WWE's attempts at humor and fright too often fall flat
By Jeffrey Lutz
Last week I got the chance to watch WWE Monday Night Raw through the eyes of a seven-year-old.
My daughter sat with me during the first hour of Raw, which she is prone to do when trying to avoid bedtime. I had to ask her multiple times if she was frightened, as the Kane and Daniel Bryan saga began to unfold and the sinister Bray Wyatt executed a typically dark in-ring promo. Each time, my daughter answered negatively. Of course she was not afraid. Afraid of what?
I long understood that I wasn't the target audience for much of WWE's programming, but especially not for its attempts at putting even the slightest bit of fear into viewers. Children, though, have long been terrified by WWE angles, dating back, for me, to Undertaker's many surprise attacks on enemies as he emerged from a casket. Except now WWE can't even scare children, and it has been a more futile effort to try to make them -- or anyone -- laugh.
John Cena has set the tone for WWE's perennially corny humor that it has settled into since it removed most of the edge from its product. Cena's tendency for sophomoric joking made a budding feud with Bray Wyatt so intriguing and offered a possibility to bring out the best in each character's personality. Cena, for all his story line talk of changing his outlook, has been the same inconsistent character he has been during his long main-event run. It has damaged a litany of opponents, and Wyatt has suffered the same fate so far. Cena has shuttled between intimidated and amused by Wyatt, and those contradictions have made Wyatt not so scary against an adversary who only occasionally treats him as a threat.
At least Cena is the best at corny humor, a backhanded compliment at best. Most of the rest of WWE's so called comedy acts give us plenty of corny but not so much humor. Fandango has proven to be a prime example, even though his plight is hardly unique. He debuted with attention-grabbing fanfare and had so much potential, it seemed, that Chris Jericho handpicked Fandango for a WrestleMania match that Fandango ultimately won. It's unlikely Jericho picked Fandango for his catchy theme music or his still-undiscovered personality, instead offering Fandango a prime spot because Jericho saw athletic potential that matched his vision of a different brand of character.
Without any development, Fandango has taken residence among meaningless mid-carders such as Santino, 3MB and Los Matadores. The two latter acts were matched up, along with little people Hornswoggle and El Torito, for a WeeLC bout at the Extreme Rules event this month. The build-up to the match was groan-inducing for many with senses of humor advanced beyond the elementary school playground, but the match itself was pleasing because all six performers were able to show off their athleticism and wrestling ability. For a fleeting 10 minutes or so, comedy wasn't the most important element of a WWE comedy act.
Eventually, that match will be forgotten and all six characters will return to their homes within the non-serious side of WWE's hierarchy. That's a more crowded group this week with the addition of Adam Rose, who has hope to escape from the lower class but probably won't since his act is seemingly built upon one note. WWE, through the painfully unhip announcer Michael Cole, already appears determined to marginalize Rose and force him to suffer the same stagnation of many of his peers.
Fortunately, WWE isn't completely lacking for legitimately light moments on its shows. Unfortunately, they most often come from heels. Paul Heyman is often funny and so is Wade Barrett, not just because they've added detectable charm to their villainous personas but because they're obviously dedicated to the motives of their characters. It's an authenticity that characters such as Santino, who used to be legitimately funny, can't achieve when WWE opts to make them outlandishly sillier every week.
The WeeLC match was most likely an anomaly, as WWE apparently believes humorous characters can't have good matches or participate in meaningful story lines. Santino's on-screen partner, Emma, became a major prospect because of her in-ring work at NXT, where her bubbly personality was a welcome bonus. On the main roster, Emma has turned up the quirkiness but mostly turned off the athletic ability that created her now-rocky path to stardom.
Perhaps ironically, WWE also fills matches involving fearsome characters with similar camp that removes viewers from what is supposed to be a stoic moment. The Extreme Rules match between Kane and Daniel Bryan is Exhibit A for this theory, and the follow-up angle on Raw last week provided confirmation. Kane has been doomed by his own versatility; he's played a comedic character too often to be taken seriously as the horror-movie villain he's portraying now, and WWE's B-movie-style angles only make him less believable.
Humor and fear worked during the Attitude Era not because WWE had more freedom with an edgier product and wider bounds for perceived good taste, but because the company and its writers and bookers took risks. Some of them worked and some of them didn't, but WWE embraced new ideas. The current WWE environment offers no room for risks, so WWE falls back into familiar habits that don't emotionally move anyone. Even seven-year-olds.
Actually, WWE is taking a huge risk. It is risking fans no longer taking Bryan, the WWE World Heavyweight champion, seriously because he runs away from the big, bad, Big Red Monster. Not that WWE has even taken Bryan seriously, of course. Bryan's character was actually terrified while I was watching at home with a dismissive smirk. And that's the problem: WWE's allegedly terrifying angles are hilarious, and I'm terrified of the ways WWE will try to make me laugh.
Jeff Lutz has written for the Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas for over a decade and debuted with Prowrestling.net on November 4, 2012. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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