The 1/21/99 Episode of Thunder Was Kevin Nash’s Opus

Purported to be the only bit of WCW television written completely by Kevin Nash, it hints at his vision of wrestling.

Kevin Nash – Big Daddy Cool. Big Sexy. Auteur? From quoting popular films and television shows  on commentary, impersonating comedians and celebrities in front of the camera and using his and Scott Hall’s love of West Coast Hip Hop as an influence on the aesthetic and attitudes of the nWo, it is clear that Kevin Nash is a creative thinker who is comfortable utilizing his varied influences to shape the work he does on screen, when given the creative freedom to do so. And when a man known for being so well versed in popular culture is given sole creative control over a multi-million dollar television company, this influence and creativity is an important lens through which we can view his work, and assess how his creative vision shaped what ended up on screen.

More Professional Wrestling

In early 1999, in order to free up some of his own time to focus on other aspects of the business, WCW boss Eric Bischoff gave Kevin Nash, one of the top stars in WCW, the role of Head Booker. His tenure as the head writer of WCW television was incredibly short-lived however, almost instantly he was made part of a larger booking committee.

But for those of us who want to see what Nash’s undiluted version of WCW looked like, there is an obscure episode of WCW Thunder that’s just what you’re looking for. In an interview for Guy Evans’ excellent book Nitro, covering the Turner era of WCW Nash asserts that “I only got to write one show that was my show, that was the first Thunder that aired out of Indianapolis. That’s where the [nWo] ‘Black and White’ guys were talking shit, and we had set up a camera in their locker room. That was my show that I wrote from top to bottom. It was always a ‘booking committee’ [after that]” (Evans 308).

Searching through the episode dates for Thunder, we can deduce that the episode Nash is referring to here is the live Thunder from January 21st 1999, and looking at this episode in depth, we can get a glimpse at what the Big Sexy Era of WCW might have been like.

nWo B-Team

Watching the this episode of Thunder, the changes to the usual format and structure of the show are fairly subtle, but once you know what to look for, hints of Nash’s authorship shine through. The wrestling matches featured on this week’s Thunder play out as normal, but the show focusses a large part of its airtime on the nWo Black & White team, the ‘B-team’ to the nWo Wolfpac who had recently reunited with Hollywood Hogan’s nWo Hollywood  after the infamous Fingerpoke of Doom earlier that month.

Comprising of Stevie Ray, Brian Adams, Horace Hogan, Scott Norton and Vincent, we get numerous vignettes throughout Thunder of this team in their locker room, waiting for the nWo Wolfpac to show up, bickering about being overlooked by the Wolfpac, and in a hilarious (and kind of sweet) segment, Scott Norton getting fixated on practicing with Horace using the pair of walkie talkies he has brought so Horace can keep a look out for the Wolfpac’s limousine arriving.

Norton walkie talkie
WWE

Tony Schiavone on commentary introduces the first of these segments saying “Something’s going on, we’ve got cameras in the back!” as if there’s a fight breaking out, but we cut to the nWo just talking, with Stevie Ray expressing frustration at being part of the ‘B-team’. This sets up the main plot of the episode, as Vincent tries to ‘maintain unity’ within the nWo while the Wolfpac are absent, with the goal of scheming his way into taking control of the Black and White team and becoming a member of the Wolfpac.

Focusing on Unusual Suspects

This focusing on one small group of lesser wrestlers is a fantastic concept, especially for a B-tier show, giving performers lower down the card some more time in the spotlight while not crowding the main show up with less important stars. You wonder whether the formula could have been applied to other groups in WCW around this time, the LWO? Or Raven’s Flock, a little earlier? The possibilities are endless.

Speaking to Guy Evans for Nitro, Nash gives some of his thoughts on how he approached writing WCW TV. “My conception was always to shoot wrestling like The Larry Sanders Show. You shoot it with two cameras. Shoot backstage [stuff] the night before – soap-opera style – just like the [Sanders] show” (307).

This influence can be seen in the 01/21/99 episode of Thunder, with the nWo Black & White taking on the role of Garry Shandling’s Sanders, appearing in both the supposed ‘behind the scenes’ segments, commenting on events in the ring (the defacto “main show”), as well as in the in-ring segments themselves.

This episode doesn’t lean too heavily into the meta-textual implications of such a concept, but Nash says he had more plans for this approach to wrestling shows — “I wanted to do things where … two guys cut a promo [backstage], and then we say ‘OK, thanks guys’ … but then you go to a boom camera, two guys walk in and say, ‘yeah, we sat at the monitor, watching you run your mouth…’ I mean, I wanted to try and cross that… bullshit reality line there, from that standpoint too” (307-308).

The Single Episode Arc

These backstage segments also point to a subtle but impactful change in the structure of the show — instead of having distinct, separated vignettes, Nash has them run on into each other; one scene leading into the next.

For example when Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen arrive at the arena (in the Wolfpac’s limo, blind-siding an unsuspecting Horace who was waiting for them with his Scott Norton-mandated walkie talkie), Ric walks out of the parking area and we cut to the arena, to see him walking down the entrance ramp to the ring. It’s strange how such a minor change can have such a big impact on the pacing of the episode, the cuts between scenes feels far more natural and fluid, and make the show such an easy watch. Why in God’s name this change wasn’t kept on permanently I do not know.

Nash has one big surprise for us in his only solo helmed episode of WCW TV — the cameras that have been filming the nWo Black & White locker room, rather than being placed there by unseen WCW production staff as we’d assumed, we learn were in fact placed by nWo Wolfpac, to spy on the Black & White team while they were absent.

This is revealed in quite possibly the best scene in the episode, as Vincent, alone in the locker room, notices the hidden cameras filming him, and we cut from him leering big-facedly into a ceiling mounted camera to the same shot framed by a small TV screen in a limousine, being watched by Hall, Nash, Hogan and for some reason, Bagwell.

Wolfpac limo
WWE

This reveal that a viewpoint we’d assumed was non-diegetic as being in fact diegetic is an excellent twist, using the language and structures of television production to move a storyline forward again speaks to Nash’s confidence and literacy as a visual storyteller.

Surprisingly Generous

The final element of Nash’s sole outing as Head Booker was something I was very much not expecting; the Four Horsemen beat the nWo clean in the main event of this episode. Obviously this is just the nWo B-team, and we’re only on Thunder rather than Nitro or a pay per view, but for all the talk in wrestling fan circles of Nash as a selfish, egotistical performer with no interest in anyone but himself and his Kliq, this was a genuinely pleasant surprise.

Is the episode entirely successful then? In a word, no. But only really for one reason. As we’ve discussed, Nash’s concepts, his structuring, and his storytelling are all not only merely solid but engaging and interesting. However, he makes one fatal mistake: hanging this entire endeavor on Vincent’s shoulders.

Tasked with carrying an entire episode of WCW TV as the main character/protagonist, Vincent is just not up to the task, unfortunately. He cannot string more than a few phrases together when he needs to anchor entire segments and improvise dialogue on the fly, and ends up repeating the same three or four sentences over and over again, also stifling the other nWo members, who need to react to and bounce off him. His in-ring promo before the main event is no better, and the sight of him trying to look scheming and devious in the locker room beforehand as he reveals an nWo Wolfpac shirt is almost Brechtian in its oddness.

Let’s leave the final word for Nash himself. “I think the show was successful. I pushed people that needed to be pushed. I would like somebody to pull that show up, watch it and go ‘OK, well that’s a lot different to what was before and what followed'” (308). And if we grant Kevin Nash nothing else, we can certainly agree he was successful on these terms.