Who doesn’t love to laugh? Seriously, the healing effects of comedy are endless and even the most stoic warrior can use a joke every now and then. Professional wrestling is no different. Since being deemed ‘entertainment’ in modern times and the olden days of the territories comedy has always had a place in pro wrestling. This edition of the Grand Slam will explore why it should stay and why certain kinds of it needs to go. Is it that yours truly (Phil Gordon) has no sense of humour? No. Do I only like wrestling with men in black trunks, boots and no gimmicks? No. Do I only like Greco-Roman headlocks and wrist locks? No. Do I like watching certain wrestlers because of their comedic skills? Yes. Does comedy itself belong in the wrestling business? Yes. What I will be talking about is the attitude that laughs and jokes can come at the expense of what pro wrestling is really all about…drawing money. Money is not drawn in this industry primarily through the laughs, but the violence. In order to draw successfully you need to have the comedy eventually lead to violence or else it just won’t suspend disbelief. As you will see dear reader there is a big difference between making a crowd laugh and trying to sell them on the fact that what they are watching is actually all a big joke.
It seems that we live in a culture where certain people want to bring attention to themselves by any means necessary. The easiest and low-brow way of doing so is going for cheap laughs regardless if they are funny or not. Certain performers, promotions and even fans seem to think they can use the platform of pro wrestling to get themselves over through ‘bad comedy’ and remind everyone that this really is just ‘show business’ and that you shouldn’t seriously invest your time, money or energy into the more ‘serious’ storylines because its really a joke. The need to squeeze in a cheap joke or gimmick in some cases has superseded the fundamental law of drawing money in pro wrestling (as publicly stated by Jerry Jarrett when he ran the Memphis territory)….personal issues draw money. Mick Foley on an old episode of Live Audio Wrestling said a quote along the lines of ‘I drew several dimes doing the comedy stuff’ (more on that later). Like I said earlier I will highlight examples of ‘good’ comedy and the ‘bad’ comedy that needs to go. However before I get into those arguments I have to start with the most poignant, outspoken, angry and boisterous critic of this entire phenomenon in the business….enter Jim Cornette….
“It is a criminal offence in my profession and I’m not going to put up with it”.
This was stated by the man himself on Episode #289 on The Jim Cornette Experience podcast that was based on this very topic. Here are some other paraphrased quotes he dropped in that same episode:
‘Parodies of wrestling matches are porn films parodying famous movies’
‘I’m sick of ‘play-wrestling’ that’ supposed to be silly…it’s all a joke’
‘If you pop a fat joke…people laugh…if it’s about your wife….it ain’t funny’
What Cornette is trying to make within the context of these quotes is just that, context. Comedy is perfectly fine in wrestling if and when you know how to use it. Now let Jim and his former protege Dennis Condrey sum up why this in fact can work. Cornette has stated that one half of the original Midnight Express (Condrey) summed up how comedy should work in wrestling:
‘We Made ’em laugh, then we made ’em mad because we made ’em quit laughing’
I mean that quote is self-explanatory. When we were in school and a kid disrupted the class by actually being funny and the teacher would respond by sending them to the office. Who was the heel in this situation? You guessed right if you said the teacher because they made the kids stop laughing. While Condrey’s statement is brilliant Cornette has another insight on it that goes along the lines of how comedy is meant to mock and incite the heels to build heat in a feud, not tell jokes just for the sake of a cheap pop.
Corny is a bit of a polarizing character, especially to a lot of the younger wrestling fans of today. While at times I think he may be a little bit too critical on the current state of the business, there is an awful lot that I do agree with. While the statements above he made make a whole lot of sense some fans will find fault with it and call him a hypocrite. The reason being is that the managerial character of Jim Cornette was in fact comedic. In a number of territories (including his own Smoky Mountain Wrestling) he had his face smashed into a birthday cake by the baby face tag team. Instead of using ignorant blanket statements like ‘hypocrite’ and actually following old territorial storylines you will see these all happened in the context of building heat to sell tickets and draw money. Cornette says that since his long-winded, obnoxious celebration was ruined he is now mad as all Hell and swears revenge on those who embarrassed him. This is a fine example of turning comedy into violence and helps move a story along.
