asher roth

In professional wrestling, something that is kayfabe [kay-fayb] is not real, but rather ‘acted out.’ People who believe that kayfabe acts are real are called ‘marks,’ as opposed to ‘smarts.’ Those who know wrestling is scripted but still enjoy the storylines are known as’ smart-marks,’ ‘or smarks.’

Kayfabe in general is the portrayal of events within the industry as ‘real’ or ‘true.’ Specifically, the portrayal of professional wrestling, in particular the competition and rivalries between participants, as being genuine or not of a worked nature. Referring to events or interviews as being a ‘chore’ means that the event/interview has been ‘kayfabed’ or staged, or is part of a wrestling angle (fictional storyline) while being passed off as legitimate.

Kayfabe has also evolved to become a code word of sorts for maintaining this ‘reality’ within the realm of the general public. Kayfabe is often seen as the suspension of disbelief that is used to create the non-wrestling aspects of promotions, such as feuds, angles, and gimmicks, in a similar manner with other forms of entertainment such as soap opera or film. In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to an actor breaking character on camera. Also, since wrestling is performed in front of a live audience, whose interaction with the show is crucial to the show’s success, one might compare kayfabe to the fourth wall, since there is hardly any conventional fourth wall to begin with.

The origin of the term is uncertain. Professional wrestling can trace some of its stylistic origins back to carnivals and catch wrestling, in a world which was far less connected than the present. With money tight, a carny would call home collect, telling the operator their name was ‘Kay Fabian.’ This was a code for letting the people at home know that they had made it safely to the next town. The family would then deny the call. A carny could therefore communicate without paying for the cost of a phone call or telegram. The term ‘kayfabe’ is thought to have originated as carny slang for ‘protecting the secrets of the business.’ However, another tradition holds that kayfabe was merely Pig Latin for ‘be fake,’ and thus an instruction by one carny to another not to break character at the moment a ‘rube’ or ‘mark’ was close by.

In years past, one tool that promoters and wrestlers had in preserving kayfabe was in their ability to attract a loyal paying audience in spite of limited or nearly nonexistent exposure. Professional wrestling has long been shunned by mainstream media due to lingering doubts over its legitimacy, and its presentation on television was largely limited to self-produced programming, not unlike informercials of the present day. Scrutiny existed only in limited circumstances, where in certain U.S. states, promoters had to deal with activist athletic commissioners. It was commonplace for wrestlers to adhere to kayfabe in public, even when outside the ring and off-camera, in order to preserve the illusion that the competition in pro wrestling was not staged. This was due in no small part to feuds between wrestlers sometimes lasting for years, and which could be utterly destroyed in seconds if they were shown associating as friends in public, and thus potentially affect ticket revenue.

With the advent of the Internet wrestling community, as well as the sports entertainment movement, the pro wrestling industry has become less concerned with protecting so-called backstage secrets and typically maintains kayfabe only during performances. However, kayfabe is occasionally broken, including during performances, in order to achieve a number of goals, among them advancing the storylines, explaining prolonged absences (often due to legitimate injury), paying tribute to other wrestlers and sometimes for comedic effect or that of driving insider humor.

The characters assumed by wrestlers can be distinguished into faces and heels. Faces, short for babyfaces, are hero-type characters whose personalities are crafted to elicit the support of the audience through traits such as humility, a hard working nature, determination and reciprocal love of the crowd. Faces usually win their matches on the basis of their technical skills and are sometimes portrayed as underdogs to enhance the story.

Heels are villainous or antagonistic characters, whose personalities are crafted to elicit a negative response from the audience. They often embrace traditionally negative traits such as narcissism, egomania, unprompted rage, sadism and general bitterness. Though not as prevalent today, xenophobic ethnic and racial stereotypes, in particular those inspired by the Axis Powers of World War II, were commonly utilized in North American wrestling as heel-defining traits. Heels typically inspire boos from the audience and often employ underhanded tactics, such as cheating and exploiting technicalities, in their fighting strategies.

Matches are usually organized between a heel and a face, but the distinction between the two types may be blurred as a given character’s storyline reaches a peak or becomes more complicated.

