Last night, Jon Stewart — beloved liberal media icon — appeared for the first time on cable television since leaving behind the desk of “The Daily Show” three weeks ago. But he wasn’t on a major news outlet, discussing issues of the day. Instead, he was on “Monday Night Raw,” being confronted by professional wrestler/”Trainwreck” scene-stealer John Cena about the fact that the day before, during the WWE PPV event “SummerSlam,” Stewart had run out in the middle of Cena’s wrestling match and hit John Cena with a chair, thus sabotaging Cena’s match and allowing the other guy to win.
Cena felt Stewart (who was officially at SummerSlam to serve as host) had transgressed, and so Cena sought justice in the form of what Cena refers to as an “attitude adjustment” — known to the rest of us as “picking up a dude over your shoulders and then throwing him to the ground.” Stewart took it about as well as you’d expect from a 52-year-old man, staggering out of the ring with the help of some referees. But even as he limped away, his exit music — the “Daily Show” theme — blared in the stadium. And it looked like he was having a pretty good time.
There’s always something going on, in the world of professional wrestling that exists under the banner of the WWE. It’s a massive organization featuring several annual PPV events and weekly series like “Monday Night Raw” (which airs on USA). The WWE has hundreds of employees, dozens of marquee stars and about a bajillion hours of programming stretching back decades. It is a beast.
But it’s a beast that, typically, isn’t afforded a lot of respect by those who don’t indulge regularly. It’s hard not to admire the WWE for what it’s built: an independent media empire that encapsulates a lot of various platforms and knows its fan base pretty well. It’s also, always, been ghettoized in a way common to much niche programming because, from the outside, it is a bit ridiculous. I mean, for many hours every week, grown men and women wearing ridiculous costumes and/or small bits of spandex engage in a physical activity officially classified as “sports entertainment.” There are storylines that draw each match into a serialized narrative, but they’re largely based on ongoing feuds driven by whether one person or another has turned “face” (good) or “heel” (evil).
When people aren’t wrestling, they’re shouting angrily at each other or vamping for the crowd for minutes at a time. Sometimes, matches drag on, each combatant taking turns pinning the other, over and over, breaking free just in time to keep the match going just another minute more. And if you’re not fully up-to-date on the backstory of the people involved, watching a WWE event can feel like watching “Star Trek” without understanding who any of the aliens are.
I am not an expert on wrestling, let’s be clear. I know a lot more about Klingons than I do John Cena. But I started watching it off and on again maybe seven or eight years ago, attending the PPV events hosted by friends without really understanding what was going on, but enjoying the bits where dudes would make crazy over-the-top entrances and do crazy backflips and catapult off each other like crazy people.
For the most part, that’s still the way I come at it: not really sure what every plot twist means without having it explained to me, but enjoying the entrances and backflips and craziness. But I have more respect for it than I used to. Because once you at least have a glimpse of understanding the depth of the world that these characters live in a shared universe that goes back decades and spans across series, that is rich with history, it’s easy to understand how someone like Jon Stewart (who turns out to be a long-time wrestling fan) would be engaged with it.
The WWE is an organization dedicated to the long game. Even something like Stewart getting brought in as the official host of “SummerSlam” this year was set up by months of crossover appearances between WWE channels and “The Daily Show.” (Short version: Stewart came into “SummerSlam” with a feud against Cena’s opponent Seth Rollins, making his betrayal of John Cena all the more shocking.) It’s the same sort of mythology that makes the comic book world simultaneously inscrutable and intriguing. It might lack the same level of writing, but it still represents a story being told over not just years, but generations at this point.
If you don’t have years worth of backstory under your belt, then the way into appreciating professional wrestling, from the outside, is coming to respect both the pageantry and the athleticism of the events. French philosopher Roland Barthes, in his seminal essay from 1995 entitled “The World of Wrestling,” described it as follows: “There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.”
Which is to say, it’s really pretty nifty to see the antics and acrobatics on display. Much of the WWE’s primary action at this point can be perhaps reduced to staged fight choreography, sure, but that’s what made it so exciting when the star of the CW’s “Arrow,” Stephen Amell, became a part of the action in recent weeks.
Amell’s physical prowess has always been a big part of selling the CW superhero series. (The Salmon Ladder was a part of the show’s trailers from the very beginning.) So, two weeks ago, when he dove into the ring on “Monday Night Raw” to avenge himself against an uncool hit by Joker-esque villain Stardust, then demanded a chance at a real match during “SummerSlam,” there was no question of “Oh god, is this actor going to hurt himself?” The real question was “How much pain is the CW going to let him take?” The answer that came during the actual “SummerSlam” bout, in which Amell was teamed with a backflipping pro named Neville, was “some, for sure.”
