The Big Bang of Kayfabe
By The Andrew Bello Twitter: @WWPNBello
A term in pro wrestling. Kayfabe was the unsaid rule that the wrestlers should stay in character during the show and in public appearances in order to maintain a feeling of reality (albeit suspended) among the fans (Source: UrbanDictionary)
Kayfabe is also used as a term for the alternate reality within which professional wrestling, and its storyline, reside. (Source: me) The first truly substantial “breaking of kayfabe” in modern times happened on May 19, 1996 at Madison Square Garden. Shawn Michaels and Diesel were in the main event. After the match, Razor Ramon came out to the ring and hugged Shawn Michaels. They were both faces (good guys) at the time, and the crowd approved. Shortly after, Triple H, a heel or bad guy, entered the ring and hugged them both, followed by Diesel (also a heel). The crowd was left fairly confused as sworn enemies embraced in the ring. It turned out to be a farewell for Diesel and Razor Ramon as they would be leaving WWE after that night. This glimpse into reality was not recognized by WWE for the better part of the last 20 years. In its fallout, the “Curtain Call,” as it is called, was the first crack in the opening of the professional wrestling’s Pandora’s Box.
On May 27, 1996, Scott Hall made his WCW debut on Monday Nitro. Scott Hall: his birth name. A week prior, wrestling fans had known him as Razor Ramon. At the time, he was best known for being a Scarface-type bad guy and his legendary ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship with Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 10. On that night, he set in motion a series of events that would change the course of the professional wrestling industry forever. The Monday Night Wars, as they are now called, blurred the lines of reality in a variety of ways.
In the roughly 20 years since, the business of professional wrestling has transformed. It has moved farther away from presenting itself as legitimate sport. Sports Entertainment was born, and there is certainly more of an emphasis on the Entertainment aspect. The nature of the performance art of wrestling is such that there is always an element of reality. It is live theater, scripted on-the-fly, involving real people with real athleticism and the risk of real injury. Often, the most compelling stories involve a blurring of the line between reality and storyline. “Kayfabe” has been declared dead by many. I would protest that it is not dead. Rather, I theorize that professional wrestling hit its Big Bang in late 2014, and this is just what the world of wrestling is like in this “new era”.
Reality and storyline have rubbed up one against one another a myriad of times in the history of wrestling. The debut of Scott Hall in WCW in 1996, the New World Order storyline to follow and the very nature of the “Attitude” era created doubt in even the “smartest” of wrestling fans. The internet was in its budding stages, and people were having difficulty deciphering where the line was between what was scripted and what was real.
In March of 2001, the waning days of the era, Shane McMahon appeared on Monday Nitro to announce that he had purchased WCW. This, of course, was only partially true (sort of). The name on the contract did say McMahon. However, unlike the events on my television screen dictated, the name on the contract was indeed, Vincent Kennedy McMahon. While Hulk Hogan famously tweeted the phrase, “work yourself into a shoot, brother”, the WWE had actually “shot themselves into a work”…brother. They utilized their real life purchase of WCW to create a storyline invasion angle. Unfortunately, the invasion angle failed due to lack of firepower from the invading side, but this is one of many examples of this type of reality infusion into the scripted production. Roughly 6 years later, the Chris Benoit double-murder-suicide occurs and suddenly professional wrestlers are on CNN defending the art and a storyline involving the death of Vince McMahon comes to the most-screeching of halts. If it hadn’t been on numerous occasions prior, the “business” had been exposed. Several years later, we would get “worked shoot” promos like CM Punk’s “pipe bomb” that completely shattered the fourth wall, addressed real life issues he had with the company and made the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief much easier. WWE would go on to capitalize on this reality trend by delivering E! Network’s Total Divas among other similar projects.
2014 brought us a cataclysmic shift in how we view wrestling. We now look at 2016 as a crazy year in wrestling, and it’s certainly true in many respects, but 2014 may have changed EVERYTHING. I believe there was actually the perfect cocktail of circumstances that formulated the evolution of wrestling into its current climate. The WWE Network dropped on February 24, 2014 in the United States, which drastically altered how we watch wrestling. In addition, the audience is granted round-the-clock access to their favorite wrestlers via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. “It’s the Reality Era,” as Triple H dubbed it on March 24, 2014 in a segment on Monday Night Raw. I don’t think he knew at the time just how real it would get.
On January 27th of that year, CM Punk left WWE. This could almost be considered the “Scott Hall debuting on Nitro” moment of what I consider the Big Bang of Kayfabe. CM Punk’s departure set in motion a series of events that led to a perfect storm in the industry that resulted in how the audience would absorb the product, not technologically but psychologically. CM Punk would conveniently make an appearance on Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast to take part in a tell-all interview about his departure from the company. I say “conveniently,” because the interview was released just 4 days before the scheduled premiere of the Stone Cold Podcast on the WWE Network. Being a first time attempt for WWE to cash in on the growing podcast trend, the inaugural episode featured a huge first guest for the Texas Rattlesnake: Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Speculations ran rampant across message boards and dirt sheets as to whether Vince would respond to CM Punk’s comments. On December 1, 2014, we got our answer. Vince covers a variety of previously unheard of topics like booking, how the business has affected his family (and vice versa) and addresses even Punk’s comments. Fans on the internet declared kayfabe dead. For many, this was the equivalent of knowing how a magic trick is performed. This led to what I think is professional wrestling’s Big Bang. We now see what’s going on behind the curtain, but unlike any other remotely similar art form, professional wrestling often has even more interesting things going on behind-the-scenes. Plus, there has been a certain freedom granted to the talent to ignore certain discretions during on-air dialogue and off-air comments. Kayfabe isn’t dead; it has evolved. Within a year, WWE would go on to present WWE 24 specials on the Network giving in-depth backstage coverage of WrestleMania, Seth Rollin’s recovery from his devastating knee injury and Daniel Bryan’s retirement, etc.
