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OO GUEST COLUMN
Just Get Used To It
October 22, 2004

by PyroFalkon
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com

 

As I mentioned in the opener of my recent Byte This! recap, I agree with Rick for the most part in his Character vs. Gimmick essay. Before I get into the meat of where I dissent from Rick’s opinion, I want to follow up my Byte This recap. (All italicized quotes come Rick’s article.)
 

Ever since I started reading everyone’s columns here at OO months ago, I feel I’ve become a little smarter in detecting what makes good pro wrestling apart from bad pro wrestling. I think everyone can agree that a good promo can really be a key to a wrestler’s overall value. It’s not (and shouldn’t be) the ONLY factor, of course, as evidenced by guys like Chris 

Benoit. But, like good wrestling talent can lift a character above a gimmick, a good promo can lift a character above a gimmick too.

But I just realized something after the October 13, 2004 edition of Byte This!, and I’m a little surprised it didn’t consciously occur to me before: a good promo does NOT require acting talent.

It’s no secret that wrestlers are actors at the basest level. That said, you don’t have to be a GOOD actor to be a good CHARACTER. Gene Snitsky’s promo from October 13 was right up there with Billy Kidman’s from September 23 for the best promo I’ve heard on Byte This! since I started recapping it.

Was it better acted? Hell no. Most pro wrestlers, if they pulled a Rock and got into acting only, would barely make morning soap operas. Snitsky would probably be confined to doing commercials. Billy at least managed to get through the majority of it without fumbling his words.

Was Snitsky’s promo EFFECTIVE, though? Yes, by a long shot. Snitsky kinda rambled, but basically did his best to just be an asshole. And you know, that WORKS for him, VERY well. If the same promo came out of even The Rock’s mouth, it would actually be LESS effective. Snitsky really sold his character, which is precisely what wrestlers should be doing. Snitsky has single-handedly made me more interested in his match tonight.

This all plays into the Gimmick vs. Character thing. Snitsky’s GIMMICK is being an asshole to Kane and not caring that he caused a miscarriage on Lita. His CHARACTER is one who feels that he wants to just get to the top of the corporate food chain, whether that means aborting babies or smashing skulls with a pipe. Snitsky doesn’t say it, but we know his CHARACTER probably would go through anyone if it would help him get closer to being the best.

I honestly believe that is the core difference to Gimmick vs. Character. It’s actually not what we see: it’s what we DON’T see. You can take that into any decent literary work to see what I mean. Captain Ahab’s gimmick is capping a whale. Are we TOLD that Captain Ahab is an insane freak, too? Nope, but it comes through his character due to his other actions, such as his fanaticism of going through the hunt.

Motivation tends to play into that too. For example, would Robin Hood be as big of a hero if he robbed from the rich and kept it? Thievery was his gimmick, but helping out the populace of England was his character. His motivation was kindness and sharing the (stolen) wealth with the poor class of his country.

Billy Kidman’s and Gene Snitsky’s gimmicks are virtually identical, if you think about it. Both are in full aggression mode, saying “Screw you” to the fans and beating the hell out of one specific target. Yet, their motivations are VASTLY different: Snitsky wants to be a top WWE wrestler, and Billy’s just dealing with personal demons after beheading Chavo and losing a title due to his old friend supposedly screwing with him. Layers mean characters.

And so, as I said, I think Rick’s right on for the most part. However, I think that he is WAY overestimating the target demographic for wrestling, and that’s where his column has a flaw.

See, here’s the thing. If wrestling was made for us, the post-teenage “smarky” audience, we’d have better stories and more bare boobs. Rick’s been vocal about the new WWE style of wrestling: safer, more family- and fan-friendly, few if any highspots. Gone are the days where we’ll see Shane McMahon jumping off the Titantron, because God forbid we see a 12-year-old kid pull a Foley and try the same stunt off a house. People who are older than their teens, while by no means geniuses, are smart enough to not to do something that will risk any job they’re currently employed in. Do you really think that when WWE says “Don’t try this at home,” they’re talking to you? No, they are talking to the minors, the kids who don’t think they have anything to lose by trying something that crosses the line from cool to stupid.

“[…] It's noticeable that the company is getting away from anything resembling the 1997-2001 highspot-laden, 100 miles per hour type of matches […] 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.”

I don’t think the WWE expects older fans to forget the Attitude Era. What they’re doing is focusing on the fans who DON’T KNOW the Attitude Era existed.If we’ve got a 15-year-old fan in the audience today, he was only 8 back in 1997. Even if he watched wrestling back then, there’s no way he was smart enough to know what made a great match. Even if he knows of the Attitude Era, even if he’s seen the tapes and DVDs of matches like “The Ladder Match,” he can’t fully grasp what the Attitude Era was. No one can, unless you were living in the middle of it, watching wrestling week-to-week when the terms “Monday Night Wars” and “Montreal Screwjob” were current events.

