Monday, January 11, 2016

I Can Take Anything Seriously

Shoot Interviews and the Emerging Oral History of American Professional Wrestling
Keenan Salla, Department of History, IUPUI
        Before the 1990s, American professional wrestling had by and large managed to maintain the fictional reality of “kayfabe” in the eyes of the public. With its origins in the carnival lingo of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, kayfabe was and is the term for the framework of logic and storytelling under which professional wrestling operates. The idea that the matches are legitimate athletic performances and that the portrayed feuds within the sport are real are part of the kayfabe reality. Although fans had been more or less clued into the illegitimacy of wrestling as a pure sport since the early 20th century, wrestlers and promoters were known to become extremely defensive when questioned about the sport’s legitimacy. Most notably reporter John Stossel was assaulted by wrestler David Schultz on December 28, 1984 while attempting to question the wrestler about the sport’s authenticity. While the audience and the non-viewing public had questioned, derided or played along with kayfabe to varying degrees throughout the 20th century, the business itself did not completely acknowledge the predetermined nature of its matches until Vince McMahon Jr. sought to escape the rules and regulations of state athletic commissions in the 1980s[1].  Even then the fiction was largely maintained by the fact that the World Wrestling Entertainment marketed to children, rather than adults.
        This would change dramatically during the 1991 steroid trial that saw wrestling personalities such as Vince McMahon Jr. and Hulk Hogan take the stand and admit to the predetermined nature of wrestling on the national stage. Occurring in the early days of the 24 hour cable news cycle, the trial brought widespread attention to the real-life side of the wrestling business for the first time. While McMahon had been referring to his business as sports entertainment as opposed to professional wrestling for most of the past decade, the WWE still went to great lengths to protect kayfabe. In a notable example, WWE fired wrestlers “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and The Iron Sheik in 1987 after they were pulled over with drugs in their vehicle, not because of the legal or drug problems, but because a “babyface” (heroic wrestler) and “heel” (villainous wrestler) we caught traveling together despite being kayfabe enemies. After the steroid trial, nearly allpretense of the kayfabe reality was dropped outside of the arena. While wrestlers would still generally travel in character with the appropriate heel or babyface companions, interviews with the media grew increasingly more candid.
        Coinciding with the weakening of kayfabe was the rise of connected and engaged national professional wrestling fandom. Prior to the Internet and the rise of the national promotions, wrestling had been largely regionally focused under the National Wrestling Alliance territory system. As most of these regional promotions were only broadcast locally and never recorded for commercial release, fans that were interested in seeing matches from other promotions had to set up tape trading schemes to view them. Initially the community centered around wrestling newsletters and magazines such as Wrestling Observer and Pro Wrestling Illustrated. However, this growing and increasingly connected network of fans would eventually support not only wrestling events themselves, but also conventions and demand for the creation of recorded “shoot interviews.”
Form and organization of oral history in the wrestling community
The shoot interview is a long-form, candid interview with an employee of the wrestling business. While wrestlers themselves are the most common subjects of these interviews, referees, managers, promoters and bookers have also been interviewed. The term “shoot” is wrestling lingo for a real event, essentially the opposite of the term kayfabe. A “shoot match” is a legitimate grappling contest, while a “shoot promo” is a short interview given as part of the wrestling performance that airs real backstage grievances. Shoot interviews are unique among sports and theatre media because they transgress against the concept of kayfabe. As there is no other entertainment in which the performers so consistently maintain their characters these interviews break down barriers and imply an intimacy that is non-existent in a typical celebrity interview. Because of this intimacy, shoot interviews tend to be much more in depth and personal than the short form interviews common in mainstream news and entertainment media. While wrestlers had previously spoken somewhat candidly in the media about the business and would continue to, these mainstream interviews are not nearly as long, in-depth or insightful as the interviews carried out by and for wrestling fans. Because of the typical conducting fan’s in-depth knowledge of the business the interviews skip over the common questions asked by the mainstream media to discuss issues of interest to the most informed fans. The vital roles of both the conductors and wrestlers in shoot interviews gives both of those actors in the business an important opportunity to add their voices to the historical narrative of professional wrestling. This makes the shoot interview and similar media an invaluable biographical and historical resource for those interested in the lives of specific performers and the wider the business of professional wrestling.
