RIP Bobby "The Brain" Heenan

Bobby "The Brain" Heenan & Gorilla Monsoon, likely seconds before Monsoon yelled "Will you STOP?!" at Heenan.
Bobby "The Brain" Heenan was everything you ever hated in a villain... conniving, greedy, pompous, too sure of himself, and cowardly. But at the same time, you couldn't keep your eyes off of him, and waited with anticipation to hear his every excuse, insult, and cornball joke.

So yeah, he was amazing television. He was, without question, the greatest heel manager in professional wrestling history - this is not up for debate - and on the short list for greatest commentators, too, particularly when teamed up with Gorilla Monsoon. They played their parts well,  Monsoon always the babyface-supporting play-by-play guy and Heenan the quintessential heel color man, and their banter was epic... not a wasted line, every word advancing the narratives while also setting up and delivery the best bad jokes imaginable. Gorilla and the Brain weren't just a legendary announce team, but one of the great unheralded comedy duos of the 20th century, at least by my reckoning. Theirs was the sort of on-screen animosity that can only be fueled by a great offscreen friendship, and it was both wonderful and heartbreaking to watch Bobby say goodbye to Gorilla on episode of WCW Monday Nitro years later, and pay further tribute to him in his WWE Hall of Fame acceptance speech.

Prime Time Wrestling, the show that used to air on Monday nights on the USA Network, was a far cry from Raw - just Gorilla and Brain sitting in a studio introducing pre-taped matches recorded badly at house shows from around the country and often featuring guys you barely ever heard of - but on the whole was still a more satisfying watch than Raw is some weeks even now, and that's entirely because of Heenan and Monsoon. It was appointment television for me when I was a kid, and I would beg my mom to let me stay up to watch at all as often as I could get away with it.

A few years ago, I had the chance to meet Bobby Heenan in person at a New England Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame fan event. He had had a ton of health problems due to throat cancer and some related issues, and at that point most of his jaw had to be removed and he was unable to speak. It was sad, and such cruel irony that a man who made his living largely through talking (and at length) no longer could, but I couldn't pass up the chance to meet him.  I went up, happily paid for an autographed photo (I picked a picture of him and Gorilla to sign) and explained to him just how much I loved to hate him as a kid, how that eventually made me realize how big a fan I really was, and everything I said above about Prime Time, and I finished with a simple "thank you."  He couldn't speak, but... and I know this sounds cheesy as hell... I could see in his eyes that despite it all, he was clearly still The Brain through and through. We ended with a handshake... and let me tell you, for such an obviously infirm guy he still had a decent grip, too, which continues to prove that any wrestler you can name is way tougher than any so-called "real" athlete, sonny jim.

So once again, Brain, thank you for everything. You kept us humanoids entertained, even (probably because) you were the biggest weasel of all.

You'd have to be a real ham-&-egger not to acknowledge his genius, humanoid.

Literally Anyone Can Make Comics: Donuts are a harsh mistress. Tasty, but harsh.

They lure you in with their deliciousness, then strike hard.

Also, circles are really hard to draw freehand, you guys. We don't talk about that enough as a society.

Your hatred of pumpkin spice probably means you're kind of an asshole.

Four things typically signify the beginning of Autumn:
  1. Leaves changing color (assuming you live in an area where deciduous trees are common);
  2. The start of the new school year;
  3. Spirit Halloween Stores hermit crabbing their way into your local abandoned retail locations;
  4. Pumpkin spice-flavored products everywhere, heralded by the arrival of the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte and spiraling ever outward.
Everyone loves the leaves because pretty; parents are psyched about school, and though the kids grumble they're secretly happy, too, because they've been bored since August 1st; and Spirit is always a fun place to browse, though no one ever actually buys much until it goes on deep discount on November 1st.

Pumpkin spice, though... that one's divisive. Some folks have weirdly strong feelings about it, and look upon the Pumpkin Spice Phenomenon with the sort of fervor or ire usually reserved for discussions about religion or politics. Pumpkin spice inspires deep, abiding, vocal love and hate in equal measure.

(It is possible, of course, that you don't fall into either category and are blasé on the whole issue. If so, you're probably a normal enough human being with actual concerns in life. Good for you, buddy.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I fall on the cusp of the former group.  I can't claim to enjoy everything they add the chemically simulated pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg flavoring to each year, but I can promise you that I'm willing to try pretty much all of it at least once.  I figure that anything that tries to get the world to taste more like a pie - nature's most perfect food - is worth giving the benefit of the doubt.  Pumpkin beer, coffee, and cider are all amazing; pretty much any baked good can be pumpkined up; it even works well in candy (they've done M&Ms in regular pumpkin spice and pumpkin spice latte, and both were good).  Some folks may take it too far, but they're mostly harmless.