WWE wrestling is targeted at low-to-mid teens. I highly doubt the majority of wrestling fans got into it starting at an older age. Because of that, I think the WWE view is that it’s not NECESSARY to have full-blown characters. While that may be very 80s-ish, I believe it’s true.

Yeah, I know it’s basically insulting our intelligence, which Vince said years ago he didn’t want to do. But as Rick admits, now that WCW is gone and TNA is as big of a threat as a backyard fed, WWE does not need to do anything edgy to stand apart from a crowd.

“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 […] 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.”

I buy that, to an extent, but I want to reiterate my point. Rick says that during the late 90s, Vince and his company realized the value of being honest with fans. But guess what? It’s not the late 90s anymore, and Vince isn’t even as into his company as he used to be. Now we’ve got Triple H and Stephanie McMahon doing their thing. So between the fans, wrestlers, and staff, we’ve got new blood around, in, and under the ring.

I’m not saying that I enjoy having stories dumbed down. I’m not saying I appreciate the WWE’s opinion that anyone but their target audience can go to hell. What I am saying is that it’s been well-documented that Vince’s core opinion is “If it’s good for my business, it’s good to do.” The WWE may not be busting out 5.0 ratings, but they’re still a fairly profitable company. From the business standpoint of things, it makes sense to target the masses instead of the niche.

Everyone knows that people watch wrestling for different reasons, but you can divide the audience pretty easily into groups. And the people like the writers and readers of OO may watch the WWE for its stories and characters. But come on, we’re not in the majority. Sure, a pure-mark may not exist anymore, but merchandise isn’t made for us. Smart fans will probably put their money into PPVs, not replica title belts and You Can’t See Me T-Shirts. When I went to the SmackDown! I recapped a couple months ago, I bought a John Cena teddy bear, a John Cena inflatable hand, and a program for my girlfriend. I bought nothing for myself, because I don’t need it. Being at the event was enough for me, and I don’t need crap to remind myself who I cheer for.

I assume anyone who is old enough or smart enough to care about the characters are the same way. DVDs are one thing: that’s a method to step back in time and check out some cool matches of the past, or see some biographies of the guys. But really, what “smark” buys wrestling T-shirts, teddy bears, foam fingers, chain locks, visors, bobbleheads, or masks? Next time the camera sweeps across the crowd on TV, look at the people there. The low-to-mid teenagers are the ones wearing the shirts, waving the hands and fingers, and shoving replica belts in Randy Orton’s face. Kids younger than that are the ones in Rey Mysterio and Hurricane masks. College-aged guys at most have a shirt or jersey; they’re not the ones decked out in overpriced crap.

“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.”

It’s partly the fear of criticism that prevents the WWE from admitting smart fans exist by giving us a sanctioned area. No one wants to be criticized, although I know it comes with the territory if you’re going to share your opinion or idea. If Rick is reading my article before posting it, he’s going to be criticizing some of my counter-points, and very well may be forming counter-counter-points. I know, and I can deal with it.

But that said, I don’t think it’s JUST fear of being criticized. I think the WWE has also crunched the numbers and simply said “It’s not worth it.” It would certainly be used, don’t get me wrong, and perhaps there would be some new fans that would come because of it. But come on, what could the WWE POSSIBLY do to sanction anything? If they wanted to publish more than a paragraph of insider information to, say, a members-only website, SOMEONE will leak it to the other wrestling websites.

I can hear Rick saying “You’re missing the point: the WWE should be more free with their information.” I don’t mean they shouldn’t be. Maybe I’m biased, but I’d be in favor of the WWE making one or two shows that it already does for free become insider-ish. Specifically, go back to the time when Byte This! wasn’t a forum for stars talking about everything they’re doing besides wrestling. Or even make it a section of a show, sort of like a spoken Ross Report. That would be cool with everyone and not hurt the business.

The thing is, I believe it’s not a priority, based on current circumstances. We’re in a new era, one where the young “targeted” fans don’t remember the details of the late 90s and what it did to the wrestling industry. We’re in an era where the WWE has the entire market share of consumers not just in the States, but in the Canada and Europe too. While we may be getting the short end of the stick, if the WWE wants us to just leave them alone while they squeeze money from teenagers, let them.

See, the WWE (and all businesses) only understand that language: the almighty dollar. You can vote against the way the WWE conducts itself by not buying merchandise, not buying DVDs, not watching it when there’s something better on, and so on. If the majority of fans out there want the focus to be off merchandise and “safe” matches, and back onto 1997-era insanity, they can stop buying crap and stop getting PPVs until the WWE proves it’s ready to step it up again.

“And these aren't even the really CORE problems. […] 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. […] 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. […] Just like the 1980s. […] 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.”

Rick is right, and that’s precisely why the WWE is doing what they’re doing.

