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Jokesters, Villains and Belts: Wrestling's Mass Appeal

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My dad started working for the World Wrestling Federation (better known today as WWE) when I was about six years old. He was, and still is, the Spanish commentator for all of their events, which means that I got to spend a little time backstage in the 90s when wrestling really blew up. I was able to meet a lot of the WWF's biggest stars -- which was cool and all -- but I had nothing to say at the time. Not only was I not that into wrestling, I was a "Holy Grail"-reciting comedy nerd who couldn't be bothered with a pageant of men in spandex beating the Christ out of each other. I'd tell the other kids at school about my dad and give away T-shirts and toys as proof (ironically, to keep from getting my ass kicked on occasion). Wrestling didn't strike a chord with me... Until I met Jerry Lawler.

Jerry "The King" Lawler, a wrestling mega-star and crown enthusiast, was a good friend of legendary comedian Andy Kaufman. Back in the day, Lawler was nice enough to play the good guy to Kaufman's villain as he toured the country challenging women (and only women) to wrestle. When I asked about Kaufman, The King was quick to offer a story about how he and Andy wanted to go on local news in Memphis and teach the viewers how to use soap and toilet paper, only the station would never let it air.

While Lawler and his anecdote made their way into the movie Man On The Moon, I went to college in New York, started a sketch group and tried to make a go of it in comedy... But the world of wrestling was never far. I interned at The Onion, where my boss Robert Siegel was already penning the screenplay to The Wrestler, then spent a semester in the archival room at Saturday Night Live, where I found that the show's links to the squared circle didn't end with Kaufman. After hosting SNL in 2000, Dwayne Johnson stopped going by "The Rock" and started showing up in movies like Reno 911: Miami, Get Smart and Southland Tales. He's been on three times since then, most recently to play hulked-out president "The Rock Obama." Wrestling's also inspired many an SNL sketch; from Chris Farley as tropical storm El Nino to Jason Segel ordering ice cream as Andre The Giant.

chris farley el nino

For comedians, a wrestling persona facilitates a shocking, more entertaining version of yourself, like what Stephen Colbert does every night. The same kids who grew up body-slamming each other in the living room are now improvisers down at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, where their own brand of comedy wrestling, UCBW, thrives. Every Thursday night, these kids trot out mega-stars of their own design, either serving as homage (like Randy "The Manly Man" Manley), or as a vehicle to push the audience as far as they can go (like with the menstruation-themed Bloody Mary)... and it all comes from a place of love for wrestling's ridiculous costumes and dramatic repartee.

Now, Kaufman loved the sport because of the strong, negative response a man could elicit from the crowd. Andy loved being a step ahead of his audience, and he'd already perfected the art of offense with Tony Clifton, so this was the natural progression for him. Bad guys in wrestling are constantly over-the-top, falling on some crutch to unify the crowd under a common hatred; e.g., In the 80s, "The Million Dollar Man" was a well-heeled villain (an Iron Yuppie of sorts) who used his fortune to rig matches and make fun of poor people, much to the chagrin of working-class fans. Kaufman followed suit with a mix of pride and sexism that guaranteed anger from every class and gender.

So what are the elements that make it so great to watch and even better to play? First, it's a pretty unique spectator's experience. There's no strategy to think about or stats to keep track of. It's a horseless rodeo where competitors ride each other into submission for a big, Texas belt buckle. Then there's choosing sides; you can love the good guy and hate the bad guy, or you can hate the good guy simply for being good and love the bad guy for spite. The point is that you're never wrong. You and everyone else are in on some make-pretend allegiance; believing in something, wholeheartedly and free of doubt. It's an experience that's not just satisfying, but rarely found anywhere else; a sport for people who enjoy being right all the time (a group of folks I affectionately refer to as "everyone.")

While the spectator is satisfied with being infallible, the reward for comedians and performers is a playground for some id-driven game of cops and robbers; a no-holds-barred match between good and evil. Wrestlers get to operate somewhere just under super-villainy; always playing some cat-and-mouse game full of costumes and monologues, sharpening their claws until some inevitable showdown next Sunday at the Meadowlands (where the price of admission gets you a full seat but you'll only need... the edge).