It happens once a year. It's the perfect episode of TV for our times: a basic-cable version of the selfie, the Twitter @reply and the Facebook status update all rolled into one. The 2015 edition of this great, fascinating occurrence will happen tonight... on a pro wrestling show. It's one you should probably tune into, just this once, even if you don't care for that sort of thing.
The listings will say it's simply the latest episode of World Wrestling Entertainment's Monday Night Raw on the USA network. Maybe they will mention that it will feature the fallout from last night's Wrestlemania.
If you channel-flip past it, it may just look like a standard WWE spectacle: men in tights talking tough and pretending to fight, an audience of 18,000 cheering them on, in this case in San Jose's SAP Center.
But it's not a normal episode and not a normal episode of TV, because the Raw after Wrestlemania, for a variety of reasons, has become one of the wildest annual broadcasts of the year. It's a show that dents the distinction between celebrity and spectator, blurs drama with reality and is, annually, nearly derailed by an arena full of people who cheer what they like and heckle what they hate, even if what they are doing defies the script — and especially if it will get them noticed on TV.
It's a show made better or worse — depending on your perspective — by an audience that doesn't show up simply to be entertained but that assumes that their reactions, their feedback, their snark, their trolling, their clever reactions the things they do, are entertainment too. They are entertained by the belief that they are entertaining. They are a comments section sitting in the arena. We, the viewers, are the readers.
Here's what it was like in 2013, on the Raw after Wrestlemania:
That crowd, in East Rutherford, New Jersey's Izod Center loudly chanted "boring" and "same old shit" over an in-ring speech from new champion John Cena. They yelled "bullshit" when it was announced that The Rock wouldn't be appearing and scolded two wrestlers who botched a move with "you f**ked up". During a lengthy match involving two wrestlers they didn't care for, the crowd sang songs and chanted the names of former WWE wrestlers, the match's referee and the ringside announcers.
They're not always negative. They lost their minds and erupted with one of the loudest ovations in the show's history when a little-promoted but much-liked wrestler named Dolph Ziggler "cashed in" a chance to win the world title.
And, a year later, a similar crowd — before riding a lot of the wrestlers in the rest of the show — lauded underdog hero Daniel Bryan with thunderous "you deserve it chants".
(By the 12 minute mark of that clip, you'll hear them gleefully giving grief to Cena, again. Also worth noting: The 2012 version of this crowd honored Bryan when he was supposed to be an unimportant bad guy by peppering the entire post-Wrestlemania Raw with his signature "Yes" chants — well, except when bad guy Mexican aristocrat wrestler Alberto Del Rio showed up, at which point they kept chanting "Si!")
WWE has caught on to all of this, and by last year was producing their own sanitised compilation of post- Wrestlemania Raw chants:
If you don't follow wrestling or know the characters, some of the chants will be lost on you. You'll miss that the wrestlers who are being booed are sometimes the ones the show producers want cheered and vice versa. You'll miss that, at times, the crowd is expressing their disdain for what they're seeing by cheering for wrestlers who no longer work for the company.
Imagine your favourite dramatic TV series, say, Game of Thrones or Mad Men, but performed live in front of a rowdy focus group that shows their disdain for bad scenes by chanting the names of their favourite former cast members when the current ones starts boring them. Maybe they have some fun and add — and sing — their own lyrics to the show's theme song. Maybe they lose their minds when some bit character gets a cameo, because she's their favourite character. Maybe they remember that, oh yeah, they're on TV, too and just start chanting about how awesome they are. At times, you see, they're trying to make themselves the stars of the show.
This is Twitter replying as a TV show. This is Facebook snark and YouTube comments as part of a TV show.
This is the Red Wedding with the ability to hear the audience gasp. This is Brian Williams' televised apology with a studio audience chanting "We want Brokaw" in the background.
The post- Wrestlemania Raws are like this for several reasons:
- The fanbase that shows up for the Raw after Wrestlemania are the hardest of the hardcore. Fans from around the world fly in from around the world to go to Wrestlemania, which is in a different American city every year (well, except for the one year it was in Toronto, but that was before Raw existed). Wrestlemania is on a Sunday and WWE runs the following Monday's Raw in the same city. A large number of out-of-town fans book the extra night and take a package deal — or at least the biggest fans do. You wind up with super-fans filling this particular Raw crowd, people who've paid thousands of dollars for their Wrestlemania travel and lodging (read: more adult fans, fewer families and kids). A lot of them are from Europe, where WWE is plenty popular and where the fans are used to singing chants in soccer stadiums and who, traditionally, often cheer for pro wrestling's bad guys.
- These fans have been trained by WWE to voice their feelings about the WWE product. Episodes of Raw are filled with references to the "WWE Universe" (fans) making their voice heard through Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media. WWE has also been pushing storylines involving evil corporate owners and rebellious underdog wrestlers on and off since the late 1990s, encouraging fans to get rowdy to champion their favourites. They have also cultivated a divided audience, promoting the loved-by-kids/booed-by-adults John Cena as their top good guy for a decade, not minding that half of most arenas boos him. The WWE's mindset seems to be, hey, getting any reaction is better than no reaction and getting divided reactions is all the more interesting. At times, WWE will blithely promote a wrestler against an entire crowd's wishes and suffer the consequences.
