one place that Sinatra loved better than Las Vegas, and that’s Chicago, where I’m from.” What follows is CM Punk breaking into a sung delivery of the Sinatra-associated show tune ‘Chicago’, in a flat, out of tune voice. He even screams the same note twice. He concludes by responding to the booing and chants of ‘you suck’ with a declaration that rectifies any vagueness in message and shakes off the adamant cheering few – “I don’t suck, Las Vegas sucks. That was awesome.” The performance is intended to goad the fans and disassociate him from their affection for him. Jillian Wallis. University of Greenwich drama lecturer, in my interview with her , identifies the technique employed in this last exchange as direct-address in the music-hall sense. The response of the crowd becomes an important element of the success of the segment.
Given Punk’s persona, his frequent challenging of WWE taboos, and the intelligence that comes across in his interviews, one could be convinced that, of all the wrestlers on the company’s roster, he might be the most aware of Kaufman’s work. It might be pure coincidence, but the similarities between what Kaufman was doing with Tony Clifton in San Francisco and Punk’s song can be argued to be influenced by the former and/or an evolution of the same concept.
The most memorable ‘spot’ of the night, however what is known as CM Punk’s ‘worked shoot promo’. In recent years, I believe that this is the closest one wrestler has come to the authentic on the microphone. Professional wrestling has its own internal language and unique set of terms, mainly developed from the carnival days when wrestlers would be required to speak in an indecipherable lingo around the attendees (‘marks’) they hoped to dupe. One substitute word was ‘shoot’, which was an abbreviation of ‘straight-shooting’, referring to a gun in a carnival target-shooting game which did not have its aim deliberately broken. This term transferred to wrestling as the way to describe a legitimate fight and more generally a non-fabricated incident. The opposite of a ‘shoot’ is a ‘work’, meaning some manufactured part of storyline (and originally describing a choreographed ring match). ‘Worked shoots’ are a mixture of the two, a way of making extra effort to lead the audience to believe that what is being said or done has not been authorised from backstage, when in fact it is probably more carefully scripted than a normal scenario. This technique is more successful than one might imagine. It is employed by wrestling organisations, in its most concentrated form, relatively sparingly. Wrestling fans and consumers of drama in general, are willing to suspend disbelief to maximise entertainment. Therefore when that job is made a little easier from time to time there is little cause for complaint. If, though, wrestling viewers are accustomed to dialogue containing elements of real-life, then the wrestler delivering lines or the writer behind them (where they are not one and the same person), has to go even further to convince them that this isn’t another fake; a simulation of authenticity that trumps other previous simulations of authenticity.
Punk’s acclaimed ‘worked-shoot’ begins with the typically Barthesian, pusillanimous, behind-the-back attack of a foe, followed by an immediate scurry away (“the villain… is of course a coward” ). Appearing then to be addressing an incapacitated John Cena, he insists: “There’s one thing you’re better at than I am and that’s kissing Vince McMahon’s ass. You’re as good as kissing Vince McMahon’s ass as Hulk Hogan was. I don’t know if you’re as good as Dwayne [‘The Rock’] though. He’s a pretty good ass kisser. Always was and still is.” Instantly the attentive listener’s ears would have pricked up, in fact a mass audience gasp can be heard on the video. Not since the cut-throat days of the ‘Monday Night Wars’ has it been acceptable to mention a rival organisation’s talent. He follows this with an aside, originally an Elizabethan theatre tool that involves briefly popping in and out of the scripted dialogue, to ridicule the conventions of television wrestling. “Whoops! I’m breaking the fourth wall!” he says while waving at the close camera. As he continues to complain about the manner in which he feels he has been held down in his career ascent he lists more former wrestlers who worked for competing companies – “Paul Heyman… Brock Lesnar… And he split just like I’m splitting.” He threatens to leave the WWE while still retaining the title belt, and thereby causing the greatest loss of face imaginable for a wrestling corporation. This is followed by a direct acknowledgement of the false nature of wrestling, that athletes do not ascend the ladder of success based on ring ability. “I’ve grabbed so many of Vincent K. McMahon’s brass rings that it’s finally dawned on me that they’re just that, they’re completely imaginary.” Continuing with what Jillian Wallis labels a mixture of rap braggadocio and restoration theatre-style witty putdowns, Punk then continues recognition of the commercial product he is a part of by first discussing his absence from company merchandise – “I’m not on your lovely little collector cups” – and then the event paraphernalia and studio production features -“I’m not on the cover of the [printed venue] programme. I’m barely promoted. I don’t get to be in movies. I’m certainly not on any crappy show on the USA Network. I’m not on the poster of Wrestlemania. I’m not on the signature that’s produced at the start of the show. I’m not on Conan O’Brian, I’m not on Jimmy Fallon [US chat shows]. But the fact of the matter is – I should be.” Punk is formulating his diatribe in accordance with Roland Barthes assessment of the role of the typical wrestling villain – the French literary theorist wrote in Mythologies: “Wrestlers know very well how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of Justice.” Barthes’ essay concentrated on the wrestler’s underhanded ring tactics and the dialogue that accompanied that, but Punk’s version covers WWE behind-the-scene political decision-making.
