BULLSCRIPT!!!!--FSM#110

This month I begin my column with an exclamation of frustration--AAAARRRGHH! There, I've gotten some of it out of my system and I feel slightly better. You see, the topic of discussion here this month is one in which, to me, there are so many things wrong going on at one time that my brain cells are colliding over which one to rant about first. I guess I'd better just blurt the dreaded words out, and then stop and analyze point by point why I feel like heading for the belltower with a high powered weapon.

SCRIPTS ON THE INTERNET! SCRIPTS, SCRIPTS, OH, OUT DAMNED SCRIPTS!

For years, one of the oldest cliches in the quivers of those who either hated pro wrestling or wanted to show how "inside and with it" they were, was some disapproving glance down the nose from a "real" sports fan who would say, "That stuff's all scriiipted..", or the redneck with more beers than teeth in him who would talk about "knowing" guys who were friends outside the ring but "followed the script" in their matches. For wrestling fans of the first 90 years of the 20th century, that was the crap they had to put up with and ignore from folks who weren't fans, but at least it was also easier to find likeminded followers of the sport, because there were more of them then. For those inside the business, it went through us like a red hot poker because of the sheer disrespect these idiots were showing us, whether they agreed with our profession or not--I never immediately talked about most lawyers being professional liars upon first meeting an attorney--and depending on who the offended wrestling personality was, some of those exchanges used to get quite rowdy. The reason for this righteous indignation? There WERE NO SCRIPTS in pro wrestling!

But there are in sports entertainment, and they get out on the internet a lot these days, too. The recent leaking of a RAW script and it's subsequent publishing on the internet is just another example of the last few vestiges of secrecy and credibility being stomped out of the sport, but it also reinforces to all those twats who used to knock the business all those years ago that they were "right", and they weren't.

It's not just that--the fact that "scripts" not only exist and are publicized, but go into such copious detail (28 pages for a 3 hour show) and are actually followed to such a fine degree by most talents is just one of the major changes indicative of the transformation of the business over the last 20 years, it's presentation changing from something intended to be taken seriously to something that is obviously not. But "scripts" have a number of ill effects on the product past showing everyone it's all bullshit.

It's bad for the wrestlers. A lot of talent now approach their gimmicks as if they are an actor playing a character, which of course is usually phony and disastrous, but they know nothing else because they are being given a script and told to follow it. Therefore they never learn how to be themselves and get themselves over. It's bad for the fans. Instead of two guys out there trashtalking each other and hyping a fight between two colorful personalities who know how to get themselves and their issue over, vowing revenge and/or promising real physical violence (a la current day UFC), we see potentially good wrestlers who happen to be bad actors saying words you can tell they would never really use while telling a story you know is bullshit about something other than the match you know they're not really mad about. It's bad for the promoters, because wrestling is selling fewer tickets and pay-per-views now than ever, but hey, they're the ones who hired these prick writers in the first place so I don't feel bad for them. The only ones it's good for ARE the writers, and apparently there's close to 30 of them in the WWE alone, people with little if any wrestling backgrounds but plenty of "reality TV" credentials and diplomas in "creative writing" who are often caught in the men's locker room whistling "Stranger In Paradise". THEM, it's good for, because they're employed, and they have to write as much horseshit as possible to justify their existence.

At this point, even young pro wrestlers can't really be faulted for thinking it's always been done this way, or should be. It occurs to me that some fans and wrestlers alike may not know exactly how the information for a TV taping was disseminated in the days before all the spontaneity, passion and genuine emotions were wrung out of wrestling. So maybe this column can be a little "teaching moment" to illustrate how a lot of good pro wrestling shows used to be produced.

I could write a book on the way different wrestling territories' television shows were put together, because every one was different, adapted to it's particular logistics, circumstances, and promoter's quirks. On the famous Saturday TBS show from Atlanta, for several years Dusty Rhodes just gathered all the fulltime talent in a conference room and spent ten minutes reading the show format--"Midnight Express and JC over Vernon Deaton and Mike Jackson in five minutes, Cornette go to the desk and cut a promo on the Rock & Roll next week in Philly--you got two minutes, sell me some tickets". Obviously if there was a main event match or big angle, more time, sometimes five or ten whole minutes, would be spent talking about it by the talent and/or booker before all were satisfied they had it. Most of this time would be spent analyzing the logic and credibility of what was to be said or done so there was the best chance people would believe it was as real as possible. A lot of times, in squash matches on TBS, the Express and I were the only ones to even go over a match with the job guys as we wanted them to know how to sell our shit and not get hurt--many of the other guys just beat them up in the ring. There was never any such thing as a "walkthrough" in the ring--until the late 80's we never arrived at a TV tapping before fans were in the arena, and even if we did, there were arena employees that weren't smart. We never saw the ring until we were on the air.

