Friday, June 22, 2012
CONFESSIONS OF A PRO WRESTLING FAN: MY THOUGHTS AND REACTIONS TO PRO WRESTLING, OVER THE YEARS!
I've started watching pro wrestling again lately. I know what some of you are thinking already. You're thinking, "Wait a minute, you're the blogger who strives for a more intellectual perspective on entertainment, and now you're saying, you watch, of all things, pro wrestling?!" Well, yeah, I do. Not nearly as much as I used to, and it's not exactly something I often bring up in my Ingmar Bergman fan club meetings, but yes, from time to time, I've sporadically watched professional wrestling (or as the WWE insists on calling it, "Sports Entertainment") Recently, the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which is a group of independently run TV stations, that aren't affiliated with any of the Big 4, has started showing on weekends, a one-hour broadcast of Ring of Honor Wrestling, or ROH, a major wrestling promotion run mainly on the East Coast, which they recently bought and had mainly only aired on HDNet until now. I haven't had cable for awhile now, and frankly, even when WWE Smackdown was on UPN or CW, especially if it was on Thursday nights, I never watched it. (I'm not watching it over an NBC Thursday Night.) In recent years, and it's been years, I had been way out-of-touch with wrestling, only watching once in a while if I happen to run into on TV, the rare times that that occurred, and I certainly don't care as much as when I was watching it religiously like a soap opera.
I started watching when I was a kid, as most fans do nowadays. I'll start with the obvious, yes I know it's fake. Fake's a lousy word for it, I usually prefer staged, but that's really not accurate either. (You want to fall off a ladder about ten feet and see if the pain feels fake?) How about this, I'm not an idiot, I know that 99.9% of the outcomes in pro wrestling are predetermined. I didn't always realize that. When I was real young, I didn't quite get it immediately, but even after I did, I didn't particularly care. It's original appeal to me was never based in reality to begin with. It's a world where giants can crush large men with one hand and where tiny lucha libra fighters can fly through the air like gymnasts. A world where a little guy can win and some incredible athleticism can be found in the most charismatic and unusual of characters, and I'm not just talking gimmicks, the personalities in wrestling, especially when they weren't unrealistic, and seemed very much like an exaggerated but believable person who could feasibly in another life, just be some guy you know or see walking around the neighborhood, or better yet, be able to idolize as somebody who you wished that you were. That last one is probably where I would come in. I wasn't the most athletic kid growing up, I was somewhat eccentric, but not in a way that would be recognized as cool. My favorite wrestler, who remains so to this day, Shawn Michaels, wasn't the biggest guy, but he was very athletic, very funny, charming, a ladies' man, although not a reliable one (His nickname was "The Heartbreak Kid") but he had a lot of heart in the ring, and he won a lot of matches, that he, in the real world, probably wouldn't have won, but I didn't care that much. (And apparently in reality, when Michaels did actually get in a fight outside the ring, he always got his ass kicked.)
These are some of my experiences watching pro wrestling, at least the beginning ones and how it originally appealed to me. I can go into numerous storylines and inside baseball, and I might a little bit later to put certain things into context, but that was the originals reactions I got when I first started watching regularly, this would have been around Wrestlemania XII, so early '96, which people familiar with wrestling will note as pretty good time to get into wrestling as the Monday Night Wars were soon to be at their highest peak, and I think many would argue this era would be one of the best creatively and in terms of quality of matches and storylines. I wasn't old enough to realize that at the time, but that's what I was reacting too. That's the part of pro wrestling that really does make me wonder about it's ultimate place in the entertainment world. Especially when I was younger, as I watched pro wrestling, I had vicious shifts in my emotions, similar to that I would compare to, playing a video game, and getting really into it, particularly a violent one. I don't think the violence is at all comparable, for one thing, video games are far more graphic, but the emotional shifts I felt from hatred or despise for one guy or that I could have during a match, to absolute euphoria in the next match or guy, sometimes if it's done really well, I can have all those emotions for each men, and done in the same match. (It has to be a really good match though to have such a drastic double face/heel turn, but I've seen and felt it happen) Throw in the women, or as the WWE insists on calling them "Divas," for some stupid reason, and throw in some sophmoric comedy bits as well, essentially, wrestling is a variety show, just a far more visceral one than normal. I think there's some good and bad to this, but I can't recall too many instances where I found my natural instincts being as ultra-aggresive as they were, than when I was really into pro wrestling. I must clarify this again, to say that, I was young. A pre-teen going on teenager, when I already had drastic and constant emotional shifts going on within me, and while I looked at pro wrestling as a release at the time, I now wonder if it actually was fueling some rage I had. I was young, made fun of by others a lot, didn't have a whole lot friends... even when I go back and watch some old matches now on youtube, in my mind, I can look at a match analytically, but I can get caught up into it. I don't always know how good a thing that is, this endorphin charge I feel/felt, but whatever it is, that's actually the effect that quality wrestling's is trying to create in you. To be able to get so drastically invested in something that they even tell you is entertainment, is truly an art.
