Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Reality's just where I hide from my dreams

I find it funny that a class on pro wrestling made me an Andy Kaufman fan. And that being an Andy Kaufman fan seems to be helping me become a wrestling fan. Sort of. Because on the whole, while Kaufman was at the heart of that great wrestling story line, he was wrestling in a pre Vince Jr bubble. Vince's bottom line is entertainment, Kaufman's – reality. We've talked a bit about how Kaufman's overlapping careers gave his wrestling persona credibility. And have seen similar results with Hulk Hogan, who's 'shameless' self promotion and movies have given Hogan life in a non-wrestling context. I argue that both these men possess an captivating authenticity derived primarily from cross-media success, which is contrary to Vince's apparent desire for control. He can build a circus within the tents of arena's and television cameras, but without the carnie code where's the magic?

The code wrestlers protected for so long, that we laugh at now, served the same purpose as Kaufman continually pushing the envelope. If you never really know one way or the other, you can still believe in Santa Claus. The word 'carnie' also came up often in “Drawing Heat.” The Wildman's ragtag band may not have kept tight lips, but then they didn't need to – hitting small towns once or twice a year, audiences never had time to notice discrepancies or question their own faith.

I really liked watching the old wrestling tapes. Even the boring ones. Gorgeous George is hilarious. Andre the Giant? He's just... larger than life. The newer stuff I still like not so much. Sorry I keep saying that. I can see points where I could start to be pulled in. But it's too hard for me to suspend disbelief. Or maybe it's that I don't see quite enough for me to believe in once I'm done with the suspending. Except Lawler and Blassie? OMG awesome. It's admittedly problematic that I lack good test cases for first exposure in ring or out, but there still seems to be something about certain people who yeah, are 'great wrestlers,' but are simultaneously not of the wrestling world but rather exist somewhere between the wrestling community and everything else.


Sam Ford said...

Tess, I'm enjoying your returning account to your personal reactions to the wrestling texts as the semester goes along. I think it is one of the strengths of looking at wrestling chronologically, and I hope you continue to return to this as we cover the WWE era of professional wrestling.

Certainly, there is a sentimentality lost when you leave behind the ragtag crew of The Wildman or the charm of "protecting the business." But I think some of these elements are still very much a part of wrestling.

As for your point, I agree that I find even the boring older stuff fascinating, especially to look back on now and compare it to the slicker WWE product. The fact that WWE is one of the active forces in restoring and bringing back a lot of this old footage adds yet another layer of complication.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tess that Jerry Lawler is a fascinating example of how someone protected the business in the 80s.

What's changed about wrestling now, it seems, is that prior to the internet, it sort of went like this: The wrestlers know it's prearranged, the fans know it's prearranged, but the fans don't know HOW it's prearranged and the wrestlers don't know how much or little the fans know. It was sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" relationship.

Lawler was brilliant in participating in this dynamic as a regional spokesperson. As a babyface, Lawler was incredibly realistic, even when he yelled and hollered, he never seemed to be out of this world. But he also possessed the capacity to explain things that happened for backstage reasons in kayfabe terms (i.e. why is that every single time the World Champion comes to town, he never beats Jerry but Jerry never wins the belt? EVERY TIME?). And if he didn't think he *could* explain it in kayfabe terms, he didn't try.

He tells an interesting story in his autobiography of how Terry Funk cut a promo against him using electrical tape as a bandage. Rather than try to "bluff" his audience, Lawler rolled with it and told his fans "I sure hope I don't get injured in Texas if they bandage you up with electrical tape!!"

Another example was Lawler being a face in Memphis in 1993 while being a heel in the WWF. After the angle in which he attacked Bret Hart, he had to go out as a babyface and explain to his audience why he'd just been a total bastard on WWF TV. In 5-10 minutes, he related his actions to defending the honour of his crown in Memphis and that his old Memphis heel persona had helped him win over the area in the first place. By the end of the interview, the complete non-logic of Lawler being a polite man on Memphis TV and a wisecracking jerk on WWF TV was sorted out.

In these cases, Lawler was like the wrestling equivalent of a parent who keeps coming up with creative explanations as to why there really is a Santa Claus, even after the child presents numerous pieces of evidence there isn't. The child accepts every explanation because s/he WANTS to believe in Santa, no matter how flimsy the logic, if the parent can give the argument with conviction, s/he'll believe (to a certain age anyway!).

It's hard to say if today, the fans are less interested in suspending disbelief or the wrestlers are less interested in explaining away the "logic gaps" but something has changed. I don't think we've gone to a completely other extreme, though, as Vince Russo's attempts to book storylines where the wrestlers "talk about how fake this is while we do it" tended to go over like farts in church. But the feeling is definitely not the same. But then, this may not be a bad thing, just a different thing.

Sam Ford said...

Bryce, you make several key points here. First, I think Lawler's time in USWA as a face, while acting as a heel on WWE, is one of the most fascinating times in the business, and I was able to see more of it because I grew up in the USWA viewing area. What was even more significant perhaps is that WWE stars would come to Memphis as heels, and Vince McMahon even appeared on Memphis TV doing interviews as a heel, in a precursor to "Mr. McMahon" the modern persona.

I think that they key difference here is that writers have sometimes confused the fans' acceptance of the fact that the plot was staged, and to acknowledge that openly, with their desire for a show that seems real. What I mean is that fans still want a logical story that makes sense, and a lot of fans get up in the air about wrestlers telling each other secrets they don't want anyone to know in front of television cameras, for instance, which detracts from the text itself, while fans love the incorporation of rumored "real-life" incidents being incorporated into the text, because it makes it feel EVEN MORE real.

Sam Ford said...

By the way, Bryce, you should read my piece "Pinning Down Fan Inovlvement," as I look at the very same points you are making here. Some of the fans explain to me that the reason they get actively involved in the show, or at least the reason they justify their involvement, is that, while they know that it is fake, many of the people there think it's real, so they want to keep up the suspension of disbelief.

Anonymous said...

I will definitely check that out. I also enjoyed reading in Lawler's autobiography the explanation of how he had reverse vascectomy surgery filmed to coincide with being "injured" by Austin Idol and Tommy Rich. It added reality to the angle, even if as a "non-mark" you knew there was a perfectly logical reason behind the surgery that had nothing to do with wrestling.

I just like the Lawler vs. Idol/Rich angle period. One of my all time faves.