WWE's 4th Wall: Examining the Pros and Cons of Killing Kayfabe
Without a doubt, the recent work-shoot storyline involving CM Punk, Triple H, John Cena and John Laurinaitis has been the most compelling television the WWE has aired in recent memory.
Reaching in and grabbing details from their personal lives, contract issues and backstage politics has made for riveting television. It is so engrossing that now many people are wondering if this new direction will pour over onto other wrestlers and storylines and create the "Reality Era."
I even find myself wondering:
“Is Chris Masters really fired? If so, why would he be allowed to come to a WWE event with a camera?”
“Did Gail Kim really try to quit? Or, are they working her lack of use, since her acquisition, into a storyline?”
“Is Melina really fired? Or, is Morrison just that moronic to bring a disliked and terminated Diva to WWE shows?”
“Is Chris Jericho fanning the flames for a return? Or, is he really just that pissy when he’s on Twitter?”
One wonders if the WWE is planning to blend works and shoots into their storylines across the board.
While that would be exciting, executing the idea—without becoming WCW in its death throes—is going to be a daunting task, a task that may not produce the rewards and results that we the fans or the WWE is hoping for.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the pros and the cons of the WWE going all out to destroy the fourth wall—the imaginary barrier between the audience and character, reality and fantasy—and see if it’s worth it.
Con: There Is No Going Back
The biggest mistake of the PG Era is not the cursing free scripts that wrestlers utilize.
It’s not the controversy-free booking that the creative team produces.
It’s not the lack of gore or naked breasts.
One of the greatest eras of the WWF was the golden age of the '80s. The wrestlers were more cartoonish and child-friendly than almost any WWE star today, with the exception of perhaps Hornswoggle.
There was no attitude or cursing, no nudity or graphic violence. Just guys like Macho Man (rest in peace) and the Ultimate Warrior running around in garb that resembled superheroes. As cartoonish as it was, the world devoured it and asked for seconds.
But, when it got stale and the WCW created Hollywood Hulk Hogan and the NWO, the WWF was forced to grow up.
They geared themselves towards the college crowd and the coveted 17-49 male demographic. That’s when we witnessed “Austin 3:16” and “Degeneration X." That’s when we beheld “The People’s Champion” and saw the creation of “Mankind."
But, with repeated tragedies like Eddie Guerrero dying in his hotel room, or Chris Benoit murdering his family and himself, the WWE decided to distance themselves from the era that the media was saying created tragedies like these.
The WWE tried to revert back to the kid-friendly WWE. And what was once devoured and loved by wrestling fans the world over was now spewed out of the mouths of millions of followers who couldn't tolerate the new format.
The biggest mistake of the PG Era is that the WWE failed to realize that once they “grew up” and started showing attitude, they could never “grow down."
The WWE, in effect, demanded that grown men get out of the 400 horsepower BMW 650i coupe, and get back on the tricycle they had when they were five years old. They forced grown adults to try and enjoy what was meant for children.
Obviously, trying to turn the clock back didn't work.
There is no going back. And that is the same dilemma that the WWE must consider if they decide to break the fourh wall roster-wide. There is no returning to Kayfabe without weighty consequences.
Consider the fact that we just saw a new WWE champion crowned, the return of a big name in Kevin Nash and the return of Stephanie McMahon to television storylines.
Regardless of all of this, some are upset that this destroys the angle between Punk and Cena that is breaching the fourth wall—angry that this stops the momentum of CM Punk and will return us to the status quo.
So, even if the WWE drops its biggest possible bombs, the fact that there is a possibility that this will revert to another typical wrestling angle still looms large and annoys some viewers.
Now, imagine this effect across the entire WWE brand.
You can set the fanbase on fire by having Randy Orton call out Triple H over their real-life beef.
You can bring back Melina and have the Divas shoot on how much of a shrew she is.
You can even bring back Batista and have Booker T fist-fight him legitimately in the middle of the ring.
