It’s no secret that WWE programming feels stale at the moment. Very little is landing, live crowds for TV tapings have been noticeably more sedate, and new talent has reliably been squandered. When WWE’s new TV contracts start in October, the promotion will be competing with a new and well-funded rival in All Elite Wrestling, whose deal on a strong network also begins that month. That new startup’s first show, Double Or Nothing, now looks like the most successful non-WWE, non-WCW (Turner Broadcasting’s defunct WWE competitor) pay-per-view in the history of the wrestling business, with somewhere from 98,500 to 113,000 buys, with somewhere between 28 and 37 percent of those purchased internationally. (The previous record was 99,000 for ECW Heat Wave ‘99, almost two decades ago.) Given that Double Or Nothing was so well received as a showcase of non-WWE style wrestling, and given that AEW’s weekly shows will be just as easy to find on cable as WWE’s, now would be a great time for WWE to not suck.
As confused and confusing as WWE has seemed of late, there is some reason for hope, there. The male world champions who were crowned at WrestleMania, Seth Rollins and Kofi Kingston, have been kept in simple, effective storylines that mostly showcase them as fighting champions, and they’ve shown well in that limited role. But the true highlight of main-roster WWE programming since WrestleMania has had very little to do with the promotion’s in-ring wrestling product. I’m talking about the weekly Firefly Fun House segment, which features cult leader Bray Wyatt, seeming fresh and weirder than ever after almost a year off, in his new guise as a demented children’s edutainer. It’s not perfect: The segments have lately felt as if they’re out of order, and it has all felt a bit off after the revelation that Wyatt was trying to brainwash children. It’s also far from clear how all this can effectively be adapted into anything resembling a pro wrestling storyline, much less inform how Wyatt wrestles in the ring. The wheels could very well come off the second this stops being limited to colorful pre-recorded skits.
But I don’t care about any of that. Firefly Fun House is the best thing going on WWE right now, and it’s both deeply weird and totally great.
The skits include an array of puppet characters, including Mercy the Buzzard and Abby the Witch, both of which are nods to Wyatt’s past “follow the buzzards” catchphrase and the “Sister Abigail” figure that’s a part of the Wyatt character’s (significant) lore. There’s Ramblin’ Rabbit, too, but his symbolic meaning is less obvious. Look, I said this was a demented children’s show, and it nails the look and feel: The colorful set that’s distracting because you can’t quite tell if it’s green screened in or not, the animated but faintly condescending host, odd green-screened musical interludes, and so on. Plus brainwashing. There is also lots of brainwashing.
The first two puppets had shown up in short videos prior to the launch of Firefly Fun House, where they mostly just looked and acted creepy. The skits started sometime after that, and began with Bray explaining that he’s not a bad man anymore before maniacally destroying a cardboard cut-out of his past self with a chainsaw. The next few weeks featured Mercy trying to eat Ramblin’ Rabbit and Wyatt’s weird new demon clown mask being revealed in creepy fashion. That last bit sure felt like the storytelling climax that would precede Wyatt’s in-ring return, but instead the skits have continued, and continued to be increasingly, deliciously, delightfully weird. The peak, for me, was last week’s introduction of two new characters in A Very Special Episode about exercise. After the newly svelte and jacked Bray briefed viewers on the importance of keeping fit, he introduced the viewer to a new puppet, Huskus The Pig Boy, a play on his pre-Wyatt WWE persona of Husky Harris.
Then we met another new character, which can best be described as “if Vince McMahon was in The Dark Crystal and also Satan.” This extremely upsetting new puppet was brought aboard to “do the Muscle Man Dance” with everyone, which Dark Crystal Satan Vince and the other characters proceeded to do in a segment that could have fit right into an episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! The proceedings were not made less strange by Bray’s attempts to hypnotize the children in the audience by saying “erase your mind.”
At the risk of repeating myself unnecessarily: this was all very strange, but also every bit as inspired and different as the rest of Raw and SmackDown haven’t been lately. How it translates into the more traditional pro wrestling realm is... going to be a very difficult question to answer, honestly.
Originally, as he established himself in WWE, it seemed as if the Bray Wyatt character was on a very specific path. The idea, or so it seemed, was to get cool enough thanks to his ace promos that Wyatt could turn and utilize that great delivery as a sort of a weird modern twist on Dusty Rhodes—a man of the people whose words had a nigh-poetic quality to them. It wasn’t a bad idea, but the writing let him down; his promos’ verbiage became increasingly random and nonsensical. As fits with WWE’s broader sense of drift, what looked like a promised run as a charismatic babyface never really materialized beyond a few months last year during which Wyatt teamed with Matt Hardy and was otherwise given little to do.
Some kind of reboot was clearly necessary at that point. The Bray Wyatt character had gotten stale and needed a change, and WWE never quite seized the opportunity to reimagine him as a preaching orator. In some ways, this characteristically confused bit of WWE storytelling set Wyatt free to do whatever he wanted to do, which it turned out was get strange, break out the puppets, and start upending expectations. He’s infinitely more interesting where he is now, but the storytelling challenges seem steeper—even at the Wyatt character’s bland and nonsensical worst, everything he did existed in a context easily adaptable to pro wrestling. It wasn’t especially good, but it fit. Today, Wyatt is in a different position. What he’s doing is jarring and goofy and maybe brilliant, but how in the world or could WWE bring Firefly Fun House onto the wrestling plane of existence?
Maybe the better question is why they would even want to. After all, this is the freshest thing on the increasingly stagnant Raw and SmackDown shows. It might as well not exist in the larger context of the show, but for now that’s probably fine. The main roster WWE shows need something as a shot in the arm, and he’s sure provided that. In the longer term, Bray Wyatt will need to exit the Firefly Fun House if he’s going to return to the ring. It may be that introducing his new evil clown mask—its name is The Fiend, if you were curious—is the beginning of a return to something akin to his old gimmick. It also might be that Wyatt’s return to actual wrestling is still being figured out. But in the meantime, I’m more than happy to enjoy a weekly psychedelic, quasi-Satanic wrestler puppet show, and I suspect I’m not alone.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.