Saturday, February 5, 2011

Rope Opera Review

photo taken by Chad Smart

A few weeks ago when Kevin and I were discussing future topics to cover, I mentioned I had thumbed through Vince Russo’s book “Rope Opera: How WCW Killed Vince Russo” and I would like to read it and give my thoughts, but I didn’t want to spend $20 on the book.  Well, fate, or maybe a higher power, would bring me some coupons and other discounts that meant I could buy the book for a little over $7.  Couldn’t pass up a deal like that and I really was curious to read what Vince had written.

After reading the book, I realized instead of doing a typical review there were several parts of the book I wanted to either defend against Vince’s claims or call Vince out on his words and try to understand why he’s still working for a wrestling promotion. Before I get into specifics, I will give a quick overview of the book in case someone reading this would like to read the book for them self and are curious as to whether the book is worth reading. If you are looking for a book that details the behind the scenes of a wrestling company, this isn’t the book for you. Russo does offer some details, but for the most part all the behind details are about Vince’s life and his personal feelings during the time he’s writing about.  Also the book is laid out like a Quentin Tarantino movie, jumping from one topic to another with very little rhyme or reason.

One of my friends commented he was curious about the book but heard it has a lot to do with religion and that didn’t interest him. The book does deal a lot with religion. That part of the book I’m going to save for the end of this write up because it has a personal meaning to me. I will warn you now, if you try to avoid any religious discussion, you won’t want to read the last few paragraphs. I’ll be sure and give you a heads ups when the wrestling discussion is done.

Last bit of business before we get into the book. While I’m going to be critical in the following paragraphs, I don’t write this because I want to tear Vince apart.  I gather no joy from pointing out other people’s shortcomings. I have no ill feelings against Vince. It’s simply after reading his book I am more confused than ever as to why he still works for a wrestling company. From both his and the company’s point of view, it doesn’t seem like a profession he should have. Let’s get into it.

First off, I will give Vince credit. He was a part of the WWF writing team when the Attitude Era started and is probably responsible for a lot of the storylines during that time.  Though, if you bring up the worst of those shows, he’ll tell you someone else was responsible for that particular segment.   One point that I’ll concede to Vince is during the Attitude Era and his time at WCW he did have a place on the show for everyone. The focus wasn’t only on the top of the card. Good, bad or indifferent, everyone on the roster had a purpose. That’s an aspect that is lacking in both WWE and TNA in the present time. With the good, there’s also the bad, and unfortunately there’s a lot of bad. 

It takes Vince a few chapters to get into anything wrestling related. When he finally gets to the topic most fans will want to read about he starts with his departure from WWF and start with WCW.  One of his comments is how he wondered what some of the WCW guys had read in the dirt sheets and thought about him. He feels most of the hatred aimed at him is because of stuff written on the internet that isn’t true.  I’ll once again concede that Russo’s public opinion hasn’t been helped by rumors and false news reports written online.  Though if there’s smoke there’s usually fire. So if nothing but critical stories are written, there is probably a good reason.  But why base a negative opinion of Vince simply off of internet reports? All you have to do is read his book.  As Bobby Heenan used to say to Gorilla Monsoon, “I don’t need you to make me look like an idiot” 

One of my biggest issues with Rope Opera was the number of times Vince uses the word, FAKE.  Yes it’s 2011 and most people know wrestling matches have a predetermined outcome, but to me, the word, fake, is insulting to wrestlers. As Chikara Wrestling creator “Lightning” Mike Quackenbush mentioned in his biography, use of the word fake implies there are no dangers involved in wrestling.  Go ask Darren Drozdov, Steve Austin, Arn Anderson or Mick Foley how “fake” wrestling is.  The constant use of fake, in my opinion, shows a lack of respect or an air of snobbery from Russo towards the business whose paychecks he cashes.

At various times throughout the book, Vince questions why fans have such “passion” for wrestling. He doesn’t understand why fans will go to an indy show every weekend, or drive hours to an autograph signing. He says he doesn’t want to judge the fans, but during the course of the book his disdain for why fans would take wrestling seriously oozes off the pages. Towards the end of the book he brings up the “Fire Russo” chants that were prevalent during TNA  It seems to be beyond his comprehension the fans are passionate about the performers in the ring and their performance is what they keep coming back to see. His writing, or storytelling, is what they don’t like.  What’s funny is in one chapter he’ll question why fans care about wrestling so much then in the next he’ll mention his fantasy baseball team, how he had 220 transactions in one season and how he can’t sleep until the last baseball game is over. I guess that “passion” isn’t bad because baseball isn’t, “fake.”