In fact, that is art. It's what movies and TV shows and plays of all kinds do, give us something that isn't real, that's made up, but manage to make us care about it. This all brings me to the writing of a pro wrestling show. It fascinates me, 'cause it's a unique form of writing, or booking, as it's sometimes called. I mentioned the soap opera aspects to it, and the WWE likes it when it's compared to that, 'cause they do like to utilize the long-form narrative, and the cliffhanger endings that makes us want to tune in next week and see what happened or what's going to happen, but there's a lot more that goes into it. Not the least of which is the actual backstage drama, that really can be like a soap opera, that the bookers have to circumnavigate, so that any real-life shit doesn't get in the way of the program, but I'll get to some of that in a second, let me give you a simple example. Let's say, there's a guy who they're trying to put over, either as a heel (bad guy) or a face (good guy), and they're gonna give him the belt, the main title for that company, and your plans are to keep it on him for many months, let's say, 8 or 9, which is a pretty significant reign nowadays. So they write out this long storyline where, they're gonna build him up, as the Champion, to setup him, eventually losing it, making that a giant event that he actually, finally lost, and like, a week after he gets the title, he takes a bad bump in training or something, and completely blows out his knee, needs surgery, can't wrestle for a year, at least. You're the booker, what do you do? This is an interesting conundrum, first of all, 'cause it's very likely to happen, and second of all, it shows that while you have to not only care about a longterm storyline going over, you also have to continually be on your toes, and write show-by-show, every week, often having to completely improvise things, that could completely blow all those plans out of the water, and come up with something else, and quick. There's a term in writing, of any kind, where you have to learn to "kill your babies," which is a morbid term, but basically it means, learn how to destroy something you love, 'cause the more time you spend writing and developing a rich and deep character, the harder it comes to make them change, as a writer you get attached to that character, or even as a fan, of a longterm story arc like a drama series or a comedy series, and even in pro wrestling, you tend to wish characters don't change to much, 'cause you like who they are, but characters need to change, in some way, and sometimes that means, anything from, making them do something they at one point, never thought they'd do, or just ending them altogether sometimes. It often helps to start anew with something even better, other times, you're just throwing crap on the wall and seeing what sticks. Pro wrestling is the same way. Now, caring about this sausage-making process, that somewhat of a new phenomenon, that started, well, it started originally when Vince McMahon, the WWE Owner, started calling themselves "Sports Entertainment," basically admitting what everyone already knew, was that pro wrestling was fake, but really, when the internet came about, that's when a lot of these wrestling news websites and news magazines, really started getting those behind-the-scenes details, or trying to anyway, to not only figure out, what was gonna happen, ahead of time, but it also tried to figure out, why certain things happened, the way they did, previous. It's a little Monday morning quarterbacking, but it's also to piece together, what the writers have to work with. I mentioned the injury angle before, and that can be part of it, if somebody's healing from an injury still, they might not ask se person to do much for a little while, but maybe make an appearance but don't get involved in the action, or maybe do an interview or a promo or a shoot segment, (or a fake shoot segment, or whatever they are.) This also came ahead after a notorious incident in '97 now known as the Montreal Screwjob. I'm not gonna go into all the details, but there's documentaries made about this incident, and like real documentaries that have won awards on it, that go into all the backstage drama that led to it, so I'm not gonna go into that, but the match was Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, for the title, and match ended in a way that, Bret wasn't told, and didn't agree to it ending that way, and it's basically the 0.1% I was discussing earlier, but it didn't take long, especially with the days of the internet, when word got out, that something weird happened there, and for a lot of the things it did, what it also inadvertantly did, (as well as a couple other, unusual and famous, let's say unplanned moments) was it brought about a lot more interest in the writing details of how the show was made. It interested me, among others. "If this is all planned out, then how the hell does something like that happen?"; that was the big obvious question. So, to figure out the answer, you had to figure out, how it's supposed to work. Learning the inside baseball essentially. It actually was one of the first forms of television writing I ever did eventually study and analyze, and that's essentially how I started to look at pro wrestling, through this sort of prism. Here's the talent on the roster, here's what they can and can't do, and in some cases, what they are and aren't willing to do, and start trying to put them in places for great wrestling matches, give them good believable gimmicks, if they need them, or a manager if they aren't great at talking, or if there's some real beefs or dislike between a couple people backstage, or how to build up a match, so that when the showdown climaxes, it's really something special and everybody's interested in seeing what's gonna happen.
