Does Pro Wrestling's Merchant Of Secrets Have Any Left To Sell?

Illustration for article titled Does Pro Wrestling's Merchant Of Secrets Have Any Left To Sell?
Illustration: Benjamin Currie (G/O Media)

Wayne Farris, better known as The Honky Tonk Man, demanded Seagram’s Extra Smooth Vodka. It was 2007, and the man who made his name touring the wrestling territories and eventually the WWE with an indestructibly greasy pompadour, a Memphis jumpsuit, and a frequently weaponized acoustic guitar was getting ready to sit down for a tell-all interview with Sean Oliver. Oliver was just getting his feet wet in pro wrestling skullduggery at that point, and he was thrown by the specificity of the request. As a rule, Oliver always delivers, and he had to go to multiple liquor stores in order to find a bottle of the stuff Farris wanted. “I think there was shit in front of it [on the shelf], and I dug, and I found the thing,” he remembers. Honky Tonk Man got his vodka, and Oliver got his show.


Given Oliver’s aims, alcohol is something of a necessity. Another former wrestler, Hornswoggle, was plied with Tito’s vodka before his interview, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine went for Merlot, and many others have received the lubrication necessary to sit in a cheap studio as Oliver gently peppers them with questions about fights, drugs, beefs, steroids, women, and road stories they lived through in their times as an employee and performer in the WWE or WCW.

In insider’s parlance, this is called a shoot interview, or a shoot, and it’s one of the hallowed traditions of bawdy pro wrestling scuttlebutt. A shoot happens when a producer pays men and women from the pro wrestling world to air dirty laundry and expose secrets of the business, which are then burned onto a DVD and sold for $20 a pop. The idea is to give viewers an intimate look at the squabbles and politics behind the scenes, away from the stagecraft out front.

The market for shoot interviews long persisted because the wrestling industry is protected by a dense network of enigma and pantomime, enshrined by a carney code of brotherhood and monopolized by an international publicly traded company in WWE. The laws of kayfabe require that workplace drama and creative differences be kept tightly under wraps while whatever happens on TV or in the ring is presented as reality. All that ceremony and artifice makes it so there is real meaning when someone like The Honky Tonk Man decides to step out of his character and tell you exactly what kind of motherfucker Hulk Hogan is.

Oliver’s always been the man who wants to be there to serve up these moments to the world’s most obsessive wrestling fans, and their thirst has rewarded him with a small media empire to call his own.

“We sold secrets. That’s what the shoot interviews were,” explains Oliver, as he sits across from me in a drowsy Jersey City diner, halfway through a plain cheese pizza. “We heard these guys talk about stuff we knew they had taken the blood oath to never talk about before. That’s the business we were in.”

Oliver’s been in the business of exposing secrets for over a decade now, and it’s earned him a certain level of prestige within the most hardcore wrestling community. You can like wrestling without ever having heard of Sean Oliver, but you can’t love it, can’t truly be obsessed with it, without his help.


Oliver took the backroad to the wrestling industry. He originally built a career in voice acting and directing, (scroll through his IMDB page, and you’ll see credits on everything from Billions to Boardwalk Empire,) and founded Kayfabe Commentaries, the wrestling shoot company that made him truly famous, in 2007 with his partner, Tony Lucignano. The initial idea was to sell “commentary track MP3s” that featured wrestlers talking over some of their most famous matches, in the way that Martin Scorsese might talk over Mean Streets in the film’s Criterion edition. “I couldn’t even really describe what we were doing,” says Oliver. “Go try to explain to a layperson what a ‘downloadable alternate audio track’ for a wrestling match is.”


That idea never got off the ground. It was too high-concept, and too third-party; it turns out that nobody wants to watch a wrestling match on mute. But the original desire to throw back the curtain on a notoriously secretive business never left Oliver and Lucignano. So they pivoted to what is now their current format; Oliver in a suit and tie, a wrestler draped in their own merchandise, a lonely soundstage under razor-sharp studio lights, and a barrage of inquiries about who said what, and who screwed who. If it goes right, Oliver excavates an entire hidden history, narrated by a real person rather than a character.

Kayfabe, in its original definition, referred to the solemn accord between wrestlers to ensure that everything that happened between the ropes was presented as either legitimate competition or legitimate avarice. Wrestlers were drilled on maintaining kayfabe as intensely as they were on taking bumps, particularly during the 1960s and ‘70s, a time when it felt like the entire wrestling enterprise would collapse if the fans ever smartened up. One of the most famous stories about wrestling’s religious devotion to kayfabe during that era involves Bruno Sammartino defusing a situation with a fan who was about to pull a gun on his in-ring rival (and real-life friend) Freddie Blassie. “I want him for myself the next time we step into the ring,” said Sammartino, as a way to both prevent bloodshed and keep the con alive.