With the crowd taken aback, but excited about what they see as unprecedented candour, offering applause and cheers at each pause in the monologue, CM Punk then alters his direction of address by declaring: “Those of you who are cheering me right now, you are just as big a part of me leaving as anything else…” – which adds another dimension to his collection of addressees; now in the course of a three minute monologue, he has managed to simultaneously and consecutively direct his speech at the wrestler in the ring, the cameraman, the staff backstage, the television viewers and now the venue attendees. He even interjects “hi Colt Cabana”, to his friend and former WWE employee at one point. Punk elaborates on his disdain for a certain type of fan: “Because you’re the ones who are sipping on those collector cups right now. You’re the ones that buy those programs that my face isn’t on the cover of. And then at five in the morning at the airport, you try to shove it in my face and get an autograph and try to sell it on Ebay because you’re too lazy to go get a real job!” With a clever insult, he gets across one of the overriding reasoning behind him not signing a new contract – his disillusionment with the directionless, lethargic, unquestioning fanfare of wrestling and the uneducated nature of its fans. This part is fundamental, yet implicit in the content of his speech.
Going after the company owner himself, Punk continues: “Vince McMahon is going to make money despite himself. He’s a millionaire who should be a billionaire. You know why he’s not a billionaire? Because he surrounds himself with glad-handed, non-sensical, douchebag yes men, like John Laurinaitis, who’s going to tell him everything he wants to hear, and I’d like to think that maybe this company will better after Vince McMahon is dead. But the fact is, it’s going to be taken over by his idiotic daughter and his doofus son-in-law and the rest of his stupid family…” – this section reads as somewhat shocking, but should be seen in the context of years of sporadic WWE storylines poking fun at the McMahon family. Yet he amplifies this by attacking an absolutely no-go area for the company: “Let me tell you a personal story about Vince McMahon, alright. We do this whole [anti] bully campaign…” – at this point his microphone is cut off immediately. Amazingly Punk is able to let off steam for a relatively long period, but still leave his audience teetering on the edge of their seats to make out the inaudible words that follow his muting. Microphones are never normally cut off on WWE television. No ad-libbing or unscripted dialogue ever actually requires such drastic measures and so this will have almost certainly been the first time any wrestling viewer or spectator would have ever witnessed such a tactic. For some, in online wrestling forums mainly, this has proven to be the deciding factor in convincing them of the unauthorised nature of the content of his speech. For the collection of fans both appreciative of this promo and aware of the general practice of television writing for the WWE, it is as Roland Barthes stated: “what the public wants is the image of passion, not [necessarily] passion itself” . The ride that CM Punk takes the informed wrestling fan on during those few minutes is undoubtedly passionate, but he also creates the impression of real sentiment, which suspends disbelief. In much the same way Andy Kaufman sought to challenge the notions of what could be achieved in wrestling dialogue.
