I have a dark secret: up until I was about 21 (nearly graduating from college, mind you), I was a huge fan of professional wrestling. No, you don’t understand, I was (with my friends) actually putting on wrestling “shows” in the backyard of my childhood home. There, I’ve now gotten that off of my chest; I feel better.
Given my adoration of professional wrestling during my youth, I was particularly succeptible to a fit of nostalgia as I began listening to the most recent episode of Radiolab. The episode recounts a famous (infamous?) incident in the history of professional wrestling called The Montreal Screwjob. I won’t go through the story (go ahead and listen to the episode linked above for that. Suffice it to say, it reminded me of everything I loved about wrestling as sports entertainment. Specifically, the commentators explained the concept of kayfabe—the kind of secret pretending, if you will—that underlies professional wrestling, and how it wasn’t until the above-mentioned screwjob that wrestling fans were introduced to a new kind of appreciation of the show.
I had always known that wrestling was scripted. That made me appreciate it even more. It was, and still is, probably the best instance of mixed-media in television. It combines the engaging narrative of a scripted drama with the suspense and action of a live sporting event. It takes the best part of both acting and athleticism, and attempts to do, so far as I can tell, two things:
- Dares the audience to suspend disbelief and play along with the kayfabe—to pretend for a few hours.
- Tells an engaging story, the whole time dancing perilously close to actually allowing real events to naturally take place.
When you combine those two things, and you do it right, you can cultivate this kind of pleasantly dissonant mental state in the audience—one of both belief and disbelief, of skepticism, but also searching for truth in what’s given. I think wrestling, as it has been done for the past 20 or so years, beautifully uses our seemingly built-in need as humans to want what we experience to be true, but also our refusal to be tricked. Magic does this same thing; it has for centuries. Everyone knows that they are being in tricked at a magic show, but because they can’t immediately see how, they enjoy that part of their nature that wants to believe that there’s no trick, that it’s real.
This may be all a revisionist history for my own benefit. This may be me as an educated man with an advanced degree in a highly analytical subject attempting to frame my past childish hobby as some existential investigation. I can’t help but feeling, though, that I said something like all this when I was 20, because there was no way I was going to keep a college girlfriend after she saw me get suplexed onto a table in a homemade ring—not unless I could talk about how it was actually pretty intellectual. Yes, my friends and I who were hitting each other with folding chairs, and recording it on video, were doing something pretty intellectual.