Another fine example was one used in different territories but most famously used in WCW during 1989 when Steamboat tore the expensive suit off Ric Flair. Flair was so humiliated by being stripped down to his briefs that he came out to their following match with extra intensity to settle the score….and with that series the rest is history. This concept would go to the next level in the summer of 2001 between Steve Austin and Kurt Angle. In the middle of the WCW Invasion storyline the two alpha dogs were about to fight for the title at Summerslam. But the buildup was a bizarre series of events of both Austin and Angle competing for Mr. McMahon’s attention. This would degenerate to competing cowboy hats, insults and guitar duals. What did this have to do with building a title match? Absolutely nothing but both future HOFer’s were so spot-on that you believed it just had to lead to something. That would be their extra intense and violent match at that year’s Summerslam. They would have a not-so-great finish but would meet a month later in Krut’s hometown of Pittsburgh where he would score the big title win in a badly shaken post-9/11 world. All of their craziness was worth it in the buildup because it lead to violence and eventually a triumphant babyface title victory that nobody saw coming at the beginning of the feud. Since it is now understand how comedy leads to violence I would like to show a few examples how comedy helped elevate certain wrestler’s characters and would lead to moving them up the card:
Ontario’s own Anthony Carelli was floundering in WWE after a shock IC Title victory. Then he turned in some of the most absurdly comedic performances in recent memory. He was such a natural doing the comedy stuff that you couldn’t help but like him. He could get injected into any story line and always got a reaction with impeccable timing. A couple of times he found himself in main event situations and was teased some big wins because he made a believable underdog all of a sudden. This is a prime example of using comedy without turning business into a complete joke.
Chris Jericho: WCW
Jericho was made out to be more bland than a stale loaf of white bread when he came into the company. Eventually he turned heel and became the biggest smart-ass on the show. When he started scripting and performing his own promos he eventually built a following. Becoming the man of 1004 holds was the icing on the cake. Some would say his security guard Ralphus enhanced his on-air presence. Jericho became a must-watch performer in and out of the ring on WCW programming mixing comedy with his high-level in-ring skill. But the most significant person this struck a chord with was Vince Russo. Russo was writing for WWF at the time and loved this character so much he lobbied for Jericho to get on Vince’s radar. Vince would eventually become convinced to sign him and the rest as they say is history…
Booker T. Meets Goldust
After headlining against The Rock in 2001 Booker continuously got pushed down the card and was floundering in the spring of 2002. Then he would get paired up backstage with The Bizarre One. This would lead to such comedic skits like meeting up at a 7-Eleven and pretending to have a role in The Scorpion King. This ‘odd-couple’ tag team would eventually get over and have a good feud throughout the summer with the Un-Americans. This comedic run of WCW veterans no doubt would breathe new life into their carers.
Kane was the lifetime employee and could do no wrong. He was a true leader in the locker room but everything for his tag partner Daniel Bryan was a struggle. After getting beat in a matter of seconds for the World Title by Sheamus at that year’s Wrestlemania he appeared to be dead in the water. These two would team up and win the titles in yet another cliched ‘odd-couple wins tag titles’ storyline. However this one was different…the two hated each other and could barely even function as a team that would eventually lead them to hilarious skits of anger management therapy. But the flip side was that they could deliver the goods in the ring…both athletically and comedically. The fans bought in to and Bryan would refute his popular yes chant by decrying “NO!”…it played out beautifully. Bryan has stated that he never would have gotten to the level of winning the big one at WM XXX if he hadn’t gotten over in this tag team first.
