Is there anything that beckons World Wrestling Entertainment more consistently than the cult of celebrity? It’s doubtful. From the earliest days of WrestleMania to the megalith’s current incarnation, having famous faces on hand has been a primary goal of WWF/E brass. Those desires have only expanded under the watchful eye of Vincent K. McMahon, to the point where Seth Rollins displays his villainous chops by engaging in a war of words (and shows) with the soon-to-be-ex-host (that’s a lot of dashes!) of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart. While Stewart capably handled his part of the affair by presenting an above average knowledge of wrestling and some genuinely funny self-deprecation, it still begged the question: Is having your next big bad thing pretending to take over a late night comedy show the best use of time and budget? Was the final gag of Stewart seeking out and attacking the weak spot in Rollins’s riot gear body armor worth all of the buildup and clips? Time will tell. As we’ve seen many times over the years, even the biggest names in show business might not bring the bang for the buck.
The premise in itself might be the largest problem. As part of this ongoing storyline, Rollins invoked the memorable feud of Andy Kaufman and Jerry “The King” Lawler. That was unfortunate in that it simply made me remember how much better that feud was, and that’s no offense to the current guys involved. It’s simply a statement of how excellent the former was, and that’s entirely due to the talent involved. It may be hard to remember in this day and age, and an utter shock to some, but there was a time when Jerry Lawler was feared, respected, and a legitimate wrestling badass. Lawler’s contributions to wrestling are various and sundry, but to a huge section of the United States he symbolized everything they loved about the territorial era. It’s a state of mind that sports fans can relate to: the idea that nobody’s going to come to “your house” and try to take you down a peg. Lawler’s Southern pride and somewhat-aggrandized ego made the perfect foil to the crazy genius that was Andy Kaufman. As with most successful things in wrestling, it was rooted in reality and that made it all the better.
Kaufman just had to be seen to be believed. As many of you know, I am an unabashed fan of comedy in all its forms, and the story of Andy is one that still hasn’t been fully told or understood. It’s possible he didn’t understand it himself. We’ve all heard examples of wrestlers getting so into their character that they are quite literally unable to separate the two. That embracing of the gimmick can provide a blessing and curse all in one. The celebrity equivalent of that is Kaufman, who always appeared so unhinged that it belied his utter sanity. Kaufman’s gags are legendary, from his endless masquerade as his own opening act, Tony Clifton, to his performance readings of The Great Gatsby to an equal parts bemused and frustrated audience. This was a man for whom the off-kilter world of professional wrestling was essentially tailor made for. Match made in heaven, indeed.
Kaufman’s heelish behavior of wrestling women and shouting overbearing insults at anyone within earshot worked well enough to cause national sensation, and provided the boost the improviser hoped would land him in a WWF ring. Amazingly, Vince’s legendary father dismissed the idea, thinking it far too Hollywood. As it turned out, it was just another case of a stage not ready for Kaufman, as he parlayed that denial into his world-famous feud and confrontation with Lawler, down to showing up in a neck brace as a result of The King’s famed piledriver finisher and getting slapped out of his chair on David Letterman. Wrestling had gotten downright mainstream and in the best possible way, playing off many of the “is it real?” barriers and comments bestowed upon it by critics and fans alike. It would be over a decade later before the truth of the matter was finally revealed, a testament to the tradition of kayfabe and the lengths performers will go to keep it dark. This sequence of events has cast its shadow on plenty that came after, all the way into the current day. It’s saying something that you can go back and watch it now, even knowing what we know, and still think it looks authentic.
Hence some of the issues with the Rollins/Stewart confrontation. It’s no shade on Stewart, who’s a major wrestling fan (putting him in rarefied air among many of the names flown in these days) and a very funny writer and performer. It’s also not meant to be a condemnation on Rollins, who has demonstrated a willingness and a natural ability to play the jerk excellently. It’s more a critique on WWE’s current trend of attempting to be a jack of all trades and therefore master of none, the having-your-cake-and-devouring-the-whole-damn-thing practice of tossing everything possible out there to see what sticks that has defined the storytelling of the modern WWE. This principle has been more than a hot button issue as the company hurtles toward what could potentially be the most disastrous main event in WrestleMania history. Flush off an underwhelming Royal Rumble and an absentee champion using UFC as leverage, WWE honchos pulled an impromptu about-face and allowed Daniel Bryan to have his little moment and get the hell out of the way. While that strategy might be effective if the eventual goal was to turn Roman Reigns, his position as Cena-in-waiting serves only to further frustrate the disillusioned.
