Historically, WWE has told its stories primarily in front of a live audience. Whether it be an in-ring promo featuring a single Superstar airing his grievances or a backstage argument between a talent and the authority figure they work for, the non-wrestling stories are told live, just like the in-ring battles they are building toward. Crowd reactions are incredibly important for a product like the one WWE offers, so more often than not, the environment created by the people in attendance is as important as the content they are reacting to.
Chris Jericho’s debut in August 1999 was huge. It was even bigger thanks to the way the crowd reacted when his name appeared on the Titantron and during his verbal sparring with The Rock.
If Mick Foley’s “This Is Your Life” segment for The Rock’s birthday in September 1999 was presented in a series of backstage skits, it wouldn’t have been as memorable as it was, nor would it be the highest-rated segment in the history of Monday Night Raw.
Kane’s unmasking needed the tangible anticipation of the men and women in the arena and their shocked reactions. It also needed far more forethought than WWE’s writers and makeup team gave it. That should have done behind closed doors with no cameras present, come to think of it.
Certain segments that happened in the ring or in a live backstage setting with audible crowd noise would have done better in a vacuum, so to speak.
Ryback, for example, cut a pretty decent promo at the end of 2014, explaining his motivations, inspirations and generally just the reason why he was there. It was a good idea, but Ryback was coming off of an unbelievably bad, failed heel run with Curtis Axel. Because of that, the crowd had no reason to care about him. When he grabbed a microphone and talked for seven minutes, those in attendance were generally polite and cheered on cue a handful of times, but the entire thing was very awkward. He introduced a few video clips showing moments from his past history in WWE and stumbled over his words. In the end, it was somewhat effective, but very meandering and not nearly as impactful as WWE was hoping it would be.
Compare that speech to Michael Cole’s pre-taped interview with Seth Rollins this week on Raw. Rollins is coming off of a very long heel run. Even though the crowd has been begging to cheer for him since he returned in May, the subject matter needed to be structured properly in order to be as effective as possible.
The solution? Put Rollins in a room with Michael Cole, have the longtime commentator and interviewer ask some simple but poignant questions, and have Rollins give succinct and meaningful answers. Intersperse video clips pertaining to the conversation and air in on Raw, and you have yourself a piece that addresses everything that needed to be expressed to the fans. Nobody in the crowd had the chance to yell something dumb to try to get themselves over and the dreaded “What?” chants were stifled completely.
Just like Rollins, Ryback was telling a slightly nuanced story that required full attention, careful wording and no interruptions. “The Architect” had to explain his point of view as to how his actions as part of The Authority differ from the way Kevin Owens won the Universal Championship. He was able to explain calmly and in a simple manner that was easy to understand and identify with. “The Big Guy” poured his heart out and made references to events in his life that some fans may have never seen.
They showed a clip of Ryan Reeves getting eliminated from Tough Enough in 2004 and a clip of The Nexus, featuring his old persona of Skip Sheffield, destroying John Cena and tearing up the ring in 2010. There wasn’t enough context for those to be meaningful. Then, to close it out, he made a jarring switch from a candid Ryan Reeves talking about Ryback being a character to the man-eating monster cutting a wrestling promo on the evil foreigner. That was more of a poor decision by the creative team than anything else, but those two very different narratives that should have been separated.
The sit-down interview is a vastly underused medium. It can be used for comedy, such as the Kurt Angle “interview” with The Rock from 2000. It works well for an introduction or clarification on the motivations of a complex character, such as an interview with Mankind in 1997. For a while, Michael Cole was doing weekly interviews with Triple H for WWE’s website. There was so much fantastic content in those pieces, and they could have been used to advance the storylines in lieu of opening Monday Night Raw every week with 20-minute segments that had enough meaningful content to fill seven to 10 minutes at most. Instead, most of them never saw the light of day and anything that did was significantly shortened.
These are versatile pieces that can get a lot of important information across without interruption or taking up too much time. They shouldn’t necessarily be used every week because overuse would ruin the concept and water it down. If carefully chosen, however, they could be a potential game-changer for how WWE presents their television product.