 Bill Watts' TV finish meetings were often at the other end of the spectrum where he told you every thought you should have and the emotion behind it, but only as a guideline to explain HIS vision so that you could bring it to life in YOUR way. It may have been simple, but those Tv shows and others like them sold a lot of tickets and got a lot of personalities over. So maybe we should go back and examine the most magical, and simplest, of them all.

The first Tv show I ever worked was one of the most successful of all time--Studio Wrestling in Memphis, Tennessee. Every Saturday morning for 90 minutes, from the small studio of Channel 5, the NBC-TV affiliate in Memphis, one of the highest-rated locally produced TV shows of any kind in the United States was presented live as it happened to as many as 300,000 plus viewers in a 100 mile radius. The weekly live events at the Mid-South Coliseum that TV show was the promotional vehicle for drew between 200,000 fans per year (in a bad year) and over 350,000 (in a good one) for over TWENTY YEARS. Some of the biggest names in wrestling history started, appeared, or headlined that Tv show in a studio before 100 fans whose number on the 6 to 12 month waiting list for tickets had come up. This is how that show was put together.

You arrived at 10AM to go on the air live at 11AM. The heels dressed in the employee breakroom, the babyfaces on the news set. Faces and heels would never be seen together in the station because it was not a controlled environment--the employees weren't smart. The only place that rule was not in effect was the men's bathroom, aka the "finish room". This actually rather fancy men's room with a separate vanity room served as the office for Jerry Jarrett and his booker, whether Bill Dundee, Jerry Lawler or whoever. No one, even station personnel, were allowed in this bathroom except for wrestlers on Saturday mornings.

Starting at 10AM, one by one, the talent in each segment would be brought to that room and their spots for the days' TV explained. The "format" was a one page, handwritten xerox copy of the legal pad sheet the booker had written the TV on, each segment simply saying something like:

SEGMENT 5    JERRY LAWLER VS. PORKCHOP CASH          6:00   TAPE

             DESK--INTERVIEW LAWLER  (VALIANT)       5:00   DARK

By way of explanation, the times are self-explanatory, "Tape" meant it not only aired live in Memphis but on the tape a week later in all the promotion's other markets (so don't say anything town-specific), and "dark" meant that was part of the 30 minutes in each program just dedicated to promoting Memphis events, and would never be seen again. In those, all you talked about was Memphis.

But how did these guys know what to say, to do? Simple--they were told. The booker would say, "OK, Jerry, you and Chops have a good match, let him get a little steam, make your comeback and catch him 1-2-3. Head over to the desk and cut a promo for Monday night against Valiant. Remember you're coming back with NO DQ because last week he got disqualified as you were about to catch him for the belt. When you hit your point about Jimmy needing the ref to save him, Handsome'll hit the desk hot and challenge you to go right there. You accept it and start to roll in but he'll post you from behind and get some heat. As the guys hit to pull it apart Jerry start making a little comeback but Jimmy you powder and leave him frustrated."

From that, experienced pros would put together eleven minutes getting themselves over and selling tickets for their main event the following Monday. The match would be exciting and Lawler, the hometown hero, would go over strong but not squashing Porkchop, then "The King" would cut an incredible promo selling his match with Valiant and making you believe he meant every word he said, Valiant would interrupt and engage in a pointed verbal confrontation that let you feel the hatred between the two, and then attack the hero with dirty tactics until he was stopped just as Lawler was showing signs of life and the ability to even the score. See you Monday night.

It was all given out like that, whether promo--you were told what to talk about, the way it was said was mostly on your shoulders--or match--you were told who was winning, or even a specific finish, that was it and it better be good--or angle--the most-discussed but still in generalities of "I'll say this", or "get a bunch of heat". If you were good and performed the vision or told the story well, you got more chances. If you didn't, they eventually got somebody that could.