The haters, though... I don't get the haters.  I don't mean the people who simply dislike the flavor of pumpkin; that's an acquired taste, everyone's palate is different, we all have our things, blah blah blah.  I mean the ones to whom the very idea of pumpkin spice anything is an affront to their very way of life.  The ones who complain loudly to anyone who listen, the ones who make and post all the insulting memes, the ones who reduce all lovers of pumpkin spice anything to the stereotype of twenty-something women in scarves, Ugg boots, sweaters, and leggings who text constantly, Snapchat every second of their lives, and they love Fall but OMFG they can't even.

. . .

Okay, yeah, there actually are a lot of those and it's such a ubiquitous thing that even the brown M&M was dressed in a similar fashion on the packaging of the pumpkin spice late M&Ms a while back and it was such a flattering look on her that if I had been single I would have totally wanted to go on a coffee date with her and talk about books and our favorite bands.

"I loved 'All the Birds in the Sky,' too... I've read it twice in the past year!"
I'm possibly oversharing here. Anyway, the hate. 

I'm not sure where it comes from.  Seeing as the stereotype focuses so heavily on Millennial women, it's tempting to chalk it up to good ol' internet misogyny, and that's probably a contributing factor in certain sectors because it's 2017 and if there are things that people seem to hate on in this year of our lord Two-Thousand and Seventeen it's... well, it's a lot of things.  Quite a lot of things.  SOOOOOOOOO MANY GODDAMN THINGS IN CASE YOU SOMEHOW HAVEN'T NOTICED. But two of things on that long, sad list are women and Millennials, so yeah, it figures into the mix for some folks, but not for all.  I see the hate coming from a wide range of people from as many walks of American life as you can name.  I think it's deeper, more insidious, and far more basic than all of that.

We're at a point in societal history where the rise of so-called geek culture, where everyone is passionate about whatever it is they love and appreciate beyond all reason (remember, you don't need to be a geek to geek out anymore), has cross pollinated with the age old (but especially ramped-up in the early '00s) "you're either with us or against us" philosophy.

In other words, "I like this and if you don't like this and instead dare to like this other thing YOU ARE WRONG!  And even if we like the same thing and you don't like it in exactly the same way as I do YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG!"

(Yes, I get that some people are just doing this, no matter the situation, to be ballbusters, tease their friends and loved ones, etc.  My wife, for instance, gives me shit all the time about my love for pumpkin spice and hundreds of other things; I do the same in return, because emotionally we're still in the first grade and we metaphorically pull pig tails because we're in love, damn it.  But, you know, most of the others doing this are just assholes, man.)

This phenomenon is not limited to pumpkin snacks and beverages, of course.  You see it in sports, in comics, in movies, in TV... oh, man, especially TV.  I've had even close friends tell me, when I've informed them that I gave Breaking Bad a shot but it just wasn't my cuppa, "WELL OBVIOUSLY YOU WATCHED IT WRONG OR MAYBE WATCHED A WRONG EPISODE SO YOU NEED TO TRY IT AGAIN!"  And to be honest, I'm positive I've said similar things about Doctor Who to people over the years ("NO, YOU NEED TO IGNORE THE EFFECTS AND PAY ATTENTION TO THE WRITING!"), so I'm not claiming to be above anything here.

But I'm trying, you know?  Like what you like the way you want to like it, I say.  Sometimes I even practice what I preach.  Maybe it's Pollyanna of me to think that maybe everyone else could do the same across the board, but I'd like to believe it's possible.  We just need to start putting aside the squabbling and accepting our differences somewhere, so why not start somewhere small just as a testcase?  The pumpkin spice people get to enjoy their tasty Fall treats in peace, and in return they stop wishing that the bacon people get massive coronaries from all the salty pork strip goodness they purport to eat and won't stop talking about.

Also, not for nothing... all of the actual, serious, legitimately life- and world-threatening problems we have today and people are entering into a Klingon blood feud over gourd-flavored coffee?  This is why they hate us, you guys.

"I know, Brown, it's frustrating, Lets change the subject. Tell me about that Cibo Matto show you saw."

The problem with Bayley is that there is no problem with Bayley.

For the uninitiated, this is WWE Superstar Bayley:

Bayley hugs, high fives, rocks a side ponytail like few others, and is as positive an on-screen role-model as anyone could hope for.  Her NXT storyarc was one of professional wrestling's ultimate underdog stories: the starry-eyed fangirl who rises to the top to become a champion, earning the adulation (and adoration) of the crowd and respect of the peers who had earlier dismissed her. And she put on some damn good matches to earn all that, too (seriously, go watch her title match with Sasha Banks at NXT TakeOver Brooklyn in 2015; it stole the show and might be the single best wrestling match I've ever seen at an event I attended live).  Her eventual jump to the main WWE roster was inevitable, and before she ever came up the crowds during Raw and Smackdown shows would sometimes chant her name during other people's matches (which is as rude as it is admiring, but we'll get to the crowds in a bit).

Long story short, she did eventually get "promoted," debuted in dramatic fashion, got involved in some big storylines, and even got held the Raw Women's Championship for a time.

And then large portions of the crowds started booing her.

