Wrestling and comedy with Rockstar Pro Arena & Rob Van Dam

By Gary Spencer

Photo: Photos by David Stockwell/DemoBlast Studios

 

When we think of pro wrestling, what do we usually imagine? Depending on who you’re talking to, it could mean incredible feats of athleticism, “fake” fighting, or possibly a soap opera for men. That last thought holds a surprising amount of water, given that many people consider pro wrestling just as much a form of entertainment as any movie or TV show—Vince McMahon, empresario of World Wrestling Entertainment, the biggest pro wrestling promotion in the world, even declared his product “sports entertainment.” However, while soap operas are historically devoid of comedy and humor, pro wrestling is chock full of it. Whether you’re watching a weekly episode of WWE Raw or SmackDown, or locally at the weekly taping of Rockstar Pro Wrestling’s Amped show on East Third Street, there’s bound to be a hilarious line in an interview (a “promo,” in wrestling speak), a wrestler with a comedy-oriented gimmick, or a funny spot during a match. Humor is part and parcel of pro wrestling, almost as ubiquitous as a lockup, punch, or kick. But as the saying in car commercials goes, your mileage may vary with when and what type of humor works in pro wrestling—and when it infamously falls on its face, much like “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair used to do back in the day.

“There has always been an element of campiness to the art of pro wrestling,” explains GeeGee Bradley, co-owner of Dayton-based wrestling promotion Rockstar Pro Wrestling and all-around pro wrestling expert. “I mean, it’s grown men in tights punching each other in the face for your entertainment.”

Professional wrestling as entertainment traces its history back to the mid-1800s as a sideshow attraction in carnivals or circuses in Europe, where purported tough guys would challenge anybody in attendance to a fight and a “plant” in the audience would accept said challenge, then the two would stage a match presented as a legitimate contest even though it was pre-planned, known in pro wrestling speak as a “work.” Outcomes were also predetermined, despite its presentation to audiences as an actual competition. For several decades, these staged contests maintained an air of seriousness while exhibiting elements of legitimate fighting such as Greco-Roman and Olympic wrestling. The modern style of wrestling most of us are familiar with today was born in the late 19th century, historically referred to “catch-as-catch-can” style, which started using more flashy, theatrical, choreographed fighting elements more akin to fight scenes in a movie, such as dives, kicking, and punching, and fewer elements of the technical Greco-Roman style to keep audiences more entertained. After the turn of the 20th century, professional wrestling moved further and further away from the realm of “real,” as audiences began to question its legitimacy.

Professional wrestling further moved into the realm of pure entertainment during the mid-20th century as wrestlers began to don personalities or “gimmicks” to draw fans into their “fights,” not coincidentally coinciding with the development of television. The first of these was the iconic Gorgeous George, whose gimmick was his obsession with his own good looks, and would often cheat or use underhanded tactics to win matches. Fans would tune in and come out in droves to see George, known in wrestling speak as a “heel” (a bad guy, in layman’s terms), get his ass kicked by the plucky “babyface” (i.e., good guy), and in turn, make a ton of money. Soon, other wrestlers began donning their own gimmicks, both babyface and heel, as this element made pro wrestling even more entertaining to fans and in turn would draw money, and the art of cutting a promo became more commonplace and key to their success.

“The television era definitely kicked the flamboyant personalities up a notch,” Bradley explains. “When wrestling hit TV, the wrestler needed a big personality too, to catch the attention of the channel-surfer before they clicked to see what’s on the other channels. From ‘Gorgeous’ George to ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair, the guys who could look into a camera and ‘talk people into the buildings’ are the ones who became stars.”

Some of these gimmicks were of the comedic variety, a sideshow, or comic relief to the big and mean heels and the straight-laced good guy babyfaces working more straightforward matches. The element of comedic gimmicks became especially popular during what is commonly referred to as “the second golden age of wrestling” during the 1980s, and humor-based gimmicks like The Bushwhackers and Hillbilly Jim became some of the most popular wrestlers of the era led by the surging popularity of what was then known as the World Wrestling Federation.

“The cartoonish landscape of the then-WWF in the ’80s is when the comedy aspect dominated the business,” Bradley adds. “There was a huge resurgence of comedy during the ‘attitude era’ of the ’90s, but it was much adult-oriented ‘blue’ comedy. The business always evolves and changes with pop culture.”

This more lurid humor prompted by changes in popular culture during the 1990s manifested with many over-the -top wrestling gimmicks such as Doink The Clown, the Gobbledy Gooker (yes, a man in a turkey costume wrestling), Mankind (with the aid of “Socko,” his ever-present sock puppet), and most infamously Beaver Cleavage, a grown man dressed as a little boy from the 1950s who made goofy faces and was often caught staring at his mother’s breasts. Since then, humor remains a key element of pro wrestling, albeit usually in a more PG-manner in the now-rebranded WWE (changed to emphasize the “entertainment” aspect of their wrestling product) and on the independent circuit. Some of the most popular comedy-oriented gimmicks in pro wrestling in the modern era include the English-garbling Italian man with the over-emphasized unibrow, Santino Marella, a wrestler who believed himself to be an actual comic book superhero known as The Hurricane, and the current WWE tag team champions, The New Day, famous for exaggerated dancing and catchphrases so cartoony they even have their own breakfast cereal called “Booty-Os.” And, even when a wrestler’s gimmick isn’t rooted solely in comedy, all wrestlers need to have the ability to be funny when the time comes for it. Guys like The Rock, Kurt Angle, and Dean Ambrose have become modern masters of that skill in the squared circle. Overall, the success or failure of humor in contemporary pro wrestling depends on a variety of factors.

