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ONLINE ONSLAUGHT
Dumb Ain't cOOl
October 8, 2004

by Rick Scaia
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com

 

"I mean, what nobody seems to understand about this business is that it has nothing to do with wrestling.  It's entertainment.  If you can wrestle, that's just icing on the cake.  Well, I mean, you DO have to be able to wrestle...  but what I'm saying is it's character driven -- NOT gimmick driven -- but character driven, and there's a major difference."
        
-- Raven, shortly before tearing your Humble
               Webmaster a new asshole during an interview

 
Raven spoke those words back in 2000, back when I was still pretending to be on the fringes of the wrestling business and could land such interviews. And he was talking specifically about Brian Pillman when he spoke them. And yet, here in the Year of Our Lord 2004, I find myself flashing back to this snippet of conversation when I try to put a singular 

explanation to exactly what it is that has happened to my beloved pro wrestling lately.

Because for all my free-form rambling about how this is all Randy Orton's fault and how pregnancy and weddings suck ass and how dumb it is to be killing Paul Bearer and crashing hearses, I've got this big ol' brain on me, and it likes to Get To The Bottom Of Things.

And although I've had an inkling that Raven's morsel of wisdom would be at the core of this column MONTHS ago (when I first contemplated the issue), it was really tonight's SD! that drove things home and inspired me to figure this out and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) once and for all.  For one, you had the major league debut of Carlito Cool (yet another of 2004's cookie-cutter, one-dimensional GIMMICKS, except in this case, displaying enough depth and charisma that he evolved into a CHARCTER). And for another, well, I'm a big enough asshole to take a jab at JBL and note that for as good a character as he's become, he's violating the Wisdom of Raven at a very base level (because goddammit, if what was happening in that boring-ass brawl with Bob Holly was "wrestling," then I have no idea how I ever became a fan)!

So with the evidence in front of me, and with some general ideas percolating in my Wrestling Brain for the better part of a month, it finally dawned on me how I could sum up the ills of wrestling in one, concise idea: that the calendar may say 2004, but WWE is trying to treat us like it's 1984.

Seriously. Think about it; it's a pervasive and all-encompassing aspect to the WWE product. No longer spurred by competition (sorry, TNA, you don't count until you can put out a product that appeals to the general wrestling populace and NOT just to some miniscule percentage of NASCAR-fed southerners), WWE doesn't seem to have any real motivation to be creative, original, or edgy. So they tend towards playing it safe, and easy, and dumb.

It's like they are trying to put the Attitude Genie back in its bottle.

And it manifests itself in a number of ways, too.  I'm not NEARLY a big enough dick to complain as loudly as others have about the last two years of the Fed's push to implement the "WWE style" of safe in-ring work. But I'm a big enough dick to point out that, yes, it's noticeable that the company is getting away from anything resembling the 1997-2001 highspot-laden, 100 miles per hour type of matches that made the careers of guys like Mick Foley, HHH, Edge, Christian, and the Hardys. I'm glad that guys are working safer, and I'm plenty aware the good matches (AWESOME matches, ones that I saved on video and still enjoy to this day) existed before 1997, so it's not a huge deal.  But this is also a case where things like Hell in the Cell and Ladder Matches are largely getting by past glories; because the gimmicks might still get busted out in the present day, but from past training, us fans go into them expecting one thing, and almost always getting another. And maybe it's only really the difference between a Match of the Year Video Keeper and something that's only a Really Good Match, but until such time as WWE gets us fully trained to forget the Attitude Era, it's one aspect in which the company's attempted roll-back to simpler times causes fans to feel a sense of disappointment.

Another area where I'm massively disappointed and think all manner of bitching, moaning, and complaining is justified is in WWE's push to eliminate anything even remotely smart or honest in their internet and publications business.  There was a time, really not more than 18 months ago, when a fan might reasonably visit WWE.com to be enlightened and given something to think about.  The Kevin Kelly Era of "Byte This" was generally a worthwhile show, the weekly Ross Report supplied fans with the web's only true First Generation Insider News, and articles were ALL written with a behind-the-scenes slant. Today, WWE has turned the website into Just Another Part of the Show; and while it's good and cool that they are using it as an outlet for more footage and clips and historical matches and stuff, it sucks that they didn't retain at least SOME area where fans looking for a bit of honesty might get their information straight from the horse's mouth. 