It’s been a while since kayfabe was such a matter of life and death. Vince McMahon famously exposed professional wrestling as a circus act and not a sport in front of the New Jersey Senate in 1989. (McMahon, ever the businessman, did so in order to avoid paying sports taxes on his product.) In 1996, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall—heels and babyfaces who were supposed to hate each other—joined in a group hug in the center of the ring after a show, which confused the hell out of a lot of hook-line-and-sinker marks. In the early 2000s, as WCW was flailing under Vince Russo’s stewardship, a number of angles were introduced that put the supposed “reality” of pro wrestling in the spotlight. (See, for instance, a storyline based around the tension of Goldberg going “off-script.”) All of this has slowly whittled away the musty traditions of this business to its nubs. In 2019, the WWE relies on a generous suspension of disbelief, rather than a flat-out hoodwinking. We live in a firmly post-kayfabe world. John Cena is Ferdinand The Bull; nobody takes the blood oath anymore.

Oliver established his business just as the old guard began acquiescing to modernity, and his timing proved lucrative. Even Sammartino, who spent so many decades protecting the business, appeared on Oliver’s show. Kayfabe Commentaries wasn’t the first company to produce shoot interviews, but 12 years on, few people in the wrestling business have chewed through more secrets and sordid tales than Oliver. At 47, you could call him the kingpin of the shoot business, which is a title he equates to being the smartest guy in jail. If you’ve ever lived through an obsessive wrestling phase, you’re aware of his highlights: Teddy Long remembering that time Ric Flair called him the n-word; King Kong Bundy looking back on the one and only time he starred in the main event of WrestleMania; Rob Van Dam recalling who, exactly, he’d like to punch in the face.


For those of us invested in the intrigue of pro wrestling, Oliver provides catnip; the answers to the questions we were afraid to ask. Have you ever wondered about the exact circumstances that lead to Kevin Nash dropping his allegiance to Vince McMahon, in order to jump ship to WCW? Then go buy the DVD where Nash willingly volunteers that information. He’ll tell you how his pay plateaued for two years; how even as a world champion, was taking home microscopic cuts of six-figure box offices.

What about the Montreal Screwjob, the 1997 snafu in which the WWE plotted to surreptitiously sabotage a title match in order take the belt off Bret Hart? It remains one of the most discussed controversies in wrestling fandom, and for years people have wondered who was responsible. If you believe Jim Cornette, the long-time wrestling booker who was working in the WWE’s production staff at that time, it was all his idea. Cornette dropped that nugget of information towards the end of his interview with Oliver. Apparently, he was the one in the boardroom who floated the idea of a real-life “double-cross.” Later, he watched helplessly as Vince McMahon went through with it, creating an eternal enemy in Bret Hart, and changing the course of wrestling history.


Vince Russo disagrees with Cornette, and claims that he’s the one who actually came up with the idea for the double-cross. This disagreement alone has powered hundreds of hours of shoot interviews, all of which have helped to line Oliver’s pockets. He doesn’t feel guilty about taking our money, nor should he. After all, he’s one of the few people in the media giving wrestling fans what they want. News reporters rarely dive into the underbelly of professional wrestling; there are simply too many more important things to focus on than re-litigations of 20-year old contract disputes. But someone needs to serve the demographic of people who actually care about this stuff.

Stories like the ones Oliver traffics in were once too hot to be shared publicly, but broken kayfabe has only become more normalized as the years have gone on. That development has been a boon for Oliver. He targets people who can speak honestly about the things fans are curious about, and they graciously reopen old wounds in front of the camera. As a viewer, it’s hypnotizing to hear what really happened, but more importantly, these stories brings you back to a time where you probably loved wrestling more than you do now. A perfect shoot interview pairs wistfulness with a tart left-hook; a memory and a discovery in perfect tandem.


The shoots are organized neatly on the Kayfabe Commentaries website. You can still order the physical DVDs, which are packaged and shipped straight out of the company’s headquarters in Bayonne, New Jersey, or you can opt for the direct downloads at a slightly abbreviated cost. Oliver curates a number of different “interview brands” underneath the tent. In “Timeline,” for instance, a guest recollects their memories from a calendar year’s worth of storylines in the WWE. In “YouShoot,” loyal fans submit questions directly to whoever is sitting in the hot seat. In “Guest Booker,” someone like Jerry Jarrett imagines an alternate universe where, with some better management and fewer egos, the end of WCW doesn’t go horribly wrong. Each of these brands are engineered to stripmine content from the late ’90s and early 2000s, when wrestling was at its most profitable, and therefore ripe for a secondary market. This is a bitter reality for someone like Oliver, who came of age in the first golden age of the business, with heroes like Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, and Jimmy Snuka. “The only place where Kevin Nash out-drew Bruno Sammartino is in every one of our videos,” he says.

It works because Oliver is a fan, or at least he has a brutal understanding of how wrestling fans work. It’s a difficult thing to explain to anyone who didn’t grow up loving the industry, but there’s a currency in even the most banal disclosures from the most tertiary of wrestlers. Pro wrestlers belong to a unique celebrity caste; they’re part of the mainstream media, but also fundamentally fixed outside of it. You can spend decades watching the product without ever knowing for sure if Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan were friends or enemies. Maybe you don’t care, but if you do, the odds are that you care a lot. That’s when Oliver steps in, to act as a conduit to all the objectively mundane details that are somehow also the most fascinating truths in the world.


