this week in late night

This Week in Late Night: Everything Is Wrestling

John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. Photo: HBO

WrestleMania 35 is this Sunday, and NBC is going whole hog on promoting it. Not only are Colin Jost and Michael Che going to do a wrestle against Braun Strowman, but Jimmy Fallon let the good people of WWE put their trash-talk skills to the test. WWE superstars have to cut some pretty ridiculous promos, so this bit of having to adopt the trash talk of children was nothing. It’s not like “smell what the Rock is cooking” is inherently menacing — it’s how you sell it. And as John Oliver explained on Last Week Tonight, wrestling is one of the best and most presentational art forms we have today.

The Last Week Tonight piece was obviously about more than just how wrestling slaps, but wrestling slaps. It’s the best of soap operas, stunt work, and Mussolini-esque oration. Wrestling is a highly refined art form. It takes our basest emotions and zhuzhes them with blood, class consciousness, and mime. Each wrestling match has a four-act structure that rivals Joseph Campbell in its universality: the shine, the heat, the comeback, the finish. The hero shows off, the villain does a dastardly deed to gain the upper hand, then the hero turns the tables and emerges victorious. And once you know how wrestling works, you start to see it everywhere. For example, the Mueller report was wrestling. Only rather than getting the finish, we got a screw job.

A screw job is when there is no clear winner. Something fucked up happens, and the big rivalry that’s been building over the weeks is left unresolved. Barr’s summary-not-summary of Mueller’s report is a screw job. It delays catharsis and frustrates the fans. A well-executed screw job can get fans even more hyped than they were before, but in the case of the Mueller report, the American public has lost all interest in the Russia angle. Seth Meyers pointed out that Trump got zero approval bump from being “vindicated” by Mueller. Trump, being the most wrestling-y president, immediately began trying out new material, like fighting windmills.

A sidenote: Stephen Colbert also had the second deepest cut classical-studies joke on late night this week. Pretending to be a congressman who didn’t want to know what was in the Mueller report, he said, “Remember how sweet Oedipus had it before he knew stuff: He was king, he had a hot cougar wife, and two eyeballs.” The deepest cut classical-studies joke was on Full Frontal, when a statue of Hercules was given a tattoo on his butt that read “Megara Deianira.” Classical studies is the opposite of pro wrestling.

Jimmy Kimmel is the second most wrestling-y late-night host. Andy Cohen is the most wrestling-y, but WWHL is on hiatus this week. (Seriously, the line between wrestling and Bravo shows is wafer thin, down to the lack of transparency about compensation and their bodies being put through an insane amount of abuse for our entertainment.) But Kimmel is a walking worked shoot, when you pretend what’s happening on camera is very real. Kimmel blends real life with his show more than any host, especially by involving his actual family in the show. Kimmel spent the week in his former hometown of Las Vegas, pulling pranks on his aunt and cousin, and even taking strangers to his childhood home in a sponsored segment for Lyft. The space where product placement and personal narrative intersect — that’s wrestling, baby.

Kimmel works the shoot by making it seem like he spontaneously picked up two random women and happened to take them to his childhood home, where the current tenants just happen to be awake at 1:30 a.m. What chance is there that his first fare would be into a nighttime adventure on camera? And just happen to have the booming voice of a working comedian? I’ve taken a cab from the strip at 1:30 in the morning, and my only objective was getting out of the car as soon as possible and without puking. I wasn’t using my stage voice to try out jokes. But Kimmel keeps it effortlessly realistic and awkward, throwing curveballs about people who died in his yard and stories about jerking off as a teen. It’s incredibly difficult to repeat your canned jokes when someone is telling you about their teen masturbatory habits. It’s an entire advanced-study class at UCB: How to Recover From Strangers Talking About Jerking Off.

Convincing the audience that wrestling is real is called kayfabe. WWE has mostly abandoned kayfabe, but it still exists in the world of celebrity interviews. The stars are not really like us, and when they insist that they are, that’s kayfabe. Jimmy Fallon doesn’t break kayfabe; that’s why he was picked to do the WWE promo. Seth Meyers can’t maintain kayfabe to save his life. Every “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” ends with him trying a joke, Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel feigning outrage, and Seth yelling, “Black women and lesbians are liars!” We all know that nobody is actually mad in this moment, and nobody behind the desk tries to convince us otherwise.

If politics is wrestling, and TV is wrestling, and social media is definitely wrestling, what does that say about culture? When kayfabe broke in the ’90s, people thought it would destroy pro wrestling. Why even watch these fights if everyone knows the winner is predetermined? Instead, the sport flourished. Not having to suspend disbelief gave the producers room to soar to the highest heights of dumb bullshit. The Undertaker has died and come back to life like eight times, and that wouldn’t have flown if we were still pretending this was a contest to see who could wrestle well. So what would breaking kayfabe do for politics, or for late-night TV? Arguably, the push for financial transparency by the freshman Dems is a breaking of political kayfabe. We’re getting a peek into the gnarly way business is actually done in Congress. But where does kayfabe even being on a talk show?

Desus and Mero wanted to keep people who are plugging projects off their show, but isn’t that a reinforcement of kayfabe? Our show is cool because the famous people aren’t on it to get more famous. Yes, they are! Quit lying. A real postmodern, post-kayfabe talk show would probably look like the late and criminally underrated Talk Show the Game Show. You were welcome on Guy Branum’s couch if you had something to plug. Heck, you got points for plugging it with grace and aplomb. The researchers were acknowledged and the anecdotes were set up in an almost Brechtian manner. Wrestling got better in the ’90s because fans could appreciate every aspect of a performer’s work, including their acting and their ability to sell a hit. I want to see what kind of stars could emerge from a talk-show circuit where you got kudos for finessing the audience like an old grifter.

Besides Colin Farrell. He’d crush.

More From This Series

See All
This Week in Late Night: Everything Is Wrestling