But, once the work-shoots end…do you think you can go back to people caring about Sheamus wanting to defeat Mark Henry because he’s a bully?
Do you think people will care about a fake feud between Dolph Ziggler and Alex Riley?
Once you make it “real” it will have to stay “real." You can’t go back to Kayfabe and expect people to care. It’s why Raw, outside of CM Punk and Cena, seems even worse because of Punk and Cena.
Who wants to watch the Miz pretend to have beef with Rey Mysterio, when we can watch CM Punk air out his legitimate gripes with Triple H and Cena?
Once the WWE crosses this line, they may never be able to go back to “sports entertainment” again…for better or worse.
Con: Alienating the Casual Viewer
Imagine for a moment that you are a casual viewer of the WWE product. You don’t follow Twitter feeds, you don’t read dirt sheets, you don’t visit Bleacher Report and you don’t have any friends that do.
Now, imagine sitting through the CM Punk and John Cena angle.
Would you even understand half of the references to people like Colt Cabana and ROH? Would you understand why CM Punk refers to John Cena as "The Yankees?"
Would you understand what CM Punk meant when he referred to what Triple H says in bed to Stephanie?
And that’s fine for a single angle, especially one as detailed as the Cena/Punk/HHH storyline.
But an entire product filled with insider angles?
A show based on following tweets and dirt sheets?
A presentation that mingles backstage politics with on-camera events?
It would be intriguing for us in the IWC. But, it will leave many casual fans in the dust.
This is why not everyone is behind CM Punk. The casual fans don’t understand why they should like CM Punk. After all, he, just several weeks ago, was supposed to be a bad guy leading a very mediocre tag team and some Batista look-alike who can’t wrestle.
Why should they like him?
We in the IWC understand that he’s representing, in a sense, the far more talented wrestlers on the independent scene who don’t get their shot at the big leagues because of bias.
We get that he’s fighting for misused and mistreated talent. We also get that he’s bucking the Cena-dominated PG Era.
But the casual fan just sees the leader of the New Nexus talking trash to their hero, John Cena.
The casual fan only knows Lo-Ki as the jobber, Kaval.
They only see Daniel Bryan and has no clue why some people call him Bryan Danielson.
They’ve never even heard of the Kings of Wrestling.
Should Colt Cabana ever join CM Punk on television, the casual fan will think: “That’s Colt Cabana? It’s just that loser Scotty Goldman.”
If the WWE goes too far in catering to the IWC crowd, it could end up doing the same thing to the casual fan that they’ve done to us for years: isolate, irritate, incense and eventually dismiss.
And that would be just as a big a disaster for the WWE, as going from TV-M to TV-PG. It's the casual fan that makes an era successful. Hardcore fans will stick around through whatever drivel the WWE serves. This is evidenced by all the IWC members who hate the programming, but suffer through watching it, anyway.
But casual fans are the ones who put Hulkamania and Attitude on the map. And should they leave, as good as the product will become for us, the WWE pulling in 1.1 ratings on Raw will have them off of USA TV quickly.
Pro: More Interesting Storylines
To speak of, right now, the only interesting storyline that we've not really encountered a thousand times in the WWE already is CM Punk/Cena/HHH.
How many times have we seen Mark Henry act mean and go on a tear, only to eventually be beaten shy of a heavyweight title and go back to being friendly Mark Henry in the mid-card?
How many times have we seen a cowardly world champion hide behind a team of lawyers, only to eventually be caught and beaten by the tougher, meaner wrestler?
How many times have we seen someone cash in Money in the Bank on a prone WWE champion, only to have an absolutely horrible run with the title they won?
How many times have we seen some brazen young up-and-comer challenge a cocky mid-card champion, like we're seeing with Dolph and Riley?
Over and over. And over. And over. And over.
Creative isn't very "creative" at all.
But, by breaking the fourth wall and using the storylines and angles that real life can throw at you, it opens up an entire new world of possibilities by cashing in on them.
