Interview with Tim Kail (The Work of Wrestling)

Tim Kail’s site www.workofwrestling.com is easily the best site devoted to the World of Professional Wrestling. I think of him as the Bill Simmons of Wrestling. Strong opinions. Passion. Long researched columns. And LOVE of the sport. His frustrations for the WWE is legendary – but not without merit as he backs up all of his judgements with valid points. Hopefully Vince McMahon and his team are reading and listening to his Podcasts. He’s either a future hire or the continuing ombudsman for the WWE. 

I was fortunate enough to chat with Tim about all things Wrestling. I hope this won’t be the first time.

Matthew Toffolo: What WWE match in any era have you watched the most times in your life?

Tim Kail: That has to be Bret Hart vs Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13. That match perfectly embodies professional wrestling’s artistic merit. Everything about it, from the commentary to the choices Bret and Austin make, even little details like the way Austin makes a real-life snap-decision to fall over the barricade with Bret because he could feel, if he didn’t fall with Bret, he’d snap Bret’s arm – on top of the fact that they managed to tell the story of a double-turn…that’s why I watch it often and why it’s a true masterpiece. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as any of the finest, timeless works of art. It gives you something new every time you watch it.

Matthew: What wrestler currently on the WWE roster do you feel needs a major push?

Tim Kail: Dean Ambrose. Without question. Currently he’s booked as Roman Reigns’ silly sidekick and that’s unfortunate for him and for Roman. Dean is exactly the kind of top babyface the millennial generation is looking for – tortured, motivated by love, self-destructive, and talented in all ways. He’s much more than a tee-shirt.

Matthew: Do you believe in the Bret Hart formula for what makes a great wrestler?

Tim Kail: It’s funny you mention this because I’m working on an article right now about this specific formula. I think the popularization of this idea, as well as the ease of access wrestling fans have to insider knowledge has polluted our ability to accurately judge a pro-wrestler’s skills and I think it’s also negatively affected the way today’s roster tries to get over. It’s been hammered into everyone’s head that they have to be great at these three specific things, in addition to “just being themselves with the volume turned up”. That kind of language and the environment it breeds is creatively limiting (listen to Drew Galloway’s ICW-return promo for a good deconstruction of this idea). And the fans are quicker than ever to judge anyone who doesn’t perfectly fit this formula, especially if the wrestler they’re judging is a “WWE-guy”. In Bret Hart’s era he’s making an observation about the way these artists honed their skillset over a longer period of time and mastered their craft (many of them at house shows or gymnasiums, their growing pains viewed by smaller audiences in the context of smaller promotions). Today, that formula is lorded over an entire generation and it’s making the roster self-conscious and the fans complacent. We’re watching artists strain to hit a very tiny target by doing three specific things without the freedom to develop their skills, and that’s what they’re told to do. There’s no room for exploration or growth, just hitting or missing a target. This is also why RAW is good one week and terrible the next; it’s either hit or miss. So I would recommend this formula, and the self-consciousness and complacency it breeds be completely abandoned for a simpler, broader guiding principle; tell your story. That’s 100% the most important thing a pro-wrestler can do. Whatever your story is, figure out how to tell that story, work on telling that story, learn what makes people pop, and use all of the tools pro-wrestling offers you to do so (and that toolbox is a lot deeper than three things). If you’re bad at something, don’t waste too much time trying to become the best at that thing. Develop weaknesses, for sure, but focus primarily on what you’re good at so that your strengths define you. The same goes for any artist. Become great at something you’re good at, not decent at something you’re bad at.

Matthew: Who is the top wrestler currently on the WWE roster today?

Tim Kail: The best storytellers currently active on the WWE’s main roster at this time are The New Day, Kevin Owens, Becky Lynch, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and Dean Ambrose. Each of these performers finds a way, regardless of however they’re booked, to tell their story, to reveal some aspect of their personality in a way that can be captivating and inspiring. Supported by good stories that emphasize the importance of championship gold, these wrestlers can reinvigorate the main roster and transform RAW into must-see television. Also, when Seth Rollins returns, if he’s liberated from a script that misunderstands him, he could become the best top babyface we’ve seen in years.

Matthew: You’re smart enough to know that Vince McMahon wants good quality wrestling as much as you do, perhaps even more. You both want the same thing. So if I can give you 30 minutes alone in a room with Vince, what would you say to him and/or want to have a conversation with him about? (Remember: he does like to filibuster!)

