EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.
Friday, December 31, 1999
Memorable mainstream media attention
Thus is why when wrestling hits that mini-peak, that ever-so-short magical moment in which it brushes with true greatness and true success, it's so remarkable. I'm not talking selling stock in your company for one billion dollars success. After all, Martha Stewart did that, and she wasn't selling an entire federation of 'superstars'. No, I'm talking Pokemon, Tickle-Me-Elmo, professional sports, motion pictures, five billion dollars a year net profit success.
Nonetheless, when all the jokes, the snickers, the frowns, and the chuckles subside, sometimes, just sometimes, wrestling becomes something else. Something bigger. Something somehow better, yet not at all the same.
Just that happened, I don't know, about fifteen or so years ago, and then again, just recently, as the motion picture Man on the Moon, starring Jim Carrey and one-time wrestler wannabe, Andy Kaufman.
Now, I'm not going to sit here and type up a movie review. You've got local papers, and Jam! Entertainment, friends, and family to do that for you. It's bad enough I pretty much review every wrestling show you've already seen, one way or another. I won't add my voice to this particular venture.
I will, however, do my level best to put it all in context. Sometime long ago, in a year in which Late Night with David Letterman was on the air but before I was interested in late night television, the master idiot savant comedian, Andy Kaufman, took a liking to wrestling.
Wrestling women, mostly, but eventually, when he took his show to Memphis, he hooked up and locked horns with one Jerry 'The King' Lawler. At the time, he wasn't the jolly semi-heel WWF colour commentator he is today, he was the Southern Wrestling champion!
Anyway, I don't want to give away anything about the movie, and those of you who never followed Jerry Lawler's or the late Mr. Kaufman's respective careers would best be saved the end of this story, but bottom line -- they met, they got together, they battled at length in the media, and it culminated in a now infamous appearance on Late Night.
For better or for worse, that encounter and the resulting war gave wrestling exposure. Ask Jerry Lawler any day and he'll tell you the same. This was one of those times that wrestling somehow transcended its natural barriers and became something of interest to the general public, which of course grants greater credibility to every other stunt pulled.
Many people don't realize it, but this has happened many, many times before. Obviously, sometimes the impact is greater and sometimes it's lesser, but invariably, wrestling clashes with the media and exposes itself or gets exposed. Either way, as they say, there's no such thing as bad publicity.
If they were smart, they'd instead say 'no publicity is bad publicity,' which has a more or less obvious double-meaning.
Here's a brief list of those events, or at least those I can remember. Let me know if I've forgotten some bigger ones -- I'm sure I have.
First, and in my opinion tops on the list, Wrestlemania III. I'd rarely classify a wrestling event as a real media breakthrough, but this was the exception. Go back and watch the tape, and you get the feeling that Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura are covering something somehow bigger than just a show, it has that larger than life feeling. Watch the celebrity appearances, watch the admittedly very poor main event finish, but watch the magic it creates. Then witness that there's like twenty hours of wrestling television each week and make the connection. Oh, and ninety three thousand people is still the wrestling attendance record in North America, and was the overall such record (with some kind of classification) until his exaltedness himself, The Pope broke it. Draw your own religious pun.
Second, the Lawler-Kaufman confrontation. Legendary comedian gets involved with wrestling champion and the media takes notice.
Third, the Steve Austin appearances on Nash Bridges. I don't care who you are, a recurring role on network television is good, but doubling its regular rating, even once, is nothing short of incredible. The last time I remember that happening because of a guest appearance was when Magic Johnson had Howard Stern on his short-lived talk show, and Stern had to push that to his seventy trillion radio listeners for like a month beforehand to do it. Even then, he wasn't doubling much. If Austin for some reason doesn't return to wrestling, we may see a lot more of Jake Cage.
Just in case you're still keeping score, its three-to-nothing in favour of good publicity. Any publicity may be construed as good, but drug scandals, for example, typically do more damage than they repair. That leads me to number four.
Fourth, Vince McMahon's charge of distributing illegal narcotics (steroids) to his wrestlers. It wasn't pretty, it was just a whole lot of bad blood that made wrestling seem somehow evil. Little did the nay-sayers know that if they'd waited only ten years, it would actually become legitimately evil. You know, the pornographic nudity, the rolling a fatty, the hardcore violence angles, and so on. It may be fun, but I'm sure its classifiable evil. He was cleared of the charges, for your information.
Fifth, and this may be its recentness talking, but I think that the Sable lawsuit got a heck of a lot of press and publicity. Mostly it seemed to be attempts at good publicity for Rena Mero, and it sort of made wrestling look bad, but if your target audience is twelve years old or so, how bad can it really be for it to be known that you tried to coerce a female performer into removing her top on television. Either way, it got people talking, which is always good.