Speaking of baseball, at one point in the book Vince compares himself to Barry Bonds when talking about how people don’t like him based on untruths that have been written about him.  Not really sure Bonds is the guy you want to associate yourself with when trying to make a point about unfair opinions. But then maybe I just made his point for him with this paragraph.

When it comes to writing wrestling, Russo prefers to be called a writer instead of a booker. Fair enough.  He can write the story lines and let the agents help lay out a match to achieve what needs to be done.  However when he starts talking about his writing style or philosophy that’s when I started wondering how he has managed to be a wrestling writer for so long. I forgot to write down the page number so I only have the note I jotted down to go off of, he makes a mention of how he prefers to write shows on a week to week basis instead of three months in advance so he has the option to change the story if need be.  Somewhat valid point. You never know when someone’s going to get injured or how the crowd is going to react to something so it’s a good idea to have some wiggle room.  However, based on several of the angles he’s written, it also means there is no clear direction or ending in place.  I’m still curious as to who kidnapped Samoa Joe a year ago and how he escaped.

Vince also has a preference of using real life issues in wrestling angles. He mentions how most wrestlers are bad actors so if you can tap into something real, the wrestler will be more believable when cutting a promo or wrestling with the guy he’s feuding with. I mentioned this is a previous post, but if you think about all the “real life” angles over the past 15 years, how many have been based on negative behaviors?  Road Warrior Hawk’s alcohol addiction.  Scott Hall’s alcohol addiction. The current Kurt Angle/Karen Angle Jarrett/Jeff Jarrett love triangle.  I know there’s more but I’m drawing a blank. Point is, yes these are real events and guys may be able to pull off a more realistic performance while these areas of their lives are the focal point, but exploiting someone’s pain and suffering makes for horrible television. I know reality television programs refute my claim. So maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think wrestling fans want to see the dark side of the guys in the ring. Wrestling is a form of escapism. The stories should be larger than life.  Look at it from this angle, when Charlie Sheen goes back to Two and A Half Men, will the show be more entertaining if his character does nothing but consume massive amounts of drugs and sleeps with woman after woman? I guess that’s a bad example, because I think that’s his character now, and that show will never be entertaining. But you see what I’m trying to say?  Since wrestling is “fake” why the desire to make it real? Another point is when you do a storyline based of something real, what segment of your audience is going to know what you’re talking about?  Most likely that’s the dirt sheet reading, online “smart marks.”  You know, the section of fans whose opinions are dismissed by wrestling insiders because they don’t think “smarks” represent the average wrestling fan. So why write for that audience?

Photo by Chad Smart
During the Sports Entertainment Extreme angle in TNA, Russo had the idea all his appearances would be unscripted. Only he and Jeff would know when Vince was going to appear and whoever was in the ring would be caught off guard. The idea was wrestlers are bad actors so lets make them have genuine reactions.  Am I the only one who reads that idea and questions the sanity behind it? So, a guy can’t deliver a scripted promo, but if you surprise him and make him react you’re going to get an A+ performance out of him?  Wouldn’t the other person need to know what the point of Russo showing up is supposed to lead to further down the show. Wait, let me quote directly from Rope Opera: Page 113, first paragraph. “Throughout my entire life I have never cluttered my mind with details – I hate the details. Details are never important to me, nor will they ever be.  I’m a big picture guy.  That’s why Vince  (McMahon) and I worked so well together – I laid out the big picture, and he added his nuances.” Guess that would explain the Samoa Joe kidnapping. Who cares what happened to him. All that matters is he made it back to the Impact Zone. 

This is my favorite. When Vince writes about allegations about him being a racist because of his use of Japanese and Mexican wrestlers in WCW, his defense is, I can’t be racist because my best friend is Puerto Rican.  Seriously. Having a friend of a different nationally excuses having a piƱata on a pole match involving Mexican wrestlers.  He tries to defend his reluctance to use masked wrestlers and/or wrestlers that don’t speak English because they would never be able to get over with the crowd.  Vince, I got two words for you, LA and PARKA. LA Parka was probably the most over non-main event wrestler on the WCW roster. And I believe it was during Russo’s time in WCW that LA Parka was given a Milli Vanilli gimmick of pretending to talk into a mic while someone provided the voice.

