By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
We’ve seen the memes by now. What started as a fun vehicle for a talk show has since become parodied by some on the World Wide Internet.
“Cody Rhodes. American Nightmare. Watched ya in AEDubbya, see ya fallin’ on thumbtacks, off of ladders, flamin’ tables, see that new ink on your neck. Stone Cold tried the nose candy once or twice back in the day, but goddamn kid!”
That came from @Wiretaup on Twitter a handful of weeks ago in anticipation of Cody appearing on Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Sessions. It made me laugh. A lot. Probably because it was just a little too accurate, even though it was clearly tongue in cheek.
That said …
THE EARLY DAYS
There was a time when the Broken Skull Sessions wouldn’t have been on the other end of a joke like that.
Granted, you probably have to go all the way to November 2019, when the series debuted, to find that time, but that time existed, nonetheless. Think back to the premiere, when the Undertaker came on the show and we really got to see Mark Calloway let loose in a way that wasn’t entirely manipulated like “The Last Ride” was (though, to be fair, was still very manipulated).
The show felt like two veteran wrestlers sitting around, sharing memories, talking off the cuff in a gruff manner that was designed to ensure us viewers that what we were seeing was organic. And even though it probably wasn’t, that didn’t matter; it still made for good TV. It was like sitting down at an Elks Lodge and listening in on two old buddies tell stories about what it was like working at the magnet plant in the 1970s.
“Boss tried to tell me what to do and I’ll tell you what, that was the last time he ever raised his voice to me!”
Translate that into wrestling parlance and you had the vibe of the show. It kind of continued with Goldberg, Kane, the Big Show and Bret Hart, the next four episodes. Some were more successful than others (Goldberg has always been perceived as an outsider when people consider “the boys,” so his chat didn’t have as much weight to it), but at the core of the series was the magic sauce.
That magic sauce?
BECAUSE HE SAID SO
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
In one of the most overlooked and underrated surprises of the last few years in mainstream wrestling, it turns out Austin is pretty good at interviewing people. Yeah, that badass guy who kept kayfabe alive for all those years, drinking beers, flipping people off and representing the everyman against The Man — he can be fairly chatty when he wants to be.
And it worked. It wasn’t just the research that whomever works on his team did, and it wasn’t just the ease with which he used terms like “work” and “shoot,” which makes most wrestling fans these days feel like they know something the rest of the world doesn’t. Instead, it was just a reliability Austin exuded when he interacted with some of these people.
Oddly enough, he came across as a fan more than a colleague. He wasn’t above smiling or praising someone for a piece of work they had accomplished. The guy who many say was the biggest box office draw in the history of the business was both humble and outright giddy at times when he caught up with people like Ric Flair or Randy Orton or even Chris Jericho, which caught the attention of many a wrestling fan across the board, considering how Jericho works for The Enemy now.
But that’s the thing: With the Broken Skull Sessions, it seemed like there were no rules. The program somehow felt separate from WWE proper, mostly because of two things: 1) the places some of the conversations went, and 2) this was “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, remember. If anyone could get away with it under the WWE umbrella, this is probably the guy.
Yet as the show grew into the current day, and more episodes were released with more frequency, something happened. That thing?
LOSING AN EDGE
The show now feels more like a scripted conversation than it does a chat between two friends.
If you recall, during those first batches of episodes a few years ago, Austin was just going off the top of his head. Or at least, it felt like that. Sure, he had notes, and yeah, it was clear that staff on the show gave him a series of talking points to touch on, but rarely did it ever feel like he was going through the motions.
Instead, it felt like this was Stone Cold Steve Austin, Superfan, hanging out with his buds. “So, what was it like working the territories?” he would ask before giving his own anecdote about what it was like to work the territories. He’d interrupt guests to relate to them, to share stories of his own that clearly added color to the conversation. He seemed excited to be there and the guests seemed excited that he was excited.
If you take a look at the most recent episodes, however, he appears to be more and more like a guy with some sheets of paper reading off questions that are sometimes even framed like statements. He’ll take a swig of his beer and sometimes, he’ll offer up something mildly provocative, but overall, he just sort of agrees with everyone.
You see this more during the episodes that don’t feature people with whom we know he is close. Bobby Lashley? Ehhh, I’m not saying those guys aren’t friendly, but Austin could have gotten more out of the former champion if he wanted to. Becky Lynch, meanwhile, appears to be a longtime friend and someone with whom Austin is fascinated. He’s been a big cheerleader of hers from early on and it shows when they speak with one another.
Bubba Ray Dudley (a/k/a Bully Ray), though? Well, if those two hadn’t spent time in ECW, and if Bubba wasn’t as good of a talker as he is, I’m not so sure they would have gotten more than 45 minutes out of the thing.
But Bubba, as it turns out, was only the tip of the iceberg.
