How Would You Define the ‘Entertainment’ Element of WWE? – by Mike Sanchez

Entertainment by its very nature is a subjective term that means different things to a wide variety of people. The dictionary definition of ‘entertainment’ is ‘shows, films, television or other performances or activities that entertain people’. That being said, the definition does not account for the wide array of personal tastes, preferences and dislikes audiences have. What is entertaining to one group of people may be revolting or uninteresting to others. What some crave and actively seek out, perhaps obsess over, others dismiss without a second thought. For example, I adore horror movies and have seen many over the years. I prefer physiological, intense, jumpy movies that keep you on the edge of your seat. However, I don’t like horror movies that overindulge on blood, gore and guts to the extent I feel I’d get the same viewing in an abattoir or slaughterhouse. It’s just not for me.

The business of ‘entertainment’ mainly plays out on television or movie screens. The music industry has its own entertainment value, but the word lends itself more to the visual performance arts. It’s easy to display entertainment in movies and TV because they tell us upfront what to expect. The TV guide or synopsis of a movie or TV show advertises it as a thriller, horror, comedy, romance or action themed piece of work. It’s easy to label for an audience that expects what it says on the tin. When it comes to more sports-based programming, again we know what to expect. We don’t watch soccer, NBA, NFL or others expecting a rib ticking laugh or jump-scares (hopefully not, anyway), but a contest between two sides played out for an expectant audience. When it comes to WWE, or any form of professional wrestling, it’s much harder to predict.

WWE has for a while now, no longer marketed itself as a ‘sport’, but more of an ‘entertainment’ brand – hell, the clue is in the title. But with that comes varying degrees of expectations from audiences. WWE’s new move to FOX hones back to the idea that pro wrestling should be viewed as a sports show, but with more emphasis on the entertaining athleticism on display rather than a series of sports contests. I don’t envy the writers in WWE, as they have to cater to a shifting and often multiple set of demographics. The kids who want parents to buy the merchandise and thousands of toys on offer, the adults who pay to watch live shows, the fans around the world who subscribe to the WWE Network while WWE is ensuring that there is variety on offer by showcasing talent of different ethnicity, ability, size, backgrounds and gender. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to it, but they try. So what ‘entertainment’ avenues to WWE venture down and try to present as best they can?

Kid-Friendly – Think John Cena. Think Hulk Hogan. Think Rey Mysterio. Colorful, larger than life characters on screen who immediately grab your attention. They’re clean cut, hardly ever swear or cuss on TV – both inside and outside of the ring, and are positioned as role models within the company. They’re the people children will recognize and want to emulate. Their move set is repetitive and formulaic. Not in a way that is a detriment to the performer themselves, but a mini-highlight reel that is put on each and every match, just like the kids expect. The 619, the Attitude Adjuster, The Frog Splash, the five knuckle… oh, forget that one. Not too kid-friendly.

The point being that they are the breed of superstar that is created, marketed and targeted directly for the younger viewing audience. Their influence and responsibility reaches far beyond the squared circle and they are active participants in WWE’s more charitable endeavors. I’m not putting them down, far from it, I admire their dedication not only to their craft but in the work they do with their influence and reach to the outside world. They’re merch sellers and crowd-pleasers. Of course, being popular with the fanbase usually leads to more wins and championships – which I doubt many of the stars have a problem with – but as far as entertainment goes, it may work on the kiddies, but the adults tire of the same shtick over and over again. They can appreciate that their kids may like it, but perhaps that type of entertainment isn’t ‘adult’ enough.

Scary/Weird/Horror Theme – Many wrestling fans of a certain age will remember being genuinely frightened of The Undertaker. He freaked me out when I was a kid. His eerie attire, haunting music and his maniacal-looking manager, Paul Bearer, gave him an aura of something sinister and to be afraid of. Of course, that was the whole point of his character and it’s probably the most successful wrestling gimmick of all time. Fast forward to today and though the horror/creepy gimmicks are few and far between, one is making waves in the current climate – The Fiend.

I find The Fiend creepy to the extreme and though there may be some borrowed elements from The Undertaker’s successful run, the character has taken on a life of its own. I mention it here and in the same breath of The Undertaker because I have a young son and he really doesn’t like the Fiend. We watch WWE together and he likes most, if not all of the wrestlers, with the exception of The Fiend. His reaction (usually burying his head into my chest) reminds me of how I recoiled at the Undertaker all those years ago. The Fiend may be a star attraction, and I find him very entertaining indeed, but kid-friendly he is not. I just hope WWE doesn’t tone him down.

Comedy – Probably the most difficult type of entertainment to present, especially if those on the show aren’t natural or talented comedians. Larry Hagman (who played JR Ewing in Dallas) once said; ‘Comedy is not funny. Comedy is hard work and timing and lots and lots of rehearsals’. Simply put, comedy is not a character than can be created in a writing room, given a microphone and tossed out into a packed arena with the instruction of making the audience laugh. What one writer may find hilarious, others may find cringeworthy, crass or downright boring. When it comes to WWE, they’ve tried lots of times to have funny characters, but they rarely work as intended.

The Rock and Chris Jericho were/are exceptions to this rule. Both have bags of natural charisma, experience and confidence in their own ability. Both were creative minds in WWE and knew how to read audiences and more importantly, what they wanted. They could deliver lines and performances that made people genuinely laugh. The Rock’s songs whilst playing guitar and Jericho vs Bob Barker are two great examples. Kurt Angle had some notable funny moments too. WWE sometimes try to recreate this in their characters but they use people who may try hard, but just don’t have the timing, confidence or reach to be funny to the fans, usually resulting in awkward silence or worse, booing. Perhaps Chris Rock said it best; ‘You can’t fake comedy – it’s not like a movie, where a director can just cast a pretty face’.

Those are just three examples and I’m certain there are many more. Right now we seem to be leaning more to a product that has embraced social networking and some are using it to blur the lines between what is real and what is not. Recent videos that have caught the public’s attention include Lacey Evans ranting at a Canadian police officer and Dolph Ziggler picking a fight with Bill Goldberg while at a restaurant. Perhaps this is the direction WWE wants to go in – a more reality-based product that moves away from the old kayfabe approach of secrecy and tries to show wrestlers as their characters outside of the ring more and more. Then again, perhaps the personas evolving outside of the ring is a return to the kayfabe era? Whatever they decide to do, WWE has a lot of bases to cover and a lot of people to satisfy. Perhaps the word ‘Entertainment’ is the catch-all description that covers everything they do. Perhaps it is the most apt description of their entire product. Whatever path they choose to go down, they will have their work cut out for them.

I can’t tell you the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone.’ – Ed Sheeran.