Saturday, 20 August 2011
"What Happened To All The Promos?" The Duckman Discusses
With one promo WWE was turned upside down. Actually that’s an understatement – with one well constructed and brilliantly executed promo WWE was turned upside down. I don’t know about you, but back on 27th June during those famous seven minutes when CM Punk picked up a mic, sat cross legged on the stage and seemingly spoke from the heart live on Raw, memories came flooding back to me.
Memories of a time when promos were original and outlandish, engaging and entertaining, interesting and intense. All the things a regular WWE promo hasn’t been in YEARS. While reminiscing about the glory days of the great wrestling promo a question came to mind – why has WWE killed the wrestling promo?
And kill it they have. Sure, we get moments every now and again (like with Punk or Paul Heyman before him) where suddenly a promo is allowed to be powerful, impactful, important and attention grabbing but those moments are few and far between. They come along every five years or so and they’re usually in the form of a ‘worked shoot’ attempt by WWE to make something scripted and planned appear real. Sadly those moments, no matter how great and exciting they are at the time, don’t change the fact that in WWE the promo has died a sad, slow and pointless death over the last few years.
I’m sure some of you are thinking I’m being overly dramatic but the facts speak for themselves. It took one promo - one heartfelt, intense, well crafted and natural sounding promo to shine a light on how far the art of the wrestling promo has fallen in WWE. I’ve been struggling to find a good reason for the death of the wrestling promo in WWE. There are still guys in WWE that can kick a wicked promo. They just never get the chance. Why have we ended up here when things used to be so good?
There’s only one place to start when it comes to great promos and that’s Gorgeous George – a man who’s influence on professional wrestling is criminally over looked and greatly under appreciated by today’s modern wrestling fan. George was a pioneer. He understood that talking the people into the seats was just as important as impressing them with your match once they got there. He realised he could make the people care to such a degree with just his words they would pay big money to see him eat those same words at the hands of his opponent.
George had that realisation earlier than anyone else in professional wrestling in the late 40s and early 50s and he made a ton of money from it. With the advent of wrestling on television Gorgeous George put together a package that has been copied, adapted and improved upon for the past six decades by all wrestlers – character/gimmick and promos.
His ring work was almost secondary because George was able to connect with his audience on an emotional level just by talking. With his gimmick and his words, George made the people care and if the people care, they will pay to see you and that’s the key to the whole profession.
One of the greatest promo men in the history of all sports, Muhammad Ali, always gave credit to Gorgeous George for being the inspiration behind his brash and cleverly constructed interviews. George was the man who gave Ali the idea to put sting in his words and it was his influence that changed the way boxing, professional wrestling and more recently MMA has been promoted in the years that followed.
Of course promos have changed a lot since the days of Gorgeous George – especially since WWE became the wrestling world. Many different styles of promos have been used down the years depending on the situation and the wrestlers involved. No matter the style, the promo should always have a point and drive forward a storyline or be used to put over a wrestler’s character/motivations etc. They must PROMOTE something. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:
Date, location, opponent promo – some of you might be too young to remember these. Dude stands in front of the camera and talks about coming to this town or arena on a certain date to wrestle someone. Short, sweet and usually ending with a finger being pointed towards the camera for added emphasis. Sometimes these promos would appear in a box in the corner of the screen while the wrestler talking was beating up some jobber. This lead to the brain melting situation of hearing a guy talk about beating someone up, while at the same time watching him beat someone up, who wasn’t the guy he was talking about beating up!
Interview promo – a simple and effective promo device. Dude stands with interviewer and cuts a promo in a question and answer style. These promos would lead to some ad libbed back and forth between the wrestler and interviewer. Ric Flair was the master interviewee with Gene Okerlund the master interviewer.
In-ring promo – this style of promo has become more prevalent in recent years. Pushed to the limit by HHH during the mid 2000s when no Raw could begin without Hunter cutting a 20 minute promo about how fucking awesome he was. Oh wait a minute, that’s how the last 3 episodes of Raw and Smackdown have begun…cue Back to the Future music.
Back and forth in-ring promo – usually happens when subject of said “in-ring promo” comes out and interrupts the original speaker. Again, lots of opportunity for ad-libbing and some truly great moments – anything involving Steve Austin and The Rock spring to mind. Although in recent years Edge, Chris Jericho, CM Punk and even…John Cena have had some classic moments in these situations.