For example: John Morrison could rebel against the system for firing his girlfriend, Melina. Now, let's say that Melina is legitimately fired. You could create the same story by pretending to fire Maryse and having the Miz go rogue over it.
You could have, as has already been rumored, the original Sin Cara return and attack the new Sin Cara, and base it on the fact that the original failed a drug test, and the new one is trying to take his job.
You could even have Kelly Kelly start up a feud with Randy Orton over disparaging remarks he's made against her. Perhaps not an in-ring match, but just a situation where she stalks him and makes his life miserable. Framing him for cheating on his wife, defecating in his bag, flattening his tires, etc...
There's a number of things that can now happen if the WWE is willing to push the envelope and use real-life clashes backstage to fuel on-camera feuds.
And hopefully, they'll be better at it than I am...
Con: The Death of the Gimmick
Breaking the fourth wall down and leaving all the wrestlers to just be themselves, acting out contract disputes, personal rivalries, real-life dramas, etc. will pretty much leave no room for gimmicks.
Now that CM Punk is being a version of Phillip Brooks on TV, will he ever be believable again as a cult leader? Possibly. But that would never go over like being Phillip Brooks on TV.
If, somehow, Chris Masters and Gail Kim are simply work-shoots, when the real Christopher Mordetzky and Gail Kim appear on TV and begin to work their angles on camera, can they ever return to being a bodybuilder-turned-wrestler and Diva-turned-deaf-mute?
If the WWE is going to an era of reality TV, there will be no room for gimmicks and characters like Santino Marella and Sin Cara. These will be "real" people, sharing "real" life with the world through the camera.
It's probably going to hurt the characters.
Because there will be no flamboyancy, no pretending, there won't be room for any character to really grow or improve. And even if the WWE would like to maintain a few Kayfabe characters, more than likely, they will seem fake when compared with wrestlers beyond the fourth wall.
A primary example are the CM Punk and John Cena promos.
When the feud first began, and CM Punk was work-shooting, when John Cena came out and tried to "get CM Punk reinstated" and tried his own cornballish version of it—going so far as to say he would make a rug out of Vince McMahon's face—he was panned.
He seemed "fake" and "corny," cutting his penny-ante marine promos next to Punk's masterful mic work.
It wasn't until he calmed down at the contract signing, stopped screaming and stopped trying to act like John Cena, and just be John Cena, that his mic work began to be appreciated. When it seemed like he got real and matched Punk, it made for perhaps one of the finest contract signings ever witnessed on WWE programming.
And that's going to be the difference from now on, should the WWE decide to fully break down the fourth wall.
All things perceived as "fake" will be regurgitated out, while only things that cater to the broken fourth wall aspect will be received and respected.
For those who can't cut it, it will spell doomsday.
But more than that, it will spell the end for created characters.
And while some might say that's a good thing because it prevents the next Kizarny and Boogieman from being created, it may very well stop the next Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold Steve Austin from being created, too.
Pro: Riding the Reality Wave
Without a doubt, reality TV is the most popular form of entertainment on television today. It can take average party girls and make them multi-millionaires.
It can turn the most mundane of topics into entire multimedia franchises.
It already has turned the WWE's neighbor/rival the UFC into a global juggernaut based off the popularity of The Ultimate Fighter.
Reality television is gold, whether you watch it or not.
If the WWE can seamlessly integrate backstage, real-life plots with what appears on the camera, they can certainly grab a healthy portion of the reality-television market.
The only problem is that the WWE hasn't shown that they are capable of producing reality television that's captivating and interesting. If forays into the world of reality TV produce programs like Tough Enough, which started off with decent ratings but continued to decline each week, it's probably best they stay out of the genre.
However, if the WWE can utilize the stars they have on Raw and SmackDown, and give you a full, in-depth look at the lives they portray on camera and also the people behind the characters, they may have a hit on their hands.
The ultimate question is: Will the WWE be willing to go to this final frontier?