The thing with onscreen fighting is that, in the scripted world, the priorities are balanced between aesthetics and safety. As Indiewire’s Ben Travers would note, one of the most visually interesting fight scenes of this year — the ending of “Marvel’s Daredevil” Episode 2 — does feature a number of “phantom punches.” It’s amazing to watch, but you’re not watching someone take a for-real beating. And there’s not a huge amount of difference between that sort of action and the kind you see on the WWE.
The Stephen Amell vs. Stardust match was maybe one of my favorites of “SummerSlam,” in part because Amell’s talents as a performer of fight sequences were a huge asset. It was a clearly, but cleanly choreographed sequence. And even though I knew the punches weren’t for real real, they were fun to watch. To quote Barthes again: “This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense.”
There’s a fascinating interplay always happening between the reality of professional wrestling and the constructed storytelling of it. We all acknowledge that there is an artificial narrative underlying all the action on screen, but we also still somehow believe that despite the framework, it has some level of authenticity. For the same reason we accept that very famous actor Robert Downey Jr. is playing a superhero on the big screen, we accept that very famous wrestler John Cena is competing against his peers for the big trophy, and that Jon Stewart, in his role as host, felt compelled to attack him.
Of course, the way the WWE dances on the line between truth and fiction is sometimes hard to grasp, especially when reality inserts itself into the narrative. For example, take the recent firing of Hulk Hogan after the reveal of racist comments he’d made. It’s not just that they fired Hulk Hogan; they removed him from the Hall of Fame, the website, everything. As far as the WWE is concerned, Hulk Hogan never existed, which is tough to resolve, mentally, with the fact that he’s maybe the one professional wrestler every human being on the planet has ever heard of. And Hogan’s not the only wrestler that has been retconned out of existence after some scandal or tragedy. People who were very real, but no longer exists in the narrative.
If you want a fascinating example of the way professional wrestling plays around with the concept of reality, consider the fact that Amell appeared on both “Raw” and “SummerSlam” as himself, but not only did he wear elements of his “Arrow” costume in the ring, but his opponent Stardust (who delivers a performance, every time he’s on camera, that makes the 1960s Batman look subtle) was convinced that Stephen Amell is actually the Green Arrow, for real.
Engagement with wrestling, then, involves a certain ability to dance with the idea of truth. At least, that’s what I find interesting about it, which is probably why my favorite wrestler, at this moment, is a relatively junior female wrestler on the WWE’s offshoot series “NXT.” Her name is Blue Pants because Blue Pants was wearing a pair of blue pants the first time she got called out to wrestle. That is the 100 percent true story of her origins. You can buy a Blue Pants t-shirt from the official WWE website. It has a picture of a pair of blue pants on it.
Blue Pants had a big moment this weekend because on Saturday she got called up to assist a NXT tag team known as the Vaudevillains. They are called this because at one point they were technically bad guys, but they also dress like old-timey strongmen and have old-timey mustaches. They are constantly getting slapped by another lady wrestler, but they can’t hit her back because they are gentlemen, so they enlisted Blue Pants as an ally.
This all sounds ridiculous. I know it. I watched many hours of wrestling to prepare for this article, and so much of it stretches beyond what we might accept as high-brow entertainment. But once you engage with it, on any level, it’s a great deal of fun.
Before getting slammed to the ground by John Cena, Stewart revealed during last night’s “Raw” that he’d felt obligated to keep Cena from winning the match because if Cena had won, Cena would have tied the record for world championships with Ric Flair, a wrestling legend. Cena is considered a heel in the wrestling world, so as far as Stewart was concerned, he was acting on the side of justice.
Then, of course, wrestling legend Ric Flair made an appearance to say that he’d have actually been okay with Cena tying his record. And then Cena came out to confront Stewart and administer some physical justice. The clip is below, and it is four minutes of men yelling at each other about honor and pride, followed by one dude picking the other up and throwing him around. It’s a sight to see.
There are nuances to this that I’m not picking up on, as someone who has not been watching wrestling her entire life. But anyone who appreciates independently produced content has to develop for the strange and arcane and foreign, and professional wrestling offers that in spades. You might not understand its complexities. It might feature no shortage of problematic elements. But it has its beauties.
“Jon Stewart has gone from ‘Daily Show’ host to ‘SummerSlam’ criminal,” one commentator shouted this Sunday, as Stewart made his heel turn, slamming the chair into Cena’s stomach. We live in a world where that happened. It’s ridiculous, sure. But there’s magnificence, too.