Wrestling With Reality: How Reality TV Rose From Kayfabe’s Grave

Imagine a kind of television that’s a bonafide cultural phenomenon but one most talked about with derision. A kind of media that plays with the truths and lives of the people on the screen, presenting it as fact but is actually the result of manipulations and scripting behind the screen. All of these descriptors could be for pro wrestling, but they also intimately describe reality television.

That’s not just chance. There’s much in common between wrestling, reality TV, and the unusually high number of crossovers like Total Divas, Total Bellas, and Tough Enough. It’s tempting to see it as a purely cash-driven situation- a choice to use alternative mediums to promote WWE superstars, but there’s more to it than that. Wrestling paved the way for the specific kind of “reality” that reality TV is presenting. Kayfabe is dead, but reality TV was born at its funeral.

Wrestling with Reality: How the Natural End of Kayfabe Became the Beginning of the Reality TV Revolution
Wrestling with Reality: How the Natural End of Kayfabe Became the Beginning of the Reality TV Revolution

At its best, the nature of truth is a slippery thing. A single event with three participants will have three different stories to describe it. When you add an audience to the mix, things get even more complicated. From opera to carnivals, showbusiness has always been a realm of smoke and mirrors. Great entertainment somehow has the ability to not only distract us and pull us away from the mundanity of everyday life but also show the viewer a reflection of parts of themselves- some good, some bad. It’s a complicated relationship that asks the creator and the audience to dance.

Modern pro wrestling is at the extreme end of that dance. It asks you to invest your very real emotions into real people, all while being aware of the inner workings of the machine that drives the entertainment. Any fan of the squared circle has heard the phrase, “You know wrestling is fake, right?” and a modern reply is usually some version of, “Yeah, so is Game of Thrones.”

Reality TV and Its Close Relation with Pro Wrestling

WWE Total Divas

There is truth in that-but as any fan can attest, wrestling is more. It’s real and it’s fixed at the same time, all in the same moment. Tracking pro wrestling’s narrative thread through honest truth or high craft is part of its magnetic enigma.

It is significant to note that all academic definitions of reality TV differentiate it from a few other mediums. Reality TV is often defined by what it is NOT. It is not a documentary, it is not a traditional game show, a talk show, news or sports television. Wrestling vibes with all of those descriptions. So, what’s the difference between documentary and Reality TV? At its ideal- documentaries aim to educate the viewer by presenting a series of observations. Reality TV’s aim is to entertain.

In anthropology, and in physics, there’s the idea that just by viewing an event you are altering it. People act differently when there is a camera on, but where documentary warns against this idea- reality TV and pro wrestling revel in it.

We know that much of shows like the Kardashians, the Bachelor and others are staged. Speaking to many producers and associate producers of reality shows- they often mention the handling and manipulation of those people that appear on those programs. An associate producer who wishes to remain anonymous described how, when working on a popular dating show, part of her job was to try to keep those on camera the right level of inebriated. Though initially skeptical, it took almost no effort to corroborate this blind item, there’s literally a New York Times article on this very topic. Drama is teased out on these programs by sometimes giving explosive personalities partial information and then putting everyone together to let the tensions play out in a real location. And when the drama explodes and they don’t have the camera angle right? Well, they ask those involved to let the tensions play out…again. It’s a strange in-between world who’s behind-the-scenes nuance may seem familiar to fans of the squared circle. What’s the difference between a woman mocking her competitors saying “I am here to win and not to make friends” and the cutting of a promo? It’s not as much a difference, as it is provenance. Pro wrestling on television helped create and support the culture, as well as the craft, that eventually became reality TV.

During the ’70s, reality TV was essentially still documentary. An early player was An American Family. The show followed the Loud family from California, condensing hours of documentary footage into a limited series of 12 episodes. It followed the dissolution of the marriage and documented the relationships between the siblings. The show was certainly the first step into reality television, but after initial interest, the form was essentially abandoned for almost 20 years. The territory days of the ’60s and ’70s abound with tales of using real-life locker room beef between performers to enhance the product. It’s just a part of the business. The 1980s saw this to its logical end, not only in the ring but in confessional/promo style formats. By the mid-2000s, wrestlers’ lives began playing out via social media and WWE had begun to fully invest in out-of-ring reality programming.

In 1986, a group of volunteers at the Springfield YMCA Abuse and Rape Crisis Hotline began protesting WWF shows asserting that the relationship between Miss Elizabeth and Randy Savage constituted abuse, and therefore promoted abuse as entertainment. Michael Weber, the media coordinator for the company quickly rebutted- pointing out the lack of male on female physical violence but quickly admitting that much of the way Randy speaks to Elizabeth could be termed abuse. However- he then followed with “wrestling is entertainment.” Though he tiptoes around the word “scripted”, the implication is clear. If you’re thinking that was shocking to the protesters- you’d be mostly wrong. A close reading of the article indicates that even those protesting were at least somewhat aware of the “unreality” of the wrestling business. They weren’t as much afraid that Elizabeth herself was battered- but that it might encourage cruelty by men towards other women. Kayfabe had long been eroding, but now it was withering away in the face of an increasingly savvy audience. Large promotions were left with a choice. All wrestling had already toed the line for years.