Many storylines make use of kayfabe romantic relationships between two performers. Very often, both participants have other real-life relationships, and the ‘relationship’ between the two is simply a story line. However, more than once, kayfabe romantic relationships have resulted either from a real-life relationship, such as between Matt Hardy and Lita, or ultimately developed into a real-life marriage (e.g., Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who married in 2003, more than a year after their kayfabe marriage ended).

Randy Savage was a second-generation professional wrestler. Savage originally avoided using his real name as a wrestler due to his concurrent career in minor-league baseball. During his wrestling career, he was rarely if ever known by his real name, though his relationship with father Angelo Poffo and brother Lanny Poffo was generally well-known to wrestling fans. In the U.S. states of Kentucky and Tennessee during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the real-life promotional war between the Poffos and their ‘outlaw’ International Championship Wrestling (ICW) promotion, competing against Jerry Jarrett’s Continental Wrestling Association (CWA), was carried out in front of fans accustomed to the storyline continuity inherent in seeing only one wrestling promotion for many years.

It was during this time that Savage developed a reputation within the business akin to Brian Pillman’s ‘Loose Cannon’ gimmick fifteen years later, mostly on account of his issuing shoot (unplanned) challenges to Jarrett’s wrestlers while armed with a pistol. Savage even once threatened CWA television announcer Lance Russell during an encounter at Rupp Arena in Kentucky, which was ICW’s home city. This occurred after Russell was successful in negotiating ICW’s television time slot away from ICW in favor of the CWA.

This real-life feud became another part of the wrestling storyline in December 1983, when the Poffos were convinced to abandon the war and join the CWA, the earliest American incarnation of what later became better known as an invasion storyline. Despite using the Savage surname, he appeared on the Memphis-based television program alongside his father and brother. His promos referred to ‘Poffo Mania’ more often than ‘Macho Mania,’ which would become one of his trademark catchphrases.

While in ICW, Savage developed a romantic relationship with Elizabeth Hulette. Hulette became one of ICW’s television announcers during their waning days of television production, appearing on camera under her real name and mostly introducing CWA house show matches. Savage joined the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in 1985, with an introductory storyline of him being a ‘free agent’ who takes on the heretofore-unknown ‘Miss Elizabeth’ (Hulette) as his manager. For many years, the WWF portrayed Savage and Elizabeth strictly in a wrestler-manager relationship, with no mention that they had been married for a year prior to their WWF debuts. In 1991, the two began a kayfabe romantic relationship, which culminated in a wedding ceremony at that August’s SummerSlam. The storyline ended a year later with the couple’s real-life divorce and Miss Elizabeth’s departure from the WWF.

Tag teams of wrestlers, who may or may not look alike, are often presented as relatives, though they are not actually related. ‘Brother’ tag teams were commonly utilized in years past as a means to develop young talent, by pairing them with a veteran wrestler and giving the younger wrestler a ‘rub’ by virtue of the association.

Sometimes wrestlers will ‘sell’ a kayfabe injury by not appearing at the following show, in order to demonstrate the severity of what happened to them the week before. In the years when information on the happenings of the business was limited, this was a common tactic for promoters when a wrestler was scheduled to tour Japan, or in more limited circumstances was dealing with a family emergency.

In other instances, if a wrestler (typically a babyface) needs surgery, a storyline will sometimes develop in which a heel will commit a kayfabe, on-screen act to the face wrestler to ‘injure’ the wrestler, in order to give the impression that it was the heel’s action that caused the face to need surgery. In these instances, the heel will continually flaunt the notion of taking their opponent out of action, in order to keep the storyline fresh in fans’ minds until the face is able to return and ‘settle the score.’

Other times, a real injury is sometimes used later on as a storyline. One way is for the injured to come back and blame someone else for injuring them, even when the feud was not initially planned out at all, to give a sort of closure to the injury time out.

When a major injury sidelines a wrestler in such a way none of the above can be done, the company will plan a return angle that can be used to celebrate a wrestler’s return to action. This has been made especially popular in the WWE with the use of their ‘Desire’ video vignettes of wrestlers who returned from a major injury such as Triple H in 2001 or Kurt Angle, in order to show that the wrestler was able to overcome a major injury that could have ended their career indefinitely (which, in many cases, could truly, non-kayfabe, be career-threatening or worse). In many cases, this is done for faces, though these also give a promotion a reason to turn a heel into a face (as in Kurt Angle’s case) if what the wrestler brought to the company was sorely missed during their absence.

