So I was watching Breaking Ground, which gives a backstage look at NXT wrestlers as they develop their characters and attempt to find their place within the shambolic carnival of professional wrestling. This is on the Network, mind you, and everything you see is completely sanctioned by WWE.
One episode focuses on Baron Corbin, or more specifically, Tom Pestock the Former Football Player-Turned-Wrestler, as he grumbles backstage and keeps to himself and rides a motorcycle through the suburbs. I found myself deeply disliking Tom Pestock. “What an antisocial prick, sitting and eating while everyone else is setting up the ring.” I couldn’t stop watching! Why’s he got such a bug up his ass, and why’s he being so standoffish with everyone? Why does he seem determined to distance himself from the other wrestlers and generally act like a mean-hearted loner?
On another episode, there’s tension between the Hype Bros as they attempt to find middle ground in order for their gimmick to work. It made me like Mojo, and it made me want to see the Hype Bros in a match in order to see if I’d be able to spot any tells of internal tension.
And in that moment, a small voice whispered “You’re getting worked here, bud.”
Here’s the thing: If Russo-era WWF was (attempting to be) postmodern with its liberal use of worked shoots for storylines, the current climate is post-post-modern. Any sweaty teenager can scan a wrestling forum and learn basic wrestling terminology in an effort to sound like a seasoned insider. (This frequently results in hilarious misuses of terminology. If you refer to WWE as The Fed, you’re hilarious and nobody is impressed.)
We’re watching two shows every time we turn on Monday Night Raw: the story presented inside the ring, and the backstage workings that influence the matches and storylines. We have a natural urge to peek behind the curtain, because we like feeling savvy and special. Wrestling fans call other wrestling fans marks because it helps them to feel like they have one up on those dumb wrestling fans.
And since traditional kayfabe has been dead for a long, long time, WWE has had to evolve a different form of kayfabe: Everything is a work, everything is a shoot. Dirt sheets are comically unreliable, and everybody is convinced that they know the real reason a wrestler is getting a push, or (that much-loved IWC buzzword) buried. WWE sees you, and they’ve wisely decided to make a buck off of it. Because they are carnies.
When something gets presented as a shoot, like Table For 3 or Breaking Ground, WWE is still 100% in control of the narrative. They’re still shaping your perception of the characters portrayed, because it’s their job to make you watch. If you tune in for a Dean Ambrose match because you liked how down-to-earth he was while talking to Kevin Owens and Cesaro, WWE wants to use that. If you read online that there’s backstage heat for Lana because of her real-life engagement to Rusev, WWE is going to exploit that, because it’s their job to keep you watching.
Last Monday, for instance, Kofi Kingston paused during a promo about how much he hates country music to say “Honestly, this is me, not my character saying this. Country music suuuucks.” Steve Austin, an old-school stalwart, flipped his shit about it on his podcast; in his estimation, the audience shouldn’t care about anybody but the performer in the ring, and certainly not the wrestler’s real-life identity. But under the new rules of kayfabe, the audience is encouraged to be just as interested in Kofi Nahaje Sarkodie-Mensah as they are in Kofi Kingston, and what’s more than that, the Nashville crowd got worked like hell when Kofi-the-real-guy said that country music sucks purely because he went one further in his heel antics. Kofi-the-real-guy is as much a part of the show as Kofi-the-heel — they’re both props for generating heat and selling T-shirts.
Kayfabe is a matryoshka doll of carny deception, and if you think you’re not getting worked, that just means you’re getting double-worked. The kayfabe is coming from inside the house.