Comedy and Wrestling

9 Jul

I am a trained pro wrestler. That’s not a joke. I was trained by “Soul Man” Alex G, who trained current WWE superstar Montel Vontavious Porter. I never WENT anywhere with it, but over the latter two years of high school, I wrestled about 7 professional matches, all in nowhere towns in northern Florida, Georgia, or Alabama. Here’s one of my few matches I have on videotape to prove it.

I was Spectrum, the rainbow dude. If you listen to my comedy videos, you can tell it’s my voice coming out of Spectrum’s mouth–er–mask. Now you can see why I never went anywhere with it.

Actually, the reason I never went anywhere with it was because I went to college, stopped working out, got fat, and got into comedy. So it goes.

But the more I spend in the comedy scene, the more I realize the multitude of similarities between professional wrestling and stand-up comedy. On the surface you might think I’m bullshitting, but if you bear with me, I will elucidate my bullshit with more bullshit.

At the center of both the stand-up comedian and pro wrestler presentation is the persona, the character that the performer must play. In pro wrestling it’s known as the “gimmick,” and has a pretty extreme range of possibilities, from the more outlandish like a wrestling zombie or a ninja from the future, to the more subtle, like a street-wise thug from the inner city or an English blueblood.

In comedy it’s the same. You can have people who adopt a full-on CHARACTER, like Neil Hamburger, whose comedy comes from sending up the image of an inept, neurotic Vegas lounge comedian, or Larry the Cable Guy, who pretends to be what the rest of the world thinks Americans are like and what many Americans think we SHOULD be like, or people who just play more or less themselves, but with something turned up.

Either way, the performer creates a coherent, consistent voice that informs the performance. The Undertaker, being an undead zombie, is slow, plodding, but powerful in all of his movements, and every movement reflects that persona. You won’t see him doing any high flying moves (save for the OCCASIONAL over-the-top-rope dive), much less will you see David Cross doing jokes about his grandma farting. Rey Misterio, on the other hand, does many quick, crazy moves that leave his opponent confused, lending to his “mysterious” aura.

Both modes of performance render the performer completely responsible and answerable to the audience. Neither have any illusion of a “fourth wall” to tell the audience this is something completely separate from them and thus discourage them from reacting to it. It is, in fact, the complete opposite: both performers seek a crowd reaction with every action, and failure to get that reaction is seen as a failure of the performance as a whole. For the comedian, it’s laughter, for the wrestler, it’s “heat,” i.e. cheers for the good guy and jeers for the bad guy.

A comedian puts together jokes into a string of jokes that can be called a “bit” or a “routine,” with different punchlines paced to make the audience laugh more and more. Both wrestlers in a match will put together different holds and maneuvers into “spots,” sequences of moves that are both impressive and establish the good guy/bad guy dynamic and develop their characters. At the end of a joke, the comedian wants laughter. At the end of a spot, the wrestlers want to hear the audience cheer or boo.

The audience, in both, are aware of their power. Wrestling crowd are notorious for chants like “Boooooring! Booooring!” and “You fucked up! You fucked up!” Stand-up comedy crowds usually have individual hecklers who are often more obnoxious knowing their individual voices can be heard. In either case, if the performer doesn’t have an acceptable response to the audience’s criticism, it reduces their credibility.

Some people manage to get mainstream success playing to easy reactions, doing the least that it takes, but doing it big: the Hulk Hogans and the Dane Cooks. They make money. They’re as much businessmen as they are performers. This often leads to disdain from fans who have a stronger appreciation for the craft behind the performance and look towards people who may have a more cerebral approach and attention to technique, like the Louis C.K.’s, Eddie Guerreros, Patton Oswalts, and Chris Benoits.

Sometimes, though, the darlings of the connoisseurs do get recognized with mainstream success.  Eddie Guerrero got a WWE championship before he died, and Louis C.K. has his own TV show again.

Some of the same attitudes and controversies pervade in both, as well. At the beginner level, when you’re just getting started, you find people who think they already know it all when they’ve done jack shit. Just as I’ve seen many overconfident open-mic-ers as detailed in my previous post, I once went to a show where guys whose “careers” consisted of three years working “shows” in their god damn back yards boasting to each other about their “years in the business.” Please.  The same kind of people who don’t understand that you have to tell actual JOKES when you do comedy are the same people who don’t understand why it looks stupid when in the first three minutes of the match you’re hitting each other with chairs and the match goes on for 20 more minutes.

Egos are sensitive in either as well. You talk shit and the wrong person hears you, it gets to bookers, and you’re blacklisted from a club or a promotion. Some people just develop feuds over nothing. There’s double-crossing, ass-kissing, and stepping on other people to get to the top.

Some people say Stone Cold Steve Austin essentially stole the gimmick of ECW’s Sandman and just made it famous in the (at the time) WWF, just like people say Denis Leary took Bill Hicks’s persona and material and made it famous after Bill Hicks died.

You either put in the hard work and pay your dues, or you exploit the work of others and take an easy ride into fame.

In the end, both comedy and wrestling are just people killing themselves in front of a crowd just to make that crowd happy.

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