Not in our house, I should hasten to add. We're all big Bayley fans at Trusty Plinko Stick World Headquarters, ever since the wife and I got back into wrestling a few years ago and discovered NXT. We got to watch her entire character evolution take place, starting from the time she'd awkwardly follow the late, great Dusty Rhodes around up through each stage as she'd gain more skills and confidence until she deservedly started to get shots at the NXT Women's Title, even if she came up short. That final victory was the culmination of long game wrestling storytelling, and when the crowd at that Brooklyn chanted "YOU DESERVE IT!" at the end of that match with Banks, it was 100% sincere. She was given nothing but a chance, fought for every opportunity, and those efforts were rewarded.  Her subsequent title run followed suit, as both performer and the booking had to show that even with a title she was still the underdog, proving again and again that this wasn't a fluke, that she was a deserving champion.

So what happened? Why, after all of that success in NXT and the initial warm reception on Raw, have the crowds cooled?  I think there are a couple of reasons:

1. Bayley's rise to the NXT title gold happened organically over a period of several years as both her character-building and in-ring work grew and changed. Her path from Raw debut to the women's title happened over the span of just a few months. Back in the day, wrestling crowds were more accepting of the company mandated "This is your new hero!" type of booking (see also: Hulkamania), but in the past decade or so fans have been hesitant to do so and very vocal about it. The second anyone feels "shoved down their throats," like a John Cena, a Randy Orton, a Roman Reigns, a sizeable portion invariably turns on them, preferring to choose their own heroes, thank you very much. Of course, this has usually helped underdogs in the past, like Daniel Bryan or CM Punk, so it's weird to see Bayley get lumped in with the former group rather than the latter, but Bayley also moves a lot of merchandise for the company (adults may boo, but kids want those headbands and slap bracelets), so maybe it does make a bit of sense in a way; some people have a real problem with others' success.

2. NXT exists in a different environment than any other WWE show. Raw, Smackdown Live, and even 205Live are big arena shows that travel across the country (sometimes even the globe) every week. NXT travels a bit for house shows and, lately, for the quarterly TakeOver events, but for the most part in exists in one location: Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. Weekly shows aren't live and are taped several at a time (I think they'll do 3-4 episodes in a single night). Crowds are good-sized, but not arena big, and a good chunk of them are regulars that you'll see in the audience regularly if you pay attention to such things. Basically, NXT feels like a hybrid of the studio-based wrestling shows you'd see on local cable (or TBS) in the 80s mixed with one of the larger indie promotions of today, like Ring of Honor. There's more focus on wrestling than story; a smaller and more intimate feel; and a crowd that's not afraid to embrace some goofy gimmicks. As a result of all of this, not every huge success in NXT translates as well to Raw or Smackdown, particularly if their gimmick is, well, gimmicky. It's also worth keeping in mind that the crowd is largely made up of people who love and follow pro wrestling on almost every level, so they have an appreciation for things that won't fly for the people who only watch on Monday or Tuesday nights and will take the family to see a WWE show when it rolls into the town the same way they would with something like the circus or, I don't know, Monster Jam.

3. Finally - and this cannot be stressed enough - portions of modern WWE televised event crowds are usually pretty awful, seemingly more interested "participating in" (read: derailing) the show than enjoying it. Why these people are paying $40 and beyond for tickets to hate-watch a show I'll never understand. They'll chant other people's names in the middle of a match (usually CM Punk, but it could be anyone), they'll shout "BORING!," they'll throw beach balls around, and they'll boo the babyfaces and cheer the heels just to be ironic. And the bigger the babyface, the louder the boos. We're in a day and age where Hulk Hogan's cartoonish living superhero "train, say your prayers, eat your vitamins" persona isn't going to fly anymore (especially since the real-life man behind the Hulkster has repeatedly proven that even he doesn't walk that walk), I get that, but I have a huge problem with such deep-seated cynicism. The villains are fun, but you need a proper hero to define a villain (and vice versa). Without that, you just have a bunch of assholes running around purposelessly, doing whatever they want with no real reason or provocation. Kind of like the crowd, come to think of it.

(Not every WWE crowd - or wrestling crowd in general - is awful, mind you. If you want a great experience watching wrestling with like-minded fans who are genuinely into it, go see any non-televised house show you can. It will probably be a pretty good experience. It's all those people who are desperate to get on TV, particularly in larger cities already known for rowdy sports fans, that end up being the dicks and ruining it for everyone, especially the performers.)


Bayley is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury - a real one, one that sidelined her for SummerSlam, but such is the nature of professional wrestling that can we ever really be sure? - so she has been off TV for a few weeks. I think she's likely to come back much the same character as when she left - as I said, booed or not she still moves a lot of t-shirts and Vince McMahon goes where the money is - but there are some who hopes she gets tweaked or repackaged somehow. I think that would be a real shame, appeasement for the attention-seeking smarky parts of the audience who are more likely to boo her for the change than support the thing they claimed to want but never really did. Bayley's "kid sister" routine may not play well to the "Worst. Episode. Ever." people but she's over big with the kids in the audience, and those kids' parents as well.

What's so wrong with a role model, anyway? What's so funny 'bout high-fives, hugs, and headbands?