What comedy and variety can learn from wrestling | Mat Ricardo's 1,300 words of reality

What comedy and variety can learn from wrestling

Mat Ricardo's 1,300 words of reality

Recently, I was watching some pro-wrestling. I love wrestling. Like circus, variety and street performing, its one of those things that people who never watch it, think is a fairly elementary art form enjoyed by those who know no better. 

Those who might call themselves fans, however, are fully aware that it is far more complicated and nuanced than it looks, and that if you take a glimpse beneath the surface, there is some pretty high level theatre going on. Also, it's hella fun.

Anyway, I was watching wrestling, and my current favourite wrestler, Sasha Banks – a compact and swaggering package of brightly coloured, badass violence - finally beat her long time rival, the villainous, entitled and cheating Charlotte, to win her first world championship belt. I watched this alone (imagine that), sitting in a hotel room in Germany, between shows, and, as Sasha held up the big gold belt, I actually clapped.

This ridiculous athletic soap opera was, to me, genuinely emotionally affecting, and I'm not the only one. That's why people watch it. Because they care. And I'm going to tell you how, and why, the techniques that make me care about professional wrestling can make any audience care, about anything.

After her win, they thrust a microphone to her face and she said that this moment had been her dream, ‘legit, since I was ten’. And we know that's true, because on YouTube she showed us her old school exercise books, scrawled with the names of her favourite wrestlers. She's written about how when her favourite – the great Eddie Guerrero – died, she stopped watching the shows because it was too painful. She has said that she only got back into it when she realised that getting in the ring was the only thing she could imagine herself doing. 

Her theme song, the music that plays as she sashays down to the ring, tells us ‘I had a dream that I made it here in the spotlight’, and the moment she gets given the belt is the moment that her dream comes true. Legit. 

Sasha won the belt in a match, the outcome of which was, of course, predetermined. So an argument could be made that she didn't actually win anything, but the reality is that the decision was made to have her win the belt because it was thought that she's the deserving person to hold the title. Her boss basically told her that she was the star of her division, and should have the biggest spotlight shined on her. If that's not winning, I don't know what is. 

And that's what wrestling does so well. It mixes together the scripted and the heartfelt, the choreographed and the improvised, the theatre and the real, and when an artform does this, something very special has the chance of happening.

It's certainly true for what I do. I've been stealing theatrical tricks from wrestling for years – from the magical ability to insult an audience and have them like it, to my poor versions of British wrestling legend Willam Regal's spectacular facial gurns (and in return, wrestlers have started stealing back from me – a compliment I'd never dream of complaining about), but finding the way to blend the sincere and the simulated – that's the key move.

When I juggle on stage, it's pro-wrestling. A real skill, wrapped in theatrical context, character, story, structure. But all the same, I'm still doing something difficult and perhaps dangerous, and if the audience see that reality that lies at its core, then the theatricality around it enhances things. If I make it look easy, that's cool, but it's cooler if I've made sure that people know how hard it is too.

I care about Sasha winning because I know what it means to her. The reality of her story has made me think she deserves to win. Likewise, if I do a trick, its just a trick. But if I let my audience know what inspired me to learn it, how long it took to perfect, how I went through crises of confidence about whether it would be worth the months of heartbreakingly dull practice, then when I finally do the trick, it means so much more. It carries weight. I've yanked the audience a little closer, so they feel a little more of what I feel.

Obviously this is something that's easier to pull off if you're working in a medium like mine, but the underlying principle works whatever you do. Look at someone like Dave Gorman – he's a master storyteller, a terrific wordsmith, and an immensely likeable chap, both onstage and off. His shows are wonderful, witty, charming and funny – and they'd succeed regardless, but the reality of their context makes them incredible. He tells us a succession of shaggy dog stories, yes, but as he does so, he provides evidence that everything he's telling us actually happened to him. And suddenly you're not just watching jokes, you're watching a part of someone's life. When something funny happens, it's all the funnier, because we know it actually happened. To him.

The old quote goes: ‘The secret to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made.’ But I think you've got to be careful with that. I mean, obviously, nobody really thought that Ronnie Corbett had done all the things he was telling us about while sat in that chair in the spotlight on TV, but I bet we've all seen comedians pepper a story with ‘I swear this happened’, when, every time they say it, we're more convinced it didn't.

Magicians are, sad to say, regular offenders here. One of the classic ways to perform a magic trick is to tell a story around it, it gives it structure, and gives the performer a chance to show a little, well, performance. 

I remember seeing one magician talk about how his grandfather showed him this trick, and continue to tell a story so riddled with obvious factual inaccuracies that I completely forgot about the trick, so entranced was I in the puzzle of ‘wait, if you were that old back then, but you're this age now, then you can't have been.. oh, and if that had really happened, you'd have died.. and if this happened the way you told it, then you couldn't have possibly…' - it was overly flowery garbage, that left half the audience with furrowed brows, grumpy and confused. Which isn't the ideal audience reaction for anything. Tell me how you actually learned the trick, or why you like it. Tell me about the real you. Be authentic. Show your work.

If you walk into an arena and just see two people wrestling, it's cool, but there's a degree of meh. But if you know why they're fighting, what it means to them, who they are, where they're from.. you start to care. It's true for everything. If you see me do my hat and cane routine, it's, sure, a juggling routine. But if you knew that it's the first routine I ever did where I didn't have the crutch of comedy, that it's a little tribute to Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, that it was one of the hardest things I ever learnt – not just because of the technical skill involved, but because I was trying to look cool, and that doesn't come easy to this shy, lonely, awkward nerd-boy, then perhaps its a more interesting watch. 

The point of all of this, above laughs and applause and lucrative corporate bookings, is communication, right? You show something authentic on stage, and in return, your audience will give you an authentic reaction back, and we'll all learn a little something about each other. 

Like wrestling, some parts of every show aren't as genuine as they might appear, but again, like wrestling, it's the performers’ job to make sure that the important parts are as real as they can damn well be.

Mat Ricardo is Chortle’s variety correspondent. His website is here and he tweets here.

Published: 29 Aug 2016

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