CM Punk’s experimental use of language is winning over fans and WWE decision makers; most consumers of the product I have spoken with cite him as their favourite wrestler currently, and he has been rewarded with greater attention since his staged walk-out.
One would think that the dynamics of dramatic convention in wrestling will most likely remain stable, unless given adequate reason to evolve significantly, but CM Punk’s performances exhibit utilisation of established methods to present a fresh presentation of an apparently truthful voice. CM Punk’s very recent decision to take his character into the public domain in a non-wrestling capacity is an extension of his approach to the presentation of authenticity. Via twitter and cross-platform media appearances he has decided to, amongst other controversies, inflame opinion by entering into the discourse surrounding the aftermath of the domestic violence criminal trial-by-media of the hip-hop singer Chris Brown and that of the American public’s issues with the legalisation of homosexual marriage ceremonies . The separation of the CM Punk persona and the Phil Brooks underneath the tights is becoming even more difficult to decipher and the medium is all the richer for it.
CM Punk is proving that a more focused attention to presenting authenticity innovatively is possibly the key to greater success as a wrestling performer, and for the wrestling product as a whole. It may be his legacy that critics and fans are discussing as positively influential in later years.
Dusty Rhodes’ “Hard Times” promo – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxC3oAD1iUg
Dusty Rhodes became the headline act of Championship Wrestling from Florida during the 1970s and performed in front of wrestling crowds for forty years thereafter. Promoting himself as the ‘American Dream’, Rhodes connected with the blue-collar fans of the South. His spittle-filled, non-sequitur-laced interviews often veered far from sense, but alternating shrieking, pointing and threatening with tenderly soft, lyrical delivery, he never lost sight of what the audience wanted to hear – that Dusty loved multi-ethnic America and beating people up in equal measures. With his expansive belly, badly dyed hair and scarred forehead Rhodes also looked like someone who had stepped straight out from the crowd.
Ex-wrestling character and television writer Bruce Prichard stated his own admiration: “Dusty took interviews to a whole different level. And I think Dusty was one of the first guys, especially of this modern era, that could tell a story in an interview.”
The most memorable monologue of Dusty Rhodes’ career came in 1985 in a staged interview, coming out of a period of injury, on a Mid-Atlantic Wrestling televised show. It is known as the ‘Hard Times’ promo because difficult circumstances and hope despite adversity is the frequently mentioned focus of the wrestler during the segment. Rhodes claims that this was his most popular promo of all time – it apparently resonated in such a way that people approached him in arenas in tears to thank him for “honouring their plight.” The transcript of the promo is as follows:
First of all, I would like to thank the many, many fans throughout this country that wrote cards and letters to Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream, while I was down. Secondly, I wanna thank Jim Crockett Promotions for waiting and taking the time because I know how important it was, Starrcade ’85, it is to the wrestling fans…. With that wait, (I) got what I wanted: Ric Flair, the World’s Heavyweight Champion. I don’t have to say a lot more about the way I feel about Ric Flair. No respect, no honour, there is no honour among thieves in the first place. He put hard times on Dusty Rhodes and his family. You don’t know what hard times are, daddy.
Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are outta work. They got four, five kids, and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell ‘em, ‘go home.’ And hard times are when a man has worked at a job 30 years, 30 years, they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say, ‘hey, a computer took your place, daddy.’ That’s hard times. That’s hard times. And, Ric Flair, you put hard times on this country by taking Dusty Rhodes out. That’s hard times.
And we all had hard times together. I’ll admit I don’t look like the athlete of the day is supposed to look. My belly’s just a little big, my hiney is just a little big, but, brother, I am bad and they know I’m bad. There were two bad people. One was John Wayne and he’s dead, brother. And the other one’s right here. “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, the World’s Heavyweight Title belongs to these people. I’m going to reach out right now. I want you at home to know my hand is touching your hand, for this gathering of the biggest body of people in this country and this universe, all over the world, now reachin’ out, because love that was given me in this time, I will repay you now, because I will be the next World’s Heavyweight Champion of this hard time blues. Dusty Rhodes tour, ‘85 and Ric Flair… Nature Boy… let me leave you with this:
One way to hurt Ric Flair is to take what he cherishes more than anything in the world, that’s the World’s Heavyweight Title. I’ma take it. I been there twice. This time when I take it, daddy, I’m gonna take it for you. Let’s gather for it. ‘Don’t let me down now because I came back for you’, for that man up there, that died ten to twelve years ago and never got the opportunity to see a real World’s Champion. I’m proud of you and thank God I have you. And I love you, love you!