These returns are usually given a particular date in order to increase viewership and ticket sales, as they are promised a star they have wanted to return. Or, a wrestler’s return will not be advertised; it will just suddenly happen in order to get a huge pop (reaction) out of the crowd, such as Edge’s return at the 2010 Royal Rumble, where he was entrant 29 in the Rumble event despite no prior public knowledge of his even being able to return to action.

Through kayfabe, wrestlers often quit or get fired, or are said to have been booked to lose a match where their jobs are on the line (e.g., a ‘loser leaves town match’), only to return at a future time. These types of matches are also used when a wrestler’s contract is up or to give them some time off to recover from a legitimate injury (before expanding to national television, wrestlers often did leave town as they were booked on the next city in the pro-wrestling circuit, similar to the carnival days).

However, such ‘departures’ may also be used to advance a feud between two wrestlers. A classic example is the ‘masked man,’ where the wrestler (usually a face) who has supposedly lost his job makes appearances at subsequent events while wearing a mask, and then interferes in his heel opponent’s matches; eventually, the masked wrestler’s identity is exposed by his foe and the feud intensifies. The ‘you’re fired’ gimmick has also successfully been used to repackage a wrestler with a new gimmick.

There have been several examples of breaking kayfabe throughout wrestling history. It should be pointed out that what exactly constitutes ‘breaking’ is rather difficult to define. It is rare for kayfabe to be dispensed with totally and the events acknowledged as scripted. Often the ‘break’ may be implied or through an allusion (for example calling a wrestler by his/her real name) and standards tend to vary as to what is a break. In the WWF during and after the Attitude Era, the line between kayfabe and reality was often blurred.

With the growth of the industry and its exposure on the Internet and DVD and videos, kayfabe may be broken more regularly. Whereas in the past it was extremely rare for a wrestler or other involved person to recognize the scripted nature of events even in outside press or media, WWE DVDs and WWE.com routinely give news and acknowledge real life. In the case of the former, it has ostensible adversaries and allies talking about each other, and the angles and storylines they worked and their opinions on them. On WWE.com, real life news is often given which may contradict storylines.

Prior to the Attitude Era and the advent of the Internet, publications such as WWE Magazine, and television programs broke kayfabe only to acknowledge major real-life events involving current or retired wrestlers, such as a death (for instance, the death of Ernie Roth, who was billed as ‘The Grand Wizard of Wrestling’), divorce (e.g., Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage and Miss Elizabeth) or life-threatening accident (such as the 1990 parasailing accident that seriously injured Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake), especially if said event received mass mainstream coverage.

As of late, WWE.com has included an ‘Industry News’ section to their website, which regularly breaks kayfabe to deliver news about current and former WWE superstars, and even going beyond their former policy of not acknowledging their competition, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA), by posting TNA Impact! and pay-per-view results on their site. Live events for virtually every wrestling company around the world are also listed on a regular basis, as are tidbits regarding wrestlers, such as Nick Hogan’s arrest and subsequent incarceration, the Ultimate Warrior’s return to wrestling and challenging Vince McMahon to a match, etc.

Actor and comedian Andy Kaufman has become known in the years following his death for his lifelong obsession with professional wrestling. In what would sound more familiar when several modern-day wrestlers spoke of being in the audience for the Don Muraco vs. Jimmy Snuka cage match as a life-changing event, Kaufman claimed to have been in attendance at Madison Square Garden twenty years prior when Bruno Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers for the WWWF championship. Too small to be a wrestler and too successful in his career for any promoter to afford his services as a manager, Kaufman nonetheless spent years looking for a way to be involved in the business.

