By the strange but very real standards that govern these sorts of things, All Elite Wrestling’s video announcement on its Twitter page that it had signed Orange Cassidy earlier this week qualified as a relatively significant amount of fanfare. Contrast that with Marko Stunt, who announced his AEW signing himself on July 30 as part of his 23rd birthday celebration, and it’s clear why fans might have found the pomp and circumstance surrounding Cassidy’s signing divisive. But most of that has to do with Cassidy, a one-of-a-kind weirdo whose comedy shtick lands somewhere between minimalism and pure dada. Cassidy wrestles significant chunks of his matches with his hands in his pockets and his sunglasses on, throwing weak strikes and moving at a glacial pace out of “laziness.” He will sometimes grant the powers of his laziness to his opponents via his sunglasses. Some people love this. Others very much do not.
In the most high-profile booking of his career so far, at AEW’s inaugural event in May, Cassidy unofficially entered the show-opening battle royal to deliver slow-motion kicks to Tommy Dreamer, who noticeably dwarfed him in size. Dreamer unceremoniously eliminated him, but the cameo led the love/hate dichotomy around his act to grow even stronger. There was a great deal of criticism directed at AEW for signing a wrestler that a decent chunk of fans view as so small and untalented that he has to rely on a low-effort comedy shtick to get fans. That’s uncharitable to Cassidy, though, and to the oddball tradition in which he works. The signing might work or it might not, but Orange Cassidy isn’t just a stunt performer.
Cassidy has been wrestling for over 15 years, and inhabited his current persona for the second half of that. “I was wrestling for some time, like eight years, and I was trying to be like everybody else; I was trying to be this ‘cool indie wrestler,’ and do all the ‘cool moves,’ and I realized I want to be different,” he told documentarian Kenny Johnson in a 2017 documentary short. “I could do a cool moonsault, but there were other people doing moonsaults better than me. So I was like ‘What can I offer that’s different? What can I have fun with?’ And I know if I’m having fun, the people watching me are having fun, too.”
Cassidy’s wrestling skills were always there, and when they fell into balance with his poker-faced comedy act something clicked. Cassidy has broken out as a top independent attraction over the last nine months, starting with a fantastic match with David Starr on a Beyond Wrestling show in November that has become the go-to proof that Cassidy really is good at this. All of this was a big change from a year earlier, when Cassidy told Johnson that he felt as if he’d been pigeonholed as a sideshow.
The complicating factor, here, is that Cassidy’s low-effort routine only works when it works; when it doesn’t, it does have a kind of stilted sideshow feel. He was widely expected to be one of the breakout stars of the independent shows during WrestleMania weekend this year, but that didn’t really happen, at least not to the degree it was expected. How much of it was his fault—or that of his opponents, or the matchmaking—is difficult to discern, but far too many of his matches felt rote, or like introductions of his basic routine for fans who had never seen him before. Cassidy’s most vocal critics seem not to have seen him wrestle even in that introductory mode, or perhaps at all beyond his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it battle royal cameo and some GIFs on social media. (For his part, AEW wrestler/executive Cody Rhodes has defended the acquisition on Twitter.)
The persistent perception that AEW has signed too many non-serious wrestlers is based in large part on the constant vocal criticism of longtime wrestling jack of all trades turned podcaster Jim Cornette. There’s some merit to the knock, for what it’s worth, given that a company with an official roster that by my count stands at 46 wrestlers now includes four wrestlers with explicit comedy gimmicks in Cassidy, baby oil-loving Michael Nakazawa, and The Librarians, Peter Avalon and Leva Bates. That is arguably a bit much, especially since the Librarian shtick hasn’t landed at all yet and Nakazawa’s only singles match so far was an utter embarrassment in which he faced video game tournament promoter Alex Jebailey, who visibly started laughing while being hanged by his throat over the top rope. If you’re less familiar with the rest of the roster and have only experienced them through AEW and GIFs—as Cornette and some of his listeners and followers surely have—it would be easy to have a similar impression about other members of the roster. It would be wrong, but it would be easy.
