Hot air buffoons
Hate the state of modern political discourse? Blame the World Wrestling Federation.
During the late ‘70s and through the ‘80s, the dominance of professional wrestling in many ways defined the Midwestern mainstream. Proud white guys like Dusty Rhodes and Hulk Hogan (with some POC on our side, like Junkyard Dog and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat) went head-to-head with the likes of The Iron Sheik and Ivan Koloff, Cold War caricatures straight from Orwell’s playbook, meant to stoke otherness and exploit the fire of a rabid audience. Later, with the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, we got black welfare queens and dominatrix Aryans, further conflating perceived xenophobic threats for the entertainment and edification of a largely white, straight, male status quo.
Decades later, the mainstream popularity of pro wrestling has waned. Now, in its place, we have political opinion theater, in which craven bomb-throwers like Sean Hannity, Matt Drudge, Alex Jones, Rush (not the band), and basically everyone on Fox News who isn’t Shepard Smith parade personality and faux-outrage for audiences eager to watch a cage match with weak-kneed leftist heels. For the crass spectacle, modern tabloid punditry conjures memories of ‘80s professional wrestling—the pregnant id of Real Americans on display during a media mitosis, exploited for fun and profit by ratings-hungry networks.
It didn’t take long for the sensationalist entertainment proffered decades ago by the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., or WWE) to cross over into the previously anodyne world of talk shows.
And it was kinda glorious.
Jerry Springer, Richard Bey, and Jenny Jones, among others, stood on the shoulders of Geraldo Rivera, Morton Downey Jr.—and, to a degree, Howard Stern—who in the late ‘80s shifted what was acceptable in a format that, during the era of Phil Donahue and Dick Cavett (and in Stern’s radio realm, Don Imus), was traditionally for sober talk of current events. Even Dr. Ruth maturely (if adorably) dealt with the subject of sex with a mind to inform and enlighten the audience—and maybe even solve some people’s problems. Like a public service.
Not so much with the new old guard, who claimed the mantle of news and weaponized it for the culture wars.
From ‘92 to ‘96, Richard Bey, a vaudevillian version of Sean Hannity, would introduce segments with SNLish skits: for instance, colonials crossing the Delaware before an episode about cuck husbands and their dictator wives. It’s early men’s rights activism shit that reminds you of the now, because of course it’s hilarious that your domineering ball and chain spends your money while holding back on the sex (because naturally she owes it to you). Toss in bikini contests with kindergarten trivia questions the hot girls are too dim to answer, fatty-go-boom segments such as “The Gargantugames,” topical parodies like “OJ Family Feud,” and you get a pretty clear picture of conservative humor, then and now.
The Jerry Springer Show, which also got its start in ‘92, is still a Thunderdome of porn stars, transgender lesbians, incestuous love triangles, amputee swingers, and pissed-off, alcoholic dwarfs. What used to be transgressive is now daytime comfort food for those who seek relief in the knowledge that their lives probably could be worse.
Perhaps by virtue of the fact he’s still on the air, Springer might be the purest distillation of Geraldo and Morton Downey Jr.’s politicized WWF legacy, pitting an evermore ratings-worthy, ostensibly freakish substrata of weirdos against each other, giving the presumably “normal” audience a chance to chime in on the drama, while providing an editorial voice to make it seem like real news.
There was always a conservative bent to all of this. Geraldo, after all, failed upward from Al Capone’s empty vault to Fox News correspondent, and even G. Gordon Liddy had his own talk radio show. These moral arbiters wagged their fingers at the culture, all the while feigning shock for ratings.
But between the two pioneers, Downey was easily the more genuine. In his trademark chain-smoking outrage (he was proudly nicknamed The Loudmouth), he yelled of Oliver North being a hero, was an objective misogynist, and he gleefully exploited whatever ripped-from-the-headlines trend might up his ratings. But he also openly hated Nazis and talked civilly to liberal colleagues, like his friend Phil Donahue—he even encouraged him to run for office, all while corrupting him to compete in the same sordid ratings war.
Compared to modern ideological warriors with a national platform, Downey was practically nuanced, certainly entertaining, and weirdly prescient.
On a 1988 episode of Nightline, debating television critic Bill Carter, Downey said of his show, “It’s an example of frustration that the American people have not been able to express themselves for fear of losing their jobs, being thrown out of their homes, having their wives leave them, or getting thrown out of school.”
I imagine he’d be glad he didn’t live to see Twitter.