Where nothing appears to be scripted while off camera, and everything is scripted while in the ring?
This would be the most dramatic change in the history of the WWE, and ironically, the one with the most payoff.
If the WWE decides to go all the way and show us both John Cena and John Felix Cena, CM Punk and Phillip Brooks, Triple H and Paul Levesque, it could redefine how we view the WWE Superstars we see on TV.
And for those who rabidly follow every reality show from Survivor to The Ultimate Fighter, they may find WWE programming to be a gem they never knew existed.
Though, the odds of the WWE being able to, in essence, give us a backstage view of the Broadway play every week is very slim.
I believe series like Beyond the Mat and WWE: The True Story of WrestleMania will be the closest the WWE ever gets in letting fans see what's going on behind the scenes.
Con: Destroying Locker-Room Chemistry
There's something about cameras that just brings out the worst in people.
Have an argument about your girlfriend cheating in the privacy of your apartment? Angry words are exchanged, tears may flow and a potentially nasty breakup is possible.
Have an argument about your girlfriend cheating on a daytime talk show? Chairs are thrown, your penchant for fetishist pornography is exposed and a lawsuit for slander is possible.
Wrestlers having animosity backstage is a given. In any work environment, there are going to be people that just don't get along.
But, imagine that your workplace makes it a point to find and exploit any odds their employees may have and put it on television for millions to see?
While the members of the WWE are, for the most part, professional, they are still human. And if they are purposely put into angles with someone they have a genuine disdain for, the possibility exists that it will only serve to further exacerbate the animosity between them.
So, while this might not mean we'll see a Hogan/Russo/Jarrett segment like in WCW playing out for the cameras, the possibility is very real that this will strain backstage relationships between the talent.
Now, we know that guys like Triple H and CM Punk are too long tenured and professional to let personal animosity cause them to get into a fistfight, should one or the other take a comment personally. But what of other talents like John Morrison or Alberto Del Rio?
Could an off comment about Melina cause friction backstage?
Could jealousy over ADR's fast push to the WWE title create problems?
How will they handle personal barbs being thrown at them, by men they don't like, most of which are based in reality?
Will they be able to work together for months and years on end with personal, real-life-based animosity, purposely being exploited and enhanced for the cameras?
Even with the understanding that it's "all for the cameras," the wrong comment can rub anyone the wrong way. It's a very precarious line to teeter on with all the egos that surround the entertainment business.
While we can only assume they would be able to deal with it, there is still the possibility that they can't. And if disharmony reigns in the backstage area, WWE could become the next TNA faster than you can say "bad idea."
Pro: Destruction of the Glass Ceiling
One the benefits of going beyond the fourth wall is this: Life on camera becomes as unpredictable as life off camera.
Now, it stands to reason that the same pecking order will still be in place, with John Cena and Randy Orton at the top.
However, if the WWE decides to stay true to life in their booking as much as possible, this creates endless possibilities for wrestlers who might never shine in the old hierarchy of things. And it is more than likely that if the WWE decides to go this route, that they will break that hierarchy on purpose. Primarily for the fact that it isn't working to boost ratings or revenue.
An example, albeit a bad one, is the old WCW feud of the New Blood vs. The Millionaires Club. And one feud within that sticks out in my mind: Billy Kidman vs. Hulk Hogan.
In no other format than a complete retooling of a product could someone like Billy Kidman get into a program with Hulk Hogan.
A complete retooling of the product, breaking the fourth wall in the WWE, could see bizarre and new matchups that we might not see otherwise.
Evan Bourne in a program with Triple H.
Kofi Kingston in a program with the Undertaker.
Alex Riley in a program with Randy Orton.
Side note: Coming up with ideas for unusual high-profile feuds has shown me how pitiful the WWE's main-event roster has become...
But either way, this is a chance for the WWE to push new blood to the forefront and give them an equal playing field—hopefully, in a more controlled environment than the Russo-Bischoff end game of WCW.