The first shoot interview was performed by wrestler Eddie Gilbert and conducted by lawyer and wrestling fan Bob Barnett in 1993. Gilbert had been active in the business as both a wrestler and booker[2] since 1979, working in many of the nation’s largest promotions. Titled “Looking for Mr. Gilbert” the nearly two hour long interview covers the wrestler’s health, how and why he entered the wrestling business, his opinions of other wrestlers and promoters in the business, favorite performances, backstage pranks and general gossip[3]. The interview would act as a template in the future, with many of the same lines of questioning recurring in interviews up to the present day. For long form interviews questioning often begins with the wrestler’s health. While this may be considered a matter of politeness in other interviews, with wrestlers this often begins a long description of physical injuries either currently suffered or recently recovered from.  In many cases it also elicits a description of the wrestler’s recent struggles with drug and alcohol abuse. Following the discussion of their health, focus generally moves toward their life story, specifically noting the influences that drew them towards professional wrestling.  After this the order of questioning varies but often covers topics such as their work in the ring, life on the road, backstage politics and their relationships with other wrestlers and promoters.
Even with the loosening of adherence to kayfabe Gilbert’s interview was still somewhat controversial in its time and some promoters would refuse to work with wrestlers that broke kayfabe. Because of this most of the wrestlers interviewed in the early 1990s had either already been rejected by the large promotions or were comfortable with their places on the independent circuit. However, by the early 2000s the informed fan community had grown greatly throughinternet message boards, forums and websites. With demand for the interviews increasing and the corresponding profit to be made, even the WWE would adopt the format for certain productions.
Almost completely by accident the typical setup and execution of the shoot interview corresponds to many, but certainly not all, of the Oral History Association’s “Principles and Best Practices[4]” As the interviews are commonly a business transaction with the wrestler receiving either a flat fee or a percentage of the video’s sales, the interviews do not conform to the principles of distribution held by the association. Many recent interviews are only available for purchase from their producers, however dozens have become freely available on video sharing sites like YouTube. Despite their commercial motivations, conductors tend to be devoted fans themselves and as such are highly informed and motivated to produce new and interesting content.
The interviews are often set up through prior correspondence although sometimes they occur on short notice when an interested fan encounters a willing wrestler at an event or convention. The interviews are commonly conducted in quiet hotel rooms near an event that the wrestler was traveling to in any case, with the interviewer meeting them in transit. The interviews are performed according to the availability of the wrestler and the wrestlers are usually given as much time as they like to discuss a given topic, with most interviews ranging from one to three hours in duration. Questions tend to be either open-ended to draw out the stories that thewrestler considers important or very specific to cover topics of interest to conductor or the fan community. As the conductors are rarely interested in damaging their reputations amongst potential interviewees, discussion is rarely directed into areas that the wrestler does not feel comfortable with.  While some interviews may delve into salacious gossip that may damage the reputations of other performers, wrestlers are often wary of disparaging those they may have to work with in the future. This careful and comprehensive conduct of the interviews makes them viable for use as historical sources. However, researchers should keep in mind that the shoot interview offers only that individual’s perspective on events and that different wrestlers discussing the same events can often reach different conclusions. Shoot interviews should be considered authoritative only as the opinion and perspective of the wrestler in question although events corroborated by a number of different unrelated wrestlers can be considered to be accurate for the most part.
