The Billy and Chuck “Commitment Ceremony”. Kane allegedly violates a lifeless cheerleader. Torrie Wilson’s dad dies of a coitus-induced heart attack with cameras present.
“I’d written a promo for Hunter once and Steph asked me to rewrite it because it was “too funny.” They’d told me to write a Hunter promo about Kane banging a corpse; where else do you go except “funny”?, recalls Mates of the most memorable of his three years working for World Wrestling Entertainment. “They thought this would be a serious, dramatic, money-making storyline that would get them compared to CSI and the Sopranos. But they had to figure it all out for themselves.”
Indeed, Mates’ last six months of his time with the wrestling giant were spent as a twitching eye on the creative team, attempting to summon the surge that would bring the most grotesque of ideas to life. From July through December 2002, WWE struggled to stem a ratings nosedive spurred by no Austin, no Rock, and a brand split that confused many fans.
To titillate viewers, Vince McMahon and company shifted more aggressively toward shock TV, the Attitude Era’s most gripping hook. Results were mixed, to put it mildly.
“The Al Wilson stuff actually started because Vince was on a huge hook at the time for dreck like that, and we thought that if we gave him dreck in the divas division, then maybe he’d leave Brock-Taker alone,” Mates explains. “But we still got that stupid Tracy (the C-level actress who claimed an affair with Undertaker in 2002) storyline! We tried! But ultimately, no matter what you hear about guys reading comic books or whatever, creative is Vince and Hunter, and it’s not a democracy.”
In confirming that the buck stops with McMahon and Levesque through personal experience, Mates confirms the isolated mindset that would figure Batista, a sartorially-challenged grouch with the cardio of a chain-smoker, to be the superhero foil for Randy Orton at WrestleMania, with the WWE Championship in the balance.
“The Batista move was ridiculous,” Mates says, stating an accepted fact. “They’re hoping to ride the wave once his movie comes out, which could help them greatly from a business standpoint but kills creatively. At this stage, he’s the perfect heel, and I think you’re seeing that now. He’ll be a babyface again at some point, but coming back at age 45 in his skinny jeans and cleavage shirts, he’s a heel. The promo he cut on Bryan and the fans at Raw was perfect.”
Though the rewrite seems more in line with a realistic image of “The Animal”, ‘Batista’s Return: Act One’ seems indicative of a company with its eyes too far removed from the creative spectrum, and more on the status quo that gives us things like Ellen DeGeneres’ benign hosting of the Academy Awards: safe is the trump card.
“Last year’s WrestleMania had zero drama; the finishes were completely predictable and the undercard match-ups were terrible,” Mates feels. “‘Mania seems to have become less about paying stuff off for the fans and more about corporate synergy and all that horses–t. If I could start from scratch this year, I’d have done Cena-Taker, Orton-Punk for the title, Batista-Brock and HHH-Bryan.”
Mates, however, never got to be a part of the creative blitz for any WrestleMania, quitting the company months before WrestleMania XIX in Seattle. The outspoken ex-writer did get to work on a pair of New York shows in the 2002 SummerSlam and Survivor Series, and remembers the extent of the grind.
“I started just in time for the SummerSlam run and worked the run through Survivor Series. Hours were always long, even in the other months, and there was never any time for reflection. It was just non-stop. Now the writers are more insulated from Vince but there are so many more shows to work on. The creative environment isn’t nearly as bad now, but there are way more handcuffs in the PG era, and also with the level of talent available.”
Watered down by restrictions or not, depending on how the viewer sees the looking glass, Mates, in spite of his good-natured swipes on Twitter (https://twitter.com/SethMates) does find some elements of the modern WWE quite enjoyable.
“I love the Shield stuff. You can see that Roman Reigns is gonna be THE GUY, and I loved helping to build stuff like that, like we did with Brock back in 2002. Seeing what ‘The Machine’ at WWE is capable of when they WANT a guy to get over is pretty incredible. I also love everything Paul Heyman does. Greatest performer I have ever seen.”
Indeed, the company definitely sees money in a push of the Shield’s muscle, but with much dissatisfaction and missed opportunity in the eyes of many viewers, more wonder is directed not at the stories, but the mindset of those telling them.
“THAT is what killed me about the pre-434 day reign of Punk and what kills me about the current Bryan stuff; the pieces are there but they don’t pull the trigger and give us what we want; we as fans will go along for the ride as long as we know we’re going somewhere. That’s all we ask! The Bryan-Orton stuff at SummerSlam was perfect, but Night of Champions taught the fans not to believe it even if Bryan won, and then they fizzled it all out after Hell in a Cell, hoping it would go away.”
Necrophilia, dead fogeys, and a campy homosexual marriage turned away a number of jaded viewers well over a decade ago. Perhaps it’s full circle that an amiable puppeteer of these absurd tales is now burned out as well.
Justin Henry has been an occasional contributor to Camel Clutch Blog since 2009. His other work can be found at WrestleCrap.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com. He can be found on Twitter, so give him a follow.
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