Kaufman developed a bit for his standup routine of being the ‘Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World,’ challenging females from the audience. It has been reported multiple times over the years that Kaufman created this bit with the intention of shopping it to wrestling promoters as a storyline, and that he was turned down by numerous promoters, most famously by Vincent J. McMahon. He finally found a willing promoter in Jerry Jarrett, whose flagship arena the Mid-South Coliseum was considerably larger than most other venues in the United States which ran weekly wrestling shows, and therefore had a need to create enough interest to sell tickets. Kaufman appeared briefly in the promotion in the spring of 1982 to challenge Jerry Lawler, followed by a famous joint appearance with Lawler on Late Night with David Letterman and other appearances throughout the following year.

During this same time period, Kaufman also worked with Freddie Blassie, whose ability to maintain kayfabe in public was so strong, it more resembled an obliviousness to reality at times. Kaufman and Blassie filmed the movie ‘My Breakfast with Blassie,’ in which both men performed in character. Kaufman and Blassie appeared together on the 1983 episode of Letterman’s show to promote the movie. This appearance, which was also performed in character, culminated with Blassie proclaiming that he was now Kaufman’s (kayfabe) manager and physically pushing Kaufman towards the band stage to perform the song ‘Jambalaya’ by Hank Williams.

Letterman, in the early years of ‘Late Night,’ featured both professional wrestlers and ordinary people as guests, which in both cases was rare on network television. At one point during the appearance, Letterman and Blassie were discussing the latter’s wrestling career, and Letterman frequently goaded his other guest (the ordinary person) to denounce Blassie’s claims, albeit with the hint that it was being done tongue-in-cheek. The studio audience erupted in laughter when Blassie, in discussing being Kaufman’s manager, stated that Kaufman was a talent of the caliber of Big John Studd and Crippler Stevens.

A decade and a half after Kaufman’s death, Lawler starred as himself in ‘Man on the Moon,’ a film that, in part portrays the kayfabe feud between the pair. The movie shows highlights from the work and then reveals that Kaufman and Lawler were friends. Kaufman was only an amateur wrestler, and his initial attempts to enter the pro wrestling business were met with scorn by promoters, many of whom viewed Kaufman as someone who was eager to use his celebrity to expose the business once he was given an entry. His work with wrestlers demonstrated that he was a quick study of kayfabe. His devotion to the kayfabe would last his whole life, eventually affecting his reputation with fans of his acting and comic careers.

The most widely-discussed example of a break in kayfabe is the ‘Montreal Screwjob,’ centered around a match in which then-WWF Champion Bret Hart wrestled challenger Shawn Michaels for the championship at the Survivor Series pay-per-view event in Montreal in 1997. Hart had previously signed a contract with rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and still had three weeks after this match before his first appearance on WCW Monday Nitro. The agreed-upon finish was to have Hart retain the title that night and appear on Monday Night Raw the following night to give up the championship.

WWF head Vince McMahon had, months before, informed Hart that he could not financially guarantee the terms of his contract with Hart, encouraging him to make another deal if he was able to. As events transpired leading up to Survivor Series with Hart still champion and booked to remain champion following the event, McMahon feared that his championship would appear on his rival’s television program. This led to McMahon making the decision to change the planned finish without telling Hart.

McMahon’s feelings on this matter were still fresh after WWF Women’s Champion Debra Miceli (also known as Madusa and Alundra Blayze), following her release from the WWF, appeared on Nitro in 1995 and threw her championship belt into a trash can. History proved that McMahon also held no reservations about such a matter. At least one account of the events of the WWF’s expansion in late 1983 and early 1984 states that Bob Backlund was also not told by McMahon that he would lose the WWF Championship to the Iron Shiek, as well as losing his spot in the roster to Hulk Hogan.

During the Hart vs. Michaels match, Michaels put Hart in the sharpshooter, Hart’s finisher. This in and of itself constitutes an act of breaking kayfabe, as one of the cardinal rules made clear to aspiring wrestlers, always unwritten and often unspoken, is for a wrestler to never use another wrestler’s signature or finishing hold or move. Referee Earl Hebner signaled that Hart submitted, even though he clearly had not. At the same time, McMahon came to the ringside area and directed the ring crew to ring the bell and announce that Michaels had won the match. Hart, very upset, spat on McMahon and began trashing equipment around the ring, later punching McMahon in the dressing room. It was long believed that Michaels was also not informed of the events which transpired, yet later it was revealed that he was in fact in on it. The incident was recreated over the years in various angles and storylines. Examples include a ‘screwing’ of Mankind at the following year’s Survivor Series.