I’ve had a younger, more demographically targeted friend (aged in the mid-teens) for awhile. He popped over to my house a couple times to discuss wrestling, and during the Kane and Lita fiasco, he mentioned that he was ENJOYING the storyline between the whole “who’s the daddy?” shit. I know, it’s sad, and even most of the mainstream fans rebelled against it live. I automatically asked him why the crap he could like it, and he gave me a nonsense answer about how it was interesting and he was curious who the father of Lita’s kid was.

That just goes to prove how much easier it is to entertain the younger crowd than it is the rest of us. Rick feels that Randy Orton’s fans appeared because they want to emulate him, and I think that extends to all of the wrestlers. If you were a wrestling fan AND a kid in the 80s, you WANTED to be a wrestler. Hogan, Andre; face, heel; it didn’t matter. You could see yourself in the ring, bouncing off the ropes, and getting the fame and attention as your favorite stars.

Younger fans don’t care about depth because to them, these guys are larger than life. They are their characters while the cameras are on. They may even be aware of the fact that wrestling is fake and the wrestlers are really actors, but that never detracts from the product. Trekkies know that William Shatner played James Kirk and the Enterprise-D is just a model that is filmed upside down, but that doesn’t detract from the draw of Star Trek.

“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.”

Yeah, but the WWE or F or whatever didn’t do it BECAUSE of the fans. They didn’t do it FOR the fans. They did it because they had to survive as a business. The WWE didn’t sit there and ask itself “How can we make a superior product so fans like us better?” The real question was “How can we outdo WCW to get more fans and more money than they have?”

As Rick posited, without competition, the WWE can settle back into whatever its old mentality was. And whether or not we’re happy with it, that’s the way it is.

“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. […] Quick: in one sentence, who is Randy Orton?”

This is probably the only thing Rick wrote that I feel MORE passionately about than he does. I found myself asking that exact question a few weeks ago, the last RAW before he busted out the promo against Flair. “Who the hell is Randy Orton, and why should I care?”

Because for all my bitching I’ve done in this article, for all the reasons I’ve tried to write to explain why I feel the WWE is doing what they’re doing, I still don’t like it. Understanding it and liking it are two different things.

I buy Randy Orton as a worker. He’s pretty good in the ring if he’d avoid doing too many submissions, and I do like the RKO as a finisher. It sure beats the hell out of the Legdrop of Doom and the Big Boot of Suck, that’s for sure. And we’ve now seen proof that Orton is capable of doing some damn good mic work if he’s got good material to work with. Sure, he wasn’t that great six months ago, but if mic work was as important to wrestling as some people think it is, Chris Benoit wouldn’t have held the World Heavyweight Title for three months.

That said, STILL no one knows what Orton is about. He wants to kill Flair to fight Evolution and get the belt back from Trips. Okay, fine, but… what else? Or is that the depth of his character? And if it is, what’s he going to do once he achieves his goal?

“[…] 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.”

Look, anyone with more than half a brain is going to know from my article that I’m not contesting Rick’s main points, especially Rick himself. No one is going to think I don’t understand the difference between Character and Gimmick. What I am contesting are the reasons behind it. I believe that Rick is, with all due respect, too close to the product anymore to realize that the target audience is not us. The targets are the kids who don’t give a shit about layers and depth; or if they do, they don’t want or need it.

The reason the Billy Kidman/Paul London feud is doing well is because it’s succeeding on multiple levels. The thing is, different demographics are looking at the story DIFFERENTLY. Kids, the targets, see a guy who turned on his friend. Grownups, the non-targets, see a guy who is haunted by a traumatic event in his life, who then decides his best friend doesn’t care, and he exacts revenge. Same story, different perception. The reason it roped in fans on No Mercy was because it, for different reasons, appealed to everybody.

I hope you see the subtle differences in our main theses. Rick is basically saying that we’ve turned back the clock and are in a repeated 80s era because the WWE has its own idea of what’s “good” and doesn’t NEED to bend to the fans’ preferences due to a lack of competition. I say that the we’ve turned back the clock and are in a repeated 80s era because the WWE has always targeted kids, not adults, for their product, and it’s not their fault that we’ve grown up and expect more out of our entertainment.

Think about it like this: tastes change over a person’s life. I used to love green beans and tuna casserole a decade ago, but now I’m into spicy food. It’s not the fault of the casserole that my tongue changed its mind. The WWE continues to target a specific group of the population, knowing full well that some of that group leaves it every day. Green beans aren’t going to start tasting more like a taco supreme just because my preference changed, and the WWE isn’t going to start expanding its creativity just because we get older, even if they lose some of us in the process.

There is obviously a balance, because Kidman/London (and Kane/Snitsky to an extent) has found it. Until the WWE gets better talented or more consistent writers behind the scripts, we’re not going to see a more global change. But despite whether we like it or not, the WWE is here to fill the needs of teenagers, not us adults. If we don’t like it, we can go watch something else, and maybe that will get the attention of the accountants, which will get the attention of the staff.

But until that happens, or until TNA becomes the next WCW, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.

 
E-MAIL PYROFALKON

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