Nothing gives me the sour belches any quicker than when a performer in the wrestling business, whether a wrestler, manager, referee, or anyone else asks any variation on the question, "What would my character say/do?" It is the most prevalent example of how the ways in which we in the wrestling profession talk both to each other and about our business have changed over the past 20 years. It also illustrates how these terms have changed the way those in wrestling THINK about the business, and as it's happened over time, most people don't even realize what's taken place. But beware--in this commentary, you'll learn things that even some current wrestling stars don't know, but should.
First and foremost is the word "character". It's used constantly today, even by veterans, so much so that many who were around back in the day have to think hard to realize it's a recent term that was NEVER heard in wrestling until the late 80's/early 90's. I worked with and for some pretty major stars, and I NEVER heard "Nature Boy" Ric Flair, "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, "Captain Redneck" Dick Murdoch, Jerry "The King" Lawler, "Handsome" Jimmy Valiant, "Cowboy" Bill Watts, or anyone else ask what their "character" would do. Clearly, by today's definition, they all had one, but back then it was called a "gimmick". If you were from Texas, you wore a Cowboy hat, boots, and used the Bulldog headlock, your "gimmick" was you were a Cowboy. Most wrestlers had a gimmick because it made them different, made them stand out from the pack. Some wrestlers' gimmick was they had no gimmick, they just wrestled. Some were more outlandish than others, and some were downright goofy. Those usually didn't get over or last long. But ALL of them that got over and drew money had one thing in common--legitimacy--that prevented them from being simply a "character".
Look at the names I just listed. Imagine ANYONE else doing the promos they did. Imagine ANYONE else working their style inside the ring. They, and all the great wrestling stars who drew money for decades, didn't HAVE characters, they WERE characters. When you saw Ric Flair on TV, he was just talking a little louder and being a little more rude than Ric Flair in person would be. Gimmicks, at least ones with longevity that drew money, were more about taking some personal characteristic of the talent and turning the volume up. I never asked myself what my "character" would say in a certain situation because I never thought I had one. My "character" was Jim Cornette, if my mother had really been rich and bought my wrestler's contracts and I was really an obnoxious asshole who was trying to piss people off. The last part really wasn't a stretch at all. Guys knew what they'd say and do and how they'd react to anything mostly by reflex, because it was natural. Now, especially in the WWE as we have talked about many times, "writers" find a wrestler and tell them what their "character" is, without any thought to whether it fits the talent. Or, even worse, wrestlers just getting into the sport come up with some outlandish persona based on who THEY would LIKE to be, rather than who they ARE. And, as we shall see all through this commentary, the influx of outsiders, people with backgrounds in the corporate or entertainment world rather than pro wrestling or sports, into our business over the last two decades has changed it very subliminally, and for the worse.
No wrestler should feel they have a "character", some other person detached from them, a Walter Mitty-like alter ego who comes out when the red light comes on, then goes away when he changes clothes in a phone booth. Every performer in pro wrestling is in the "ME" business. For example, as a performer, I am in the Jim Cornette business. Jim Cornette is my product. I sell Jim Cornette. People pay me either because fans buy tickets to see me, my performance enhances the quality of the show, or I am able to make another star more popular because he works with me. Wrestlers are NOT actors playing a part, as so many people seem to think. In this unique American performance artform, the part of Stone Cold Steve Austin is played by Stone Cold Steve Austin. While there were similarities between Rocky Balboa and Sylvester Stallone, moviegoers accepted that it was a part he was playing. In wrestling, the fans see Sting as Sting and no one else. A lot of people in creative positions never realize this fact, and it harms a lot of careers. Many performers come up with a part they can create and play, and even take acting lessons! This generally doesn't work unless you want to get into acting later on, because wrestling isn't acting, it's REacting. There's only one foolproof lie detector, and that's your face. If YOU don't believe what you're saying on TV, it shows on your face, and nobody else will believe you either. In wrestling, it doesn't matter WHAT you say, the viewers just have to believe you mean it.
A related change the outsiders brought into our wrestling world is the use of the word "storyline". Not only was this word never used in wrestling, it would have been offensive, because it obviously implies wrestling is fake, phony, predetermined, or choreographed. Old-timers in wrestling had the good sense not to get in the habit of using words like that, and called these things "angles" or "programs", as in "We did an angle with Dusty in Florida", or "We ran a program with Stevens in California". A "storyline" would be something a scripted TV show or movie would have. By using other terms, it very subconciously kept everyone thinking more in terms of legitimate shoot than preplanned work.
Such as the use of the word "script". For decades, anyone who wanted to knock wrestling in a newspaper article, magazine story, TV report or whatever would use the word "script" in a snide, derogatory way, as in "the match went exactly according to the script." In actual fact, there really never WAS a script in pro wrestling. Interviews were never written out and studied, they were done off the cuff. Matches were never written out, they were called in the ring with a finishing sequence agreed to beforehand. TV shows were shot off a one or two page format with the list of matches, interviews, and times of segments. Now, obviously, that has changed as well, but it still makes me want to vomit when some crew member asks to see my "script", as anyone with a long background in wrestling will say "format" or "runsheet".