Eloquent and articulate, though with a limited vocabulary, Dusty Rhodes proved himself to be one of the most entertaining, easy to relate to characters, especially here. His techniques are interesting to dissect.
He uses the word ‘daddy’ first as a vague interjection (later switching to ‘brother’) and then later as an addressive noun, which is one way to deformalize the speech, putting the listener at ease. His addressee alternates a number of times (fans, Ric Flair, his father) without ever going back to the original questioner/interviewer standing beside him. He even speaks in the voice of his dead father without introduction – “Don’t let me down now because I came back for you.” This means that transcribed it reads like sloppy nonsense for large parts, but Rhodes pulls it off with aplomb, never seeming to be searching for his next word.
The performance is obviously ad-libbed, hence his listing of non-existent things like the “Dusty Rhodes tour” and “hard time blues”. He manages to veer ever so slightly from the topic whilst keeping the monologue firmly focused on his unity with the fans.
His Georgian-Texan drawl with purposeful fluctuations in pitch akin to those of a pentecostal preacher or effervescent soul singer and the almost jive-talking, Ebonic vernacular strengthens the audience connection. The voice even becomes fascinating in itself; the unique (for television) tone and cowboy inflection couple with his usage of fun, newer terms like ‘hiney’ and ‘bad’ meaning edgy. Southern accents have traditionally been a rarity on US television, yet paradoxically the Southern American dialect group is the largest in the country . This makes Rhodes a representative of the ‘silent majority’, so to speak. The fact his speech is impeded by a prominent lisp lends to (dare I say, less-educated) viewer empathy, but also makes his success even more noteworthy. Fellow wrestler and WWE development trainer Mike Bucci observed: “He looked like them, he talked like them, he told them what they wanted to hear.”
More than anything though, it is Rhodes’ stated sympathy for the common man’s cause that has the most effect, both describing their plight and implicitly likening it to his own. His accusation “Ric Flair, you put hard times on this country by taking Dusty Rhodes out [of action through injury]” places his opponent in the same position as the profit-focused redundancy-making corporate bosses that the fans recognise, to generate further heat against (for) Flair. The majority of fans may even be fond of (the always popular) Flair, but Rhodes entices them to imagine that they themselves are ‘tak[ing] what [their oppressor] cherishes more than anything in the world’. He’s even smart enough not to compare respective “hard times”, leaving out his catchphrased self-descriptions of ‘the little plumber’s son who came out of the ditch’ or his reflections of times when ‘(I) slept in an alley and ate pork and beans’, instead relying on existing awareness of his character. He achieves this despite opening by speaking of himself in the third person.
It’s impressive how Rhodes plugs so easily into crowd empathy. To use the notion of a deceased parent looking down on one from heaven could, from a less skilled orator, be horribly received (a series eight Friends episode finds comedy in the inability of Monica to make effective use out of the subject in a speech). Even in the 1970s it would have been an overused formula already, but many people with a belief in an afterlife envisage a departed relative watching over them and Dusty is well-aware of the effect his words here have.
That mutual identification technique is utilised earlier in the monologue too. “There is no honour among thieves” is a phrase that audiences will associate with wisdom passed down from elders or that older viewers will relate to more closely as an utterance of their peers and parents.
Dusty Rhodes was a limited grappler, but with the microphone in his hand he possessed the personality and unscripted sentiment to innovatively bring drama to life. ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham, himself an accomplished mic-worker, said of Rhodes – “This man had so much charisma that it was astounding. The interviews that he could cut drew people to the building.”