It seems fitting that at this time there was a heavily documented personal feud that ended up playing out in the ring. This too would center on Randy and Elizabeth- but in a classic soap opera angle, it included a third wrestler – Hulk Hogan. It was a 1988 match in Paris that was the center of the real-life beef. Elizabeth was acting as Hogan’s manager, and after a match where Hulkster was victorious, he lifted her up into the ring since it lacked stairs.

Hulk Hogan discusses getting physical with Randy Savage over Miss Elizabeth

Randy, notoriously protective of Elizabeth, accused him of using the moment to touch Elizabeth’s breasts. The two argued backstage and got physical. The situation was only diffused after Hogan accidentally ripped a termite ridden door to the locker room off of its hinges. The two made up, but this entire incident was essentially repeated again in the ring less than a year later. In fact, the Hogan-Savage-Miss Elizabeth angle simply swapped breasts for butt.

The fire behind Randy Savage’s “Lust in your eyes for Miss Elizabeth” has long been known to be based on personal truth for Randy. He was known to be an extremely jealous person who, depending on who you ask, often locked his wife away in dressing rooms. The fact that the in-ring incident is an almost perfect mirror to the real event is important; it’s even more interesting to note that this occurred in 1989, the same year the McMahons testified before the New Jersey Senate that wrestling was fixed to avoid taxes. There was always interest in the wrestlers “real” lives-and if pro wrestling was going to survive admitting it was fixed, it would also have to become more real.

It wasn’t just the internal pressures of sports entertainment that were reshaping it. Though the show An American Family came and went, it was a workplace reality show that kicked off the reality TV revolution. When Cops premiered in 1989, it was a last-ditch effort during the Writers Strike to add programming. The show, which followed police officers on their rounds, became a nationwide hit and is still one of the longest-running shows in existence. The next few years showed a slow rise in this kind of programming. In 1992, the MTV Real World premiered and Road Rules followed three years later. These programs looked to put strangers together in unusual circumstances and capture fireworks. Wrestling leads with the fireworks certainly, but it can never be said that the wrestlers don’t eventually find themselves in unusual circumstances.

Reality and Wrestling Intersecting

Such was the case of reality and wrestling intersecting during Mick Foley’s infamous “Cane Dewey” promo in 1995.

The Hardcore Hero was a dedicated family man by the mid-’90s and the Philly ECW fans made use of that in their interactions with him. One went so far as to bring a sign to an ECW match that suggested the infamous “Singapore cane” be used on Foley’s three-year-old son Dewey. This became the impetus for what was certainly the best promo ever in ECW and perhaps in the ’90s as a whole. Using Philly’s reputation for violence against them, Mick ended up channeling his wife’s disgust. lt’s a lesser-known fact that the signmaker actually asked Foley’s permission but it was Collette, Foley’s wife who was the most disturbed. “I took a combination of the way my wife felt about that sign and some of the frustrations I had regarding the state of the wrestling business and my future in it,” Foley opens up. “I was frustrated with the fans in ECW who I thought were asking a little bit too much from the wrestlers. And I was also frustrated by the fact that there was a pretty steady parade of weak performers entering WWE. I was frustrated and I had a way of letting that frustration out in a positive way, which was an emotional interview segment.”

Years later, it remains one of the most effective promos of all time, securing not only Tommy Dreamer as the face of ECW but positioning Foley as a complex and relatable heel.

Watch Mick Foley and his infamous “Cane Dewey” ECW promo in 1995:

The 1996 incident known as the “Curtain Call” at Madison Square Garden has always been a sort of a mystery as the stories about it don’t add up. At The Kliq‘s last match before Nash and Hall were supposed to leave, there was a group hug in the ring that involved them, Triple H and Shawn Michaels. Supposedly this warm interaction between faces and heels was seen as a flagrant breach of kayfabe that made Vince furious enough to bury Triple H. If this had occurred before Vince’s own testimony before the New Jersey Senate, maybe that would make sense, but it points towards the theory that there is more at play than just breaking character and having the audience suspend disbelief. Even Shawn Michael’s autobiography indicates that Vince was aware that the event was going to happen in advance. Though it may have been compounded by the fact that a fan had snuck a video camera in and taped the moment; what seems more likely is that the anger directed towards Triple H had more to do with the success of his friends in WCW. With Shawn occupying the space as the top face of the company, Hunter became the whipping boy. When seen in the context of the time that it occurred, it seems more likely that Vince’s anger was more about slipping behind in the ratings rather than breaching some perception of the audience of wrestling as real.

“While The Crocodile Hunter was getting up close and personal with crocodiles in living rooms across America, Bret Hart was getting up close and personal with another kind of reptile- Vince McMahon.”