Tim Kail: I’m not convinced Vince McMahon wants good quality wrestling or that good quality wrestling is his priority. I’m not convinced Vince McMahon is even a fan of professional wrestling; at least I don’t think he’s shrugged off the insecurity a lot of wrestling fans have about loving this form of performance art. I sense a degree of self-consciousness in him, an unwillingness to accept the roots of his chosen form. I do think Vince McMahon wants to create a good quality show, however. I think he absolutely adores show-business and spectacle, and I think he’s a master of spectacle. I think there’s a frustrated filmmaker in Vince McMahon, and that he would love to have been a big time movie director ruling Hollywood during the Golden Age. I see that frustration, that dissatisfaction when I watch RAW from time to time. He often says “we make mini movies” and I hear top members of the roster recite that nonsense too. It’s the kind of thing a young, insecure artist thinks, comparing their chosen form to something typically regarded as “higher art” instead of just being proud of their chosen medium. It’s like a painter saying “I make mini songs”. No. You don’t. You make paintings – so make paintings and be good at it and don’t worry about making anything else. Or, if you want to make mini songs, become a musician. And I suppose that would lead me to what I’d like to discuss with him – I’d want to ask him why he believes “Sports Entertainment” is superior to professional wrestling, I’d want to know what his understanding of pro-wrestling actually is, what medium he thinks he’s actually working in, and whether or not he’s doing what he actually wants to be doing with his life. I’d want to know if he’s willing to work with his talent to tell great stories again. I respect his tenacity and his ability to create marvelous, money-making spectacles, I just wonder if he’d be happier making films in the 1940s and 1950s or variety television shows in the 1960s & 1970s.

Matthew: The Tugboat (fast and quick to maneouver, but tiny and can sink fast) is the WWE in 1998. VS The Cruiseliner (powerful and impossible to sink, but it takes miles to make a simple turn) is the WWE in 2016. In this era everyone is making more money and taking less risk, so the talent is happier and the board is making their money. But – it’s the hardcore fan like you who hurts in the long run because they play it so safe and appeal to the average fan. And/or perhaps the product hurts in the long run too?

Tim Kail: I really like that Tugboat vs Cruiseliner analogy and I do think there’s some truth in it. Fans do tend to ignore how massive the WWE is today and how difficult it is to maintain a coherent narrative when the company has to produce as much content as it does. It’s not the fan’s fault that the WWE has chosen to produce that much content, though. The WWE is in complete control of what they offer – instead of focusing on doing two or three things incredibly well they’re trying to do five hundred things adequately. In creating a massive Cruise Ship the WWE has invited a wider variety of opinions. A lot more people are deeply invested in reaching their promised destination on a Cruise Ship than a tug boat. So when the WWE doesn’t reach their destination, it’s only natural all those on board will be infuriated. I understand the captain has an awareness of his ship and the high seas that the passengers don’t, but his awareness of the trials and tribulations and the fact that he managed to (at the very least) keep the boat afloat doesn’t absolve him of blame for not reaching the desired destination.

I also have to say that I believe today’s talent is creatively miserable. It’s obvious they find ways to have fun, but when it comes to the environment they work in, it’s clearly stifling and I don’t think they’re happy because they “take fewer risks”. Today’s roster is taking a lot more risks (hence all the injuries) because one of the only ways today’s wrestler is able to get over is with high-risk, flamboyant moves that take a toll on their bodies (especially if they’ve been working the indies for a decade or more – many of whom have). Creatively and emotionally they’re walking on eggshells, desperate that they’ll win the favor of their boss, knowing that even when they win the favor of the fans they’re guaranteed nothing for it. They are told to get over, but it doesn’t really matter unless they get over with the man running the show. They have to contend with a commentary team who undermines their efforts in the ring, making it impossible for heels to get good heat and babyfaces to appear strong, a booker who seems to think they’re nothing but a bunch of complacent millennials, and a team of terrified writers all trying to hit that narrow target I mentioned earlier. Imagine giving Picasso a coloring book and telling him to stay inside the lines or you’ll suspend him if he doesn’t. That’s what today’s main roster has to deal with – in addition to a bunch of internet pundits ready to suck their blood at a moment’s notice if they flub a line.

Lastly, I don’t want to specifically see a return of Attitude Era stories. I want today’s WWE to have a basic, fundamental fictional conceit from which all of its stories spring forth. That’s what the Attitude Era had and that’s what today’s WWE doesn’t have. There is no conceit today or, in keeping with your analogy, the Cruise Ship doesn’t even have an engine. There’s no guiding principle beyond “make money” or “entertain”, and that doesn’t tell stories. Stories make money, not Roman Reigns’ eye color. A basic conceit like “the WWE is a professional wrestling sports division where the best pro-wrestlers in the world come to compete for Champoinship gold” would ground the WWE’s fiction in a consistent framework and actually make it easier for them to adjustment to things like Seth Rollins’ injury because injuries happen in legitimate athletic competitions. There’s always someone on the bench, ready to take that spot. Rather than tell that story, the WWE tells booking decisions and it feels like they’re needlessly scrambling minute to minute. Establish a foundation and it will feel less scattered.

Matthew: The WWE network is like a gym membership for most people. People sign up loving it at the beginning, but stop going even though they keep paying every month. The WWE will have their good years and bad years, but the ship is being steered and they can handle the slight bumps either way because they are already so powerful. Thoughts?