Rhodes was perhaps the best ever at promos. Much like I said of Hulk Hogan earlier, wrestling consumers believed in him. Rhodes’ appeal was that he was the ‘every man’, representative of the people in the arena and for a large portion of those watching at home. Fans could trust what he had to say because of the impression he gave of heartfelt sentiment. He reflected on issues of the day, combining life’s realities with the simulation of the real that he strove for in his monologues. This is a difficult feat to pull off, especially nowadays when wrestler’s costumes, accents, textual content of their speeches and overall gimmicks are frequently switched around and shaped by factors not primarily concerned with authenticity. Rhodes is often described as a direct influence by wrestlers themselves and one can see just why. Dusty Rhodes was the authentic.
Every wrestler needs to go through some form of professional wrestling training in order to progress to a stage where he/she will be booked for matches. Wrestling schools operate all over the world and most often feed new blood into a promotion and are run by wrestlers winding down their careers. The training will either take place one-on-one with a trainer on a full-time basis until the trainee is considered ready, or in the more popular format where a group of students will train once a week in open sessions. The former method is mostly to be found in the US and will involve the trainee handing over a large sum of money in return for the full attention of the trainer. These situations are sometimes sold to the trainee on the basis of the talent/potential that the trainer sees in him/her.
These schools are not overly keen on revealing the inner workings of the business or their own techniques, so the trainers that I have been trained by personally were my most accessible sources for detailed information about the approaches schools take to teaching monologue and dialogue.
Garry Vanderhorne aka Shiro Yoshida is the founder of Lucha Britannia, the masked lucha libre pro wrestling promotion making waves in the mainstream media after opening Download Festival in 2010. Vanderhorne trains wannabe wrestlers through his London School of Lucha Libre. He has worked in live music and arts events promotion as well as on the staff at counterculture magazine Bizarre.
He described how his training dealt with the issue of preparing people for promos :
We usually start people in the process right off the bat, but sometimes it’s better to let them feel a little more confident in their physical abilities first. Everyone is different and learns at different speeds. We don’t have a methodology as such but more of a holistic view, treating the process of becoming a great professional wrestler very seriously. Wrestling has changed dramatically over the last 30 years and we have to be mindful of the pioneers which [sic] helped make these great changes. Mostly they have come from great speakers with conviction and charisma that transcends the live arena and becomes compelling in other media such as television. Working to the camera is very different to working the crowd. We try and teach both by using examples from the very best of all the years. Projection of voice, intonation and emotion: not being monotonic as this leads one to switch off, clear delivery of lines, all the things a professional actor would do. We will work with an individual’s character and develop a suitable gimmick, and then we would start to think about the vocal embellishments which would best suit the gimmick. Different voices, pitches, catchphrases, back stories and so on.
In the eight or nine sessions I attended during the period of research there was no direct focus on teaching monologue, although at times part of the hour-long warm-up called for shouts to be emitted whilst running in order to acquaint one’s self with the additional energy being burnt up by a body in doing so, and during a pause I took from attending they did dedicate an entire week to gimmicks and promos . One of the trainees once guided us through the sprints by asking the others to imagine themselves in a story he set in a Rocky-Rambo mash-up scenario. I attended the strictly novice sessions and on top of that the beginners/intermediate classes, and got the impression that promo training took place more frequently with the advanced trainees. This was surely driven by the unique nature of Lucha Libre itself. The mask brings with it an air of mystery that unmasked wrestlers do not have, so that there would be less wrong with a luchadore combatant staying completely silent during his match than a non-lucha. However Vanderhorne recognises that this is changing:
Traditionally Luchadores would only speak to their fans during matches maybe to get some cheers if they are a Tecnico (good guy) or to insult if they are Rudo (bad guy). After a match wrestlers may do signings or photos with fans for merchandise sales and then would stay in character the whole time, thus keeping what we call in the business ‘kayfabe’. Now because of the immense power of the internet and fans being much smarter to the wrestling business, a Luchador will do best if he has a twitter and facebook account and connects on a much more personal note with the audience both in and out of kayfabe. I try and steer my performers into certain diatribes (at my shows) but they pretty much take care of themselves. Sometimes I am appalled at what they say, other times I’m totally impressed with their commitment to character and believability. It is performance art on many levels, so parody and overblown stereotypes are part and parcel of the show. I want the heels/Rudos to go out there and really make the audience dislike them in as many different creative ways possible. Whether it’s El Pirana saying “ugly girl” and “skinny boy” to a perfectly lovely people in the crowd or Bradford W. Bush and his entourage bestowing (sic) the virtues of the States whilst demeaning the British, Mexicans and pretty much anyone who’s not them, then everyone’s happy!
