With “Wrestlemania XXXI” coming soon, you might have noticed the return of something on “Monday Night Raw”: celebrities. In the last two weeks, we’ve seen “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart come face to face with Seth Rollins and a performance by rapper Wiz Khalifa. While these things don’t have much to do with getting me to pay of the biggest show of the year, it does make me want to look at how WWE is presenting celebrities. Tonight we’re going to take a look at how celebrities are presented in wrestling and how they can be done right or wrong.
Celebrities have been around in wrestling for a very long time. While I’m sure they were around before, one of the most famous moments with a celebrity getting involved in wrestling was in 1976 when Gorilla Monsoon put Muhammad Ali in an airplane spin. There are far too many celebrity appearances to list in full, but there are definitely good ways or bad ways to include them.
Let’s start with a basic overview of why celebrities are useful in wrestling. This is an easy answer: they make people who don’t usually watch wrestling take a look at the product. It doesn’t mean that they’re stick around, but at least they’re going to be there for the blowoff and maybe even some of the buildup. If you’re lucky they’ll see something they like and stick around. If enough people buy the big show the celebrity appears on, then you might be able to make up the cost to bring in the celebrity and make a profit.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, which should also be an easy answer. There’s always the chance that people aren’t going to care about seeing the celebrity in a match or angle, meaning money is lost and time is wasted. Even if money is made, there’s a chance that it could cause more issues long term. Just because fans buy into what’s happening in the short term, it doesn’t mean that the move was a good idea. Let’s get to some examples.
The first example of a bad celebrity appearance is Jay Leno at “Road Wild 1998.” Jay Leno was a major star on “The Tonight Show” and a known motorcycle enthusiast, which fit the theme of the show. WCW tied into this idea on “Monday Nitro” by having Eric Bischoff host his own talk show segment to rip off “The Tonight Show.” Now, the logical move would have been to put Leno in the corner of a main event match and maybe have him punch Bischoff out. That’s not what WCW did.
No, they had Leno team up with Diamond Dallas Page to face Hollywood Hogan and Bischoff in a tag match. During the match, Leno put on the worst wristlock in the history of wristlockery and Hogan sold it like Brock Lesnar was cranking on his arm. The whole visual just looked horrible and there was no way to spin it. Hogan looked like an idiot and the entire thing came off as a disastrous joke. Oh and since the show didn’t charge for tickets, they lost even more money than usual on Leno’s appearance.
On the other side of the coin in 1998, Mike Tyson was brought in as the special guest referee for the main event of “Wrestlemania XIV.” The show already had Steve Austin’s rise to the top of the company to draw a crowd, but Tyson got the match attention on “Sportscenter.” Tyson didn’t do much in the match, but his appearance is a frequently aired clip and came off as a really well done moment.
In other words, Tyson came in and did exactly what he was supposed to do. It also helped that Tyson was a professional athlete and didn’t look out of place in a wrestling ring. Compare this to Leno, who was best known for wearing a suit and telling jokes about current events and interviewing celebrities. The image just didn’t fit and the actions made it even worse.
That’s not to say that people without athletic backgrounds can’t work. Let’s look at a completely different kind of celebrity who appeared for the WWF in 2001: Drew Carey. While nowhere near the definition of an athlete, Carey appeared at “Royal Rumble 2001” and actually entered into the Royal Rumble match. Instead of being a disaster like the Leno scene, this is considered a fun moment for the WWF and is still shown on WWE programming today. So why did this one work?
Well for one reason, Leno’s match went nearly 15 minutes. Carey on the other hand was in the match less than three minutes. Second, and probably most importantly, Carey didn’t get in physical contact with anyone. He laughed at the Hardys for eliminating themselves, tried to pay Kane to not kill him, and then eliminated himself when Raven came in to attack Kane. Carey walked out on his own power, high fived some fans, and was done for the night.
“But he took someone else’s spot! Who knows who could have been in the match instead!” We do actually. During the show, it was announced that Carey’s spot had been taken from either D’Lo Brown or Chaz (Mosh of the Headbangers). What would one of those two have done? Lasted about five to ten minutes and been cannon fodder for either Undertaker or Kane, who combined to eliminated about 15 people in the match. What difference would one more name have made to that list? Instead, we got a fun moment that didn’t really hurt anyone.
Another important detail when using celebrities is how frequently they’re on the shows. Tyson and Carey were stand alone celebrities and were either involved in a World Title match or didn’t play a major role in the match they were a part of. Leno on the other hand was the second celebrity main eventer in a row (after Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman was in a tag team main event the previous month at “Bash at the Beach 1998”, along with fellow NBA star Karl Malone). These would be the only pay per view in five months to feature the World Title on the line with the title match not breaking four minutes.
The shows had stopped being about wrestling and had started being about the celebrities getting involved with each other. At the end of the day, the fans are tuning in to see wrestling. When it starts becoming a show about seeing celebrities fight each other, it stops being why fans tuned in in the first place and becomes a mess with people embarrassing themselves at something they’re not trained to do.
Finally, a major problem with using celebrities is how strong their star power is. Mike Tyson is one of the biggest names in the history of boxing and perhaps sports in general. Jay Leno was one of the most popular television show hosts in the country when he appeared for WCW. Successful or not, there was a logic to bringing them onto a show.
Some people who probably weren’t big enough to come onto the show were people like Jared Fogle, Perez Hilton, Rima Fakih, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Mark Feuerstein, Florence Henderson, Jon Lovitz, Buzz Aldrin and David Hasselhoff. Those names were all on “Monday Night Raw” in the span of two and a half years. This was during a span where a celebrity (or occasionally a wrestler) would appear as guest host/star of the show nearly every single week. This became more of a joke than anything else, and that’s the last thing you want to have with a celebrity appearance.
Now let’s jump ahead to the two most recent appearances. There was a lot to like about Stewart’s appearance. He was articulate, funny, on point, got the message across, came off like a fan who wanted to be there, and got a good response from the crowd. That being said, he really didn’t do much going forward and felt squeezed in instead of being there to help make fans care about “Wrestlemania XXXI.” That’s a problem less than a month from the show. All being said though, it was a good appearance as it caused more positives than negatives.
Then earlier this week, Wiz Khalifa performed. Khalifa isn’t as big of a star as Stewart, had no real reason to be there, and was more a treat for the live Pittsburgh (Khalifa’s hometown) than the audience watching at home. As Lance Storm once said, there are a lot more people on the other side of the camera than on the same side you’re on. Oh wait: Khalifa did set up a comedy appearance from Damien Mizdow, who is supposed to be receiving a push at the moment. In other words, nothing substantially positive came from Khalifa’s appearance.
Celebrities can be a positive in wrestling, but like almost anything else, they have to be used properly. Maybe you bring in Mr. T. to help you deal with someone like Roddy Piper, or maybe you have Jon Lovitz teach Santino Marella how to use the Cobra. Either way, you have to figure out how to use them properly, but if they’re the wrong kind of celebrity, they’re not worth the time and effort you put into them. Especially if you make them World Heavyweight Champion. That would just be stupid.
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