Tim Kail: Everyone got on the ship for the same reason. Some people on that cruise are going to go to every show, they’re going to make lifelong friends, they’re going to swim with the sharks and watch the fireworks and dance until the sun comes up. Some are going to hang out in their room and watch movies. Regardless of their investment in the experience, they all got on the boat because they wanted to have a good time on a boat. The same holds true for people who tune in to a pro-wrestling show, even one like RAW. The WWE doesn’t seem to understand that it is a niche. It is a specific business that offers a specific product to a specific person who seeks a specific experience. It’s always been a niche, regardless of its popularity. The need the WWE services in our culture has always been to provide prospective viewers with an instantly entertaining, instantly accessible form of simulated combat. When people tune in to RAW, they’re not actively searching for a Miz TV segment no matter how casual they are; they want to see Cesaro swing someone and they want to see Roman Reigns punch someone and they want to see fights for titles.

There’s that ideal 60% of casual viewers who will supposedly watch whatever the WWE gives them – they’re not watching anymore. The WWE has alienated that all-important casual majority they seek as evidenced by poor word of mouth, lack of pop-culture interest, declining ratings, and poor viewer retention. The lifeblood of the WWE right now remains that complacent diehard 20% – those are the people subscribed to the Network and paying for tickets and Tweeting about shows – the lifers, the people who spread the word. The WWE fails to capture the imagination of the casual viewer because their product fails to offer something that is instantly understandable, instantly accessible, and instantly fun & easy to consume. Show an episode of RAW to your mother or father or to someone who hasn’t watched wrestling in years and see how entertained they actually are – see how much they even understand any of what they’ve seen and see if they care about Roman Reigns in the slightest despite his handsome face and see if they’re able to watch all three of RAW’s hours. It’s an assault on the senses and disrespectful to everyone’s intelligence. It’s not inviting in the least. I want the WWE to get their casual viewer, because that would mean their show would be easier to watch. Diehards seem to think “casual” means stupid or inane – for me it just means something is accessible to anyone and that rarely means a lack of quality. It’s not like casual viewers are looking to see something that’s bad. Look at NXT. NXT is cleverly marketed as a “hardcore” wrestling experience when it’s actually the epitome of casual, palatable professional wrestling. It’s just done incredibly well. That’s the kind of pro-wrestling the WWE can and should be offering to the world.

Seeing as how the WWE has their diehard fans no matter what they do, it stands to reason to start satisfying the vocal base. If the diehards are the loudest then they should be used to spread the word, as guerrilla marketers. Use those loud, passionate fans as broadcast towers, as a subtle means of marketing. When word of mouth gets around via social media that the WWE is telling good stories again (a message that their disgruntled 20% would happily spread) that casual viewer will come back.

Matthew: Who was your favorite wrestler as a kid?

Tim Kail: The Rock – I was about fifteen when he got on his big run before leaving, and that’s when I really got into it. He was a great role-model at a time when I needed one.

Matthew: What wrestler do you feel never got the push he deserved?

Tim Kail: CM Punk. I know that might sound a little ridiculous considering his lengthy reign as Champion and all of his accomplishments, but he was never booked in a manner that reflected his greatness. Could’ve been even better had they just gone with the flow and supported his ascent in a consistent manner.

Matthew: Do you remember that moment when you fell in love with wrestling?

Tim Kail: Mick Foley returning on RAW to set up the fatal four way at WrestleMania 2000. He came storming down to the ring punching everything in sight – it just clicked. Suddenly it all made sense to me and I’ve been a fan ever since. Also, when Sami Zayn won the NXT Championship. I was questioning whether or not I should pursue a career in pro-wrestling analysis at the time. I was so moved by his victory, that I knew this is what I should be doing.

Matthew: Where would you like your writing career to go in the next few years?

Tim Kail: In terms of writing I simply want to perfect my ability. Every week, I try to have a frank conversation with myself as I edit a piece and decide what to cut and what to keep. I want to become even less precious with my work; to know when something can be completely dropped and when something is worth deeper examination. I want every article I write to be the best article anyone reads about professional wrestling that week. As far as podcasting goes, I’d like to talk to a couple more wrestlers and thank them for their sacrifices. Beyond that…just keep working.

Matthew: What movie have you watched the most times in your life?

Tim Kail: Probably a five-way tie between Batman (1989), Casablanca, Star Wars, Godfather, & Rocky. Show those movies to a kid and they’ll learn almost everything they need to know about life. I tend to like films where the main character has a very specific, somewhat warped worldview, where they’re deeply motivated by their moral compass, but that devotion also threatens to be their undoing. It’s really rewarding to see that character come out on top in the end, to work through the worst in themselves to arrive at the best, and help others in the process.

Matthew: I love those 5 answers. A comic book hero. A love story within the context of war. Pirates in space. Origin story of an anti-hero. And a David vs Goliath story. All great wrestling storylines too!

_____

Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

 

 

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