< Real and Unreal in Professional Wrestling

Transcript

Friday, October 14, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

This week, there was some drama, reality TV style, outside the ropes at World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE.

[CLIP FROM SOLIDARITY RALLY]

MAN:

As long as we stick together, nobody cracks, can't be ignored.

MAN:

Frankly, this work environment that we're in, it sucks. And I'm not goin' back in there until I get some respect. I probably wasn't even gonna be on Raw tonight —

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

That was footage from the pre-show solidarity rally before Monday's episode of WWE Raw, USA Network's professional wrestling smackdown, enjoyed by four to five million people each week. The previous week, WWE staged a labor walkout by superstars, divas, referees and announcers who gave a purported vote of no confidence to their onscreen chief operating officer, former WWE champion, Triple H.

[CLIP]:

MAN:

We vote no confidence.

[CROWD BOOS]

I'm sorry, Triple H, no confidence.

WOMAN:

I'm sorry, no confidence.

MAN:

I don't know what anybody else is doin' but right now I'm reluctantly walkin’ out.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The talent was fed up with management and fighting for change. Well, according to the script. But given professional wrestling's unsavory rep as a real life employer, the very existence of the walkout storyline is pretty surreal. David Shoemaker covers professional wrestling for Grantland.com and Deadspin.com. David, welcome to On The Media.

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

Thank you, thanks for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So, can you bring us up to speed on, first of all, the scripted storyline. Triple H apparently had this no confidence vote coming for some time?

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

Right. Triple H was not very popular in his short reign as COO of the WWE, and many of the wrestlers decided to argue that they were the victim of an unsafe work environment and agitate for his removal on those grounds.

This comes in sort of the broader context of a recent shift in WWE storytelling towards a more reality-based approach.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

More backstage drama, as well as in the ring.

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

Right. It's not an entirely new thing, but it was a marked shift for the WWE to deliberately bring in varying degrees of reality throughout all of their shows and all of their storylines.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Well, that is the point here, right? Varying degrees of reality. Who is the actual COO?

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

I don't know that they actually have a COO, although that's a good question. [LAUGHS] I — it's, it was, I think, just more of a designation to separate him from his predecessor as onscreen top dog Vince McMahon, who's the chairman of the WWE.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And Vince McMahon is still chairman.

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

Correct.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And Triple H, whose real name is?

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

His birth name is Paul Levesque. When he came to the WWE, he was rechristened Hunter Hearst Helmsley. And he was playing a, a Greenwich, Connecticut snob.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay. So Triple H —

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

Right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

— was relieved of his duties on the air but in reality he's still an executive at WWE.

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

He is married to Stephanie McMahon, Vince McMahon's daughter, and so has in recent months, exerted a, a significant influence backstage, as far as hiring certain wrestlers and making kind of broader storyline planning decisions.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So there's no actual real life labor unrest currently underway in professional wrestling, right?

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

Not as far as I can tell. Although after last Monday, there was a lot of Twitter action from some of the wrestlers who'd participated in the walkout, and they seemed to be complaining in pretty real world terms about the lack of workers' rights in the WWE.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay, so this is weird. They were drafted to play act a walkout in which they really believed, but has no basis in reality.

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

If I had to guess, I would say that the wrestlers were given the marching orders to go out and tweet as if this were real. But I don't think any of the tweets were scripted by anyone other than the wrestlers themselves. You have to assume that there's some element of real feelings in the - in the words of these wrestlers have, have tweeted.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And, as I mentioned earlier, it's not like the WWE has a sterling record with regard to the rights of its employees. Here is Jesse "The Body" Ventura, former Minnesota Governor, on Howard Stern's show last year.

[CLIP]:

JESSE VENTURA:

The problem that I've had with the WWE for 30 years, Howard, is that they call their wrestlers self-employed, so they don't have to pay Social Security, and the wrestler has to pay 15 percent self-employment tax. Now, how are they self-employed? When you're signed exclusively —

HOWARD STERN:

Right.

