The Fever Dream That Was the First Six Weeks of WWF Shotgun Saturday Night

To most wrestling fans who would recognize it, Shotgun Saturday Night signifies the domestic version of the WWF’s first-run syndicated show that aired from 1997 to 1999. If you didn’t know it by that name, you may have seen it as Shotgun Challenge, Shotgun, WWF New York, 11 Alive, or, at different times, both the USA Network and internationally syndicated versions of WWF Superstars. But that’s not how it started: For six glorious weeks (plus one clip show in week seven) at the start, of 1997, it was a wholly original show that was broadcast live or on a one hour tape delay. (It started with clearances in just 16 media markets, though, so if you were a fan at the time and a lot of this stuff sounds new to you, that’s why, along with a lot of the more esoteric stuff not being recapped on USA Network shows.)

Originating from, on most weeks, various New York City night spots, it was a bizarre experiment that felt like Vince McMahon attempting to figure out how to present an edgier, ECW-inspired version of his vision of pro wrestling. And then, 25 years ago last month—the show went on a bizarre death spiral on February 8, February 15, and February 22, 1997 that I’ll explain later—it was gone just as suddenly as it had arrived.

What the hell happened, then?

The 1996-1997 television season was a period of upheaval for what was then the World Wrestling Federation. Longtime flagship syndicated series WWF Superstars was moved to USA Network, replacing WWF Action Zone on Sunday mornings. WWF Mania, the kid-friendly anchor of USA’s Saturday morning lineup, was replaced by WWF Livewire, a call-in show. WWF Monday Night Raw on USA was moved to a new time slot that started 63 minutes earlier to try to get a jump on WCW Monday Nitro. Domestic syndication was dramatically cut back on, with the WWF dropping any deals where they paid a station for airtime, leaving them with 120 stations that would carry a retooled, recaps-only version of Wrestling Challenge.

Oh, and Vince McMahon strongly considered doing weekly Saturday night pay-per-view events for $9.95 each.

According to the reporting of Dave Meltzer and Wade Keller at the time in their respective Wrestling Observer and Pro Wrestling Torch newsletters, the idea was basically what Shotgun would launch as…just for $10. A live, weekly, late night show emanating from New York City that was more adult-oriented than the other WWE fare. (Or, as one source told Meltzer, “more raw than Raw.”) Within a few weeks, though, the idea was dead.

“The WWF wants to improve its adult demographics (they are still stronger with kids than WCW, but weaker than WCW in the adult category) and saw weekly, late-night, hardcore pay-per-views as the answer,” wrote Keller in the August 31, 1996 edition of the Torch. “Since they thus far been given blank looks in return from cable companies, their strategy will have to shift elsewhere for now.” Naturally, “elsewhere” meant broadcast syndication, with Rich Brown breaking the story to the wider media world three months later in the December 2 issue of Broadcasting & Cable.

Shotgun Saturday Night Steve Austin Terry Funk

“The weekly hour, tentatively titled Shotgun Saturday Night, will air live from various New York City nightclubs,” wrote Brown. “One of the ways in which WWF officials hope to differentiate the show from the growing lineup of wrestling shows is through the possible addition of female combatants. Current plans call for the show to debut from the China Club on Jan. 4.” To hardcore fans, that tentative venue raised some eyebrows because the China Club was best-known in wrestling circles as being Paul Heyman’s favorite hangout. Sure enough, in the December 7 Torch, Keller reported that Heyman had helped Vince McMahon go location scouting at the club, but that would end up being the extent of Heyman’s involvement.

What showed up on January 4, 1997 started out more or less how you’d expect Shotgun to look if you had heard the elevator pitch. Mr. Bob Backlund opened the show by ranting in the street in a futile attempt to warn viewers about the “decadence,” “sexual activities,” “violence,” and “crime” taking place inside The Mirage nightclub. Then the opening montage featuring various wrestlers out on the town was the typically first-class WWF production, and Sunny appearing as Vince McMahon’s color commentator at the end of the intro was refreshing to hear in an era with so little female representation.

Then the show started.