Here's another one--"Resthold". This one has gotten so prevalent even veterans use it now, but I guarantee you that if you had told Dick Murdoch you didn't like the "resthold" he grabbed, he would have put one on you that wouldn't have been very restful. Obviously, after a fast-paced high spot or series of moves, you DO grab a hold to catch your breath or regroup, but to call a hold in a wrestling match a "resthold" is to undermine the basic logic behind wrestling. A wrestling match is supposed to consist of two people applying holds to each other until one man triumphs. The holds are supposed to be dangerous, painful and punishing. The term "resthold" sounds like a treatment you'd be given at a day spa, so every time it is used, it diminishes the importance of the holds in a match, and puts more pressure on guys to do more high-impact, higher-injury-risk things to please the crowd. Another change by the outsiders that ends up punishing the wrestlers in the end.
Some changes are simple, but telling. We always called it a "dressing room" to each other, but the "locker room" to those outside wrestling, because the former implies stage acting, the latter a pro sport. Now, it's either "dressing room" or just "in the back" or "backstage" for those who want to sound REALLY "hip". As well, the term "working" has almost completely replaced "wrestling". Even on TV, guys will say "I'm working tonight" rather than "I'm wrestling tonight". How freakin' stupid can you be? Is De La Hoya "working" tonight or "fighting" tonight? Is Shaquille O'Neal "working" tonight or "playing" tonight? Why don't you morons just come out and TELL people you're phonies? Oh, I forgot, you already do, because following in the example of Vince McMahon, you don't want to "insult their intelligence" by trying to pretend wrestling is real, or "kayfabing". This stupidity is what has led to pro wrestling being closer to extinction in 2009 than ever before, with fewer people across the U.S. watching wrestling on TV, fewer buying tickets to live events, fewer live events being run, fewer promotions making a profit, and fewer pro wrestlers making a fulltime living than ever in the history of the sport. What is more "insulting" to the fan's intelligence, consistency in and out of the ring, or the same guys who are screaming at and beating on each other on TV sitting in a bar together laughing after the show, slapping the fans' faces with "We're just pretending to hate each other to get your money"? In Ohio Valley Wrestling, the talent would squeal like pigs stuck under a gate when I would fine them for being seen in public together when they were working against each other on TV, but I refused to let my business be shit on by people who didn't respect our profession enough to observe our kayfabe rules. When I broke in, if faces and heels were seen socializing outside the ring, they were fired, end of story. Now, the office personnel don't even look twice if their hottest grudge match is yukking it up at the hotel bar. Nobody cares, except the many fans who don't buy tickets to see it.
The worst part of this is that seeing the rivals together in public validates the old, tired comment, "They fight in the ring, then go out and have a drink with each other after the show." This would be said by any obnoxious, wise-ass know-it-all who wanted to knock wrestling or act like he was smarter than everyone else, going back to when I was a kid. Of course, it never actually HAPPENED, at least in any territory worth a shit or involving any recognizeable talent. I remember many Saturdays sitting in the parking lot of the New Orleans Famous Fried chicken in Memphis, unable to go in because the babyfaces had gotten there first. There were heel and babyface hotels, you couldn't stay in the same one because fans and rats would see you together. There were heel and babyface bars for the same reason. Now, all the work we of the previous eras did is negated by a bunch of immature jackoffs who can't prevent themselves from going out in public together. Even if the promotions don't insist on kayfabing anymore, the boys could do it themselves, as they should realize this affects THEIR money more than a multi-millionaire promoter's, but they don't.
The combination of Vince McMahon wanting to reinvent the wheel and fix what wasn't broken, and the corporate world invading wrestling has, over twenty years' time, completely changed the way people look at and talk about wrestling. Now, even people inside the business talk openly of it being a work. The terms used subliminally reflect this. Whereas before, the goal was to make wrestling as logical and realistic as possible, to get fans to believe so they would buy tickets, now the goal is to make it as wild and crazy a show as possible, to get them to watch TV for free. The new generation doesn't even know what's happened. The fans of today don't know it was ever different, and the fans of yesterday all say they "used to watch wrestling before it got all show-bizzy." No one stops to realize that even if you know wrestling is a work and how it's done, performing and presenting it like a shoot makes it a better show and a better-quality product.
All I know is this--when wrestling was a closed society, no one publicly admitted it was a work, and the way those inside the sport talked about it reflected that, the country was made up of three groups: people who knew wrestling was a work and didn't like it--people who knew wrestling was a work but still liked it because they didn't know how it was worked, why it was worked or to what extent--and people who believed wrestling was real and would never miss a match. The last group was larger than most people ever knew. Now, we've completely eliminated the last group, and significantly reduced the middle one. When someone gets in the sport today, whether as a wrestler, promoter, "writer" or whatever, they think they already know everything about it because they've studied up on the internet, and approach it like show biz instead of sport. That is what has drained the passion, emotion, and believability out of the performances, and that, in turn, is what keeps the UFC on top of the combat sports world today. It doesn't matter that UFC is real and pro wrestling isn't--it matters that the ticket-purchasing public can tell that the UFC folks are TREATING IT like it's real, and the wrestling folks are not. That difference is the difference between paying to see a sporting event, and watching a comedy or variety show for free.
I'm Jim Cornette, and I wish this was just my opinion, but it's the truth