Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
When I interviewed wrestler, comedy favorite, podcaster (and Sklarbro Country guest) Colt Cabana for a recent profile in Fast Company, he expounded on the myriad commonalities between the curious tribes of warriors that are wrestlers and standup comedians. Cabana enthused of the extensive similarities between the two groups, “(Wrestling and standup comedy) are alike in more ways than people could imagine. You start off as a starving artist working for no money knowing that it’s a long term investment with odds saying that it won’t pay off for most. That brotherhood has a lot to do with it. It could be compared to an Army. You’ve gone through the trenches of bad performances, mean people, travel issues, performance anxiety, lack of self esteem. All these issues can be talked about really only amongst your peers with in the industry. The teacher at a school isn’t going to understand why you drove six hours to Minnesota one day, wrestled 12 minutes and drove back that night getting in at 6am only to work the next day at 8am all for $20. That’s a mindset that both wrestlers and comedians alike not only share, but love having.”
Professional wrestlers may be worlds apart from standup comedians in terms of musculature, body-mass-index, and ability to withstand having a metal chair slammed against their spine without flinching (although Todd Barry routinely gets body-slammed through a steel table hallway through shows, and just keeps going) but they have more in common with professional joke-smiths than any other group of athletes. Then again, it could be argued, and has been argued extensively, that professional wrestling may just have more in common with the tawdry, vulgar world of entertainment than the pure, virtuous world of professional athletics, and that, in some ways, professional wrestling could even be considered “fake” or “staged” or “somehow inauthentic.”
Wrestlers and standup comedians alike are entertainers traveling from city to city plying their curious trade, trying to entertain the masses and provide a little distraction from their miserable existences as dead-eyed, hopeless automatons wearily marching, zombie-like to the grave. Or maybe these people just want to have fun! Who are we to judge?
Wrestling is a brotherhood. So is standup comedy. When wrestling legend (and, in keeping with the way of the modern world, Earwolf podcaster) Roddy Piper appeared on Sklarbro Country, he embraced hosts and sports-crazed twin standup comedians Jason and Randy Sklar as fellow show-business lifers and veteran entertainers. But more importantly, he embraced them as his brothers, in the spiritual, Hulk Hogan and Cornel West sense.
Piper was on the podcast as a fellow podcaster, cult actor whose performance in They Live! granted him B-movie immortality, bubble-gum and ass-kicking enthusiast, wrestler and entertainer. Just as importantly, Piper was there as a man who had lived a rich and full and colorful life, a man who had stories. And when a man has lived the kind of rich, full, and colorful life that Piper has led, it leaves a man with wisdom. Wisdom he feels compelled to impart to the world. And the Sklar Brothers, being preeminent students and aficionados of sports and wrestling and the wonderful, perplexing complexities of human existence, were eager to soak up this cultural elder’s hardscrabble but big-hearted wisdom.
When the brothers describe getting the opportunity to interview Piper as “a little bit of a dream come true” it easy to believe them. Getting to sit across a table from a wrestling legend like Piper undoubtedly would have made the Sklar Brothers’ brains explode if they were 10-year-olds, but it’s also clearly a big treat for them as adults as well.
Then Piper enters the podcast and the arena with his big, gravelly bear hug of a voice and starts telling stories that sound too good to be true, but given the nature of wrestling, probably are. Piper talks of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of talent on display in the World Wrestling Federation in the mid-1980s and how he set himself apart not by brute force but with personality. Piper tells the Sklars he bet his future on his abilities less as a wrestler than as a personality, as a grappler who split his time between wrestling and interviewing other wrestlers on his “Piper’s Pit” interview segments. According to Piper, he won his spot in the WWF galaxy of stars by telling the suits who ran the league, “You give me a bow tie and a mic stand (for my talk show segment) and five weeks and if I don’t get the job done I’m out of here.”
That’s an appropriately dramatic origin story for a pop culture narrative like Piper’s, and from there, the show gallops along at a rambling pace as Piper immerses listeners in his Reagan-era wrestling heyday, painting vivid oral portraits of the literally and figuratively larger-than-life figures who were his brothers, peers and rivals.
As is sometimes the case with entertainers from a different era, weird racial issues quickly come into play, with Piper saluting the never-say-die spirit of the Puerto Rican people in ways that are admiring but not terribly culturally sensitive. The Sklars are quipsters and jokesters par excellence, but when they have the kind of guest who can casually assert, “I’ve been stabbed three times”, as Piper does here, then the best thing a host (or hosts) can do is get out of the way and let the guest tell his story (about the many times they’ve been stabbed, if nothing else).
Piper talks affectionately of a world lost to time, of being driven to a hospital in Sergeant Slaughter’s camouflaged limousine, of kicking Cyndi Lauper (ever so gently) at the height of the Rock and Wrestling craze, and Andre The Giant’s fittingly ginormous tolerance for wine that he guzzled by the gallon.
Piper makes clear how much of wrestling is psychological, how even in a scripted environment there are a million different variables and dangers a wrestler has to consider. He talks about a seminal moment early in his career when a veteran slammed his head against the wall and told him, “I can’t make you believe wrestling is for real, but I can make you believe that I am,” a statement that had a huge impact on his wrestling philosophy.
The Sklars and Piper bond in part on the element of improvisation endemic to both wrestling and standup, the sense that you begin with a sturdy foundation and then build something new and exciting and unexpected in the moment. In another context, a veteran wrestler urging, “Wrestle with your heart, not your head” (and, later, to podcast with your heart, and not just your head) might come across as maudlin, overly sentimental, and sappy, but with Piper, it instead comes across as achingly, poignantly sincere. Piper was a great wrestler, but just as importantly, he was a good dude, a good father, a good husband and a good man. That fundamental decency and sincerity make this episode not just unusually funny, engaging and poignant but also a fitting tribute to Piper, who died unexpectedly not long after the episode was released and is sorely missed for reasons that will be abundantly clear to anyone who has listened to this wonderful episode.
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.