The shoot interview has also had a significant impact on the other types of media produced by and for wrestlers and wrestling fans. Short-form shoot interviews offer a mixture of the long format and the typical new interview. Generally focused on current events in the business, these segments are the backbone of internet wrestling news outlets such as WrestletalkTV and What Culture Wrestling. Internet podcasts have also become a valuable source of the oral history of wrestling.  In addition to a number of fan podcasts that discuss the past and present state of the business, wrestling personalities, lead by the manager/booker/promoter Jim Cornette and wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, were some of the earliest and most successful celebrity podcast creators. While these podcasts can vary greatly in content depending on the desires of their producers, candid one-on-one interviews with other wrestling personalities make up the majority of the format. Wrestler’s podcasts in particular are notable as historical sources because the content and character of the programs lies in the hands of the wrestlers themselves, offering an unmatched perspective on in-ring performance, the daily life of the professional wrestler and the backstage events in the business.
Besides their value as historical sources themselves, these interviews also evidence a rich oral tradition shared by the wrestling community among performer and fan alike. Many wrestlers maintain that one of the ways they learned the most about the business and performance of wrestling was traveling via car from show to show with more experienced wrestlers, demonstrating a vital role for this tradition in the business. In addition to this informal process of instruction, second and third hand stories focusing on the some of the outsized personalities and humorous or harrowing events in the business are often shared by wrestlers. Nearly mythic stories of Andre the Giant’s drinking and eating habits and Tonga 'Uli'uli Fifita’s[5], real-life toughness and indomitable fighting skill are shared even by younger wrestlers that never had a chance to work or travel with the men. The sexual reputations of certain wrestlers and female valets are frequently discussed although often circumspectly. Among contemporary wrestlers the best example is a story, or rather combination of stories, known as “The Plane Ride from Hell.”
The plane ride in question occurred on May 5, 2002. Rather than being presented as a single story, aspects of the plane ride have been recounted from the perspectives of a number of different actors. Events on the flight included an airplane aisle shoot wrestling match between veteran grappler “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig and a young Brock Lesnar that lead to Henning’s firing weeks later, Dustin “Goldust” Runnels serenading his ex-wife Terri Runnels, road agent Michael “P.S.” Hayes punching John “Bradshaw” Layfield and Sean “X-Pac” Waltman shaving off Hayes’ mullet in retaliation for his obnoxious behavior while the agent was asleep. With tales of legitimate physical confrontation, social embarrassment and practical jokes gone too far, the story of the plane ride includes many of the common elements of wrestling stories all contained in a single event.  As travelling stories are often a major component of wrestling interviews, it is unsurprising that telling and retelling the events on the infamous plane ride has become commonplace for those involved.
Even with all the historical value apparent in shoot interviews and similar media, they have gone virtually untouched in academia. While the ethnographic method and its accompanying interviews have been used to great effect by many researchers such as Jim Freedman and Sharon Mazer, these commercially produced interviews have been disregarded as a potential source. While the integral role of the fandom has been acknowledged in the academic interpretation of professional wrestling since the 1970s, only recently has the agency and influence of the wrestlers themselves on the form begun to be widely understood and discussed. This makes the interviews an unmatched and untapped resource for cultural and labor histories of the sport. Besides informing these fields of study interviews often discuss the backstage politics and financial troubles of many wrestling promotions, particularly when the interviewed wrestler worked as a booker or agent for the promotion and as such are immensely valuable in company histories. Wrestlers’ opinions on the current and past states of in-ring performance are also frequently discussed, making the interviews a fascinating resource for those interested in the interpretation of matches in sport and performance history. To illustrate exactly how these interviews act as historical sources the latter half of this essay will discuss a variety of specific interviews and how those interviews can shape and inform future scholarship.
Examples of Professional Wrestling Oral History
        Our first example will be Ring of Honor Production’s “Straight Shootin’ with Jim Cornette and Percy Pringle III[6],” conducted on October 3, 2005.  Produced by the mid-sized wrestling promotion Ring of Honor, the “Straight Shootin’” series would see interviews with many of the veterans of the business that passed through the promotion. Many would be conducted by Cornette, who worked for the promotion as a booker. One of the most enduring and well-known out-of-the-ring performers in the sport, Cornette had acted as a manager, agent, booker, commentator and promoter in a career spanning five decades and several wrestling promotions. Although best known as the tennis racket wielding, cowardly, “mama’s boy” manager for the tag team Midnight Express in the 1980s and 90s Cornette would later become known as “The King of the Shoot Interview” for his forthright and unfettered interview style, never shying away from giving his honest, and often abrasive, opinion about other performers in the business. This reputation lead to Cornette being highly sought after for interviews and Question and Answer sessions at fan conventions. He decided to capitalize on his talents in the form of The Jim Cornette Experience, one of the first wrestling podcasts hosted by someone in the wrestling business. While Cornette would contribute to and comment on many of the stories in the interview, it largely focuses on Percy Pringle III. 
