Thursday, December 11, 2014

Why the Future of Professional Wrestling is the Death of Kayfabe

It's a Friday night in Oakland, California. The Metro Operahouse is packed to the brim with over eight hundred people, all shoving their way towards the stage. A metal band screams and wails on guitars. And in the center of all of this madness, underneath a cloud of smoke of indeterminate substance, sits a beat up ring. Inside that ring, Scorpion from Mortal Kombat lifts up a woman in a Ms. Marvel costume and slams her to the mat. The crowd starts chanting, "This is real!"

The company is known as Hoodslam, and they're the fastest growing and most consistently popular independent wrestling company in Northern California. They like to brag that they've brought more fans to their shows than the number two televised wrestling company in the nation. And they've done it by accepting one simple fact: Kayfabe is dead.

Now, not everyone who reads this blog is a professional wrestling fan, and I can hear you all out there: "What in the hell is kayfabe? Did you make that word up?" Kayfabe is a term that originated in the place where professional wrestling as we know it now began: traveling carnivals. These carnivals would take their strong men and put them into wrestling contests as they traveled the country. Rather than have them consistently trying to beat the hell out of each other, and maybe actually injuring themselves, the carnival folks figured out that they could put on an entertaining show of pretending to fight, with a predetermined outcome. The word "kayfabe" came into being as a way to describe that the fights were predetermined. No one really knows where the word itself came from, although it's been suggested that it's a bastardization of the pig latin version of "be fake."

This was a deep, dark secret, and as professional wrestling began to get bigger and bigger, the secret spread. It was believed that the business of professional wrestling would be destroyed if the greater public knew that it was "fake," even as its popularity and reach - through the power of television - grew. In his book, Have a Nice Day, Mick Foley describes wrestling schools that would deliberately break legs of potential students so that they would go home and tell their friends the sport was real.

While discerning audiences began to figure out the reality behind the stories they'd all been watching pretty quickly as soon as wrestling was becoming more widespread, it wasn't until 1989 that it was officially admitted anywhere. Vince McMahon, owner of the then-WWF, was called to the stand to testify in a trial about steriods that nearly ripped his company apart. Since it's a crime to lie in court, he was forced to admit before the world that the sport was "fake."

And it was the best thing that could've ever happened for the sport of professional wrestling.

Wrestling may be staged, but there's nothing fake about what these guys put their bodies through each and every night for our entertainment. It's a performance art, like ballet, or the opera that usually takes place where Hoodslam plies their trade. Just like we appreciate the fights on a show like Arrow, we appreciate the choreography and stunt work that goes into a professional wrestling match. And we're able to enjoy that much more because we know that the men in front of us are actors, working for our entertainment.

Since the inevitable death of kayfabe, the major wrestling organizations like WWE and TNA have been trying to pretend it never happened. They portray their shows as "realistically" as possible, with most of the writing attempting to create believable characters and events happening in real time. (Except for the rare exception, like a certain seven foot tall undead wizard.)

And for the last two decades, they've been plateauing or declining in popularity.

The other night, I watched the newest addition to televised wrestling - Lucha Underground. In between their in-ring action and matches, they had the usual pretaped segments, just like the WWE. But unlike the WWE, their pretaped segments were shot as if they were part of a professional television show. There was no attempt to make it appear like it was "really happening." And it made the show so much better. The cartoonish storylines that are the hallmark of wrestling suddenly snapped into much greater focus, and felt at home in a show that wasn't even trying to be real.

Hoodslam, and other companies like Chikara, take this one step further. There's no John Cenas or Randy Ortons - instead the ring is populated with sentient ant colonies, marching band drummers, video game characters, superheroes, and a drug sniffing mafioso bunny. (No, really.) Last week, this clip suddenly exploded in popularity across the internet.

Why? Because this is what people want from professional wrestling. Not the die-hard fans, maybe, but the mainstream people who remember the Ultimate Warriors and Stone Cold Steve Austins of their youth. The WWE hasn't been able to connect to audiences today because audiences today want to feel like their smarter than the show they're watching. They don't want to be tricked, they want to be able to laugh along with the fun. And a company like Hoodslam delivers that.

To find out more, I went to one of my favorite sources. Meet Doc Atrocity:

In addition to being a multi-decade veteran of the world of professional wrestling, he's also a time traveling megalomaniac from the future, and a former mayor of Hoodslam. He's currently trying to turn over a new leaf and be more human, which he's doing by wearing a mask made of human skin. It's not going well.

As one of the creative forces behind Hoodslam, I asked the good Doctor what he thought about the world of wrestling and kayfabe. And this is what he said:

"My feelings on the subject of Kayfabe is that it's a lot like stage magic. One hundred years ago, stage magicians would pull rabbits out of hats and try to convince their audience that they possessed magical powers to summon rodents from head wear. Over time, audiences became smarter. They figured out the rabbit-in-the-hat trick and garnered that the magicians did not, in fact, possess any supernatural powers. The audience was "smartened up" and the stage magic had no choice to evolve, to recognize it's audience's awareness of sleight of hand and illusion. It adapted.
Modern stage magic acknowledges illusion over sorcery. It doesn't try to talk down to it's audience and treat them like children. It recognizes that the audience has become more sophisticated.
Pro Wrestling needs to follow stage magic's lead and adapt. It needs to acknowledge that it's audience isn't made up entirely of naive children and hicks. Pro wrestling insists on having it's cake and eating it to. It wants it's audience to jump back and forth from "real sport" to "staged entertainment" depending on what suits it's needs. "Take us seriously as athletes, but when we act like clowns and bufoons don't hold it against us when we want to be taken seriously again."
Pro Wrestling's inate sense of machismo and confused sense of pride keeps it from simply giving it's own audience the wink and smile it wants to let them know that we're all in on the joke, and that we the performers are not looking down at them as simple "marks and rubes."
Vince McMahon, Triple H, Bischoff, etc. all have reputations for mean-spirited attitudes towards peers and a particular contempt for their audience and business demographic.
This new mentality of evolving, adapting or outright ignoring Kayfabe has created a mutual understanding between audience and performer that both parties can engage completely, without shame or feelings of being "a mark" or being looked down at for finding enjoyment in a truly primal form of entertainment.
There will always be secrets behind the curtain. There will always be ways to engage the audience, make them say "How did they do that?" and even momentarily suspend their disbelief and become part of an emotionally resonating performance of the age-old battle between good and evil.
Every artform must evolve with it's audience."

I couldn't have said it better.

Mike Fatum is the Editor in Chief and Podcast Co-host for the Ace of Geeks, and first fell in love with wrestling when he saw a real, live vampire on RAW.

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