Video promo – mostly used in WWE to introduce a new wrestler to the audience. The peak of the creativity for these videos was in the heyday of ECW. Raven, Mick Foley, Sandman, Tommy Dreamer and even Steve Austin all benefited from the tremendous video promo production skill used in ECW. The mix of music and strange camera shots was truly groundbreaking. See the NWO videos in WCW for a good example of how to bring (steal) this style onto the national stage.
The “we don’t know we’re being filmed” promo –two wrestlers are talking about something, maybe planning an attack, but never acknowledge their every word is being recorded for millions to see and hear. This style has now been developed by TNA to include; filming through half closed blinds, filming through pot plants, filming from miles away while hiding behind a wall and using a mirror to look around said wall. With their coup de grâce being - filming the promo while the camera rolls from side to side in the hands of a drunk man with Parkinson’s Disease in a dimly lit backstage area.
I’m sure everyone has their favourite style of promo and I might not have mentioned it. What it does show is how much the style of presentation of a wrestling promo has changed down the years.
When I was putting this article together earlier in the week I decided to get some input from the internet wrestling community. I know, I know, a risky move but it does help. Honestly, it does. Normally when you ask for input on a wrestling forum you feel a bit like the toy makers in that episode of The Simpsons when they are trying to come up with their new Christmas toy and they asked the kids – what do you want from a toy? Only to be bombarded with every conceivable type of toy the kids could think of. Stupid kids. (I believe Funzo was the end product.) Thankfully when I raised the subject of promos no one shouted, “they should have a telescope, no a periscope, no a MICROSCOPE, can you come back to me?”
When talking about promos the same words kept coming up and the same names were put forward as masters of the craft:
Intense – Steve Austin/Jake Roberts
Entertaining – Ric Flair/Roddy Piper/Chris Jericho
Cool – The Rock/The Miz
Heartfelt – Dusty Rhodes/Mick Foley
Cutting edge – Raven/CM Punk
Coked up and crazy – The Ultimate Warrior (ok, that was my suggestion).
A wide range of promo styles have been successful over time and there have been some expert practitioners of the promo. One point that kept coming up was that the promo had to be believable. Not in the case of what the wrestler was saying was a shoot, but that the wrestler believed in what they said. It helps you to suspend your disbelief if the guy cutting the promo sounds like he believes it.
You know why 90% of the guys listed above sound like they believed in what they said? Because they did. They sat down and they created the promo. The promoter/booker would add a few bullet points they wanted them to cover. Then they went out there and they cut their promo. It was the wrestler’s own words, own emotions, own style of delivery and their own character (all be it with the volume amped up) that was saying the words to the fans or the camera.
It worked. For years. Decades. Then suddenly and without any real reasoning behind the decision, WWE decided to change things up. I guess they wanted more control over what was said on TV. God forbid someone went out there and spoke from the heart or spoke in a way that was natural and believable. No, no, we can’t have that. That’s never drawn ANY money...*sigh.*
So in their (and by “their” I mean Vince McMahon) infinite wisdom they decided that no longer will they have a Steve Austin coming up with the line, “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass,” or a Dusty Rhodes talk about “hard times,” or even a Ric Flair putting it out there that “to be the man, you’ve got beat the man.” Instead they would rather have a sit com writer or some other non wrestler come up with the promos for their talent.
A few years after the decision we now have a WWE where, instead of Chris Jericho working his ass off to perfect his debut promo on Raw or Mick Foley spending hours of his day in “promo land” coming up with his latest poetically violent masterpiece, it’s a guy who barely watched wrestling prior to getting his job putting words in their mouths. We are now in a world where a character like The Undertaker, the fucking Undertaker, uses the corporate ‘blue sky thinking’ phrase, “WWE Universe” on a regular basis…
It’s a decision that’s only more baffling than the one to put Booker T on Summerslam commentary instead of Jim Ross. And just like that decision it’s one that can only be bad for business and for the fans of WWE.
CM Punk used the phrase, “the voice of the voiceless,” when describing himself a few weeks ago. He’s wrong. The real ‘voice of the voiceless’ in WWE are the creative team. The men and women who sit around and decide what someone like Christian or John Cena should say and how they should say it. Obviously because these script writers have more understanding of the characters of the wrestlers in WWE than say…the fucking wrestlers themselves!