Sept. 16, 2012 is the WWE Night Of Champions from Boston. The second match on the card is a tag title defence of Team Hell No vs. R-Truth & Kofi Kingston. These four provide what is quite possibly one of the great comedy matches of all time in front of a red hot Boston crowd who is eating it up….a must watch for comedy in wrestling done correctly
I briefly mentioned Mick earlier and deserves a special mention. He took a very dark and serious character of Mankind and turned him into a loveable doofus and while this would normally be the death of a character it had the opposite effect for Mick as he was just that good at blending comedy into his art at the right times.
After his legendary Hell in a Cell fall he surprisingly foundered before the legend grew. In the fall of 1998 Mankind started to show more and more of a comedic side and it was actually really entertaining. Through his talent and dedication he got more over through his comedy than his legendary fall at the time. This would lead him to his legendary program with The Rock from late 1998 to early 1999. With the exception of the violence getting a little too real at times (Royal Rumble 1999…I’m looking at you) this was a feud for the ages. Both men were on fire on the microphone and had this oddly satisfying chemistry in the ring. But their comedy always led to bigger and more grandiose blowoff matches. They would incorporate comedy in some of them too but always brought it back to the original intensity.
Which brings me to the strange phenomenon of the Rock N’Sock Connection. Are you able to remember any memorable matches they had as a tag team? I didn’t think so…their skits and promos far exceeded their in-ring performances together. The Rock was getting ready to go on a singles run leading up to Wrestlemania and Foley needed to find a way to stay relevant to heal from some of his hardest hitting injuries. Although the run was brief it was memorable and would lead them to both heading the Royal Rumble in 2000. Rock would win the Rumble and Foley would shed the comedy altogether by bringing back the ultra violent Cactus Jack for one more epic run against HHH. While I can’t pinpoint any classic matches they had (they weren’t exactly the second coming of the Midnight Express together)…the promos and vignettes put a smile on my face and Foley fully acknowledges (like in the quote above) that he knew he wasn’t going to be near the main event during this run. However in their later stages Austin and Undertaker went on the shelf with injuries and the two took the reigns and held it together before the big Royal Rumble storyline push. Oh yeah and there was that one infamous RAW segment which will headline the discussion on the bad side of comedy in wrestling…
Halfway through the September 27, 1999 edition of RAW a segment took place that popped a rating unlike anybody had ever seen in the modern cable-tv era. Some would duplicate skits like it and WWE would try it again a couple of times down the road and it never had the same effect. Mankind would produce a segment in the middle of the ring for his partner The Rock known as ‘This Is Your Life”. Not only did the segment run for an eternity but it seems it gained more and more viewers as it ran on. Even though it scored a huge rating I believe it was mostly out of curiosity because of the segment’s length. I also believe that while this skit is remembered fondly by many it lead to future powers that be in the business to think that wrestling needed to be excessively ‘silly’ to draw viewers. I would like to give a specific example of when comedy really hurt a certain feud:
Shane Douglas vs. Billy Kidman: WCW: Summer 2000
After the Bash At The Bach fiasco (that is another blog for another day) Vince Russo went on hiatus and stopped writing WCW TV. Temporarily a committee stepped up believed to be spearheaded by John Laurenitis. For a three-week span they actually put some good television together with fun and compelling storylines. One of them was Billy Kidman and Shane Douglas competing over the attention of Torrie Wilson.
Honestly, who wouldn’t want to fight over Torrie Wilson? It made perfect sense. Douglas was the cocky veteran heel who stole her away and Kidman was the underdog looking to settle the score. Even though this was in the mid-card it had some serious promise for a blowoff match. However shortly thereafter Russo would return to the booker’s chair and torch this angle by splicing in all sorts of what he considered to be ‘comedy’ to spice up the feud. This included having the two fight in a Viagara on a Pole match and producing a truly tasteless and offensive (and trust me dear reader…I don’t offend very easily) video package making fun of a real-life eating disorder Torrie Wilson battled in her high school years. Needless to say this angle was ruined and never totally recovered which brings me to my next point.