        Percy Pringle III was born William Alvin Moody and was best known as Paul Bearer, the manager for supernaturally themed WWE wrestlers the Undertaker and Kane. Like Cornette, Pringle had also had a long career in the business. Beginning as a wrestler himself in the late 1970s he moved to managing in the southeastern wrestling promotions under the name Percival Pringle III in the early 1980s. Pringle reduced his involvement in the business to support his young children in the early 1980s by becoming a mortician but returned to the business full time by 1984. In the early 1990s he began depicting the role of Paul Bearer for the WWE, which would be his most successful and enduring character.
        Over the course of the three hour interview Cornette and Pringle discuss a wide variety of topics. As Pringle had already performed a pair of interviews for the promotion where he spoke in depth about his childhood, his entry into the wrestling business and course of his career, this interview takes the form of a conversation between two old friends rather than a tightly scripted and conducted experience. The conversation begins on a lighter note with a discussion of “ribs,” or practical jokes among the wrestlers backstage. After mentioning that the contemporary environment of the business doesn’t allow for these practical jokes in the way that it used to, Cornette and Percy share some of their favorites. These include retellings of Sean Waltman’s defecations on or in the property of widely disliked female performers Sunny and Sable and the never before told story of the Undertaker’s irrational disgust towards cucumbers and the ribs born from that. Following this, Cornette and Pringle move on to share their opinions of underappreciated talents in the business such as announcer Howard Finkel and wrestler Kane (Glen Jacobs) and overrated talents such as WWE television producer Kevin Dunn and female wrestler Sable. As a historic source much of the valuable material here is subtextual, as Cornette and Pringle describe both the brotherhood and acrimony that goes on backstage, providing insight into the backstage culture of the business.
        Another interesting aspect of the interview that is unusual for the medium is Pringle’s ability to drop easily in and out of his Paul Bearer character. While shoot interviews are generally focused on reality as opposed to kayfabe, here Pringle as Paul Bearer gives us the untold story of how the Undertaker and Kane’s mother seduced the fictional mortician who is the father of both wrestlers in kayfabe. As the story would be considered too adult to be told on WWE television programs, this type of unsanctioned interview is one of the few places such storytelling can occur.
        From this point the interview starts to focus more directly on Pringle himself as he discusses his struggles with obesity, his poor backstage treatment and his wife’s battle with cancer. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the interview for those interested in the operations of the business is the discussion of the difficulties of working in the “Gorilla Position.” The Gorilla Position, so named for legendary wrestler, agent and commentator Gorilla Monsoon is a spot just inside the curtains of the entrance ramp where a road agent or booker is generally stationed and given the responsibility of organizing the wrestlers before they make their entrances. The position is vitally important to ensuring the smooth flow of live events, making sure that the wrestlers are present, informed of their responsibilities in the show and performing their entrances at precisely the correct time. Both Pringle and Cornette had the responsibility of the position at various points in their careers, and both found it incredibly stressful. These discussions on the often overlooked backstage work of professional wrestling make this interview a valuable resource for those interested in the works of the manager, booker or agent.         
*        *        *        *
        Brian Kendrick and Paul London have proven to be extremely popular shoot interview subjects among the wrestling fan community. While conductors often seek out the most famous or deeply involved wrestlers in the business, the popularity of London and Kendrick’s interviews demonstrate that fans are interested in every level of the business. With largely parallel career paths, London and Kendrick have both performed in the WWE but never rose out of the mid-card[7], briefly reigning together as tag-team champions. Most of their careers have been spent on the North American independent circuit and in international promotions. Having grown comfortable and successful within their niche, London and Kendrick are known for their outspoken criticism of the WWE training system and the culture of the promotion, while most young wrestlers are afraid to criticise the promotion out of fear of losing their chance at stardom.