London School of Lucha Libre were not as diligent in their attention to showing the trainees how to deliver lines as the other school I attended, IPW:UK, but it was apparent that they were ready to teach the discipline of kinesiology to even the beginners. Once a trainee had mastered a simple move they were told to add their own flavour and stylization to either the selling or the execution of it. Individual luchadore characterization demands the use of the body to express emotion. It is an intricate art and one can see how direction in this might take precedence over monologue training and Lucha Britannia, where successful trainees would graduate to, seems to prefer to trust their performers to act out in accordance with archetypal roles and let them appal or impress him (as the booker) either way without much direction. Although that is not to say that Vanderhorne does not fully recognise the importance of in-ring verbalisation:
Being a quiet wrestler these days just won’t get you very far! The verbal communication or diatribe is often more important than physically being the best wrestler… [During my own developmental stage] it was obvious to me that in order to become great, one has to embrace the art of the promo or at the very least be able to engage the audience in witty reportage in order to get one’s character across. Now, not everyone finds this easy and I’m certainly no genius at it, but we teach the importance of vocalisation and character especially for the heel as it’s usually he who will be eliciting the greatest audience responses.
A trawl through Lucha Britannia videos, even the promotional ones, will reveal that they have yet to film or release a traditional threat promo or a monologue delivered by a wrestler stating the date and card of the upcoming event. Lucha Britannia events are always sold out weeks in advance so the promotion do not need to go to the trouble of actively pushing feuds or the like in promotional videos. This is coupled with an innovative, burlesque, inter-medium approach to the aesthetic, steering a spotlight more towards live crowd interaction, and as Garry says – “working to the camera is very different to working the crowd”.
Were I to have had a longer time period with the trainers at the Lucha school I would have probed the trainers on their ideas on establishing authenticity further. Two factors presented me from doing so during my research stage. Firstly, Lucha Britannia have become very successful in their niche area very quickly and the suggestion of improvement to their product would have come across as ignorant of the excitement and innovation that they have already brought to British wrestling. I would have found myself especially out of my depth discussing someone like Andy Kaufman because of the Mexican/Japanese/American/British hybrid nature of their wrestling and the more pertinent influences they draw on. Secondly, co-trainer Greg Burridge, although incredibly willing to detail his wrestling/drama philosophy, stated that he had never come across an impressive example of a wrestling ‘talker’ in any of the sessions he has led over the years, as well as demonstrating a stance that belied traditional theatre training techniques. Burridge felt that wrestling training, in fact, created a better actor than a Stanislavskian set of principles could – a valid opinion, but not one that would encourage an inquisitor to introduce unfamiliar theoretical ideas to the table. Stanislavski’s ideals of the more authentic, that echo throughout this essay, are perhaps too associated with the aspects of drama teaching to appeal to a subgroup that have embraced an almost counter-cultural discipline like professional wrestling, that is already entrenched in its own educational methods.
There does appear to be a younger demographic of wrestling trainers than in earlier years, and many of those, especially Vanderhorne and Burridge, will be looking to explore alternative methodologies. I’d like to return to this subject with them at a later stage of my training and after greater acquaintance with them.
