It seems like every week I see comments online portraying writers in wrestling as either the answer to all of a promotion’s problems or the cause of all their ills. Someone didn’t like the booking of an episode of Dynamite? Tony Khan needs to hire a team of scribes. WWE put out another bad episode of Raw? It’s got to be those damn Hollywood rejects, not the booker above them who is dictating everything they do.
I’ll let both sides in on a little secret. Writers are neither the problem nor the solution. For wrestling, writers are simply unnecessary.
In fact, the idea that a wrestling promotion needs a dedicated staff of writers is a relatively new invention, popularized by WWE. For most of wrestling’s history the creative process has been a booker and his wrestlers, with few to no middlemen. The booker decided the general direction of everything: they’re the one picking who wrestles who, who feuds with who, who wins and loses, and what segments take place at every show. The wrestlers, meanwhile, would take those broad strokes and fill in all the details.
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A wrestler might be told bullet points of a promo, such as “You have five minutes, I want you to reveal that you turned on your partner last week because you were jealous he got a singles title shot before you, make sure to sell that you have a match together at the PPV in three weeks”. The wrestler then would accomplish those very general goals in whatever way they saw fit. In a sense, wrestling never needed writers because in wrestling, everyone was a writer.
All of wrestling’s problems that I see people say require writers to solve have long had solutions that don’t require any. There’s a talented wrestler who can’t cut a promo to save his life? He doesn’t need a script, he needs a manager to talk for him. Too many matches on the same show have the same finish? A storyline doesn’t have continuity week to week? Those are arguments for an editor, not a writer, which is a role road agents often serve. A storyline is just flat-out bad? That’s an argument for better bookers and wrestlers to create them, not some extra layer of creative to be hired and stuck between the two.
So if wrestling doesn’t need writers, why has WWE, the largest and most successful wrestling promotion of all time, employed a staff of them for decades?
Well to start, Vince McMahon has always had a large dose of self-hatred for his profession. He has a long history of trying (and almost always failing) to succeed in projects outside of wrestling. He has spent most of his career trying to brand his product as anything but what it is. Wrestlers aren’t wrestlers, they’re “Superstars”, wrestling isn’t wrestling, it’s “Sports Entertainment”. What better way for Vince to emulate the entertainment world he so desperately envies than to hire a writer’s room of his own, even if it’s not necessary?
There’s another, much more significant reason WWE has so heavily leaned into writing staffs. While in his heart Vince may want WWE to be movies and TV, to be scripted Hollywood entertainment, deep down what he really wants it to be is fast food. Writers are a major, important step in WWE’s quest to become McDonald’s.
One of the biggest keys to the rise of McDonald’s (and fast food as a whole) is that they were able to take one complicated job and turn it into a bunch of simple jobs.
Think of your local hole-in-the-wall family restaurant. Likely they employ just one or two cooks. Each of those people have to know every recipe by heart, along with how to use all the various pieces of equipment required to make them. Every local restaurant is different, so they also have to know all the little idiosyncrasies. Your local cook knows the grill has a hot spot in the back right corner, he knows that sometimes the fridge stops working until you give it two hard thumps on its side, and so on. What all of this adds up to is a cook in one of these places becomes hard to quickly, seamlessly replace. It would take weeks to get someone else up to speed, and in the meantime the quality would suffer.
Fast food changed all of that by breaking down the role of a chef into a bunch of separate, simple stations. One person just handles the deep fryer, one person just handles the grill, one person just takes orders and makes the drinks, etc. Machines were designed to be easy to learn. Menus were cut down in size and simplified. The end result is that rather than a restaurant relying on one person holding a complicated, involved job, they now rely on a bunch of people holding down a variety of idiot-proof ones.
The benefits are obvious. If the job is easy to learn and easy to do, then it’s easy to replace, which means the people doing it have very little bargaining power. There’s little stress if they decide to leave, and little change in the final product when they’re replaced. A quality restaurant is staffed by people who spent years learning their trades, command decent salaries, and who are difficult to find. A fast-food joint is staffed by a revolving door of teens earning minimum wage that just learned how to do it two weeks ago.
For WWE, writers are a big part of compartmentalizing wrestling like fast food.
Think about it. If you’re a huge star, say, Steve Austin, and you had a big hand in creating your own character and write the majority of all your great promos on your own and even produce some of your own storyline ideas, you become pretty hard to replace.
On the other hand, if you’re a wrestler and a team of writers came up with your character, script every word of your promos and dictate every beat of every story you do, all of a sudden you’re not so special.
If Steve Austin makes Steve Austin, Steve Austin is a unique and valuable commodity who has a lot of bargaining power. If a team of writers make Steve Austin, a promotion would argue the same team of writers could make another Steve Austin, and if that’s the case, you’re not that special, and if you’re not that special, you’re not that valuable.
If you don’t believe in this line of logic, listen to Andrew Zarian, who on The Mat Men podcast recently gave WWE’s line of thinking on the possible loss of one of their biggest stars, Sasha Banks:
In their minds, they could clone Sasha with somebody else and have her fit that role, and no problem. It’s now a role you’re playing. It’s a role with mid-level actors. Everybody’s a mid-level actor, except for a Roman Reigns, or a Brock Lesnar, or a Cody Rhodes. Those guys are the stars.
Don’t want to believe that Zarian is plugged in? That’s fine too. All you need to look at is WWE’s actual history. From multiple Doinks, to Demolition Crush replacing Demolition Ax, to the “New” Razor Ramon and Diesel replacing Hall and Nash, WWE has spent decades trying to create a world where the gimmicks are king and the talent are just interchangeably filling the roles. By giving a team of writers so much responsibility, Vince is just getting closer to finally achieving a goal that he has always had.