Problem #1: The Mirage was too small and too dark to work as a TV venue, to the point that the bulk of the show looked like bad indie wrestling—and bad 1997 indie wrestling at that—from a production point of view. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, at the time, NCW in North Carolina, despite a shoestring budget, was doing a much better job when it came to achieving Shotgun’s intended aesthetic. (NCW would eventually move to Georgia and merge with the local NWA member promotion to form NWA Wildside, the promotion best-known for launching the careers of A.J. Styles, Jimmy Rave, Sal Rinauro, and many others.)

Problem #2: Vince’s idea of “edgy” was all over the place, starting with the opener. The Godwinns took on the debuting Flying Nuns/Sisters of Love, Sister Angelica and Mother Smucker, with manager Brother Love. The alleged nuns were The Headbangers in terrible costumes and…that was pretty much the extent of the “joke.”

It was gonna be a long hour.

The show ended up having a few bright spots, most famously Ahmed Johnson giving D-Lo Brown a Tiger Driver on top of a car. It also featured “comedy” like Mini Vader being forced to travel from Mexico to New York by bus without bathroom breaks and Todd Pettingill singing a terrible “parody” of Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” inspired by Mascarita Sagrada Jr. Oh, and Sunny announced that she’d she’d be screening a sex tape starring herself the following week.

More Professional Wrestling

Week two solved the production issues for the rest of the run of the original concept of Shotgun with a show at the All-Star Cafe. That wasn’t the only fix, either, as The Flying Nuns were “arrested” and replaced by, you guessed it, The Headbangers. But we still had the “sex tape” to deal with, and that turned out to be a skit where Sunny’s partner was revealed as Fondle Me Elmo, a play on the Tickle Me Elmo dolls that took the 1996 Christmas toy shopping season by storm. (Elmo was portrayed my Pettingill, who happened to either own or have easy access to an adult-sized Elmo suit.) Oh, and they announced that Goldust would be giving birth the following week, something that was never alluded to again.

Shotgun Saturday Night Sunny Elmo sex tape

Week three took the show to San Antonio for Royal Rumble weekend and was easily the best episode to date. The wacky comedy was kept a bare minimum, the in-ring action was solid, and there was a fantastic segment with Steve Austin confronting Terry Funk that stole the show. Week four, back in New York at Webster Hall, was similarly improved, highlighted by the only televised singles match between Bret Hart and Mick Foley, as well as an array of guest color commentators. It needed work, but Shotgun Saturday Night was coming together, with week five continuing the run of solid shows with the return to The Mirage. It was difficult to make that venue look like it’s hosting a WWE production, but this time, they at least tried, with new lighting equipment brought in and changes to the camera angles used. Mick Foley stole that episode as Mankind, guesting on commentary and wrestling Davey Boy Smith.

Putting the Gun Back on the Rack

If you’ve been paying attention, you’re probably realizing now that we’re about to get into the last live show, which was a study in contrasts. On one hand, it was held at the most distinct and unconventional location to date, Penn Station, the world famous transit hub that sits underneath Madison Square Garden. (Specifically, for New Yorkers who are curious, it was in the Amtrak concourse on the upper level by the entrances/exits at 33rd Street and 8th Avenue.) If you weren’t watching the early Shotgun episodes as they aired and have seen anything from them, it’s probably taken from this show, as it features the most famous moment from the nightlife-themed experiment: The Undertaker giving Triple H the tombstone piledriver at the top of an escalator.

On the other hand, this was, overall, the weakest episode since the the second, and, realistically, it was probably less watchable overall. The matches were slogs to get through, the creative spark that made the show fun even when it was bad previously wasn’t there outside of the escalator spot, and there was an ominous feeling throughout that only got worse when they went off the air, as nothing was said about a venue for week seven. That’s because week seven was, as host Todd Pettingill said  without any explanation or a hint of irony after just six shows, “a look back at some of the greatest moments in Shotgun history.” Week eight was the switch to airing the same matches as Superstars, and that was it.

Realistically, the original format for Shotgun Saturday Night was never going to work. Even leaving aside the show’s creative issues, it was a live, late night weekend show that, on most weeks, required the WWF to take notable wrestlers off of weekend house shows so they could be in New York City for TV.  It was an unneeded expense, especially for something so weird and experimental. If they had gotten a cable network to pay them for it, that would be one thing. But in barter syndication, where they were effectively giving the show away in exchange for selling some of the commercial slots themselves, it was little more than a big gamble.

Even if it didn’t involve Tammy Sytch having sex with Elmo, that is. But it did.