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  1. #1

    Hardtime: What Does It Mean To Break Kayfabe?

    Hardtime: What Does It Mean To Break Kayfabe?

    I remember one time when the New Day were going through their heel phase and the group was making disparaging remarks about the live crowd before one of their matches on Raw. After Kofi made some negative comments about the people of the area, he followed it up with “And that’s not just my character talking”. He added that extra part just to make his remarks really resonate with the fans in order to get the group extra heel heat. On a message board I frequent, there were many people on the forum who complained that Kofi broke kayfabe by acknowledging he was portraying a character during the show itself. In actuality, Kofi was not breaking kayfabe. In fact, I see many people within the internet wrestling community accusing different wrestlers at various times of breaking kayfabe when in fact they are keeping with the continuity of the storylines.

    On February 10, 1989, Vince McMahon stated to the State of New Jersey Senate that professional wrestling was “an activity in which participants struggle hand-in-hand for the purpose of providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest.” By the mid-nineties WWE was opening all of their tv shows the WWF logo and a narrator saying “The World Wrestling Federation. For over fifty years, the revolutionary force in sports entertainment.” By the mid nineties WWE was openly acknowledging that their product was not a true athletic contest, but that’s as far in detail as they would go with it. They wouldn’t talk about storylines being written by writers or any of the backstage happenings that went into producing their shows. Wrestlers didn’t do out of character interviews. The business was pretty much still well protected, and suspension of disbelief was a lot stronger back then.

    And while WWE was telling fans that their product was staged, something that most wrestling fans already knew deep down going back to the thirties, there was still a logical impasse that fans had to deal with. Within the continuity of the storylines, were they supposed to believe that the wrestlers they saw during shows acted the same way in real life as they did on tv? Did the Repo Man really sneak around at night with his rope and hook and repossess things from people? Did the Undertaker really spend most of his time hanging around funeral parlors and building wooden coffins? We always knew they didn’t really act like that, but it was unclear if WWE wanted us to suspend our disbelief to the point where we actually thought they did.

    And finally, in 1997 WWE stopped insulting our intelligence and tried to combine logic with their on air product. They tried to get across the point, within the context of kayfabe, that wrestlers were portraying characters in order to entertain the fans. There were plenty of times that year where WWE outright broke kayfabe, but they did at least try to make more sense of things. This was done most notably with the series of in depth interviews that Jim Ross did with Mankind. As he was portraying his Mankind character, he talked about how his real name was Mick Foley and how he used to wrestle professionally as the character Cactus Jack. He also talked about how before he got into wrestling, he made a home video of himself as another character, Dude Love. They also discussed how Mankind had a family that he supported. They got the point across, without breaking kayfabe, that the wrestlers we saw on tv were normal people in real life and simply portrayed outrageous characters during their matches in order to entertain the fans.

    Elaborating further, I don’t believe WWE has conveyed this concept very well, but other wrestling promotions have. That is, some wrestlers portray themselves as heels in order to make fans pay to see them get beat up. They don’t willingly allow the good guys to beat them up, but they purposely cheat and say negative things about the fans in order to get them to pay to see them lose. They don’t try to lose, but nevertheless it’s a way of drawing money.

    As time went on, WWE further tried to add logic to the their product by saying that wrestlers who are the most entertaining, the ones who draw the most money, will be given more opportunities in higher places on the card and more title shots. While this concept was conveyed here and there on WWE programming over the course of many years, it was best conveyed through the famous Summer of Punk storyline and when Daniel Bryan feuded with the Authority. CM Punk thought that he was the best in the WWE because he was the most entertaining. Through his in ring work and his promos, he said he was entertaining the fans better than anyone else and therefore deserved the same spotlight that John Cena was getting. The Authority thought that Daniel Bryan was too small to be a star in WWE so they tried to hold him back, and clearly favored Randy Orton, someone who fit the prototypical image of a WWE wrestler who could draw money.

    Even in kayfabe, wrestlers are entertainers and it does not break kayfabe for them to acknowledge this during the shows. The more entertaining a wrestler is through his or her matches and interviews, the more opportunities he or she will be given to earn more money and become bigger stars. Dolph Ziggler is not breaking the continuity of the storylines when he says he is going to steal the show. Likewise, a wrestler is not breaking kayfabe when they acknowledge that they are portraying a character during the show. Just like Mankind wasn’t breaking kayfabe when he referred to himself as Mick Foley and talked about his normal life outside the ring. Even in kayfabe it is ok for wrestlers to refer to themselves by their real names. Just like how GNR fans aren’t expected to believe that Slash’s real name is actually Slash when he’s playing on stage, during shows we’re not expected to believe that Triple H’s real name is actually Triple H or even Hunter Hearst Helmsley. When CM Punk called him Paul Levesque during a show once, that was not breaking the continuity of the storylines.

    What does break the continuity of the storylines is when they acknowledge on the air that the matches have predetermined outcomes or saying that storylines are manufactured by writers. After the Montreal Screw Job when Vince McMahon sat down with Jim Ross and explained that Bret Hart refused to drop the title to Shawn Michaels, that was breaking kayfabe. There are ways they can bring up the Montreal Screw Job without breaking kayfabe, like just saying Bret was on his way to WCW and Vince needed to make sure that Bret didn’t leave as champion. But they can’t say Bret refused to lose because in the storylines that doesn’t make sense. Likewise, a wrestler can’t say he attacked another wrestler or called him out because a writer told him to. He can say that the creative team came up with his character, but there must be logical reasons as to why he attacked someone or made negative comments about someone.

