When I was a little kid, I only had a handful of the original WWE action figures made by LJN: Hulk Hogan, Hillbilly Jim, and "Mean" Gene Okerlund. I had doubles of Hogan and Hillbilly Jim from a gift I refused to return because I was too young to know better, but those three guys were it. When I would play with my toys, never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to spend an afternoon with two of the three stars depicted in my toy chest, eating steak and watching TV under the guise of doing my job.
Somehow, this was all real. In addition to Hillbilly Jim and Okerlund, the rest of the cast of Legends' House, WWE's new reality show (premiering tonight on WWE Network at 8 PM ET), were sitting with other journalists throughout the room: "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, "Mr. USA" Tony Atlas, "Mouth of the South" Jimmy Hart and Howard Finkel. Pat Patterson, the all-around wrestling genius best known to the current generation as one of Vince McMahon's "stooges" 15 years ago, was the only cast member who couldn't attend.
The lunch was built around a screening of the first episode of Legends' House. From the trailer and promos WWE has released so far, I wasn't sure what to expect. Not long after the episode starts playing, Gene turns to Jim. "A week in, I couldn't stand you." Jim had no problem throwing his own barb back. "Oh yeah. Six hours later I wanted to kill the son of a b---h. [laughs] I didn't, but sometimes, they were like that. You'll see!" Not only were they living together, but as is common on this type of closed-off reality show, their access to the outside world was restricted.
"We were there forever," Jim explained. They took away everything from us. We didn't have no telephones, nothing. The way they do it is no radio, no TV, no magazines, no newspapers. They mic you up and go at it." There was no scripting, the producers just threw the cast into ridiculous situations to see how they react.
It all starts with the cast being given cakes to deliver to their new neighbors. Howard Finkel happens to draw a woman who speaks Spanish (Okerlund, seeing this for the first time: "You speak Spanish?!"), which he speaks well enough to explain why he's there and badly enough to keep him from being invited inside.
As featured heavily in the promos, yes, they're counseled by Gary Busey, but if you compare Busey here to how he was on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, he doesn't seem like he tried to turn it up at all. The conflict resulting from his visit comes from the place you'd least expect it, too.
The show takes a surprisingly dramatic turn when Roddy Piper is the first to get stir crazy. By the end, it's played for laughs, but he becomes frustrated easily and seemingly has no idea what to do with himself. This is amplified by the fact that as his housemates point out during the show, he would often keep to himself on the road, so he's not the average wrestler who relishes every opportunity to be around the boys when his career is over. Josh Stewart of Newsday has much more about Piper in his own article on the event, as he was at Roddy's table.
WWE heavily focused on promoting the absolute most goofy scenes from the show, to the point that the show looked heavily manufactured in the promos. The actual finished product, going by the first episode, was much different. If The Surreal Life came back on the air and did a WWE-centric season, it would look exactly like this. That's a compliment: The Surreal Life was an incredibly entertaining show that could go back and forth between comedic and dramatic seasons with impressive poise.
The cast, having not seen the show before, all seemed to enjoy the first episode. At one point, Tony Atlas showed why WWE made him Abraham Washington's Ed McMahon on ECW by loudly laughing the Tony Atlas laugh for what felt like 30 seconds straight. When I pointed it out, Jim remarked that it's the "Last thing on Earth you'll ever hear. [I'll] never forget that. I heard it about two million times an hour." As the show cut to an external shot of the house, Jim added a bit of behind-the-scenes commentary. "Y'know, they had drones out there, they had that damn thing shooting [footage] of us. Flyin' around in the air. Real drones!"
The cast and the journalists bonding over wrestling, the show, and a great meal created a relaxed environment, and as a result, it didn't take much to get much prodding for someone to tell a story. At one point, as everyone was waiting for dessert, I mentioned to Jimmy Hart that my favorite thing he ever did was the infamous Bruise Brothers funeral skit from the Memphis territory. Popular babyface team the Fabulous Ones had left the area, and Hart's heel team of the Bruise Brothers was set to dub themselves "the New Fabulous Ones" to get heat from the fans. How did they set up the change? By having Jimmy go on TV and announce that the Bruise Brothers had passed away.
"They wanted to change them over and put them in the [previous Fabulous Ones' impersonators] New York Dolls' outfits, so we made this ridiculous video of me by myself at a funeral home," Hart explained. "We had one car following the hearse, so we made it so ridiculous that nobody would believe it. And I'm sitting there going 'thousands of people lined up at the funeral home to pay last tribute to the Bruise Brothers!' and the only person there was me. 'As we're leaving, there's over a hundred cars in the funeral procession!' but I'm looking out the window going [flashes a goofy smile and gives a thumbs up]. We made it so ridiculous."
The kicker came a few hours later. "We go that afternoon on the way out of doing TV that morning, I'm going to Jackson, Tennessee, I stop in the cafeteria and eat. But I'm stopped there, and all of a sudden, they go 'I'm so sorry about the Bruise Brothers.' I went 'WHAT!?!?!' [Even with] everything we did, [the fan] thought they really got killed in a car wreck!"
As great as getting to sit back and watch Jimmy Hart re-enact parts of one of my favorite angles was, I was struck by how awesome Hillbilly Jim was to be around more than anything else. When the screening ended and we were talking about how much we enjoyed the show, Gene Okerlund mentioned that, with it being over two years since the season was filmed, "I never remember being out there." Jim was ready to quip back again.
"That's why it was so good, you really weren't there!"