(wanted to get this in before next monday session)
Wrestling fans know the product is fake. Even when it is made to appear real, it is still fake. Parts and lines are ad-libbed, but it's still fake. Feuds, alliances, and romances as they play out in the ring are not replicas of the friendships, hatreds, and relationships that go on outside it. "Shoot" moments or bits like Bret Hart spitting on Vince or Brock Lesnar flicking off the crowd are so very very rare that they almost aren't even worth mentioning for cultural analysis; they're the blooper reel. There is never somebody in the back room having a fit shouting, "dammit! that's not in the script!" It's a story, it's made-up, go home.
But somewhere along the line, things got a bit more interesting. The promo videos got more serious, the attacks looked more sincere, and life began to imitate art. Laypeople and die-hard fans would look at some part of wrestling, look again, think about it for a bit, and then ask somebody, "Was that real?"
No, it still wasn't, but the fact that people were asking signified a big change to how things were being done.
When I first tried looking at this a few years ago, I placed the seed of this movement with Mick Foley and other ECW players. One of the most memorable stories Mick had from his first autobiography was his discussion of his first heel turn as an "anti-hardcore, anti-ECW" wrestler. During his first video explanation of why he turned heel, he recalled a sign in the audience that said "Cane Dewey [Foley's son]". Foley would go on: "Cane Dewey? Cane DEWEY?! Dewey is a 5 year old boy, you sick sons of bitches! What kind of depravity have you sunk to!? Why am I living my life trying to entertain pieces of crap like you?!"
The clincher for me was that the fan who made the sign later came up to Mick and apologized, hoping that this would amend things! It had worked! Foley performed his character so well and true to life that the fan base really thought they had driven him over the edge. Foley made a habit of bringing his personal life into the ring (and still does), whether it was acting as a husband and father or simply discussing what had happened to him in town the other night. This, I argued, demolished the idea of wrestlers as strictly personas, eroded the idea of the wrestling ring as a cloistered area whose ongoings are separate from society, and thus forced the business to change.
After looking at Andy Kaufmann for another time, I'm saying I was wrong. He started it. Hell, he lived for it. His apparent love was to get people squirmish and confused, beginning to ask themselves whether what they were seeing was real. Moreover, he never really wanted people to have that "gotcha!" moment, when they realized it was a trick. This was blatantly evident from his stunt on Fridays, insisting to the crowd that the botched skit was not an elaborate hoax, but a real gaffe. Carrey plays it as if Kaufmann is almost scorned by the executive's move to expose the joke. Seeing the rest of Kaufmann's antics, I think that was true to character.
So the point: as odd as it sounds I think Kaufmann paved the way for a new era of wrestling drama. Stories or aspects that exist from outside the ring come to play out in the ring. Freddy Blassie was in a similar vein (hence the two's friendship I think), but his was a natural progression for wrestling: a guy who was naturally a quick-witted heel was playing/being a quick-witted heel. Kaufmann kick-started the change: a guy who only showed his onstage personality brought it to the wrestling ring then took it everywhere else. I do not think without Kaufmann and Lawler that we would see bits like Macho Man and Elizabeth's real and ring romance, the Edge, Lita, and Matt feud, or things like Ric Flair's road rage or Goldberg's contract disputes even being mentioned on air.
This change has been often interesting, and almost natural, as the internet, cable, 24 hour news, national audiences, and other "new media" have almost forced wrestling to become something beyond a show in an arena one to two nights a week. Take a look at the web page of WWE or TNA and look at how many portions of it reinforce a person's character. It's interesting to think that Kaufmann helped it along almost 10-20 years before any of those became household standards.
But I wonder if that really is an improvement. A lot of the "real" angles don't work out well. Goldberg fought Chris Jehrico in the WWE because of a backstage fight they'd had from their WCW days. It was a very forgettable feud. The Eddie Guerrero angles after he died ranged from bizarre to disgusting. When Vito fought in a dress, he was ordered to wear dresses out in public to make the character seem more real. Matt Hardy's career is nearly dead again. To look at it from a dramatic standpoint, it takes away from the poetic justice of it because there are so many shades of gray involved. From an entertainment standpoint: fans may really not care about which wrestler doesn't like another wrestler.
So I leave as a question for the reader, if this is the change he brought about, should we be thanking Kaufman or wishing he'd stuck with Taxi?