That's how pro wrestling, when done well should seem like to me. Honestly, I mentioned before that I only started watching again recently, 'cause honestly, a lot of it's sucked for awhile lately. The ratings signify that too, they've been consistently going down, still higher than a lot of things, but going down nonetheless. There's a few reasons for that. The popularity of MMA is one, the lack of a legitimate WWE competition is another, lack of territorial wrestling leagues anymore where wrestlers can train and learn their crafts/skill better, bad writing, bad gimmicks, a lot of non-wrestlers who look the part, trying to wrestle, that's especially so with the women wrestling, although there's some exceptions to that. There's a few exceptions to all of these actually, but there's been a more-than-noticeable decline in quality for some time. I stopped watching, although I'd occasionally try to keep up with the storylines online, to see if/when they come up with something new or interesting, occasionally something would happen. I remember earlier last year, I remember looking up who won at Wrestlemania that year, 'cause honestly, I didn't know. I looked it up, and I realized that I didn't know half the names on the thing. I thought for a moment at how that was weird, but then I went on along my day, but once again, I found myself getting a little more into it, and it's the internet. Pretty much every match, it seems like I can think of , is on youtube now, and since I never did order any of the pay-per-views, if I have some time to kill, I'll look up a historic match or two, and watch what I missed the first time around. Or sometimes I'll listen to a shoot interview where a wrestling personality will start spilling the beans about what happened behind-the-scenes during some of these tumultuous moments, or depending on who and what they know, give their opinions about people and explain why certain things happened the way they did back then. Some are better than others, I'd always start with Jim Cornette's he's usually got something good to say. (A lot of people seem to have something bad to say about a writer/booker named Vince Russo and blame him for a lot of wrestling's problems nowadays) Some aren't that interesting however. Actually come to think of it, I find that the most interesting part about pro wrestling now, is the searching and scouring the internet to find out what happened behind-the-scenes and look through all the backstage politics that are involved, and I will only occasionally watch it on TV, if I come across it, and there's nothing else on. I haven't become immune, I can be caught up by a good wrestling match, or two, but it's not a must-watch event anymore. It sounds weird that it ever was now that I think about it, but at one point, it really was, and not just 'cause I was a fan, it really was. I remember seeing nothing but Stone Cold Steve Austin T-shirts worn all around town for awhile there. (And a lot of ECW t-shirts when I went back East to New Jersey during the summers.) It could be again, but it's not right now, my old hobby of finding out how it's made is far more interesting to me than the product they actually produce.
I still find a good wrestling match to be a work of art in of itself, and it takes real talent to produce something like that. Maybe it's ultimate appeal to me is something that I eventually outgrew, and look back on fondly, like many people my age I imagine, and now it just feels like one more reality show that isn't real. I think that could change again and become as good as it once was. I don't know if I'd be that interested in it if that were the case anymore. I don't flat-out reject it as entertainment and, I think there's certain value is studying it, and learning the dynamics of it, but it'd have to be really good to get me super-excited about watching it again. It's the same with any soap opera or long-running show that loses it's viewers does really. It is just like any other TV show really, and that's the bottom line.... (I thought about saying the line, but I'm just gonna leave it at that.)