I think you could reasonably declare WWE's issues with the internet to be a psychosis or a phobia; the company seems to fear and dread any kind of honest discussion, and compulsively hides behind the "if you're not in the business, you don't deserve to criticize us or even TALK about us so shut up and watch TV and quit trying to think, suckers" rationalization to eradicate the smart-fan mindset.  They do this now because they can; during the late 90s, however, they realized the VALUE of being honest with fans (even had Vince McMahon cutting the "won't insult your intelligence" promo) and in an attempt to win the war with WCW, they opened up this can of worms themselves. Now that there is no competition, us worms who like to talk about wrestling in a slightly more-in-depth way than spouting off "Orton RULZ, dood" and high-fiving our body-spray wearing, frosted-hair douchebag of a friend are being told to kindly go fuck ourselves.  And WWE can conduct its business as they please, I guess; but I can conduct mine as *I* please, too, and I think it's completely sac-less of them to be so scared of a bit of genuine discussion and honesty to the point that high level backstage discussions are spent telling workers how to avoid leaking news to the internet when they SHOULD be putting their energy into making sure the product doesn't blow. And as per a previous column/rant on this issue, mostly I just don't understand how WWE could mindlessly cut off a potential revenue stream (they COULD make money of smart fans, if only they had the balls and the creativity to do something like a company-funded and -sanctioned version of OO -- nobody, NObody, is suggesting that they let ignoramuses and stop-watch-using goons what populate most websites run the show, but there ARE smart AND responsible ways to do insider talk) just because they are afraid of a little criticism.

The same goes for the Fed's magazine business.  Here, it started significantly longer ago than 18 months, but it was no less precipitous a dip when RAW Magazine went from being practically a must-read item every month (and not JUST because of the half-naked diva pictures, though those never hurt) to every bit as stultifyingly dumb a read as its counterpart, WWE Magazine. I mean, those things are great if you're a kid, maybe.  I remember reading WWF Magazine when I was in grade school, and have probably a good 5 or 6 years worth of them in a box somewhere at my mom's to prove it.  But even when I was a kid, something in me realized that the WWF Magazine was pretty freaking lame, and started buying the PWI magazines by the time I was 12 or so.  And after flirting with pertinence (and after once again getting me back on subscriber lists for a couple years, even!), WWE's publications are right back where they started: appealing to nobody except the absolute dumbest or most naive.

And these aren't even the really CORE problems.  I mean, like I said above, there were good matches in the 80s, and they didn't involve flying through tables. And the dumbening of WWE's internet and publications presence is horribly frustrating, but it also really only hits at a secondary level of fandom (you have to be a big enough fan that you don't just like wrestling, you like READING about wrestling, and when even WWE's own publications only circulate about 200,000 copies a month, as compared to weekly viewers on the magnitude of tens of millions, this really ISN'T a key market for them).

So I'll try to leave those minor quibbles behind, and get to the point...  cuz what's important is this issue of Gimmick vs. Character, and how it manifests itself in the on-screen product. And specifically, it's a slide back to the 80s and early-90s mentality that "gimmick" is enough to get by that's hamstringing WWE creatively these days.

Nobody will deny that every good character needs a hook, but in 2004, it seems like WWE has forgotten that once that hook is exhausted, there was to be some depth for fans to much care about a performer. I can't remember the last year in which the list of debuting characters has been so one-dimensional. And instead of them being "archetypical," they're basically only stereotypical, too.  Predictable, boring, dumb.  Just like the 1980s.

Now, I don't want to shit too much on the era that made me a fan (and if you're roughly my contemporaries, that you probably remember fondly, too), but when you think back, you pretty much HAVE to grant that it's a good thing you were a kid in 1988, cuz otherwise you would NEVER have been watching that crap.  For every Jake the Snake Roberts, you had a dozen Hillbilly Jims.  For every relatively effective button-pushing gimmick like the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff, you had embarrassing nonsense like "Saba Simba."  For every attempt to spoonfeed fans a new character that worked, you STILL had massive revolts even from the weak-minded unwashed masses (what nobody remembers is that the Honkytonk Man made his debut on TV as a BABYFACE, and with the endorsement of HULK HOGAN, but was so roundly booed that they had to change gears and pretend like that never happened).

As you moved into the 90s, WWE's lust for cartoony gimmicks expanded into wrestling plumbers (TL Hopper), wrestling monks (Friar Ferguson), wrestling clowns (Doink), wrestling hockey players (forget his name, dammit), and even -- in the height of pure missingthepointery -- a WRESTLING WRESTLER ("the Pug," who did Kurt Angle's amateur wrestler GIMMICK year before Kurt himself showed up and used it to build his CHARACTER).

And then, wrestling grew up.  The Monday Night Wars meant the WWF had to quit being so bloody-mindedly stubborn about THEIR vision for what was "good wrestling," and start producing something that would appeal to fans and get them to quit watching that other show.  Attitude was born, clowns were killed, Steve Austin was allowed to ditch the "Ringmaster" GIMMICK and develop his "Stone Cold" CHARACTER, and we have spent the better part of the last 7 years enjoying performers who maybe didn't debut as really deep and complex characters but who quickly developed into them thanks to quality storytelling and better performances.