    And how do you explain within kayfabe why more charismatic wrestlers, the wrestlers who are more entertaining usually win their matches? You usually can’t explain that without breaking kayfabe. If they’re bigger and stronger than the other wrestler or have a combat sport background you can explain it, but it’s damn near impossible to explain why so many wrestlers are able to beat someone like Big Show. You can say they’re given more opportunities because they’re entertaining, but you can’t explain why those wrestlers usually win their matches. WWE’s product has come a long way in terms of adding logic within the continuity of their storylines, but it’s not perfect, and while you’re watching the shows there are some questions it’s best just not to ask.

    Tip toeing around kayfabe can be difficult. It needs to be handled carefully so you can showcase the logic within the storylines without acknowledging that the matches are predetermined and that storylines are written by writers. It’s ok for wrestlers to acknowledge they portray characters and that they purposely try to be entertaining through their promos and matches. It’s just not ok say someone backstage is controlling the events that take place on screen.
    Last edited by RIPbossman; 01-17-2020 at 09:33 AM.

  2. #2
    LOP's part time glass ceiling DynamiteBillington's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2018
    I think this is your best column to date. Much better than your usual format of attempting to dispell a myth nobody really believes, this simply takes a topic and explores it. There are areas you could have delved deeper, but to be honest I don't believe it's your style to get too deep into each and every fine detail and I like that. You tend to look at the overall summary and discuss at that level, columns can otherwise get too long and intricate which always risks losing the reader's attention. For me, this hit the perfect balance - a good topic and an easy read.

    Hopefully you start working in this way more often - I always feel I'm complaining about your columns because I have to point out that nobody (or at least 99% of your audience) genuinely believes the myths you attempt to resolve, whereas in truth I've always enjoyed the content, just not the presentation. Present more columns in this format & you've got my attention every time.
    Last edited by DynamiteBillington; 01-17-2020 at 03:14 PM.

  3. #3
    The Brain
    Join Date
    May 2018
    Dyna makes a good point, I enjoy your myth dispelling columns but I have sometimes had a feeling of "does anyone around here still believe this?".

    This was an interesting look at a topic that has some buzz right now, particularly with the rise in popularity of niche wrestling which focuses on comedy, outlandish feats, or asks the fans to accept some fantastic premise different from the norm.

    It's a sticky topic as well because it demands a clear definition of kayfabe. I know for sure that some fans would argue true kayfabe, or even kayfabe, is embodied by the practices of the 80s and earlier eras where it wasn't part of the presentation that wrestlers were playing characters exactly. I don't think it would be a stretch to say even in that era that was a sense that wrestlers were trying to portray themselves as stars, since that has also been true in boxing and other sports through history. The increase in cartoonish character definitely stretched this to the breaking point, and the changes that took place in that 96-97 era did signify a big change. You almost have to look at it case by case, but I guess the clarification I would argue for is that era at its best started to blend characters with true personalities more openly, rather than show the characters and the true people as two different personalities. There are exceptions to that, but take your example of Mick Foley. The idea never was that Foley wasn't a crazy son of a bitch, but they did show he had a more layered history and personality behind that. That to me is different than Vince Russo walked up to Dustin Rhodes and bragging about how he wrote his Goldust promos for him (something which stupidly happened in WCW).

    And then it's definitely stickier still when you look at the modern "showstopper" style, where the explicit stated goal of some wrestlers is to be entertaining rather than victorious. But here again I'm not sure I agree with your examples, there was of course a subtext with Punk about his potential as a star but when it came down to it the framework of the story is that Punk was held back from in ring opportunities. But then again I think back and he did go from losing decisively to Orton to beating Cena in a few months time, so maybe the example is better than I first though. The same issue exists for Bryan, when given a fair shot he did beat Cena but then why wasn't he victorious more often just prior to that push? I want to say something here about momentum in real sports and how it can change but I don't think I have the knowledge base for it...

    Anyway, I thought this was really interesting and I'm glad you wrote it. I'll have to roll it around in my mind a bit more, I think.

  4. #4
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Sep 2018
    I think wrestlers being on Twitter has completely destroyed kayfabe once and for all. On Twitter wrestlers  don't care about the illusion of the professional wrestling business anymore. Social media has really had a negative effect on kayfabe, although it has been dead for a few years now. Therefore I thought the Reality Era was a great concept because WWE knew they couldnt fool the fans anymore, not even little kids.

    You made some great points here , RIP.

  5. #5
    Dynamite Billington- I'll say it again, I really do see handful of people on other message boards who believe in the myths I try to dispel. I've got a few ideas in mind for my next columns and they aren't about busting myths, so hopefully you will enjoy them. Glad you liked this.

    mizfan- The presentation of kayfabe has definitely changed since before the 80s. With the over the top characters that WWE and to an extent WCW had, WWE had to change things to make it more logical. I agree, outright stating that a wrestler's promos are scripted is stupid and takes you out of the show. I don't think the showstopper mentality is breaking kayfabe, at least not since the late 90's because wrestlers are now presented as entertainers even I kayfabe. In team sports, teams usually have a better record in home games than road games because the cheers of their fans push them to play better. I don't know how much the crowd has historically been a factor in one on one combat sports, but I guess the fans cheers do help to some extent, and can explain why when wrestlers get more popular they start consistently winning more matches. Thanks for reading.

    Don Franc- This column was only talking about the presentation of kayfabe during the actual wrestling broadcast. The reality era was good because it made it easier for us to suspend our disbelief. Thanks for reading.

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