Beyond the success or failure of its various comedians’ respective shticks, a respect for and experience with comic wrestling runs throughout AEW’s roster. Chuck Taylor used to be a comedy-heavy wrestler who used an invisible hand grenade, although he and his tag team partner Trent have remade themselves as serious wrestlers with comedic overtones in recent years. Joey Janela has wrestled The Invisible Man—it’s just what it sounds like, and amounts to flinging himself around the ring against an imaginary opponent—as has MJF. The Dark Order used to be the Super Smash Brothers, who had game controllers on their gear and could be “paused” during matches. Luchasaurus is explicitly supposed to be a dude in a cool costume, but at the same time we are talking about a high flying dinosaur. Aforementioned birthday boy Marko Stunt looks inexplicably childlike, both facially and with a slight frame, and sometimes does routines about sugar rushes.
And three of the company’s four wrestler executives, Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks, have dabbled in such over-the-top theatrics as wrestling and/or attacking small children; Omega has on more than one occasion used his arm hair as a weapon. That’s a lot of jokers in the deck for a “serious” wrestling presentation, although the promotion itself is still coming into focus. Rhodes tweeted earlier in the week that AEW has only unveiled “about 40 percent” of the roster so far.
Cornette and his followers tend to describe all of the above as “play wrestlers” or “play ‘rasslers” and deride them for getting jobs for their friends. Rhodes admitted at a panel the week of AEW’s debut that “I believe in nepotism, I believe in giving your friends jobs,” and it does seem fair to say that some of the wrestlers AEW has picked up may not have been signed otherwise. But the names that usually get singled out as being unworthy had significant interest elsewhere. Cassidy, in particular, worked for Evolve, the independently-owned WWE feeder—including a match with WWE standout Velveteen Dream—as recently as a month ago, on the night after the promotion’s WWE Network debut. AEW has also notably not signed Joey Ryan, “the wrestler who flips dudes with his penis,” and reportedly won’t be any time soon, even though he’s clearly friends with the Bucks and has been part of all sorts of AEW-adjacent shows.
That this is a controversy at all is mostly just the wrestling discourse being the wrestling discourse, but it also points to a larger philosophical discussion about pro wrestling, and how WWE has changed the landscape in terms of both eroding suspension of disbelief and foisting bad comedy on fans.
WWE did more than any other actor in obliterating the old and tenuous rules of wrestling when it came to the suspension of disbelief back in wrestling’s regional era. They did this first by broadcasting what wrestling really was in government hearings as they lobbied for deregulation, and later by stretching the boundaries of what was plausible in the genre. Three decades ago, there weren’t any immortal undead zombie wizard kings in pro wrestling, but then The Undertaker showed up, eventually joined by his similarly magical brother. Even if you hated the presence of magical beings who could shoot lightning from their hands, it was clear that some sort of line had been crossed and that there was no going back.
WWE has done comedy for longer than it has done Undead Lightning Guys, but not with notably more success. The worst stuff is not really even identifiable as comedy—Vince McMahon poking fun at Jim Ross’s then-very recent colon surgery, for instance, is less a joke than a boss being a dick to an underling. This is made somehow even more mortifying by McMahon’s belief that WWE comedy is the only comedy anyone would ever need to watch. The promotion’s in-ring comedy has usually been either that kind of Hostile Work Environment For Yuks stuff or basic slapstick, and has never reached for wrestling-an-invisible-man implausibility, let alone dared for Joey Ryan-style throwing-someone-with-your-penis heights of goofiness. There’s also no reason it couldn’t, of course—when two of the most respected wrestlers in company history are an undead zombie wizard king and his demon wizard prince brother, realism isn’t a problem—but it’s just not WWE’s thing. Big corporations aren’t famous for their senses of humor.
AEW has been ambitious from the jump, but its broader goal of returning American wrestling to a more logical, serious, and sports-based style of storytelling over the bloated WWE norm isn’t going to be derailed by a few comedy wrestlers in the ranks. New Japan Pro Wrestling has the kind of tone that AEW is aiming for, and it also has comedy undercard attractions like Toru Yano and Ryusuke Taguchi; it’s also where Kenny Omega went from being someone who pretended his arm hair was a chainsaw to a serious main eventer, box office draw, and legitimate international wrestling star. The whole idea of AEW is to do something new, which means the less resemblance it bears to WWE the better. Will Orange Cassidy need to tweak his act to some degree if he’s going to get over and fit in at AEW? Probably. Will he be shooting lightning at anyone? Probably not.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.