But it doesn't seem like this maturation has stuck. Because we sit here today with WWE ejaculating characters that we might have expected 10 or 20 years ago, but which I thought we were past here in 2004.  This year's debuts?  It's stuff like "Mordecai," whose lone personality trait was apparently that he like dipping his head in bleach, because other than that, he was nothing but a GIMMICK (he hated sinners).  And like Simon Dean, whose vignettes are SO well-produced that they are just as predictable and fast-forward-able as a REAL commercial (his gimmick is he hates fat people).  On the horizon, we've got Mohammed Hassan, who might get over in that Iron Sheik sort of "press the hot button" way, but who is also about as lazy and easy a gimmick (he's a Muslim!) as you can imagine.  And do you know how close we came to having Hirohito's grandson (who I'm sure would have hated all WWII vets as his primary hook) as a gimmick, instead of Kenzo Suzuki?

Apparently, gone are the days of letting a guy come in and use some part of his own personality to get over with fans.  In 2004, there have only been two cases of guys DITCHING lame gimmicks to be more "real" when debuting with WWE (Tyson Tomko and Luther Reigns).  And while only one of them (Luther) has really shown the spark of becoming a CHARACTER, this still doesn't mean that I want the core of simple realism to become the exception rather than the rule.

And with the over-powering gimmickry taking over, it's ALSO worth noting that the only two gimmicks that I think will have a non-zero shelf-life are also the only two gimmicks that have been backed up with enough storytelling and have been performed with enough gusto that they are CHARACTERS.

One is obviously Eugene.  What could have just been The Wrestling Retard gimmick (and which would probably have been shipped back to OVW even quicker than Mordecai was) was given real meat thanks to interactions with William Regal, and later with Triple H. And it also helps IMMENSELY that Nick Dinsmore is just damned fine at pretending to be retarded; it's one thing to go out and seem natural when you're portraying a character named "Carlito Cool," it's another entirely to create the seamless illusion that Dinsmore has with "Eugene."  And without that, the character would have flopped months ago.

And as noted above, I think the other gimmick-cum-character is Carlito Cool, who frankly impressed the hell out of me last night. Yeah, he's doing Razor Ramon (right down to the apple spit replacing the toothpick toss), but he's doing it well enough that when you watch (or least, when I did) I wasn't thinking in terms of him "doing" anything.  He was just coming off really naturally, not as an affected gimmick.  I get the impression that maybe I'm in the minority on this one, but I say "Yay" for Carlito getting the US Title and for -- in one night -- showing more natural personality than Randy Orton has shown in three months.

Which brings me to my last point on the gimmick vs. character discussion... because this isn't JUST about debuting superstars and how they've taken a turn for the dumb in 2004 as part of WWE's Turn Back The Clock Campaign.  Like I said at the outset, this is an all-pervasive aspect to the product, and it's a HUGE part of what's wrong at the main event level.

I'll just gloss over SD! and JBL (I made my joke; JBL has made me eat crow by becoming a tolerable TV personality, but when his Match Ceiling is "Average," I just don't see enough of a WRESTLER there to back up the character)...  because if you've been reading along with the Rick for the last few months, you know it's RAW and Randy Orton that have been sanding my vagina with regularity. And it's because of this Character Issue.

Quick: in one sentence, who is Randy Orton?

Because no, Randy is not a "gimmick" in the sense that Eugene is (though both appear to have the same basic level of intelligence!), but he's also NOT anything resembling a character.  His "legend killer" shtick sort of set the tone for Randall being a Disrespectful, Pompous Punk Kid...  but there are only so many legends to be killed, and now that he's trying it as a fan favorite, that potential character element has to be toned down. What we're left with is just a beer-fruiting, line-fumbling, chin-locking shell of a dude.

If we leave our preset notion of what is a "wrestling gimmick," and just grant that the core issue Raven was getting at is the distinction between building up a mere facade (doing things on a surface level) and creating a real, complex persona, then WWE's treatment of Orton fits in perfect with this notion of gimmick vs. character.  Week after week, they try to do glossy, surface-y things to build up Orton; and week after week, fans might give him the kneejerk reaction to those isolated moments (does Orton get cheered when he makes these appearances? Sure, but it's VERY telling that when he's NOT on-screen, fans will chant for somebody ELSE to come out to interrupt or make a save or whatever, and have never ONCE been caught begging for "Randy, Randy, Randy" when there are "HBK, HBK, HBK" and "Benoit, Benoit, Benoit" chants to be had).  But I honestly don't think Orton's even one of RAW's top three babyfaces today even with the massive promotional effort.