Rollins, slowly and surely, has taken his own break from the uber-popular Shield team to become a dyed-in-the-wool heel of the first order. His close proximity to Triple H and the Authority has accomplished its understood mission statement to make him a viable super heel in the minds of fans the world over. He furthered that agenda with his violent attack on legend Edge just a few short months ago. He’s even playing the part effectively far off camera, becoming embroiled in a quickly-hushed-up social media picture faux pas. He’s also continuing his well-known track record of putting forth stellar matches along the way. It’s puzzling, then, that the company would pick this time to inject some short-sighted buffoonery into the mix by having Rollins mix it up over a TV show. This battle was lost long before Stewart went triumphantly south of the border. It may be entertaining, and it might even get the WWE the mainstream TMZ attention they crave, but it’s bad pool. Rollins must be a viable brute willing to sacrifice anyone and everyone to get what he wants, not an affable ogre who laughs his way through his grade-school play evildoer lines. It doesn’t even seem that HE is taking his antics seriously.
All in all, I’m reminded of the WCW days when Eric Bischoff decided to spar with Jay Leno. Purportedly the rationale behind it was that the nWo’s mouthpiece and ne’er-do-well boss wanted to take everything over, and while it ended with the poor decision to have Leno wrestle Bischoff (yuck), the story in itself was passable enough by wrestling standards. Playing off Bischoff’s widely-known image, public and private, one didn’t have to squint too hard to catch the glimmer of truth in him fancying himself king of television. Was it silly? Absolutely. But even that was more effective than this, a blatant attempt to get in bed with a man of the moment at any cost. By the time the WWE shilled for Stewart’s latest venture after the segment was over, there likely weren’t too many that needed further convincing that the whole thing was engineered purely for the newsprint potential. If we’re still at the stage where stunts like this are needed to sell WWE Network subscriptions, at least have the good sense to choose an already comic villain like Stardust or Rusev. Expecting us to fear and revile Rollins one moment and endure his pained cackles and banter the next is a path we don’t need to be led down.
Playing to your talents’ strengths and shielding their weaknesses is a very important component of talent management. WWE’s false starts have engineered a toxic environment where plenty of talent who’ve had their moment in the sun (however fleeting) are available to be dumped into a ladder match for a lesser title in order to squeeze them onto the card. As fans, we can’t be fooled into thinking that this somehow makes things okay. Just as Ziggler, Ambrose, Bryan and others were wasted in the Rumble match at the expense of established heel hands like Kane and Big Show, so too does the midcard oleo restate the desire of Titan Tower to have the fanbase blink and get excited at the next shiny object. Celebrities are a key part of WrestleMania lore at this point, and rightfully so. It’s the best time to get outside of the ring and attract some attention, and the Hall of Fame allows another option to glorify folks whose contributions to the sport itself are marginal at best. That doesn’t mean smart storytelling and character building should be sacrificed in order to build a better house of straw. You’d think this lesson would be learned by now.
At the end of the day, it’s smart money to blast the past. The Ascension are trying to make a gimmick out of doing that very thing, and legends are largely resurrected in order to have some ringside remember when that’s invariably interrupted by some fervent sales pitch. Rather than using the Kaufman/Lawler blueprint for cheap quick heat on the trek to the latest sip from the celebrity kiddie pool, though, I’d recommend taking a longer look and maybe even some notes. In this era of realism, nothing was real (or meant to be real) on Monday when it came to the Daily Show segment. It’s when you can effectively straddle and even cross that line that you can get wrestling talked about in ways it hasn’t been lately. Fans have gotten smarter and more fickle, but at the end of the day just want to be entertained. It can be that simple. Seth Rollins deserves full investment in the character he’s been asked to portray. Not just by him, mind you, but by those discussing glass ceilings and desire. He doesn’t need a Tinseltown feud to accomplish that. WWE creative still hasn’t figured out Andy Kaufman. And I’m not holding out hope they ever will.