The incident occurred during a storyline feud between the United States and Canada. While Canadian nationalism certainly exists, the storyline was often panned for portraying relations between the two countries in a light which is far removed from reality. Hart played a vital role in the feud, doing promos in which he extolled the advantages of Canada in front of hostile American audiences. Numerous accounts of the screwjob have stated that Hart was asked to drop the title in Montreal, with Hart refusing to lose a match on Canadian soil due to his stature (whether real or self-imagined) in Canada.

Following Hart’s departure from the WWF, one of his chief rivals, Stone Cold Steve Austin, began being cheered by Canadian fans. Michaels, however, continued to receive jeers from Canadian audiences for many years afterward, no matter his babyface or heel status within a particular storyline. In response, numerous television announcers would refer to Canada in their commentary as ‘bizzaro land’ due to their differing reactions to wrestlers, Michaels in particular, as opposed to anywhere else on the planet the WWF appeared. Such a statement is believed to be a cover-up on the part of the promotion, and that this scenario can be attributed to the fact that the screwjob was brought up verbally in some form or another every time the WWF/WWE returned to Montreal for a televised event for many years afterward, inflaming fans by not letting it die.

The incident has also been cited for starting the ‘Mr. McMahon’ character in earnest. McMahon, who had appeared on WWF television programs since 1971 (when it was known as the WWWF), had been portrayed on television almost exclusively to that point as the announcer and program host, rather than as the owner (or originally, the son of the owner) of the WWF. A series of angles during 1997 mostly involving Hart and McMahon, which ended with the screwjob, was the beginning stage of McMahon’s on-camera appearances in a role other than announcing.

In a shoot interview, Kevin Nash doubted the legitimacy of the Montreal Screwjob. He believes the whole thing was a ‘work.’ He claims that it was too much of a coincidence that all of the cameras were in the right place at the right time during the Screwjob itself. Nash went on to say that McMahon was staggering a little too much after being punched, as he knew Vince as a man who would never sell a real punch the way he did. Nash also claimed that if McMahon didn’t want something to be videotaped, it wouldn’t be videotaped, referring to the video footage of the backstage aftermath, including being punched.

In specials and tribute shows, kayfabe is often broken. In the tribute shows for Brian Pillman, Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit, many wrestlers and officials, including those who had kayfabe feuds with them, spoke in their honor.

In 2009, Vince McMahon announced on a special three-hour edition of WWE Monday Night Raw that he had sold the show to Donald Trump, who appeared on-screen to confirm it and declared he would be at the following commercial-free episode in person. However, it was not revealed that the ‘sale’ to Trump was not an actual sale, but a kayfabe as part of the WWE’s storyline. Executives for WWE and USA Network treated the ‘sale’ as an actual sale, and it was picked up as a real event by many industry sources. The day following the announcement, WWE’s stock on the New York Stock Exchange fell, leading USA Network to admit that the ‘sale’ was indeed nothing more than part of a storyline.

Not long after the Trump incident, in the fall of 2009, WWE CEO Linda McMahon (Vince McMahon’s spouse) announced her candidacy for the United States Senate. The announcement was initially thought by some to be kayfabe, but it turned out that Linda McMahon was in fact a serious candidate for the Connecticut Senate seat held at the time by Christopher Dodd, who months later announced his retirement from the Senate. McMahon won the Republican nomination in the primary election before losing in the general election to Democrat Richard Blumenthal. Video clips depicting WWE storylines, in particular clips featuring Eugene, were used in anti-McMahon advertising during the campaign.

In the ring as in theater many scripted things can easily go wrong, either due to wrestler or equipment error. Like theater, these are often covered-up and not apparent to fans. On some occasions mishaps have been brought into sharp relief due to the circumstances or actions of individuals, making the mistakes obvious. At SummerSlam 1997, a reverse piledriver administered by Owen Hart to Steve Austin resulted in a serious injury for Austin. He was clearly unable to move for several minutes and eventually only did so with great difficulty. Owen Hart’s concern was apparent to all. Austin was booked to win, and Owen taunted him and the crowd for a while until Austin rolled him up for a weak pin and the win.

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