We’ve had reality TV since the 1950’s, but the mid-nineties saw a shift towards celebrating the people you’d move away from at a party. The cast of MTV’s Real World got progressively less sober, sluttier, and more self-involved. People had always admired the status of people on television, but now they were jealous of people who appeared mentally troubled and didn’t seem capable of contributing to society. Most of them were proudly anti-intellectual. Soon we had the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo and it was all over.
This shift towards enlisting, some would say exploiting, some of the least mentally capable people in society for low brow entertainment purposes might best be incapsulated in a series of appearances made by World Championship Wrestling’s Razor Ramon in the late 90’s. His persona was that of a swarthy Cuban guy directly ripped off from the character of Tony Montana in Scarface. In fact one of his trademark phrases was “Say hello to the bad guy,” which was a direct rip-off of Montana’s “Say hello to my little friend.” Ramon’s elbow pads, knee pads, and trunks were all stamped with very poor clip art images of razor blades, most likely a reference to how people use razor blades to chop up cocaine.
It became increasingly obvious that the guy who played Razor Ramon, real name the decidedly less cool Scott Hall, was developing a pretty serious alcohol and drug problem. In a series of nationally televised wrestling events airing over the course of a few weeks, Hall was seen noticeably stumbling around and unable to form basic sentences. Giving a guy with a history of drug abuse and a ton of demons to boot the persona of a notorious coke head and drug dealer may have been, in retrospect, a bad idea.
It is unclear if the WCW attempted to get Hall any treatment. What is clear is that at some point the higher ups decided to make Scott Hall’s substance abuse problem Razor Ramon’s problem by proxy. They literally wrote it into the show as a plot line. Soon, an authentically wasted Razor Ramon was stumbling around the set holding a red Solo cup and making a total ass of himself. At one point, he puked outside the ring during a match. At another point, as part of a loosely constructed storyline, he keyed a limo outside of a nightclub. As it turned out, he was taking a few liberties by doing this and he was arrested for vandalism in real life. People found all of this positively hilarious. In my opinion, this was the beginning of the train wreck genre.
Around this time a similar situation played out in the rival WWF. A wrestler named Mark Hegstrand, who went by the name Road Warrior Hawk, also had his substance abuse problem incorporated as part of the storyline. Whereas Razor Ramon’s portrayal was that of the harmless if not sad goofy drunk, Hawk’s was quite a bit darker. He would show up to matches visibly intoxicated and began to exhibit suicidal behavior, whether real or acted out was impossible to know. The WWF then wrote Hawk’s suicide attempt into a Monday Night Raw broadcast:
“A suicidal Hawk climbed to the top of the TitanTron, the giant television monitor erected during episodes of WWF’s Monday Night Raw to show match highlights to fans in attendance. Puke, supposedly attempting to rescue Hawk, climbed after him, only to apparently throw Hawk over the side (with a special effect being used to make it appear as though fans could see Hegstrand’s body plunging a fatal distance behind the screen); Puke then revealed that he had been enabling Hawk’s drug addiction in order to kill him and take his place in the Legion of Doom.”
If you couldn’t tell by the introduction of a character named Puke, around this time pro wrestling became increasingly vulgar and trashy. Many segments featured guys getting balls rubbed in their faces. There was a ‘special needs’ wrestler named Eugene. As part of a storyline, Vince McMahon made a wrestler he was dating named Trish Stratus strip down to her underwear and bark like a dog. There were themes of incest, animal cruelty, and necrophilia. There was a newfound demand to humiliate people with serious problems for entertainment purposes. Clearly most if not all fans understood this was scripted, yet in certain cases things were very meta, and very real.
It’s unclear why culture started decaying so rapidly at this point in time, but certainly the changes in pro wrestling were reflective of a growing need for train wreck entertainment. There were many factors. The proliferation of cable TV and a need for cheap programming. The boundary pushing that came with the lax restrictions of cable. An increasingly fat and lazy population doomed to repeat the fall of Rome.
This was a tectonic shift, and there was no going back. Yet even Scott Hall couldn’t have seen where we were headed. Teen Mom. Sarah Palin. Caitlyn Jenner. Danny Bonaduce. Donald Trump. The list goes on and on. We should have known when we saw him acting wasted so convincingly that we were in store for something awful.
Maybe, right at that moment, we should have been concerned.