“It has to be organic and natural,” Bradley says. “A wrestler can be silly, but they can’t insult the audience’s intelligence. [Currently] WWE fans are popping for Enzo Amore’s ‘How you doin’?’ and Chris Jericho’s silly ‘You’ve made the list!’ gimmick because people love to laugh, and it doesn’t feel forced.”

With the need to be funny on the spot in front of a live audience, it should be no surprise that some wrestlers such as “Mankind” Mick Foley and Dolph Ziggler made the transition to standup comedy. One of the first guys to do so is former WWE and ECW champion Rob Van Dam, who was active as a pro wrestler throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Van Dam, also known as “Mr. Monday Night” and “The Whole F—-n’ Show,” was a fan of standup comedy even before he became enamored with pro wrestling as a child.

“I was a fan of standup comedy for all my life, as long as I can remember,” Van Dam says. “Growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, there was a comedy club we’d always go to, and me and a couple of my buddies were like, ‘Someday, we’re gonna go up there on open mic night, write some material, and with some preparation, give it a try.’ Even when I was wrestling, it was always on my mind.”

As his full-time wrestling career was winding down, Van Dam finally had the opportunity to test his mettle as an on-stage funny man, which prodded the former champion into giving standup comedy a full-fledged go.

“In 2006, in L.A., I got an invitation to go up on stage,” Van Dam explains. “The comedians that night weren’t very funny, so I thought, ‘There’s no way I can be any worse,’ so that helped with my confidence. I really enjoyed it and I’ve been doing it ever since then, mostly in L.A. and Vegas.”

Unlike other wrestlers who’ve tried their hand at standup, Van Dam says he isn’t using his life as a pro wrestler as a springboard or basis for his standup style or material.

“Some of the other wrestlers may go up on stage to tell wrestling stories, and that doesn’t inspire me,” he says. “It wasn’t about trying to bleed my wrestling brand. I go up there and tell jokes. I talk about weed, I talk about driving, drinking, other comedians. I float around through life and just say what’s funny.”

Citing famous comedians such as Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright among his favorite and most similar to his own standup style, Van Dam has a very defined style and approach to standup comedy.

“I’ve got a super dry sense of humor—it’s so dry, it’s like cotton-mouth dry,” Van Dam jests. “It’s simple, yet it’s what other comedians call intelligent humor. It’s so dry, you’d better have two drinks ready before I go on stage!”

A good example of Van Dam’s comedy style can be summed up by a chance occasion at a motivational speaking summit he once attended.

“I was at a motivational speaking seminar looking for energy to stir up something positive,” Van Dam recalls. “The speaker said, ‘Try to live the rest of your day like it’s your last because you never know when you may be walking down the street and get hit by a bus.’ I felt so inspired I replied, ‘I got something for you to try—it’s called the sidewalk, dude!’”

Van Dam took his standup act to the road for the first time earlier this year, and this month, he plans to hit the Midwest with a five-star frog splash of laughs including a stop at Rockstar Pro Wrestling this Thursday. Performing at Dayton’s home for independent sports entertainment will be both familiar and new territory for the budding comedian and former world champion as he has not really targeted the wrestling audience for his comedy act.

“The last tour that I did back in April was my first experience in getting wrestling fans out to the shows,” Van Dam explains. “I normally do The Improv and The Comedy Store where people come specifically to see comedy. That’s more interesting to me than to cross over—they’re already there to drink and laugh and they’re a very small percentage of wrestling fans. It’s something I’m not used to, but when I get that support from wrestling fans on a tour, that works out great. Either way my routine doesn’t change much—it’s always a hit and never a bomb.”

So, to paraphrase Stone Cold Steve Austin, the bottom line is pro wrestling and comedy have more in common than one might initially suspect.

“Both comedy and wrestling take a lot of nerve, to get up in front of an audience and perform,” Bradley opines. “Both take a lot of dedication to practicing and mastering your craft. Both rely on the ability to read an audience’s reaction and make adjustments to your game plan if they’re not biting… As long as it’s actually funny and seems natural, there will always be a place for humor in wrestling.”

Rob Van Dam’s standup comedy tour hits Dayton Thursday, Nov. 17 to Rockstar Pro Arena, 1106 E. Third St. in Dayton. Matt Light and Tom Garland are also on the bill. Tickets are $20-30 in advance and the show begins at 7:30 p.m. For more information, please visit RockStarProWrestling.com.

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Gary Spencer
Gary Spencer is a graduate of Miami University and works in the performing arts, and believes that music is the best. Contact him at GarySpencer@DaytonCityPaper.com

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