When he brings up the idea of a manager for wrestlers who can’t speak English well, Vince claims a manager takes the focus off the wrestler and puts all the attention on the manager. Yep, nobody who was managed by Bobby Heenan, Jim Cornette, Jimmy Hart or Freddie Blassie got over because the fans only cared about the managers. Guess that would explain why nobody in S.E.X. got over when the “manager” Vince Russo got all the mic time. I know managers don’t really exist in wrestling, on the national level at least, anymore but does Vince really not understand the role of the manager?

While we are on the topics of managers, lets talk about Vince Russo as an on screen character.  He says in the book he never wanted to be on camera, but felt like he had to be when he and Eric Bischoff came back as the creative team.  I may be wrong here but wasn’t it within weeks of taking over Nitro that Vince was seen on camera as “the powers that be?”  I don’t think he was ever addressed by name but I’m pretty sure he got ample amount of screen time.  Then when the Bischoff/Russo regime took control that’s when the full on Vince Russo character started getting more airtime than some of the wrestlers because someone had to explain in detail in the center of the ring all the reasons why the young guys were fighting with the old guys. Couldn’t let the announcers or actual wrestlers do it.

During this on screen time, Vince had a match with Ric Flair.  At some point in the match Vince suffered a concussion that wasn’t diagnosed for a few days. Vince says that showed him he wasn’t a wrestler and shouldn’t be in the ring. Of course that wouldn’t stop him from getting back into the ring and eventually winning the WCW World Title.  He would then vacate the title without actually losing it.  That doesn’t matter though because it’s a fake title that doesn’t mean anything anyway.  And as mentioned before when Sports Entertainment eXtreme was running wild in TNA, Vince was once again front and center talking about how great he was in WWF and how WCW destroyed his will to live. For a guy who never wanted to be in front of the camera, somehow he ended up there quite a bit. Maybe he should have told the head writer to write segments for the actual wrestlers instead of him so the wrestlers could build up a following.

One of the biggest buzz moments during Russo’s WCW stint was David Arquette winning the WCW title.  Russo says the idea for Arquette winning came from WCW announcer Tony Schivone.  Vince does admit that as head of the writing staff since he agreed to the idea he should take blame for the decision but is upset that no one came to his defense when all the blame was placed on him. Also, the idea to give Arquette the title was a good one because they made USA Today and other news outlets and ten years later people still talk about it.  Guess there is no such thing as bad press. New Coke is still a punch line too, doesn’t mean Coke shouldn’t have switched back to the old formula.  Russo also tries to downplay the Arquette decision by mentioning how Vince McMahon brings in celebrities, specifically Donald Trump for Wrestlemania 23 and Floyd “Money” Mayweather at Wrestlemania 24.  So having a B-level actor win the biggest title (by pinning a non-wrestler, by the way) in your company is the same as having a Billionaire be the corner man for one of your top up and coming wrestlers, or having the best boxer in the world going toe to toe with one of your top guys.  While I understand the rational to use celebrities to garner press, it’s how they’re actually used that makes a difference.  And if Vince doesn’t understand that, well, again only people who take wrestling too seriously are going to complain about it.

The last point I want to discuss before getting into the religion aspect is time moving on and people not being able to adjust.  Vince makes several mentions of old wrestling promoters who had a hit local television show back in the 60s and 70s who don’t understand times have changed, there’s more competition on television and the same old wrasslin’ show isn’t going to cut it.  That’s where he comes in and is the savior to wrestling because he knows how to think outside the box. If I were writing this in 1997, I would have to agree. I just looked at a calendar and it said the year is 2011. The same wrestling ideas that were fresh and new when Vince and Ed Ferrera took over WWF are now 14 years old and mostly played out.  Looking over the last year of TNA, I don’t see anything new, creative or entertaining. I see a lot of head scratching, painful to watch, rehashed storylines and gimmicks. Has the wrestling business passed Vince Russo by and left him in the dust?

That’s only a small taste of the book and my views on Russo’s writings. After re-reading what I just wrote, I had the realization what annoys me the most about Vince Russo the wrestling employee, is how he seems to have no desire to want to be in wrestling. As a wrestling fan it frustrates me that someone who displays an attitude of having to take a wrestling job simply because his other business venture wasn’t providing enough money to support his family is potentially standing in the way of someone who might actually want to be there and might have some fresh ideas. 

Okay, it’s time for the religious aspect of the book.  I encourage to keep reading because there are still some wrestling comments to be made.

