Is the WWE fake?
Of course. Aren't all of your favorite shows?
Before Richard Hatch, the Situation and the Kardashians, Triple H, the Rock and Stone Cold created on-screen personas fans loved, hated or loved to hate. They were, in effect, the first stars of reality television.
“Every guy we have, whether it’s me, whether it’s the Undertaker, whether it’s John Cena playing the character John Cena, is a performer,” said Paul Levesque, aka Triple H, one of the industry’s most storied wrestlers. “What we did is very much the beginning of reality television. ‘Jersey Shore,’ whether people want to believe it or not, is a scripted kind-of show. They don’t give them every single word, but they give them premises and they set things up. It’s not a documentary where you follow them around brushing their teeth. And that’s what we are — we blur that line and that’s what people find intriguing.”
On Monday, the WWE makes television history when airs its 1,000th episode of “Monday Night Raw” from Scottrade Center. That’s more episodes than “Gunsmoke,” “Law & Order,” “The Simpsons” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Must-see TV for legions of fans since 1993, the franchise draws about 4.5 million viewers to the USA Network. And starting this Monday, the show moves from a two-hour to a three-hour format.
WWE, already social media pioneers, also adds real-time interaction between “Raw” and its viewers at home. For instance, fans can vote for a certain match and, voila, those two wrestlers will get in the ring that night. Or fans can send a video "dis" of a despised wrestler and watch it be broadcast within minutes.
“It started with the signs that people brought to ‘Monday Night Raw,’” said Levesque. “Our fans want to be seen and heard.”
Monday’s show will boast the biggest names in wrestling including the Rock, who will make his first appearance in St. Louis in nine years. Known better these days as Dwayne Johnson, the Rock parlayed his success as a wrestler into a movie career and has starred in family-friendly flicks such as “Tooth Fairy” and “Race to Witch Mountain.” Other big-name stars on the bill are John Cena, Brock Lesnar, CM Punk, Kane, Sheamus and Chris Jericho. Levesque, now executive vice president of talent, also returns to the ring for a reunion with D-X stable mate Shawn Michaels.
Not on the bill? St. Louis wrestling superstar Randy Orton. WWE scratched Orton after he committed his second violation of the WWE’s wellness policy. Levesque won’t say what Orton did wrong, only that the man they call “the legend killer” will be back after completing his 60-day suspension.
“It is important to remember that all of our wrestlers are human but they also have to be accountable,” Levesque said.
These days, Levesque spends more time in gray suits than spandex briefs. His job is to find the next generation of big names. He admits it’s a struggle.
“We’re trying to teach them to be the Stone Colds and the Undertakers of tomorrow, but the one thing we can’t teach is charisma,” said Levesque. “You can teach people to do moves and create story lines and the psychology of what we do, but you can’t teach someone to be the Rock. It’s an innate ability to walk into a room and have everyone pay attention. Put aside the athleticism and what happens in the ring, what our business is really about is connecting with people emotionally. If you are emotionally connected to your character, then people will want to see you. It’s true in Hollywood and movies. You don’t have to be the best actor, just be a presence.”
Take, for instance, current WWE world heavyweight champion Sheamus. Bullied as a kid, Sheamus learned to be tough to survive. But fans are as charmed by his spiky red hair, Irish accent and trademark pasty white skin as they are wowed by his finishing moves.
“When I first tried to get noticed by the WWE, I shaved my red hair and sprayed on fake tanner,” said Sheamus, who is from Dublin. “But when I got here I realized I have something different in the pale pasty skin and under the lights, I look even whiter. Mattel had to come up with a special shade of white for the action figure. Being in the ring, I’m not afraid to be who I really am.”
Other wrestlers, however, are nothing like their on-stage characters, said Levesque.
“The Rock is the Rock. I’ve known Dwayne since he got into the business and that same charisma that you see in the ring is the same guy you see in movies is the same guy he really is,” said Levesque. “And we’ve got some characters that if you put their personality on air, people would go to sleep. They are the most plain, ho-hum guys you would ever meet. You have to give them something.”
“Believe it or not, Kane,” said Levesque. “He’s this Freddy Krueger, psychotic character but if you met the guy who plays Kane, he’s a very nice dude. He’s very politically savvy and he’s a speed reader. He is so the opposite of what he appears in the ring.”
Levesque and WWE’s team of writers insert these characters into heated feuds and scorching romances. In fact, Levesque married his on-stage sweetheart Stephanie McMahon, daughter of WWE chairman Vince McMahon. The couple now have three daughters.
“We control the story lines but we follow the fans. The guy is whoever the fans get behind,” said Levesque. “The beauty of what we do is every night somewhere in the world we have a group touring and those fans in the crowd are our focus group. They tell us what they like and what they don’t like.”
If Levesque sounds more like a TV showrunner than a sports executive, that’s because he is one. He stands behind the WWE’s 2008 decision to make “Raw” PG television. That meant no more chair shots to the head or profane trash talking. Hard-core fans still grouse, but the show’s growing base of family viewers applauds change.
Fan Kerry Wandro watches “Raw” with his teenage son and young nephews and appreciates the family-friendly approach.
“I don’t want the kids to have to ask, ‘Why did he grab his crotch’ or ‘Why did he make him bleed,’” said Wandro of Red Bud, Ill. “It’s still a lot of fun. It’s the soap opera aspect that makes it great.”
The move also has improved WWE’s public image. Critics have always derided wrestling as barbaric, but the steroid scandals of the 1990s and the murder-suicide of WWE wrestler Chris Benoit threatened the future of the publicly traded business. Levesque says he compares a PG “Raw” to a clean stand-up routine.
“There are comics who can be great and never use a bad word,” said Levesque. “I never have had a fan come up and say to me, ‘Ah man, my all-time favorite moment in “Raw” was when this guy used this dirty word.’ What they remember are the story lines. The movies that do the biggest box office aren’t the ones with the most blood and swearing.”
But do not be confused. The pain is real.
“A word we hear a lot and that we dislike is ‘fake.’ ‘Oh, the WWE is fake.’ But let me tell you, it’s physical and it’s hard,” said Levesque. “If a 300-pound guy jumps on you from five feet up, does it hurt any less if you know it’s coming?”