- Fans have learned that their voice can make a difference. Seattle fans can loudly derail a late 2013 episode of Raw to chant for the wrestler Daniel Bryan, clearly forcing other performers in the ring to ad-lib, and that can help propel that wrestler into a main event spot in the next Wrestlemania. Fans in Brooklyn can chant "this is stupid" during an attempted comedy match featuring a midget dressed as an alligator and, not only will the announcers finally be forced to acknowledge it, but the alligator gimmick happens to never return again. Getting loud doesn't just get you recognised by the announcers; it can change the storylines in WWE's never-ending soap opera.
WWE has typically loaded their post-Wrestlemania episodes of Raw with surprises, raising the expectations for dramatic plot twists. Raw never goes into re-runs, so it doesn't really have a season premiere, but this episode is the closest thing to it. That's why, for example, back in 1998, WWE saved the return of wrestler Sean Waltman, who fans thought was still working for rival promotion WCW, for the episode right after Wrestlemania. Waltman then used his live mic to trash his former employers.
That kind of shock moment has been an annual tradition. Move ahead to the Raw after Wrestlemania 28, though, and the fans are more in on the surprises. Hell, they will spoil the surprises if they damn well please, which is pretty much what that rabid, Internet-savvy crowd did after picking up the rumour that Brock Lesnar, the former WWE and UFC great is about to make a shock return. They spent much of that show's final segment chanting "We want Lesnar", enough to make John Cena, who was minutes away from being, uh, shocked by a returning Lesnar to quip at 7:25 of this clip: "An always interesting crowd at Monday Night Raw."
While WWE has appeared to embrace the post- Wrestlemania crowds, they have also furthered some interesting conversations about what is and isn't fair for fans to chant. Think of this as a debate about the ethics of cheering. If this episode of Raw tonight really is the equivalent of Twitter replies or comments sections, think of this as the part where we wonder who should get blocked or banned, or if it's all good fun. When is a chant improving a show and when is it the equivalent of someone jumping in front of a local news correspondent to wave to the camera?
It's hard not to wonder who pleased wrestlers whose match is being ignored while fans chant for dead former wrestlers feel. The New Jersey crowd eventually chanted "we are awesome", which angered some wrestling pundits, who claimed that the crowd was detracting from the show, though Cena himself praised that chant following that night's episode of Raw.
Some of the post-Wrestlemania crowd's more unruly chants, such as the "you f**ked up" for botched moves, have their roots in the late 1990s counter-culture wrestling league ECW, which encouraged fans to be raucous and became legendary long after it shut down thanks to its hardcore fans. Plenty of these chants are similar to what you'd hear at a sporting event, and it tracks the pro wrestling crowds would exude some of that energy. "You f**ked up" isn't all that different from a partisan NBA crowd's mockery of an airball.
For a while, though, WWE tried to keep its fan response largely within predictable channels. Late '90s WWF/WWE stars such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock mastered the call-and-response style of crowd interaction, exhorted crowds to "give me a hell yeah" or to chant along if they could "smelllllll what the Rock [dramatic pause] is [another pause, crowd waiting for their next word] cooking."
Audiences for Stone Cold and The Rock basically played their role in the broadcast. These days, WWE's bad guy management characters, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon even mock the crowd for this, calling them puppets as they predictably cheer when even the bad guys name-check the city they're on.
But some wrestling crowds — the so-called "smart" ones comprised of older fans — savour their moments when they can rebel, when they can use their cheers and boos to challenge the script or to simply voice their protest. One of the most notorious crowd chants erupted during an August 2006 taping of WWE's failed attempt to revive the ECW brand. The "smart" crowd hated the two wrestlers who were competing in the main event of a live broadcast on the Syfy Network. The best expression of their anger? The inspired and extremely loud chant: "change the channel."
In the last year or so, the most rebellious chant that any WWE crowd will muster tends to involve the former WWE star CM Punk, who left the company acrimoniously in early 2014 and who some fans feel was run off by management. When fans are angry or bored, they will still break out into CM Punk chants, because they assume it pisses WWE off. Strangely, Punk's wife, AJ Lee, still wrestles for WWE — all the while that he is being sued by the company's lead physician — and there's been a debate about whether the tendency for fans to chant Punk's name during her matches is a proper tribute to her husband or disrespect for her work. She won her match last night and will likely be on Raw. How the post- Wrestlemania crowd reacts to her will be one of the key things to listen for.
Last night's Wrestlemania was largely well-received. WWE brought back The Rock and brought in UFC star Ronda Rousey for a crowd-pleasing showdown against Triple H and Stephanie. The company gave smart-fan-favourite Daniel Bryan a prominent win. They scripted the loudly-booed "good guy" Roman Reigns to lose. In theory, they have given tonight's audience less to be rambunctious about. I suspect the fans will still find a way.