That was it. Nothing else was on paper because someone outside the business may stumble across it, or someone in the station "not smart" may pick it up. A promotion representative like Guy Coffey or Buddy Wayne sat in the control room with the director to make sure he shot what they needed. Usually the director was a regular who was "with it" enough from doing the job that he got it without being officially smartened up, and the three regular cameramen fit that category as well. All the channel 5 employees knew to be respectful of the business and not make smart comments in or out of the station--it was a good job to work the station's number one show.

By 11AM all was given out, except when Lawler booked and liked to work last-minute, (segment three may be being given while two was in the ring), and the show went on the air. For the next hour and a half, it HAPPENED. Then, just two and a half hours after we GOT there, it was a mad dash for the wrestlers to our favorite fried chicken place for lunch, because since we were household names in town and over 60 percent of the people watching Tv that morning had just watched our show, whoever got there first could dine inside. If the babyfaces got there first, the heels had to order at the drive-thru window and eat in their cars, as we would be fired for socializing in public, because did I mention?--People weren't smart!

This method created the truly best training ground for a young wrestler (or manager) ever for those with the talent to take advantage of it. You literally learned how to get yourself over by the sink or swim method on one of the bigger scales imaginable. You got one chance to do this, no retakes, it better be good because hundreds of thousands of eyes are on it. And it worked, because not only could you tell if you were doing things right by more interest from the fans, and get experience executing different kinds of angles with a variety of talent, you had to be prepared for ANYTHING, as that's what can happen on live TV.

One famous episode saw Chic Donovan arrive late for the first match, that HAD to be on first as something was happening in the finish, so Jimmy Hart had to run out and promo how great he and his First Family of Wrestling were for five minutes until Chic jumped in the ring still tieing his boots. Or the bomb threat that was phoned into the studio--without ever informing the TV audience, the studio was evacuated except for host Lance Russell, Jerry Lawler and one cameraman, and Lawler and Lance sold the Monday card for twenty minutes until the bomb squad cleared the public to reenter. No one was the wiser--including wrestler Ken Dillinger, who was hidden in a wooden box as the evil "Dr. Frank"--since he was in the box, they forgot to tell him to leave!

There was the time Terry Funk decided to rip my pants off, not only not telling me beforehand he was going to do it, but neglecting to even ask if I was wearing underwear--thankfully I was. "Hot Stuff" Eddie Gilbert once actually ran Lawler over with a car in the parking lot--Gilbert floored it, and Lawler went completely up over the bonnet AND roof of the car in a way bigger bump than he intended, but somehow wasn't crippled. The angle was somewhat muted when Lawler reappeared to cut a promo at the end of the show--so many people had seen the incident on live TV and called the Memphis police to report Lawler's murder, the cops made him go out and show the public he was OK or they would take HIM to jail! There was even an incident in 1973 where outlaw wrestler and famous lunatic Mario Galento jumped into the ring to really attack booker/babyface Jerry Jarrett, a real-life angle with blood and "hardways" and the only thing really noticeably different about this incident and any other TV angle was the fact that both Jarrett's partner Tojo Yamamoto AND heels Lawler and Sam Bass came to Jarrett's aid. Billy Joe Travis was even arrested for real on the air when the cops arrived at the station to pick him up on back child support, and were persuaded to let him have his match first if they could arrest him on the air afterward.

In an environment like that, you HAD to learn. Of course, as the years have gone by, more paperwork is necessary. In OVW for a time in the early 2000's, I even started writing out the shows for talent. I was alone, giving out finishes and promos to wrestling school talent who had never done TV before, much less on the scale I was asking of them. I just didn't have the time every week to sit with everyone for hours, so I wrote it all out, gave it to them verbally, then told them to use the notes as backup and make the promo their own, or do exactly what I had called in their match, but if they did it correctly, they would get the right reaction or end at the right time. It was a learning tool, and sooner or later, as they got experience and were able to help train the newcomers, I went back to a simple format because they had in effect, "learned their lessons." That was the goal--to teach guys how to do these things themselves, so they'd know how to get over. That's the biggest difference between training wrestlers, and sports entertainers.

This is at the root of that intangible, yet distinct feeling that fans today have when trying to explain the difference in the tenor of wrestling from years ago versus today--they don't really know how to describe it or quantify it, but they know it's there. It's the one little thing that somehow, as you watched, made the implausible seem kind of plausible, and it's missing today. It's because today's wrestlers sadly have to spend too much time acting, and not enough time REacting--and that takes the passion out of it every time.