The magicians Penn & Teller have a TV show called “Fool Us”, which is fascinating in many ways, especially in regards to what was once a proud artform called professional wrestling.
Anyone going to a magic show goes with the notion that they are going to be fooled. When they are fooled, they are much more entertained by the artform. Even if getting fooled means falling for sleight-of-hand tricks, misdirection, cleverly created angles, insanely devised devices or a gamut of new tricks, variations of tricks, historically known tricks or just the basics done for (or in) a new medium.
What fascinates me about “Fool Us” is that Penn & Teller show so much respect to the participants: the newcomers simply re-doing classic staples, the veterans who mix character and appearance and visuals with the various levels of magic in the act and/or the masters (like a recent one with David Roth, a master of the coin trick).
What I love is that Penn & Teller aren’t diminishing the acts, nor spoiling them, nor spelling out the ways they are done. If they are fooled, they admit it. If not, they speak in allusions and code-words and what seem to be references to names and acts of yesteryear.
It seems odd that newcomers think that they can fool professional magicians who are obviously students of the game, long time practitioners and historians of their industry.
But it seems amazing that Penn & Teller are all about the craft, all about giving a spotlight to other magicians and all about building up their business, and not tearing it down.
Magicians, it would seem, are not plagued by a self-destructive fanbase, nor the monopolizing of the industry by indifferent promoters, nor by actions that deny the historical importance of previous practitioners of the craft.
When David Roth appears in front of Penn & Teller, doing a lot of tricks that they’ve seen, read about and probably fully realize what is going on, these professionals don’t scoff, they simply tell him that “you fooled us”.
It’s all about respect, but it’s also fully about the artcraft.
When audiences at a magician act are not fooled, the magician has not done his or her job. But who buys tickets to a stage act, knowing what they are going to see, and spends the whole time dismissing the tricks and the pageantry and the other audience members that want to enjoy it?
Well, you can say that if a stage act stopped trying to fool the audience, and bumbled through bad performances, and failed to entertain, then eventually the audience would turn on the industry. Maybe that’s the biggest difference between these entertainment art forms….
But where did the professional wrestling industry go awry?
Most of us “buy into” the illusion and willingly “suspend disbelieve” and observe and interact with the concept that we want to enjoy this form of sports entertainment. Anyone who buys a ticket for a WWE event, buys a PPV or subscribes to that Network thingie, and wants to spew four-letter words that begin with F are themselves a bigger distraction these days.
Let’s also set aside that the promotions who produce professional wrestling don’t call it wrestling anymore, but professional wrestling by any name is an interactive performance.
Sure, interactivity can be a bad thing, a dangerous thing. The history of professional wrestling is replete with fan attacks, throwing dangerous objects, and run-of-the-mill fans (seriously) who wanted to kill a wrestler, because of what he did in the ring.
Some of us remember January 22, 1980. Some of us who attended events where Bruno Sammartino battled Larry Zbyszko would have gotten together as a mob and if Larry hadn’t hidden away he would have met a severe beating by otherwise respectable fans.
(Meanwhile Larry was negotiating for more $ from Vincent J. McMahon for putting his life on the line, and drawing fans to the arenas in droves … But I digress … or do I?)
Maybe it was because there was a lot of reality in professional wrestling back there, but more so because there was an emotional tie to it all. Professional wrestling fans came to the arenas on a monthly basis. They invested (in time and money and travel and emotion) into their heroes and watched as matchups took place.
Despite the rumors and the speculation and the guffaws of a lot of non-professional wrestling fans, the majority of those who attended the shows and watched on TV and read the magazines and talked with their friends and gathered with family and were intrigued by it all … well, those people were into professional wrestling like it was religion, like it was fantasy football in 2015, like it was Star Trek or Star Wars, like it was new comics day in the 1990’s.
(By the way, except for Star Trek or Star Wars, I know all about those other pastimes).
I know that was many, many generations ago in terms of the history and development (or lack thereof) of this sport.
And yes, I call it a sport.
Because at the essence of it all, professional wrestling is a sport … it is an illusion of a sport, but somewhere since around February of 1989, when Vincent K. McMahon declared a statement for tax reasons, professional wrestling stopped being the illusion of sport, and became filler for an ongoing, episodic Television show, and because the impetus for mass marketing and licensing, and became far less an artform and far more a from the top-down, controlled entertainment environment.
(Note that I’m not about to use the word creative, since that would launch me into a rant of epic proportions).
But what happened to the illusion in professional wrestling?
What happened to the time when Jake Roberts debuted the DDT, and for years we all knew that to be the finisher of all finishers? In 2009, the Mad Scientist Tommy Treznik couldn’t do much with the Bus Driver variant to shake the cobwebs of disuse from ho-hum, transitional hold implications of the DDT.
A once devastating maneuver turned into boredom because in the 1990’s everyone used it, and by the 2000’s it never knocked anyone out.
When was the last big move? Was it the Canadian Destroyer, which TNA brilliance countered within months?
Anything half-interesting becomes forgettable when every match is replete with a hundred moves, none of which mean anything.
Professional wrestling was once a sport, once believed in, once portrayed in the ring as something that was meaningful, dangerous and emotional.
Putting on a performance these days is like watching a play. No offense to actors (and actresses, I forget what is pc anymore) who perform with passion and perform so the audience believes in their characters, their conflicts, their efforts and their overcoming of obstacles.
Over the next few blogs, I’ll take a few more swipes at what professional wrestling is missing, because there’s more than just illusion, but if anyone’s asking me why professional wrestling just isn’t the same, it starts with the implications that we’re watching something with the understanding that it looks real, but really isn’t, but want it to be and will it to be and really want to be engaged in the belief that we can be entertained by it all.
Which is what people who enjoy magic tricks are doing …. And fortunately for them, there aren’t a lot of promoters and performers guffawing and destroying their enjoyment by screaming out things at every step of the way to make them feel like utter fools for wanting to be part of it.
Some of us want to be fooled, and not to be made foolish for wanting to pay for it.