        In this interview filmed in 2010 for the wrestling merchandise website the tag team discusses coming up in the business in the late 1990s post-territory era and their experiences learning the dual arts of wrestling and self-promotion. Titled “Brian Kendrick and Paul London’s Excellent Adventure,” the interview discusses their careers from their training at the Texas Wrestling Academy up through the present day. As a source for the labor history of professional wrestling, training and career path stories are invaluable and demonstrate significant changes in the way wrestlers have learned the trade since the days of the territory system. For  cultural history one of most interesting topics is that of “Wrestler’s Court,” or the informal tribunal that would take place in the WWE locker room to settle disputes among the workers, generally presided over by veteran The Undertaker. As social history the interview provides the most extensive discussion of the much rumored love triangle between Paul London, valet Ashley Massaro and wrestler Matt Hardy. In addition to the typical discussion of ribs, traveling and their opinions on wrestlers and the current state of the business, these specific topics make this interview of interest to any researcher seeking information about the modern era of professional wrestling.
*        *        *        *
        Jake “The Snake” Roberts and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper were some of the most famous wrestlers of the 1980s. Piper worked in a number of territories throughout the 70s and 80s, eventually landing in the WWF and become one of the promotion’s top heel characters, frequently feuding against the likes of Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage. A long time host of the kayfabe interview segment Piper’s Pit on WWE programming, Piper was known for his promo and interview skills. After retiring from the WWE Piper would start his own wrestling podcast named after his kayfabe interview segment. Roberts’ wrestling career followed much the same path, only a few years behind Piper’s progression. At the end of Roberts’ career he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. While many contemporary wrestlers were heavy users of cocaine, prescription painkillers and alcohol, Roberts’ crack cocaine habit became infamous in the business and eventually lead to his release by the WWE and an effective end to his wrestling career in the mid 1990s. Although the story of his addiction and recovery was later told in the documentary The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, his 2014 appearance on the sixth episode of the Piper’s Pit[8] podcast would be one of the first times he spoke at length about his abusive childhood and how it contributed to his struggles with substance abuse.
        Roberts’ father was wrestler Grizzly Smith, and was fairly well known in the late 1960s in the NWA. Roberts states that Smith was forced to marry his mother when she was only 12 after he raped her while dating Roberts’ maternal grandmother, resulting in Jake’s conception. Roberts also states that Smith insisted on the reality of professional wrestling even in the privacy of his own home, going so far as to wear a neck brace to convince his children. This severely traumatized Roberts, and after he understood the reality of wrestling he always heavily resented his father for convincing him that he was undergoing terrible pain and suffering on a nightly basis. He blames his father’s actions for both his own substance abuse issues and his sister’s mental illness.
        The short lives of wrestlers have recently come under a great deal of scrutiny by fans and journalists. While the tragic story of the Von Erich family is one of the most famous and commonly discussed examples, many wrestlers struggle with untreated mental illness, steroid abuse, illegal and prescription drug abuse and alcohol abuse. Statistics websitefivethirtyeight demonstrated[9] that over one third of Wrestlemania VI’s card had died by 2014, a mortality rate significantly higher than the public or other professional athletes. However, study of exactly why and how so many wrestlers have died at a young age has only just begun, most notably in David Shoemaker’s The Squared Circle[10], which was born from his Grantland column Dead Wrestler of the Week. While Shoemaker provides descriptions of the troubled lives of many performers, he does not delve into the qualities of professional wrestling that give rise to such a high mortality rate. Future scholarship will find interviews such as Roberts’ on Piper’s Pit invaluable when attempting to determine the cause and effects of this phenomenon.