Some of the ‘wrestling is silly’ mentality can easily be blamed on the success of the Attitude Era. Even though it was a wonderful time to watch wrestling during high school certain segments in hindsight are quite cringeworthy. Russo and his cronies saw the upswing in popularity of wrestling before he went to WCW. In his mind the comedy and sophomoric silliness were the sole reason for this success. That sort of thing did turn a few heads and put some eyeballs on the product but I believe when he jumped ship he refused to follow the golden rule of contextual comedy must lead to violence and some form of an athletic contest. Russo defected not too long after the surprise smash hit of ‘This Is Your Life’. During his WCW tenure many skits were made to try and reproduce that reaction and it was to no avail.
WCW went under in 2001 after putting too much of this nonsense into their television product without any logic or sense. Somehow he would miraculously resurface in TNA where the same thing would happen we he took over creative. Now it sill happens occasionally in WWE and way too much in AEW. But that is another discussion for another day. Mindless comedy has even been more widespread in certain promotions in Japan where wrestling is branded and marketed as a serious athletic contest. The actions of Kota Ibushi (who is super talented in his own right) wrestling a small child and a blowup doll has driven the likes of Cornette and some of the true fan base absolutely crazy. I truly hope one day the wrestling industry would finally take itself MORE seriously in a big picture scale instead of going for cheap laughs at the expense of the integrity of the sport. It was passable for the Attitude Era, but let’s face it, that shipped has sailed and will never be back so let’s focus are energy on putting the best product possible. That can start by putting comedy in a context to building heat in a major program instead of generating laughs to remind people that its ‘phoney’ so you can sell more of your own merchandise and get more attention on social media.
In closing I want to go beyond wrestling and into the realm of pop-culture to demonstrate the difference between good and bad comedy in the form of parody to reaffirm my point:
Spaceballs: The Movie
Mel Brooks made a mighty fine living directing comedies that were parodies of popular movies. One of my personal favourites is this one that spoofs the Star Wars franchise. However you know this going in and can be entertained when they do break the fourth wall.
One of my favourite scenes is when they get a video cassette of the movie (which isn’t even finished) and they end up at ‘now’….they can’t figure out why they see themselves on the screen and its because they are at that present moment in the movie….it is absurdly hilarious but it has a purpose because it transitions to another point in the plot….
If you watched The Empire Strikes Back or watched John Cena/CM Punk for the title you would likely be pissed if you saw a scene like this one go down. However it is perfect in the context of Spaceballs or Team Hell No in the second match on the show. You know what you are getting with each one in their respective role.
This band has gained a lot of love and respect and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. For those not in the know Steel Panther are a parody of a ‘vintage hair-metal band’. They look like they are from 1986 and all have ‘funny’ names. I checked out their library earlier in the summer and I have to admit these guys can play and produce sonically adequate albums.
However the problem is that each and every song is delivered with a ‘wink and a smile’ that beats you over the head with the fact that this concept is actually just a big joke. Instead of using the natural talents they have the band writes about hair-metal cliches or ‘jokey’ subject matter. But to me most of their lyrics aren’t funny and in some cases are kind of disgusting. After a lot of hype I was really disappointed with this band’s execution and approach. Instead of ‘acting’ like a hair-metal band of yesteryear….put your strengths and talents together and make some kickass music I can invest my time and energy to without being reminded song after song after song that this is all a ‘big joke’.
But who am I to judge? They have been in the music game for a decade and are about half a dozen albums deep. So I guess somebody hasn’t found the ‘joke’ to have gotten old yet. To me this is the musical equivalent of a Douglas/Kidman Viagara On A Pole Match. A joke nobody needed to hear and one very few found funny.
Thank you very much for checking out this edition of The Grand Slam as I refuse to air any more of my dirty laundry in this forum. Nicky Martin will hear from yours truly when the MCW Magazine is back on Youtube in full swing. Have a Magnificent week everybody!