I’ve got to admit, I didn’t see it coming. And by it, I mean the conclusion of the June 11 Raw Draft Special.
When a dejected Vince McMahon made his way through the arena to the parking lot, stopping several times to turn around, I figured one of two things was going to happen. Either Vince would come to his senses, shake off the funk that he had been in since losing the ECW title and resume his role as the evil chairman, or he’d simply say, “I quit” and ride off into the night.
But his limo exploding? Nope, wasn’t expecting that.
Watching the show on tape (a necessity for those of us who work at night), the first thing I did was head over to WWE.com to get the company line. Shame on me perhaps, but I was surprised to see the introductory screen with a big picture of the burning limo and a headline announcing that McMahon was presumed dead. The promotion was treating the stunt like it was real, and enough people were fooled that some mainstream media outlets took the bait and law enforcement officials got some phone calls.
Subsequent stories on the company’s site and the memorial tributes on ECW and Smackdown just cemented how straight the WWE was playing this story. Just like that, kayfabe, the mysterious curtain used to divide wrestling’s fantasy world from real life, received a fiery rebirth.
To be fair, it was never completely dead. Even in the heyday of the Attitude era, when so-called reality-based storylines were all the rage, there was still a bit of separation between the two worlds. More recent twists like the Edge-Lita-Matt Hardy love triangle from a few years ago may have taken seed from a real life event, but they grew to take on lives of their own on television.
The limo incident is a different animal. Injuries have always been a part of kayfabe — especially when wrestlers get hurt in a match and then get attacked by a foe with a steel chair the next night to explain why they are on the shelf — but deaths are usually handled in serious fashion. It’s true that WWE stories all say that Vince is “presumed dead,” but that doesn’t fly in articles exploring how Shane and Stephanie are handling their first Father’s Day without their dad. Even the simple ringing of the bell in memoriam ticked off long-time fans, who feel that tribute should be reserved for wrestling’s true deceased.
It’s also requires a bigger leap of faith than most things fans see on Raw or Smackdown. Wrestling doesn’t have the strongest internal logic compared to other forms of popular entertainment, but most weeks it’s only a character like The Boogeyman (who is presented with a bit of a wink anyway) who can be a little hard to swallow. Contrast that with the incineration of the Chairman on live TV. It’s no contest.
In retrospect, the way the WWE handled the impending departure of Rob Van Dam may have been a clue that the line between fantasy and reality was about to become less blurry. WWE.com has been pretty honest about wrestlers getting released or failing to come to terms on new contracts for the better part of this decade, but the site chose to sell a fake injury and suggest that it may spell the end of RVD’s career. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal, but after the Draft Special it appears to be the harbinger of a kayfabe paradigm shift.
I’m not enough of a historian to pinpoint the exact time that wrestling started going away from its historical attitude toward kayfabe, but once it did, there was no going back. To borrow a time-tested cliché, there was no putting the genie back in the bottle once the first credible person admitted that yes, wrestling is scripted. So it’s an understandable gut reaction to chastise McMahon and his writers and call them out for underestimating the intelligence of the fans.
Not many of them were fooled though, and the company was savvy enough to disseminate both real and “fake” news online until recently. Maybe there’s more going on here than meets the eye, something bigger than just an outlandish stunt to write Vince off television and make a statement the night after The Sopranos ended so quietly on HBO.
Perhaps this is the next logical step in the evolution of kayfabe, or for wrestling in general. We’ve already seen fantasy completely passed off as reality followed by a period of spinning real world events into storylines and allowing the viewers behind the curtain. It’s possible that the WWE feels that those two approaches are exhausted, and the only way left to go is to present something that can’t possibly be real and hope that most of the fans are in on the joke.
That would require more faith in the audience than McMahon’s people have shown in the past, but it does mesh with Vince’s apparent desire to play up the entertainment portion of sports entertainment. SLAM! Wrestling Raw reporter Dale Plummer told me he hopes Vince never appears again as a character and stays away making movies. But why leave if you can simply make your movies on television?
I’m not sure I would like to see wrestling head down that road, but I haven’t ruled out the chance that I am reading too much into this and it really is just a way to get someone off TV that is in slightly bad taste. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time you could say that about a WWE storyline. If Vince pops up again unscathed next month, it will be ridiculous, but it will have people talking, and I’m pretty sure that’s the point.
One thing I do know is that even if it wasn’t part of my job to watch the shows, I’d be tuning in over the next few weeks just to see where this storyline goes. As long as I’m not the only person who feels that way, blowing himself up was a smart move by Mr. McMahon. All aboard the kayfabe train.
CALL AND RESPONSE CHALLENGE
The exploding limo may be the most recent ludicrous WWE plot twist, but it’s definitely not the first. I’d love to hear what you think was the event that was too much for your suspension of disbelief, the kind of thing that made you yell, “Oh come, on!” at the television. I’m talking about things like Mark Henry supposedly impregnating Mae Young. Oops, now you can’t use that one.
My favorite responses will be discussed in next column’s Call and Response. Try to limit examples to the last ten years or so of WWE history, because going any further back than that runs the risk of hitting the period where the ridiculous was a weekly occurrence.