In 1997, big personalities continue to dot the landscape of Reality TV as much as wrestling. The Crocodile Hunter was getting up close and personal with crocodiles in living rooms across America while Bret Hart was getting up close and personal with another kind of reptile- Vince McMahon. In what is probably the most nakedly unscripted moment of wrestling television, the Montreal Screwjob launched shockwaves through the Wrestling community. In an incident considered culturally significant enough to have its own separate Wikipedia page.

“The manipulation – a “shoot screwjob” in professional wrestling parlance – occurred without Hart’s knowledge and resulted in Hart, the reigning WWF World Heavyweight Champion, losing the title to Michaels in his last WWF match before departing for rival promotion World Championship Wrestling (WCW). The “screwjob” is generally believed to be an off-screen betrayal of Hart, who was one of the WWF’s longest-tenured and most popular performers at the time.”

Bret Hart spitting in the face of Vince McMahon is a moment that transcended wrestling and became reality TV. Wrestling was always providing action without actors but now it had passed through a door where any moment might become a true shoot. The line of truth had shifted once again.

Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series 1997 – Everything There is to Know

The next ten years would continue to shift the line of truth both in pro wrestling and reality TV. Even WCW got involved with Eddie Guerrero dropping a pipebomb that would predate CM Punk’s by 13 years. The year 2000 welcomed Big Brother, a program from the Netherlands as well as Survivor from Sweden to American television. Both wrestling and reality television became part of the cultural landscape. Steve Austin was coming off his feud with his boss Vince McMahon, there was almost a cultural obligation to be aware of pro wrestling and reality tTVv. It was no surprise when in 2001 WWE got directly involved in the reality TV world with their own competition show. 2001 saw the launch of Tough Enough which sought to find the next WWE superstar. The show was on and off the air for the next 14 years, presenting the idea that the next generation of superstars would have to provide entertainment both in an out of the ring. This was also apparent with the launch of the 2003 Diva Search.

Reality TV and wrestling began flirting ever closer with one another through the figure of Mike “The Miz” Mizanin. Though his wrestler “persona” was somewhat of a joke on the 10th season of the Real World, and he ultimately was second place in his season of Tough Enough- The Miz has carved out a place for himself in both worlds. Not only did he make good on his goofy Real World joke, becoming an upper mid-carder within the largest wrestling organization in the world, but also by meeting his wife on Diva Search. Their launch of Miz and Mrs on USA only solidified the fluid connection between reality TV and wrestling.

The Miz has carved out a place for himself in both worlds solidifying the fluid connection between reality TV and wrestling.
The Miz has carved out a place for himself in both worlds solidifying the fluid connection between reality TV and wrestling.

No wrestling relationship played out in a way that made wrestling “reality TV” than the love triangle of Lita, Matt Hardy and Edge. In what seemed to be an echo of the past Hogan, Randy Miss Elizabeth angle, the mid-2000s had a whole other beast to contend with- social media. After Matt Hardy spilled his guts about being left by long-time girlfriend Lita for another wrestler Edge, the painful real-life event was quickly transitioned into fodder for the WWE creative team. The rise of interactive media also made people feel connected to Matt Hardy’s expressions of pain online- no longer far away inaccessible stars- this new medium made fans feel as though they were getting to see the inner thoughts of the real person. At first, Hardy’s naked honesty cost him his job but at the end of the day the money in the story made the WWE talk to Lita and Edge about bringing back Matt to work on the angle. Lita told Lillian Garcia, “Because it became such a hot story, they said, ‘We want to turn this into a story. But you guys have been professional. He hasn’t. There is money involved in the storyline, but it’s your call.'”

Eventually, Lita and Edge decided to move forward with the angle, becoming the Rated R Couple.

It’s the challenge of both pro wrestling and reality programming to make social events and emotional drama into a business. Wrestling just codified how to do so first by shaping the visual language, style of marketing, and to some extent the culture into something primed for reality TV.

The interplay between shoot and work has always been a line that fans have chased. This search for the truth, where the performance ends and the inner world of the performer begins is one of the special things that draws people back to the well of sports entertainment over and over. The modern age is no exception. Through Total Divas, Total Bellas, Miz and Mrs, and Stone Cold’s new program Straight Up Steve Austin, there is little doubt that this connection now goes two ways, with one feeding the other. The only question that remains is – will wrestling look more like reality TV, or will reality TV continue to head towards being a complete work? Only time will tell.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss Christa Pagliei‘s groundbreaking first article on our site:

Wrestling’s Gay History and Fabulous Future

Christa Pagliei
Christa Pagliei is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories and lives in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to writing about media, her fiction and poetry have been published in places like Fictionvale, Frostwriting, Strangelet, and Pseudopod. Christa is also the co-creator of the audio drama Lost Signal Society, a series of anthology and stand-alone horror/fantasy/sci-fi plays with a second season slated for Fall 2019. As a member of the Film/TV coordinator’s union IATSE Local 161 she’s worked on Succession, Sneaky Pete, Mr.Robot and many more. In addition to pro wrestling, Christa enjoys NJ Devils hockey, hiking, botany, 35mm photography, collecting rotational media, and cooking. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristaPagliei.