Christian Niedan’s History Storytellers — Part Twelve: The Interviewer

The final installment of a twelve part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of historians and history-infatuated filmmakers. The series concludes with a behind the scenes look at professional wrestling with an interview with author Sean Oliver…

by: Christian Niedan

A great interview tells a great story. Hearing a veteran interviewer skillfully prompt a storyteller into vividly recreating past experiences can be a transportive event. The resulting narrative can then shape the way we think of history — be it of a sport, or a performance industry, or a combination of both, like professional wrestling

During the internet era, videos of “shoot interviews,” with pro wrestlers (not using their in-ring personas) recalling captivating stories of their industry have flooded platforms like YouTube, and are enjoyed on smartphones and other screens by both wrestling enthusiasts and those just plain curious. But certain shoot interviewers have translated talking wrestling history into a lucrative business. Such is the case with Sean Oliver, co-owner of Kayfabe Commentaries.

In 2017, Oliver published the book, Kayfabe: Stories You’re Not Supposed to Hear From a Pro Wrestling Production Company OwnerIn 2019, he followed it up with The Business of Kayfabe: Turning Wrestlers’ Secrets Into a Million DollarsIn February, the paperback and Kindle edition was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Moreover, the “million dollars” of the book’s title continues to grow, thanks to KC Vault — a monthly subscription service that, for $14.99 provides unlimited streaming access to over 150 hours of Oliver’s interviews with a wide variety of wrestlers, bookers, and others. Subjects tell the history of their experiences within different wrestling promotions they’ve worked for, and these shoot interviews are then released to Kayfabe Commentaries customers via series imprints that include “Breaking Kayfabe,” “Guest Booker,” and three separate “Timeline: The History of” series for the WWE, WCW, and ECW.

I interviewed Oliver in 2014 for my film website, Camera In The Sun and discussed his productive discussions with great pro wrestling storytellers like Jim Cornette, Kevin Nash, and Bruno Sammartino, as well as wrestlers that he never got to interview — specifically, the late “Macho Man” Randy Savage. First, though, Oliver retold the origin story of Kayfabe Commentaries, which at the time of our interview was built around a DVD release format.

Sean Oliver: “My business partner and I came upon the concept of doing alternate audio commentaries for wrestling matches — akin to a DVD, where there’s an alternate audio commentary with the director, telling you how a shot was set up or the rehearsal process with an actor for a scene. We thought that if you bring the talent in, I would sit on headset with them, and have them go through all the matches we had seen historically for years and years. But here would be a new wrinkle, because the talent would be walking you through it. Now of course we couldn’t sell the video of the matches. We didn’t own the license to the video. But we were selling the downloadable MP3s of alternate commentaries for wrestling matches — an idea which I still think can see its day. I think it would be interesting to sit with a headset on, watch Game 7 of the 1987 NBA Finals, and listen to Larry Bird tell you about the game as you watch it. So you put the match on, you put your iPod on, and you listen to our commentary track with your TV muted. That was the pitch. Kind of a high concept. So it was a little slow for people to adapt. But the wrestling fans that liked it, really enjoyed the inside track that they were getting. So that was the gold that we struck, but realized that it had to be repackaged as something a little simpler. Something less of a process than downloading this, putting it on your iPod, muting your TV, finding the match. So that’s when we veered off into video, and decided to produce exclusively video content from that point on. But that was the genesis of it: downloadable commentary tracks.”

Among the standout storytellers that Oliver has built video releases around is pro wrestling manager and booker, Jim Cornette.

Oliver: “Jim was somebody that was always shoot interview gold, because of his honesty first of all. But also, he’s just one of those guys that’s entertaining to listen to. He’s got a flair for language, so people enjoy hearing his take on stuff. He’s able to convey ideas in an entertaining way. So that’s the base: entertaining to watch. Many of the guys we get, that haven’t been seen many other places, people are surprised by. I say, ‘Why?’ And they say, ‘He wasn’t a big name at the time, but I really enjoyed watching him talk, about blah blah blah.’ Very important for us to balance, and to remember before we book talent, the size of the name and the ability for them to be entertaining for two hours — not always hand-in-hand. So, Corny’s one of those guys that you listen to read the phone book, and there’d be something entertaining about it. He’s able to get his ideas across in a very unique way, to say the least. You know, our stuff is very highly-formatted, and Jim’s one of the very few people in the business that can do a lot of our programming. He was a booker, so he can do Guest Booker, which only features people who have booked in major federations. He was in the office, involved in creative in the WWE, so he can do Timeline and talk about all the events of 1997. He was creatively involved, and a mainstay on television in WCW, so he qualifies to do Timeline: The History of WCW. He’s a very interesting character, so we featured him on Ring Roasts, and did a comedic tribute to him. Corny can do almost all of our shows. Not many people can. [Kevin] Nash is somebody who can also. So that’s why he pops up. Also, the requisite for anyone who’s gonna be a guest on YouShoot is they’ve gotta be a bit of a lightning rod to elicit a lot of fan reaction. That’s a show where the interviews are conducted entirely by the fans through their submitted email questions and videos. So, you want someone who’s going to get us a few hundred videos and emails for us to sift through and put together an entertaining show. Cornette fills that bill too. So, Cornette is kind of the quintessential guest for us, because he can touch so much of our programming.”

Kayfabe Commentaries has also built releases around a man long despised by Cornette for what he sees as a negative impact on pro wrestling: Vince Russo. I asked Oliver why Russo was apparently disliked by many wrestling industry vets, even years removed from the height of his industry relevance during a notorious run as head writer for the WWF (now, WWE) during the “Monday Night Wars” of the 1990s, followed by writing stints for WCW and TNA in the 2000s.

Oliver: “[Russo] is the designated bad guy. I think he takes a lot of heat for things that probably weren’t even his responsibility — more of a viewership move. You look at the popular programming among young people in the ’90s, and it was stuff like The Real World on MTV. It was that element of reality, that little bit of danger, and a little bit dirty. Just the way stuff was going. Vince is a student of pop culture, of film, and TV. So he just looked at what was going on in the other forms of media, and he added it to wrestling. Now, why would the wrestling purist hate that? Because the wrestling purist aligns themselves more with the sensibilities of the product they grew up on. The Harley Races, the Bruno Sammartinos, even the early Hogan stuff. Look, there was plenty of ridiculous stuff that we grew up on in the ’80s that we accepted, because we were kids. We grow up, and now we look back at it fondly. But goddamn it, if it was happening today, we’d want to string up the person that put the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling cartoon on CBS. We would look at that as heresy. But we look back with warm fuzzy memories, because we were kids. But if Vince Russo did it today, we’d wanna lynch him. So that’s what he did, and I think that’s why he gets a lot of the heat.

In his Timeline: The History of WCW, he was able to name names. Whereas in the past, he’d been a little more diplomatic, because I think he is done with wrestling. I think he’s admitted that he is done with wrestling. Even though you’d always hear that he’s done with wrestling, and then he’d have a book come out, and then another book come out, and then he’d do an interview here, an interview there. I think he just wanted a lot of it expunged — get it out of his system, and move on. He’s a business owner now. He owns some franchises out in Colorado, and he’s very much into doing that. He’s writing also, but not for wrestling. He’s writing some more legit entertainment stuff. I guess he wanted to kind of come clean a little bit, and name some names. Hey, it must be hard to have to sit there and read that much crap about yourself for fifteen years.”

That kind of unedited wrestling industry name-dropping wouldn’t necessarily appear in documentary interviews produced by the WWE, and made available on its own subscription streaming service, WWE Network. I asked Oliver what made Kayfabe Commentaries interviews different from those done by WWE.

Oliver: “We each have one advantage over each other. WWE has a very big advantage over us, because they can show footage of everything they’re talking about. They can show matches. They can show angles, interviews, because they own pretty much every library out there. Our advantage over them is that we can be honest. They can’t. They can’t from a liability standpoint, and because they would be dredging up a lot of stuff that they would really like to never see the light of day again. They can’t put unsanitized opinions out, because it’s commentary on their company. So I feel that we do operate in a state of grace. And no matter how much they attempt to emulate shoot programming, they always have to have a leg in the work. Because sometimes the truth is a dark dirty story, and they can’t go there. I understand why they can’t. But that’s their disadvantage. They’ve tried to emulate what they’ve seen in the shoot industry. They’ve emulated a lot of our material very blatantly. If they use that as inspiration, I guess that’s fine, provided there’s no trademark violation. But I know that we will always have that upper-hand. Because they can’t let their guard down, and let the stars say exactly what they want to.

Some [of those stars] come through with that ‘nothing to lose’ kind of attitude. But we’ve spoken to people who were under WWE Legends contracts when they worked with us. So we kind of run the gamut when we get people. The only people we can’t work with would be anybody who’s signed to a current WWE performance contract on television — part of their regular RAW or Smackdown roster. But outside of that, everybody’s pretty much fair game.”

The stories those wrestlers tell are deeply influenced by the American cultural era they took place within – and there was a seismic shift in U.S. pro wrestling culture during the 1990s. I asked Oliver for his take on how the resulting product mirrored the fan bases that the WWE, WCW, and ECW were playing to.

Oliver: “I don’t think it mirrored us as a people, as much as it did our tastes in popular culture. I think it was very closely tied to what we saw, and what we expected to see in all forms of entertainment. In the mid-’90s, with gangsta rap filling our headphones with ultra-violence — no double entendre in their message. It was very clear what was being stated. Movies that [Quentin] Tarantino was putting out, where the bad guys were the good guys. That was all ECW. And then, WWE takes its cue from [then-ECW owner, Paul Heyman] and we get the scratch logo and the ‘Attitude Era’, and bad guys are the good guys. We don’t have to make decisions to cultivate a heel or a babyface. The more nasty that someone is, the better. That culture of cool-to-be-bad that Tarantino was propagating, that was guys like [‘Stone Cold’ Steve] Austin, and guys that talked like that. We wanted to be bad like them. So I don’t think as a people we were changed societally.  But I think it was just a shadow of popular culture in music and in movies — what we cheer for, what we buy, what we think is cool off those shelves, we also do with wrestling. Just as today, there’s so much of an emphasis on special effects in movies, the amount of CGI that’s in almost any film is remarkable. And so, now you can’t have an opening of a wrestling TV show unless there’s 45 seconds of pyro and it looks like the arena’s exploding.”

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