“The only thing I say to [interviewees] before [we turn the cameras on] is, the thing you think is completely insignificant to say right now, some stupid conversation you had the minute before you went out to wrestle, that’s what we want,” he explains. “It’s stupid to you. But that’s what we want. To just get a little closer inside. Anything you can tell me, about the shitty catering you had when you did promos that day. That’s the stuff we love.”

So this is Oliver’s audience. A specific subset of people eager to participate in the decades-old spats between old men in a cartoonish enterprise. Shoot interviews are fetish property; they always leave you wanting more. You can listen to hundreds of hours on the Montreal Screwjob, unwound from every possible perspective and every possible angle, before you realize the mystery will never be resolved.


“You look at the size of the shoot interview niche. It’s not even the wrestling fan. It’s the wrestling fan that’s interested in the business of wrestling. Then it’s the wrestling fan that’s interested in the business of wrestling enough to listen to someone talk about it for three hours. With no stars, and no matches,” Oliver says. “There’s a handful of them, but they’re so passionate. If you win their heart, they’re yours. Everyone of them, they’ll come back. The first taste is free.”

Twelve years in, Oliver has earned some mystique of his own. After interviewing every name on the circuit, he’s become something of a pro wrestling celebrity. Last year, he published a book called The Business of Kayfabe, in which he detailed the backstage finagling required to book shoots. Its existence speaks to the depth of mark curiosity: now they can read a book dedicated to exposing the industry secrets of an industry built for exposing secrets.


Oliver can’t help but wonder how long this can all go on, though. Shoot interviews were a necessity when wrestling was built on fooling a crowd; it was thrilling, he says, when a performer was willing to shirk the rulebook to bring fans as close to reality as possible. But that’s not how the wrestling business works anymore. Some of the biggest names in wrestling—Stone Cold Steve Austin, Edge and Christian, Jim Ross—all have podcasts where they trample over kayfabe every week. Daniel Bryan, Mick Foley, and Bret Hart are each published authors who have taken full ownership of their own stories. The WWE Network itself hosts native, documentary-style serials where trainees learn how to bump, sell, and cut promos. Just last month, the man formerly known as Dean Ambrose joined Chris Jericho on his podcast, to detail the year-plus of creative frustration that motivated him to quit WWE. Oliver used to pride himself in doing the dirty work of excavating honesty, but now the people he used to interview are competing on the same corner.

He still holds onto some advantages. Kayfabe Commentaries is an independent entity, so Oliver can broach subjects that the headquarters would prefer to stay forgotten. Chris Benoit is a frequent subject, as is the more predictable scuzziness of the business—backstage bullies, lasciviousness, racism, anything that the network wouldn’t air itself, really. Oliver, of course, is sanguine about the dirt. It’s what keeps him in business. “Any documentary about our republic can’t omit slavery or the Civil War,” he argues. “You can’t just go, ‘We didn’t like that! So we’re not going to talk about it.’”

The difference is that now professional wrestlers are far more willing to straddle the line that divides themselves from their character. Some of the biggest stars in the WWE keep their real name preserved on their social media handle. John Cena spoke candidly about his desire to turn heel while on a press tour for Bumblebee. Big E, one of the most prominent black wrestlers in the company, happily volunteered his discomfort on Twitter when bigoted forum posts by newcomer Lars Sullivan resurfaced shortly after he started appearing on television. There is a liberty among the performers today that does not gel with the traditional framework of a shoot interview. Oliver asks questions for a living, but now he feels like he already knows all the answers.


“The DNA of these guys… they don’t understand the value of having secrets. They don’t have to anymore. They can go on The Tonight Show, and be themselves, and talk about whatever stuff they want to talk about, and then tomorrow night they’ll sneer at the fans and pretend they hate them,” he says. “I’m not saying they have to kayfabe the world anymore. I’m just saying the DNA of wrestlers today is not the same of the wrestlers that came before.”

There’s an obvious irony in the way Oliver has arrived at a place where he is now wondering about the long-term viability of his business. The industry-wide unclenching that allowed him to start revealing secrets in the first place has continued at a pace that threatens to leave him behind. Oliver started Kayfabe Commentaries because he wanted to cut through the artifice and get to the bottom of an industry he loved. He accomplished that, but in the process gave the wrestling industry the lessons it needed to eventually make someone like Oliver obsolete. The shoot industry chipped away at the WWE until it was remade in its own image, and Oliver didn’t see the ramifications coming until it was too late. For the record, he blames himself.


“I wanted nothing more when I was 12 than to hijack a car and drive to the Meadowlands to see every show that came through … That’s the most ironic twist. I can’t care about the product today because it doesn’t resemble what it once was. I know too much,” he says. “And I’m part of the thing that killed it.”