During most of the chapters that deal with religion, Russo mentions how God is in control and he lets God control where his life is headed.  Before I delve into more of Russo’s thoughts, let me share with you some personal information.  Since the mid part of December 2010 I had been struggling with my faith. I wasn’t questioning the existence of God. I’ve witnessed too much in my life to believe there isn’t a God. But after a few months of some personal tragedies and seeing MY life plans fall through, I was questioning if God cared whether I had a personal relationship with him or not. Rope Opera had been out for about a year when I bought it. Previously I had no interest in reading it. But reading what Vince had written regarding his faith and how he lets God control the direction of his life, I started reevaluating my own faith.

He writes about God using him to write the book and I started to question if the timing of me reading it wasn’t coincidental. Actually, I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe I was meant to read the book at this time.  And when I bought the book, since I was at the bookstore, I bought another book which is a more thought provoking book concerning religion and faith than Rope Opera. Was this God leading me to get insightful words from Vince Russo? Over the past year when I was re-establishing a relationship with God, I started to become very weary of religion and so-called Christians. Russo’s words, while somewhat poignant also made me question his faith. I want to address some of those writings. And I want to re-iterate, I'm not trying to maliciously attack Vince.  To paraphrase Matthew 7:3-5, before pointing out Vince’s downfalls, I need to address mine. 

One aspect of Christianity I feel a lot of people, especially non-believers, fail to understand is that any person who claims to be a Christian is still just a person.  That person has flaws and even though they will try to hold themselves to a higher standard, there will be times when they stumble.   As Vince writes in Rope Opera, one of the first things a new believer has to realize is you are no longer living for yourself.  You’re living for God. Your actions and words should glorify God.  From my perspective this is a major aspect a lot of people simply don’t comprehend. The current religious movement is based more on a feel good be a good person attitude than a live like Christ philosophy. In one chapter Vince will talk about living for God and how God has changed his life. In the next chapter it’s back to the old Vince in terms of ego and attitude. 

Numerous times Russo brings up conversations he had with Vince McMahon during his employment with WWF and post WCW when he was thinking of returning to WWE.  In every passage, Russo points out how cold, calculating and impersonal McMahon is as a person.  If you can make McMahon money, he’s your best friend.  If you’re not making him money, McMahon can hardly be bothered to say hello.  Russo does point out the first breaking point in their friendship was when McMahon told him to hire a nanny to raise his kids. After reading all the times Russo points out how cold McMahon is, I get the feeling Russo still hasn’t made peace with McMahon. Russo states the last phone conversation he had with McMahon brought him closure.  But it still felt like Russo felt slighted and doesn’t feel McMahon gave him the credit he feels he deserves for being the writer during the Attitude Era.  It’s almost like a kid wanting the approval of his father. I bring that up here because if somehow Russo ends up reading this, I would encourage him to pray for that peace if he hasn’t already. Maybe he has in the time since the book was written. 

I debated where to put this next part. Should it go in the wrestling section or does it belong in the religion aspect?  I decided to put it here because I think it tie up all the pieces and provide a good closer.  Vince Russo has a very high opinion of himself. If you know anything about Russo, you’re probably thinking, well duh.  Going through Rope Opera, Vince loves to point out how much money he made for WWF and how awesome their ratings were when he was there. Since he left, WWE’s ratings are half of what they used to be. After his meeting the, at the time, WWE writing staff Russo’s opinion was they were kids who knew nothing about writing and if McMahon wanted to return to higher ratings, he needed Russo. Even though WCW was it’s dying days, listening to Russo tell it, if they had let him have free control as he was promised WCW would still be alive and beating WWE.  No one can deny Vince was an instrumental part in turning the WWF around during the late 90s.  However, as was mentioned earlier, that was so long ago the average member in WWE’s target audience wasn’t even born yet.  I want to remind Vince, of Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

My big question is does Russo really think his writing is THAT great? In my opinion, while the Attitude Era had a huge following, looking back on it now, not a lot of the shows hold up.  Plus, one would have to give credit to Steve Austin and The Rock for bringing viewers to television sets.  I’ll save that thought for another posting.  I would like for Vince to point out 5 good storylines he’s written in the last 5 years. Can’t be that hard can it?

Overall, recommending Rope Opera isn’t easy.  There are some good stories, and information that I didn’t get into that are worth reading. The big one is the behind the scenes of Bash at the Beach and the Hulk Hogan fall out. But as a wrestling fan, it is insulting to constantly be told one of your passions is a joke.  So decide for yourself if you want to read it.

At the end of the book, Vince does mention all the criticism through the years did hurt and he took it personally at times. He wants to know what he did so wrong to deserve the level of hatred directed at him. Vince, you disrespected your audience. You fail to understand why they enjoy wrestling. That’s what it all boils down to in the end.

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