Exactly ONCE has Orton been put in a spot where he was able to convince us that there's something going on inside that head of his besides an internal dialogue of "Look, me posing now".  Of course, that was last week and the Flair promo.  Over those 10 minutes, Orton was speaking with conviction, and seemed like he might be a real guy; he's a guy who was a Wrestling Dork when he was a kid, prancing around in his bathrobe pretending to be Ric Flair.  Perfectly sensible for a kid from a wrestling family, but a really nice little touch of realism. Orton's emulation of Flair is something that probably struck a chord with a lot of fans.  For that one week, we understood a LITTLE bit of what Randall was all about.

So of course, this week, we're back to square one.  Orton has no personality of his own, so they send him out to do Stone Cold Steve Austin's shtick. Orton, who is ostensibly feuding with Ric Flair and who has designs beyond that of eventually getting his hands on HHH and the World Title, clears the ring of 15 b-teamers because SOMEbody thought, "Hey, fans will HAVE to believe Orton kicks ass if he can RKO the Coach!"...  how fucking lazy is that?

But it also fits in with WWE's overall plan with Orton. Nothing the kid has done since July has built on the previous week, really.  A randomly generated title shot here, getting kicked out of Evolution there, it's all just a stream of one-off moments, and although even *I* was enthusiastically contemplating the many cool possibilities of the Demise of Evolution, we got NONE of that.  Nothing.  No over-arching story, no real reason to give a shit about any of it.

It starts with not being given a reason to give a shit about Orton. This is also part of the reason why, in my mind, HHH should be the babyface in the equation (Orton leads Evolution against its master), because he IS a character, he HAS spent years convincing us of what he's about, and even if what he's about is being a singularly world-title-hungry asshole, that CAN be vaguely respectable.  Give fans the chance, and they'd cheer for HHH without having to be goosed with fabricated "moments."

And I guess I can't escape this without also noting that there IS a Performance Aspect to all this.  Flair promo and one or two glimmers of conviction during the Foley Feud aside, Orton really hasn't been the sharpest promo guy in the world. Mayhap it's telling that when he gets good material, that's when he delivers it well... but to really click with fans, you need to be "on" all the time, just like Eugene.  Thrice a year doesn't cut the mustard if you're trying to craft a complete character for yourself.

But performance aside, this really is a problem of WWE's mindset...  rather than paying attention to details and telling stories that matter and even listening to how fans are reacting, they are back to that Tunnel Vision of the pre-Nitro era.  They don't have to take a Big Picture View of anything, cuz they are the only game in town, and the McMahons and their minions can sit there and tell themselves "We know how to run a wrestling company, so we'll just do this our way," and it'll all be a self-fulfilling prophecy as long as nobody minds declining ratings and box office numbers.  Their solution to RAW's Randy Orton problem is NOT "Stop, think, and improve our storytelling to specifically suit Orton's -- and the brand's -- needs."  It's "run Randall out there to do the lazy, surface-y babyface crap that has worked for us in the past, and fans will cheer for him because we're WWE dammit, and they'll do as we say." 

It's wrong, I say it's part of this whole Character Issue, and I think it's one of the clearest signs that WWE's desire to dumb the product back down to 1980s levels DOES have negative effects on things besides where hardcore fans get their insider news.

I'm not advocating the return of crotch-chopping and gravy-bowl matches, necessarily... but there were good things that came out of the Attitude Era that have gone missing lately.  The creativity, the putting personality ahead of gimmickry, the basic sense that this was a product for grown-ups, and not just some predictably one-dimensional Hogan-esque morality play...  these things probably shouldn't have been dismissed so easily. Grown-up stories with subtlety and depth DO have a place in wrestling; if they didn't, then Paul London and Billy Kidman wouldn't have been able to rope in the fans and steal the show last weekend on PPV.  Having that little TASTE of complex characters makes it all the more frustrating when WWE surrounds them with rank gimmickry.

Like Raven said, "It's ENTERTAINMENT." And I tend to think that there's a reason why we had a convergence of wrestling "growing up" and also becoming massively popular in the late 90's: because the product was damned entertaining once it ditched the crutches of the preceding decade. And now whether its the spirit-sappingly lazy gimmickry of debuting superstars (Mordecai, Mohammed Hassan, et al) or the soul-crushingly inept handling of world title contenders (just handing Orton superman shtick from the past and expecting that to suffice), WWE is starting to revert back to those crutches.

And that just ain't cool.  And the Rick, he spits in the face of any wrestling company that doesn't want to be cool.

Imagine an apple-take, and we are through here, kids.  Enjoy the weekend (play-off baseball and a bunch of HUGE college football games should make that an easy thing to achieve), and I'll be back here on Monday to play catch-up on some of the news I've missed today, and also to get you ready for RAW and the rest of the Wrestling Week...


  
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E-MAIL RICK SCAIA

BROWSE THE OO ARCHIVES

Rick Scaia is a wrestling fan from Dayton, OH.  He's been doing this since 1995, but enjoyed it best when the suckers from SportsLine were actually PAYING him to be a fan.