Think about that for a moment. A 50 year old dude, who only got his job because he once wrote jokes for Two and a Half Men and who has probably has only ever heard of Hulk Hogan, let alone watched one of his matches, is now tasked with coming up with promos for a 15 year plus veteran like Christian. He has more of an understanding of Christian’s character than Christian himself. At least according to WWE.
Thousands of people in the IWC complain about John Cena being a bad promo guy. The truth is John Cena is a GREAT promo guy, it’s just the lines that are written for him invariably involve turds or turd related humour and even John Cena can’t polish a turd. Granted sometimes he should pull a Jericho or Punk and just chuck the script in the garbage and go out there and talk like he would really talk - with passion, believability, with his own character and humour laced throughout. Unfortunately it’s very rare that will happen…
Yet when it does, in the case of CM Punk, the whole fucking world goes nuts! People suddenly go, “wow, someone in WWE is talking on TV and he doesn’t sound like a high school actor reciting lines from the end of year play. Maybe I should watch this stuff again, reminds of the days when promos were awesome!”
They get a spike in interest. People, who remember a wrestling promo before it was shackled with WWE’s corporate control measures and ruined by non wrestling writers attempting to sound like a wrestler, are interested in the product again. But WWE never put two and two together and make the call to give the wrestlers a chance to get over in their promos by using their own words and their own characters. It’s absolutely baffling. More baffling than Booker T on commentary.
The saddest indictment of the whole situation is that the best wrestling promo guy in the world today doesn’t even work in wrestling. Chael Sonnen in the UFC made himself a legitimate star with his promos in the run up to his Middleweight Title fight with Anderson Silva. He took the best parts of his favourite pro wrestler promos and used them to such a smart and entertaining degree that he easily added 100,000 PPV buys to his fight with Silva. I mean how can you not watch a guy who uses lines like:
“Anderson complained about having a sore rib before our fight. I told him his rib had the same problem as his arms and his legs – they’re attached to a wimp.”
Sonnen would be a massive star in WWE – ten years ago. Now he’d just be cutting ‘generic heel promo 101’ like the Wade Barrett’s and everyone else who doesn’t get to add their own personality to their promos.
When it all comes down it the only thing that matters in wrestling, be it in matches, promos, characters or feud is emotional investment. If people care and believe, people are interested and will pay. Case in point – the promo by Davey Richards at the end of ROH’s recent IPPV Best in the World. If you haven’t seen this promo I urge you to go out of your way to find it. I can’t do it justice because I can’t convey the raw emotion and passion of Richards, who after winning the ROH World Title in one of the most hard hitting, intense and well constructed matches in ROH history, falls to his knees with his training partners and the man he just beat for the Title – Eddie Edwards.
Through real tears, one of the toughest mother fuckers I’ve seen in wrestling, talks about the struggles of the past year – from both his grandparents dying (who raised him and got him into wrestling) to his extremely messy divorce from his wife. He wraps everything he’s been through in real life together his year long struggle to gain the ROH World Title. He doesn’t do in a Hollywood style. He just speaks like a man who has something emotional and important he wants to say.
The utter conviction in both his words and his body language is spine chilling. This isn’t a man reciting lines he’s been given in the back by a dude who got into wrestling six months ago as a way to move onto another writing gig in Hollywood. This is as real as a wrestling promo gets. Even more real than anything CM Punk has said over the last two months.
It isn’t an insider line filled shoot. Or a clever way to set up a storyline by appearing real. It’s a man who has fought through personal and professional adversity, talking about what he’s been through, how it’s effected him and what it means to come out the other side as a World Champion. It is a REAL wrestling promo.
So there is hope folks, maybe the true wrestling promo isn’t dead yet. If you’re like me and long for the days of promos that were created by the wrestlers delivering them unfortunately you might need to wait another 5 years to hear one in WWE.
However, just like long matches and well planned booking, if you cast your eye to a certain promotion that is coming on to TV on September 24th you’ll find those promos that WWE have tried to kill off. ROH are the life support of professional wrestling and I just hope they keep charging the defibrillator and keep alive this aspect of the crazy genre that I love.
CM Punk might’ve got all the headlines but in ROH, where he learnt to cut those promos, the real wrestling promo is thankfully still alive and well.
Thanks for reading and thanks for continuing to support Wrestling’s Last Hope. As always comments and feedback are gratefully received. Remember I can be found on twitter @WLHDuckman. Catch you guys next time.