At this point you might be thinking that this just shifts the problem, rather than eliminate it. After all, if the writers are now creating the wrestlers, don’t the writers become more valuable, like the wrestlers used to be? But remember that writers are a lot easier to come by than wrestlers, and are therefore more replaceable than them, not less, and WWE treats them as such. How many horror stories have we heard about working as a WWE writer? How many of them have had short tenures and left riddled with burnout and tales of good ideas ignored?
In fact, it’s been said for quite a while now that, when hiring writers, WWE sees prior knowledge of wrestling as a negative, not a positive. I’ve heard people in the company advise friends who want to get a job on WWE’s writer staff (after trying to talk them out of it) to actually lie and cover-up that they’ve ever been fans at all. Last year, a freshly hired WWE writer mentioned on a podcast that she wasn’t even sure of then-world champ Bobby Lashley’s name. She was swarmed with abuse for that admission but let’s be honest here, that lack of prior knowledge is what WWE is often searching for, and was likely part of why she got the job.
Why is that? For the same reason writers are being used in the first place: to make employees replaceable.
Next in Line, Literally
It’s the same reason why WWE’s new development strategy is to avoid hiring talented indie stars and instead on training raw athletes from scratch. Every part of WWE is being made to be something that a wide variety of people can quickly learn to do.
WWE’s dream is being able to take any former football player or college wrestler (who can be easily replaced), and have them learn to be a pro wrestler after a couple years working with WWE’s own trainers (who can be easily replaced), before turning them into stars by having road agents (who can easily be replaced) script their matches while writers (who can easily be replaced) create their characters and promos.
It’s the McDonald’s model, a world where anyone can learn to do any of the jobs, which keeps labor’s power low, which keeps costs and headaches low.
None of this to say that writers can’t come up with good ideas. They can and some have. Some say that one of my favorite periods of WWE ever, the first half was 2000, was a success in part due to a writer named Chris Kreski, who went so far as to storyboard storylines to help them flow and make sense.
But here’s the thing: most of my other favorite periods of wrestling didn’t need a team of writers. It’s not that it’s impossible to have a good promotion using writers, it’s that it’s not necessary if you’ve got a good booker and roster.
I don’t blame writers for the WWE’s ills. At the end of the day the booker sets the writer’s direction and has final approval over their ideas. If a writer comes up with a bad idea, it’s on the booker for using it rather than rejecting it. In fact, writers have come forward and said WWE basically trains them to come up with the ideas Vince will like best, rather than ideas they personally believe are best. Sometimes those are one and the same, but often they’re not.
There is one place where writers do make wrestling worse, and it goes back once again to that place Vince longs to be, Hollywood.
Turned Up to 11
Movies and TV all work off writer’s scripts, but actors and directors know the best performances come from making things as close to reality as possible so actors have to pretend as little as possible. How often have you heard people boast that something was filmed at the actual location it’s set in? Or that they used less CGI and more physical props that the actors could see and react to? Or that the actors went full method and learned a lot of the skills their character is supposed to know? Hell, how many times have you heard wrestlers say the best characters are themselves turned to eleven?
Wrestling is fake, movies are fake, TV is fake. You have to be good at pretending. But the less you have to pretend, the better the performances generally are. When you’re a wrestler, if you invented your character, you probably understand it better than if it was just given to you, you’re probably more passionate about it too. With promos, it is much easier to be in the moment when you’re not working to recite a script from memory. This is a point made perfectly by Mick Foley in his first book, Have A Nice Day:
I had an interview scheduled for the middle of the show. Dusty wanted to talk to me about it. Again he was uncharacteristically lowkey. “Cactus, when you give this interview, I don’t want you to think beforehand about anything you’re going to say. This is an emotional night — I want the fans to feel your emotion.” This was a valuable piece of advice, and with the knowledge that Dusty Rhodes was one of the great promo men in the business, I took it to heart. As good as many of my promos were, I had the habit of walking around backstage before interviews, practicing what I was going to say. That night from Center Stage, I spoke right from the heart. I honestly can’t remember what I said, but that night, as is true in most cases, it’s not as much what you say that’s important, but how it’s said. I’ll always be thankful to the Dream for that small piece of advice, advice that would make my later ECW interviews so memorable.
Foley and Dusty are not the only two people that feel that way. CM Punk mentioned how on his comeback promo to AEW he didn’t plot out what he was going to say, he wanted to feel the emotion of the fans and react to it in the moment. No matter how great a writer you employ, no matter how good the script is, could it possibly be worth losing that visceral emotion? Foley, Rhodes, and Punk are three of the greatest promo men in history, do you honestly think they would’ve been any better with a staff of a dozen or more people giving them monologues to read off?
One of the magic parts of wrestling is it’s one of the few forms of entertainment where fans and performers interact and feed off of each other during the performance. The wrestlers throw out ideas during their matches and promos and the fans, based on their reactions, tell the wrestlers what they want more and less of. It’s a simple, beautiful dance, and it’s all built on the idea that the wrestlers have some agency over what they do. How can a wrestler truly be in the moment, or adjust to fan reaction on the fly, if every word of their promo has already been written, or if every move of their matches has already been plotted? They have no control in those cases, they’re passengers to their own careers.
I love writers. I love books and TV and video games. Look, I’m writing right now. But wrestling is special. When wrestling is done well, all the best things a good writer could add to it are already provided by the talent, and to add them to the mix creates an unnecessary layer between the wrestlers and the fans, and their own emotions. It reduces them to people mechanically making someone else’s recipe rather than the chefs they are. If there’s a promotion you feel is creating boring characters and non-sensical storylines, feel free to complain, just know that the solution is better bookers and more talented wrestlers, not a dozen people like me typing on laptops.