JESS "THE BODY" VENTURA:

— you can't work for nobody else.

HOWARD STERN:

It's a monopoly.

JESSE "THE BODY" VENTURA:

Yeah. They tell you when and where you'll work. They can totally control your life.

HOWARD STERN:

And you're under – you’ve signed a contract.

[OVERTALK]

JESSE "THE BODY" VENTURA:

And yet, they call you an independent contractor. How has the government allowed them to get away with that for 35 to 40 years?

HOWARD STERN:

And didn't you have a problem in terms of unionizing?

JESSE "THE BODY" VENTURA:

Oh, yeah. I tried to unionize and, and almost lost my job.

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

An interesting side note to that story is that the rumor is that he was ratted out to Vince McMahon by Hulk Hogan, who is the top star of the day.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS] So if there are legitimate labor grievances, how did the writers come to cook up a walkout storyline?

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

I don't have any specific information about how the storyline came to be. But it's very clear that the way it was conveyed on the screen indicated a pretty plain anti-union bias on the part of the WWE. The main good guy stars did not participate in the walkout. And the clip played earlier on - as they made their no-confidence votes, the crowd was booing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Right.

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

The crowd came down without any hesitation on the side of management.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So despite this depiction of these temporary strikers as disloyal renegades –

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

Mm-hmm?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

- is there still a possibility that life might imitate art?

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

It's a little bit hard to imagine because the status quo is so ingrained. John Cena, who is the top dog in WWE right now and for the past several years, has been on the record as saying that he doesn't think there's any reason for a union. And I think he said specifically that he didn't think there would ever be one because it's a question that's just not gonna be asked.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Why not? I mean these players get hurt.

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

They do, they get hurt frequently. And a lot of them work while injured all the time because they know if they take a week off to deal with a concussion or to deal with a sprained ankle, then that's a week that they're not working towards becoming more popular.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So why can't these guys join the Screen Actors Guild?

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

That's actually a, a case that Darren Aronofsky was making when he was doing publicity for The Wrestler, his movie that came out a couple of years ago. Actors are unionized in, in SAG and stuntmen, as well. And no matter how you want to define a professional wrestler, it's somewhere in that continuum. All the fans that watch professional wrestling understand that it is fake. The — the lie that wrestling is based on is sort of like an unwritten agreement between the fans and the promoters. This tension between reality and unreality is what wrestling is based on. I mean, that's — that's the entire thrill. And I think on some level that unionization, especially with the Screen Actors Guild, would be an acknowledgement too real that what's going on on the screen is not completely real.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You love wrestling. That's why you write about it.

[BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

I love it to death, yeah.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Would it ruin it for you if these guys signed up with the Screen Actors Guild?

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

No, no, it wouldn't ruin it for me at all. That being said, I don't think that's at —that's at the very crux of it. I mean, I think if there were a union opportunity and the WWE gave everyone full permission to join up, I think most everyone would do it. But they're not going to, because the WWE is just too much of an institution. And really, they hold the careers of all the wrestlers in their hands. The question as to what wrestling really is is the best part of wrestling, but it's also at the crux of this problem. You know, I mean, people don't take wrestling seriously enough to really think about this issue. You don't worry that circus clowns aren't unionized and, and that's, you know, the sadness of the situation.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Thanks very much.

DAVID SHOEMAKER:

No problem at all.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

David Shoemaker, also known as The Masked Man, covers professional wrestling for Grantland.com and Deadspin.com.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary, Brett Jaspers, and with more help from Gianna Palmer and Doug Anderson, and edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Dylan Keefe. Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYCs senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. Check out our website where there’s more OTM, including Producer Alex Goldman’s blog about how he’s using the game SuperBetter to help recover from a hellacious injury.

On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Next week  Bob Garfield will be back with his reports from South Africa. I’m Brooke Gladstone.