Sixth, 'Have a Nice Day!: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks.' Mick Foley's Number one on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. Doesn't require a whole lot of explanation. This, too, was good.
Seventh, the death of Owen Hart. It happened in a wrestling ring. To the brother of arguably the wrestler of the decade, and Owen was no slouch, himself. It was publicized big, and the civil suit could blow it up even bigger. Clearly, this publicity was in no way good.
Eighth, its yet to happen, but The Rock's appearance in Star Trek: Voyager is still a big deal. A cameo on Star Trek has this mythical quality that isn't really that important, doesn't make or break careers, but still somehow matters.
Ninth, the WWF sells itself in the form of stock on the open market, and makes a killing. The share price isn't doing very well as of the writing of this column, but it doesn't matter. Vince McMahon has made one billion dollars from the wrestling business. Wow. To put it in perspective, the third-largest aluminium mining and refining company, producing almost twenty percent of the world's aluminium, a major ingredient in cars, planes, and Coca-Cola cans, is worth only a few times more than that. Okay, maybe that doesn't put it into perspective at all. How about this: nine zeroes. Zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, and there's even a one preceding it.
Tenth, and I'm stretching it here, but I have something of a tie. First, Mike Tyson's incredibly successful appearance at Wrestlemania XIV, resulting in the most-bought, largest gate wrestling show ever, I think. Second, the appearance of Roddy Piper, Madusa, Sting, and Bobby Heenan on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. This could have been a big deal, but other than Sting, no one really proved that wrestlers aren't as stupid as wrestling disparagers think. So it goes up in consolation instead.
I'm sure I forgot a bunch and a half, so why don't you go and remind me which ones I left out.
[Editor's Note: Off the top of my head, how about 'The Brawl To Settle It All' with Cyndi Lauper; Hacksaw Duggan and Iron Sheik being busted for drugs in the same car together, despite being mortal enemies; Killer Kowalski removing Yukon Eric's ear; The Von Erichs. It's a huge list, that just depends on what one considers mainstream publicity.]
On that note, here's the proverbial, figurative, metaphorical, and yet somehow very real mailbag:
Our own Ryan Robson, from firstname.lastname@example.org, writes:
"Hey man, I just read your column, and I must admit, I am 100% guilty of this hypocrisy. However, I am also pretty good at justifying my own position.
I was one of those that watched Nitro and Thunder (rarely Saturday Night) as often as I could, and strayed away from the WWF because of the content. it wasn't necessarily the language, or the T & A, but mmore for the whole stupidity. Then Vince Russo and Ed Ferrera go to WCW, and adopt that style to WCW. I feel as a wrestling fan that one person cannot make a difference, and rather than opposing wrestling because of what I don't like, accept it, and enjoy wrestling on a new level. As well, once Russo and Ferrera had gone, I began watching RAW again, supporting my approval of the system. So actually, I don't think I'm a hypocrite, I think that I've gone through a change of heart.
One question, completely unrelated, why is it that certain angles WWF tries out gets forgotten within two weeks, but when WCW attempts it, people drag it out and accuse them of not following through on their angles? Need clarification? The hummer driver vs. the briefcase rising in the ladder match with McMahons and Austin."
Ryan, I commend your frankness. We're all hypocrites to some extent. I wrote about Macho Man's woman-beating actions and then said nothing (or little) when Jeff Jarrett pulled the same stuff. He did it in the ring, and at the time, to a trained athlete who had provoked him, but still, I was at least partly hypocritical.
We're all hypocrites, at times. It just takes a man to stand up and admit it. Fortunately, we're all men here at SLAM! Wrestling. Thanks, Ryan.
Patrick Krause, from email@example.com, writes:
"You forgot hypocricy #4: Bret Hart. I've listened to him whine about being screwed, I've read all his articles about his hatred for McMahon for screwing him in his last WWF match, I've heard how Bret hates 'The Kliq', Shawn Michaels, and the backstage politics that went on in the WWF. Low and behold, put a championship belt around his waist and he's part of the nWo and cursing up a storm on TV, even grading his performance of screwing Goldberg as better than Shawn Michaels'.
I guess there's a new dog rolling in feces."
Point taken. In his defense, Bret was screwed for real and only pretend-screwed Goldberg. I guess, in a sense, since it's a fake wrestling title anyway, it's kind of the same. Also in his defense, Bret didn't join the clique because he wanted to, but because the writers decreed it (I can only assume). These defenses are just formalities, though.
Your point is taken and not disputed.
Thanks again, everyone, for reading, and of course, for writing. Have a safe and happy New Millennium, which will be taking place, of course, in about a year. Meanwhile, happy 2000. Hit me on ICQ, #10595525. Have, also, a great week.
Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.