This also might be a time for stars stuck in preposterous gimmicks to finally break free and get a character overhaul by being more like themselves.
Santino Marella is a legitimate tough guy with an MMA background and was trained by a world-class judo instructor.
Perhaps he could use this time to stop attacking people with a green sock puppet and make a name for himself as a serious and seriously charismatic athlete.
In a WWE that's desperate to turn the tide and breathe life back into the product, a new era beyond the fourth wall presents opportunities for anyone willing to grab the brass ring.
Con: Getting Away from Wrestling
If the WWE intends to go fully in the direction of breaking the fourth wall down, it is going to have to establish who is fighting who and why.
Whether it's Natalya and Beth Phoenix explaining why they hate the bubbly Divas, Kevin Nash explaining his return, Cena complaining about getting screwed or Chris Masters angling for his job back, mic time is going to be a necessity.
If the WWE is going to build up the brand on these angles, they are going to need to dedicate a serious amount of mic time to each character so that the audience can truly understand where a wrestler is coming from, what their motivation is and what they want.
There's only two things you can do on a wrestling show: talk and wrestle.
So, if there's going to be more talking, it's obviously going to be at the expense of wrestling.
And that's bad news for fans who tune in to see Daniel Bryan, Tyson Kidd or Evan Bourne ply their trade.
But, it's also bad news for guys like Daniel Bryan, Tyson Kidd and Evan Bourne. I'm a huge fan of The American Dragon, but even I know he's not very compelling on the microphone (though I do like some of his heel mic work). It's the same thing for many mat technicians and skilled high-flyers in the WWE.
They can't talk.
In a business that puts a premium on mic skills, not being able to talk is already an albatross around their necks. If Evan Bourne could cut a promo like The Miz, he would have the Miz's spot. If Danielson could cut a promo like Wade Barrett, he probably wouldn't have lost to him at SummerSlam.
But, as troublesome as it is now, imagine what will become of them in a WWE where you must be able to communicate at an even greater level than ever before to bring true reality to the work-shoot angle you are performing in.
And then do it with more frequency, while having less time to do what you do best: wrestle.
Should the WWE go completely beyond the fourth wall, it could be a disaster for the not-so-eloquent performers of the WWE and fans who tune in to see actual wrestling.
After reviewing the pros and cons of the WWE entering a "reality era," where everything is a work-shoot based off of real-life events, I believe the WWE would be smart to avoid it.
While there are some short-term payoffs, such as a more controversial product, taking a new angle on the presentation of it and shaking some things up, overall, it's a direction that seems unsustainable for the long term.
The risk of exposing everything and it not working to produce new viewers and increase revenues is far too high to stay beyond the fourth wall for an extended period of time, company-wide.
If the WWE takes a direction that will automatically make planned gimmicks and scripted stories with no fourth wall appeal obsolete, then that's something that can't be undone.
In my opinion, I believe it would be best for the WWE to focus on creating captivating stories that don't break the fourth wall, and not to count on using contract disputes, disgruntled workers and wrestler firings as a means to forge a new era.
While in the short term, it makes for a riveting plot with CM Punk and surrounds everything from Gail Kim leaving a battle royal early, to Chris Masters showing up at Axxess in an aura of subtle suspense, in the long term, I don't think the WWE will be doing themselves any favors.
There's a reason why the WWF/E has been successful for 60 years, while WCW died and TNA looks like it's dying:
The WWE has always maintained order in the presentation. They've always focused on trying to create compelling characters and entertaining storylines, while keeping the issues needed to fuel work-shoots in the first place, to a minimum.
And while they've been failing in those aspects these last few years, I think it's best they stick to what they know how to do. The greatest eras in the WWE were created on camera, not dragged from the backstage and put on one.
CM Punk should be a single angle—not the start of an era of reality for the WWE. Because if it fails, there is no going back.
The WWE would be smarter to focus on listening to guys like CM Punk on how to improve the product and make it relevant for 2011 than to just harness the frustration inside of them to make angles.