Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
I was first introduced to cult wrestler and comedy fixture Colt Cabana during the night of my first visit to The Gathering of the Juggalos, Insane Clown Posse’s annual celebration of arts and life in glamorous Cave-In-Rock Illinois. He performed standup and also, in his “Officer Colt Cabana” persona, tussled with a wrestler named Weedman.
Even in the colorful, larger-than-life, carnival sideshow world of the Gathering of the Juggalos, Cabana stood out. There was something different about him, something special, although I would not realize until later just how much we had in common. We were both Jews from Chicago obsessed with comedy and podcasts, only Cabana was able to translate that obsession into The Art Of Wrestling, an extraordinarily popular and influential podcast widely regarded as the WTF of wrestling, whereas, well, I’m pretty sure the Garfield podcast I’m about to launch is going to change everything for me.
Cabana loved podcasts and podcasts loved him right back. Marc Maron has been a huge supporter, featuring him on both his podcast and television show, and when not traveling around the world wrestling, Cabana does Mystery Science Theater 3000-style commentary on terrible wrestling matches in Scotland with Brendon Burns and in Chicago with comedy partner Marty De Rosa.
Cabana is great small businessman because he believes in his product, and by extension, himself, since he is the product. So there is a disarming sincerity behind the savvy commercial calculation. Cabana has been making huge inroads into the world of comedy for a long time so it didn’t come as a terrible shock when it was announced that Cabana’s massive The Art Of Wrestling podcast archive will now be available on Howl, the groundbreaking comedy app that combines mini-series, the archive to Earwolf shows and WTF, comedy albums and more.
On the surface, Cabana might seem like a bit of a strange fit with Howl. Despite the admirable and extensive work Cabana has done over the years to make wrestling more accessible and appealing to comedy geek types who still associate wrestling with the bullies who shoved them in lockers during high school, it’s safe to say that a lot of Howl subscribers don’t know anything about wrestling, but dislike it anyway.
The genius of The Art Of Wrestling, like WTF, which it was deliberately patterned after, is that it’s about stories and people and personalities and ego and conflict as much as it is about its host’s profession/obsession. It’s less about the technical aspects of wrestling, although that does come up, than about the emotions endemic to this curious trade, a trade whose lifestyle, ethos and business all parallel and echo the comedy world.
Like Maron, Cabana is, on some level, an archivist of his art form, and a collector and compiler of stories. And seldom, if ever, over the course of the podcast’s run, did he have an opportunity to showcase a story as explosive, riveting and important as the story of the rise and fall and rise of Cabana’s buddy and supporter CM Punk, who scaled the giddy heights of wrestling fame, only to get fired by his bosses at the worst possible time.
There aren’t many podcast episodes that can be deemed important or culturally significant, and I’ve highlighted a lot of them in this column. I’m thinking of podcasts like Harris Wittels’ heartbreaking final appearance on You Made It Weird, which provided a harrowing yet surprising funny look into this beloved man’s tortured psyche at the end of his life, or President Obama’s appearance on WTF, which lent a certain dignity and political gravity to an entire medium.
Caban’s interview with Punk is one of those rare podcasts that really did make a difference. Punk did everything wrestlers aren’t supposed to do on podcasts, or in life (tell the truth and expose the big boss as a great big asshole) and gave fans a look at the inner workings of a very toxic business. With nothing to lose and a brain eager to vent, Punk essentially lives out the fantasy of anyone who ever wanted to tell an asshole boss to go fuck himself for eternity, but was restrained from doing so by the pesky need to make a living.
The episode was recorded after CM Punk, once one of the biggest, if not most powerful wrestlers alive, had been kicked out of the league. In the kind of killer, brutal details that make the episode so fascinating, Punk was given his walking papers the morning of his wedding, in what is clearly the dick move to end all dick moves.
WWE Fuhrer/heel Vince McMahon did not seem to realize that the big mouth and bad attitude that makes Punk such a handful as an employee could, and would, be used to get revenge if he was punted out of the organization and had nothing left to lose and no reason not to burn his bridges in a spectacular verbal bonfire.
From the start, it’s apparent that this will be no ordinary podcast. Punk starts off the conversation by talking about using the episode to both tell his story and share his truth about a relationship with WWE and particularly boss Vince McMahon, that was tortured and complicated at best and ultimately proved impossible.
Punk knows that the whole wrestling world will be listening, so he chooses his words carefully, but he’s also intent on being as candid and forthright as possible, without lapsing into bitterness. But Punk is also pragmatic and reasonable to know that it’d be impossible to get out of a situation like the one he spends the podcast describing, without experiencing real, understandable bitterness and anger. And that’s okay.
Punk is brazenly open about everything, but he’s particularly candid about something athletes and movie stars and entertainers are generally reluctant to talk about, even if they pride themselves on being straight-shooters: money. Punk had explosive disagreements with WWE over just about everything, but a lot of it came down to money, and is generally the case in situations like this, it’s damn near impossible to extricate financial and publicity issues from the egos that fuel them.
Punk was in a rather unusual line of work but the aggravations he maps out here are surprisingly universal. Who hasn’t seethed with anger when a boss gave a rival an opportunity that should have gone to them? Who hasn’t felt hamstrung and constrained by a home office seemingly devoted to making the lives of employees miserable and untenable? Sure, those opportunities didn’t involve starring in a direct-to-DVD action WWE action thriller like 12 Rounds 2, which Punk accurately dismisses as pieces of shit, but pieces of shit that might open up a second career in acting when his body begins to break down.
Punk makes it clear that his most heated and painful battles were with the small-mindedness and stupidity of the folks at WWE. Compared to his dealing with Vince McMahon and the front office folks, getting hit in the head by three hundred pound men was a breeze.
To the outside, Punk had it made. He was making millions living every wrestling geek’s dream, but Punk here bluntly and powerfully conveys how a situation that can look like a waking dream from the outside can be nightmarish from the inside. So while Punk’s relationship with WWE made him rich and famous, it did not give him what he most prizes: dignity, respect and control over his life, his career and his image.
Punk was able to regain all of those things by separating himself permanently and dramatically from the WWE, even going so far as to flat-out state the forbidden but undeniable truth that professional wrestler is (I hope you’re sitting down, dear reader, because this will shock you) fake. But if the matches themselves are make-pretend, Punk’s righteous anger is very, very real and eminently justified.
The CM Punk interview is the perfect gateway to The Art Of Wrestling, Cabana, Punk and wrestling itself. Even if the idea of grown men manhandling each other in a series of tight, goofy outfits seems a little, well, silly, and not necessarily in the Paul F. Tompkins’ sense, there’s still there’s a good chance you’ll find this groundbreaking and explosive episode spectacularly entertaining. Hell, it may even inspire you to actually watch some actual wrestling, but let’s not get too carried away.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.