*        *        *        *
        Although certainly inspired by the shoot interview, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s commentary[11] on his Wrestlemania X-7 (2001) match with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is strictly a monologue. The first WWE star to produce his own podcast, Austin has found tremendous success within the genre and revitalized his career after his in-ring work was cut short by a series of severe neck injuries. As the focus of Austin’s interviews with other wrestlers tend towards questions of in-ring action and ring psychology[12], it was unsurprising when his fans asked him via social media to provide live commentary for one of his most famous matches.
        The Rock/Austin match is widely considered the peak of the WWE’s “Attitude Era,” or the period at the turn of the 21st century when competition between the WWE, WCW and ECW propelled professional wrestling back into the popular culture spotlight. The Rock and Austin were unquestionably the biggest stars of their era and their match at the seventeenth Wrestlemania was eagerly awaited by fans. In Austin’s commentary he explains the decision making process that lead to the match, the choices made by the wrestlers during the match and provides his opinions of the match and its aftermath. As Austin was responsible for calling the match, he is uniquely qualified to explain the process to the fan community. His commentary provides a unique insight into how a wrestling match is planned, constructed and executed in the ring. One of the most famous elements of the match is that while it was billed and performed as a face vs. face match, Austin made an unexpected “heel turn[13]” at the match’s conclusion. He did this by accepting the aid of the hated Mr. McMahon, Vince McMahon’s onscreen evil authoritarian persona, which he had feuded with extensively over the preceding years. In the match commentary Austin expresses deep regret for this turn, which would lead to a dead-end storyline that drew little fan attention. With its extensive explanation of ring psychology, match booking and reflection on the impact of the match, Austin’s commentary is an excellent resource for those interested in the interpretation and performance history of professional wrestling matches.

        This essay has demonstrated the massive and untapped potential of wrestling’s oral history as a primary source in academic study of the sport. From cultural history, to labor history, to company history to performance studies, almost any school of thought or perspective on the business would benefit greatly by referring to these sources as both inspiration and information. While these interviews cannot and should not be considered absolutely authoritative due to the nature of memory and the interests of the interviewed, at the very least they provide perspective on events directly from those who were involved or witnessed the occurrence. Perhaps the most important aspect of these interviews is that they give voice to two communities that have been inadequately examined by academia: wrestling fans and wrestlers themselves.

[1] Hornbaker, Tim. Capitol Revolution: The Rise of the McMahon Wrestling Empire. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 2015. p.86
[2] A booker determines the outcome and finishes of matches for the promoter. They also often work with wrestlers to plan parts of the match.
[3]  "Looking for Mr. Gilbert." YouTube. 1993. Accessed December 14, 2015.
[4]  "Principles and Best Practices." Oral History Association. October 1, 2009. Accessed December 20, 2015.
[5] Known as Haku in the WWE and Meng in World Championship Wrestling.
[6] Straight Shootin' with Jim Cornette and Percy Pringle III. Directed by Jim Cornette. Performed by Percy Pringle III. United States: Ring of Honor Productions, 2005. Film.
[7] A wrestler’s status is generally referred to by where they would perform on a show. A “Mid-card” wrestler generally performs in the middle of the show and is a considered a significant personality, but not part of the main event tier of performers.
[8]  Piper, Roddy. "Jake the Snake Roberts." In Piper's Pit. Soundcloud. January 1, 2014.
[9]  Morris, Benjamin. "Are Pro Wrestlers Dying at an Unusual Rate?" DataLab. April 21, 2014. Accessed December 20, 2015.
[10] Shoemaker, David. The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling. New York City, New York: Gotham, 2014.
[11]  Austin, Steve. "Wrestlemania 17 - Stone Cold vs. The Rock." In Steve Austin Show Unleashed. PodcastOne. December 1, 2014.
[12] Ring psychology is the technique by which wrestlers tell the story of the match in the ring. Trying to exploit an opponent’s kayfabe weakness or avoid their strengths are examples of ring psychology.
[13] When a wrestler switches from being a face to a heel, usually by betrayal.

No comments:

Post a Comment