In the last two years, the professional wrestling industry has thrived in the aftermath. Kayfabe is still alive and well. In fact, it burst into a whole “universe” of different variations of how people are entertained. I’m not even going to try to put the varieties in any kind of order, but this reality era has brought the popularity of promotions outside the WWE like Lucha Underground. LU is more of a sci-fi drama than a wrestling show. It features dragons, powerful ancient relics, ghosts, undercover police and an organized criminal group behind it all with a potential apocalyptic outcome in the balance. It’s all pretty bonkers. This also led to wrestlers pushing the envelope on the independent scene to make bigger names for themselves by utilizing insider terms on podcasts and social media. They are winking at the fact that their audience, even among the general population of wrestling fans, are truly “smart” to the business. In the Kayfabe’s hay day, they used the term “mark” for those that were unaware the outcome was predetermined. “Mark” is also the term conmen uses for their victims, and that’s not a coincidence. Fans that love wrestling to the point that they sought out independent wrestling are usually in on the con. They just want the show. Groups like the Bullet Club have made themselves famous by utilizing patented gestures and maneuvers of popular wrestlers and factions of the Attitude Era. Joey Ryan has used a combination of comedy, social media and his genitals to go viral on a few occasions and bring more awareness to his brand. Then, you have the fringes of madness in TNA with Broken Matt Hardy which began as a plotline within the confines of an otherwise traditional wrestling television show and has since taken over the entire program. Broken Matt has presented us indescribably over-the-top characters with his Broken Brilliance. With the help of Brother Nero (formerly known as Jeff Hardy), Vanguard 1(a drone), Queen Rebecca (his wife), King Maxel (his 18-month-old son) and Senor Benjamin (his gardener), he has bestowed upon us an offshoot of professional wrestling that’s…well….Wonderful!
In terms of WWE, they have several layers to their “kayfabe” as well. The wrestling in WWE still occasionally resides within the world of “traditional kayfabe”, the “Santa’s still real” sort. Then, they have segments and storylines that push the boundaries, or as “smart” fans (aka smarks) call them: worked shoots. The most famous in the modern era was, of course, the aforementioned CM Punk’s pipe bomb promo. This sort of segues into what I would call “house show kayfabe” where the wrestlers often take liberties with their characters. They can say things to a house show audience that they can’t say to the TV audience, and they often make references to things we know to be true only through the venue of social media.
Social media is a platform used by nearly all wrestlers in a variety of ways. Some stay in character, others completely out of character. Earlier this year, Lana and Rusev were broken up on television, but the storyline was (mercifully) ended when Lana posted a picture on Instagram of the two and the engagement ring she had just received from him. Some, like John Cena and Luke Harper, use their Instagram and Twitter, respectively, to apparently vent their madness, as their feeds read like the diaries of madmen. This expands even further into the world of podcasts, where most talent appear out of character, but still must present themselves well as WWE employees. Occasionally, we even get to hear from supremely influential people in the business like Vince McMahon, Triple H and John Cena which provides previously unheard of insight. This continues into real life itself where we can, through fans’ social media and Reddit, discover how these performers act when they think no one is watching. Most are genuinely good people; others not so much.
The internet itself presents a whole slew of options for fans in terms of professional wrestling news and analysis. If you want a more serious, journalistic tone and all the backstage scoops, you might want to check out Pro Wrestling Torch, Pro Wrestling Sheets or The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. You can also get ridiculous analysis from sources like WhatCulture. There are seemingly infinite degrees of variance in between that, that can be found all over the internet, including here, RIGHT HERE ON…TheWWPN.com! (Cheap pop!)
At the end of the day, it’s really all about us, the consumer. How willing are we to suspend our disbelief? How many mental gymnastics are we willing to endure in order to suspend that disbelief? Do we keep it consistent, or switch up our efforts for different mediums? It’s our show. We get to determine how we navigate this virtual universe of predetermined combat sport. The Big Bang of Kayfabe resulted in the scattering of characters, stories and feuds all across the void left by the exposure of the business. Kayfabe isn’t dead; it merely evolved with its audience. We, as fans, can live within the “Santa’s still real” sort of kayfabe, if we should so choose. We can also agonize over every single detail of the inner workings of the business, as I tend to do at times. Either way, or somewhere in the middle, we get to control the level of kayfabe we want, and I think that’s what’s best for (the) business, but I implore you: choose wisely.
Andrew Bello is the creator and host of the NeXT Level Wrestling Podcast a podcast on the Wrestling World Podcast Network. Please check out TheWWPN.com for more articles and podcasts.