The parallels between the work of Andy Kaufman and CM Punk illustrate an evolved, complex attention to the detail of the art of the wrestling promo; I could have provided numerous simpler and less impressive examples. The recurring themes and returns to tradition within professional wrestling are not without cause. Of course it reflects a pragmatic approach to wrestling writing, booking and performance in accordance with audience expectations that has continuously proved profitable for the companies that promote it. However, on a deeper level it is an anthropological phenomenon that links behaviour to social and structural influences. Popular cultural activities are said to undergo repetition via the guise of ritual as a means of preserving traditional societal values – a point that restrictions in scope prevented me from exploring more deeply. Maintaining the widespread acceptance of this particular cultural activity is of primary intrinsic importance to the wrestling promoters and as such, the believability contained in the performances of their top talent is a key consideration.
The three or four examples analysed above enhance the audience experience through what French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard would term ‘hyperrealism’; a subject I touched upon in the Kaufman section. The context and content of the dialogue rides the wrestling consumer’s awareness of the false nature of wrestling to achieve “a kind of thrill of the real, or an aesthetics of the hyperreal, a thrill of vertiginous and phony exactitude… of distortion in scale, of excessive transparency all at the same time.” The way that gimmick personalities of such a mould would be described in the wrestling industry is as an extension of the character of the performer; an exaggerated version of themselves. This is why Angela Carter, English novelist and journalist, described wrestling as “a game with… all the trimmings of make-believe” , for the false aspect of the form is conducive to the overall portrayal of the authentic. The battle to convince the audience and the critics of wrestling is more pronounced, more immediate than in mainstream theatrical mediums, and, as we have seen, this sharp edge between apathetic disbelief and violent realism, being so apparent throughout, can be manipulated by skilled performers to create even greater realism. Barthes calls wrestling “grandiloquence [that] is nothing but the popular and age-old image of the perfect intelligibility of reality.”
Wrestling being imitation itself can work to its benefit, as Dr. Joseph Maguire, states in Global sport: Identities, societies, civilisations: “Mimetic activities have basic structural characteristics in common. That is, they provide a “make-believe” setting which allows emotions to flow more easily.” Further, the foundation of a false world creates a greater platform for the gifted performer to go out there and set his or her performance apart as better, whether that be in this case grappling skill or the ability to suspend spectator disbelief at will.
As has been mentioned earlier, Andy Kaufman’s place in wrestling folklore is relatively minimal. The industry’s hardcore elite (including the academic writers) would probably not appreciate my presentation of his influence as persistent. Until interviews are conducted with wrestling talent and writers it cannot be proved categorically that Kaufman’s tactics were a consideration in any of the discussed segments. My main point is that the WWF’s failure to align themselves with Kaufman at any point was a missed opportunity. For years wrestling has struggled to convince the doubters, both interested fan and dismissive critic alike, that the portrayals of storyline are reflective enough of the real. By contrast Kaufman’s impact was forceful, immediate and, as this study substantiates; memorable. Wrestling is only just catching up with the type of creations he conjured up thirty years ago – the parody art film My Breakfast with [Freddy] Blassie would be a worthwhile study of the art of improvised dialogue for any keen wrestling trainee.
Regardless, the factors that fuel character development and their resulting scripted monologue and dialogue have always been “borrowed” from popular myth sources, for example films, television, magazines, and plays. Material, either from the diatribe of stereotypical representations or more innovative sources, will continue to find its way into the mouths of wrestlers. WWF legend Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts admitted that he lifted some of his best lines from songs playing on the radio , while Greg Burridge marvels at the “promo-work” of heckled comedians and debaters during televised ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ in Parliament, even admiring Adolf Hitler’s ability to manipulate his audience. All of these sources, together with the expert wrestling character performances from previous eras, are ripe for appropriating for use in an often maligned artform.
Authentic representation or performance can reach great heights in wrestling monologue and dialogue. Kaufman, Punk and Rhodes are mere examples of the possibilities of the form. It would be naïve of anybody to think that their methods could be implemented across the board – that might even serve to dilute the potency of these impressive presentations. However, more in-depth critique, a better understanding of the processes and further collaboration in drama and wrestling techniques can only benefit the “world of wrestling”.
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