AN AMERICAN NIGHTMARE
Perhaps the most missed opportunity (if not empty) interview yet came in the series’ most recent episode when Austin welcomed Cody Rhodes onto the program. It was the perfect storm. A newer/younger wrestler who has no problem pontificating about everything from racism in the United States to his affinity for watches and was in The Rival Company for the last few years as The Guy Fanning Wrestling War Flames comes on the show to talk about … everything?
Well, kind of.
A Cody Rhodes interview will always be just that: A Cody Rhodes interview. I will never claim to know anything about him personally, but I can say that there isn’t a time, as an observer, where I don’t feel like that guy is 100 percent on. And when I say “on,” I mean, “who the hell knows if this guy is real, but I’ll listen because damn if it’s not entertaining.” Plus, I don’t think everyone lies 100 percent of the time. I also don’t think everyone tells the truth 100 percent of the time. So, to parse through someone like Cody’s words can be a fun game.
But that was the thing about the interview: At one point, I watched Austin (and the camera, for some reason, stuck on him through this) read off a piece of paper a statement/question that he had trouble actually getting through because it didn’t come straight from his consciousness. Instead, it just came from a format sheet and once the final word left his mouth, off Cody went for eight minutes of being all types of Cody.
The moment was so poignant to me that it inspired this entire piece. Where did this show go so wrong that at once, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was sharing Jack Daniels with the Undertaker, getting through three-fourths of the bottle, and now, this guy is so uninterested in perhaps the most polarizing figure in all of pro wrestling today that he can’t even muster up enough enthusiasm to just talk to the guy like a normal person would?
I couldn’t tell if Austin was checked out, if he didn’t much care for Cody to begin with, if maybe the episode was filmed on an off day or what. All I knew was that the charm of the series, which had been fading for a bunch of previous episodes anyway, was all but gone. This wasn’t the same Austin. This wasn’t the same show.
Instead, it felt like a talk show that had been formatted to death and refused to actually cash in on the biggest get outside of Roman Reigns it could receive in house. I don’t care about “Dashing” Cody Rhodes and God knows we don’t need 25 minutes on it. His time teaming with Randy Orton was important, but is it more important than some of the very pointed and very aggressive comments he made while speaking out against WWE not all that long ago?
Look, I get it. WWE isn’t going to allow Austin to sit down with someone for two hours to talk about how he landed a moonsault off the top of a cage or why New Japan and AEW had a rocky relationship at the beginning of AEW’s existence. But Austin’s line of questioning was soft at best, egregious at worst. And all of it leads me to wonder …
OPPORTUNITIES ARE THERE
… Was that just a one-off issue, or are we to expect Robot Steve Austin to interview more people as the names keep coming his way?
Austin is at his best when he’s talking with the older guys — the ones he can share war stories with and ones for whom he clearly has an abundance of respect. But here’s a stat that makes me curious: If you take a look at the 27 episodes that have been released thus far, only ten feature wrestlers who are not currently in the WWE Hall of Fame. That includes three women currently active — Bayley, Sasha Banks and Lynch — and two men not working for the company currently — Chris Jericho and Jeff Hardy. The other five are veterans in their own right — Cody, Drew McIntyre, Seth Rollins, Bobby Lashley, and Randy Orton.
So, the question must be asked: What happens when all that’s left for Stone Cold to interview are newer wrestlers with whom he may not be familiar and also those who he may not necessarily enjoy watching wrestle? Would he be into interviewing Sami Zayn? How about Theory? Could we get Rhea Ripley on there? How about Naomi?
What makes the show good is Austin’s familiarity with the people sitting across from him, as well as the careers those people have had. If he’s not invested in it on a personal level, it shows, and the presentation lacks authenticity. You can’t fake enthusiasm, even if you try, and in some cases, it feels like there aren’t enough IPAs in the world to get Austin emotionally invested in some of the stuff he’s talking about.
I don’t blame him if he doesn’t want to keep up with the current product. Or shoot, I don’t blame him if he doesn’t have the time to keep up with it, either. The last thing someone of his stature should probably be doing is making sure he’s in front of a TV set Monday nights, Tuesday nights, Wednesday nights, Friday nights and sometimes Sunday nights each week. There’s too much wrestling these days, no matter how you cut it.
What he could do, though, is pick and choose his spots. As these episodes are released with more frequency now, it might be an idea to pull back a little and really focus on the subjects into which he’d love to dig. Is AJ Styles someone he’d really like to explore after all these years? How about Ronda Rousey? Those seem like they could be good episodes, but only if Austin wants to apply himself. If he doesn’t, they just become wasted opportunities.
And truth be told, that’s what the episode with Cody turned out to be – a wasted opportunity. We didn’t learn much of anything about him, there weren’t any hard questions asked and at one point, it looked like Austin wanted to look around and say “… the hell am I doing here again?”
That can change, of course, if he wants it to change. And with the amount of talent, personalities, legends and bit players he can choose from in the WWE orbit, here’s hoping he wants it to. Because the last thing the wrestling world needs is just another pair of people sitting around, saying the right things, all devoid of an essential soul that can make these programs magic.
And that, friends, is the bottom line.