CM Punk – The Pipe Bomb
Today, honouring the website's maxim of "high brow, low brow, ignore all that stuff in the middle", we're looking at the underappreciated art of the wrestling promo. If you haven't a clue as to what a wrestling promo is, no worries. I'm going to define a few conventions while pointing out how CM Punk subverts and reinvents them with the legendary Pipe Bomb promo.
A wrestling promo is a speech or staged conversation that furthers a wrestling storyline. Without storylines, a wrestling match is simply a spectacle of athleticism.
The story is simple. We have the good guy, the face and champion of the WWE, John Cena. CM Punk, the villain, is set to challenge Cena for the title at the next Pay-Per-View and has just interfered in one of Cena's matches. Typical baddie tactics. But things swerve dramatically from our expectations as Punk takes a seat and delivers his promo.
Wrestlers should emphasise qualities of strength and masculinity in their promos, bad guys ( or heels) can display characteristics of hypocrisy and cowardice, but should do so without compromising those traditional masculine characteristics.
Even those that don't know much about wrestling have an image of the wrestler stood tall opposite the interviewer, flexing their guns and bellowing into the microphone.
Contrast this with Punk, sat cross-legged at a platform opposite the ring. His voice is casual and conversational. His posture is passive. This is more like a Berkeley campus protest than a war boast. His figure resembles that of a typical, health conscious man rather than the tanned, baby-oiled musclemen that embodied the WWE look.
An adherent of straight-edge in real life, Punk turned this into a villainous gimmick, lecturing audiences about their unhealthy lifestyles. This ended up being an advantage as the WWE cut down on steroid and painkiller use after a series of shocking early deaths from active and retired wrestlers.
The story being serviced by the promo should be a simple one of good vs bad.
We all have an internal image of the good guy or bad guy wrestling promo. On one side there's Hulk Hogan flexing his pythons while telling the kids to say their prayers and drink their milk. On the other side there's the Million Dollar Man, talking about how his money makes him better than everyone else as he talks down to his personal valet and bodyguard. The first thing that will become apparent is a mutual loathing that can only be resolved with a big boot, a leg drop and a 1-2-3.
Compare this to the first words addressed by Punk to Cena:
I don’t hate you, John. I don’t even dislike you. I do like you. I like you a hell of a lot more than I like most people in the back.
No reference should be made to backstage goings on, this should purely concentrate on the story. The illusion must be sustained.
For the rest of the Pipe Bomb promo, Punk goes on to defy a number of items from the WWE form book. He refers to himself as the best wrestler in the world, drawing out his pronunciation of wrestler. What is significant about this is that for many years, WWE had been shying away from the word wrestling and its derivatives. Talents were superstars or divas, depending on gender. The product was described as Sports Entertainment.
He also mentions names from backstage, many of whom have not featured in storylines such as the talent relations executive, John Laurinaitis. He also mentions Hulk Hogan, albeit in a derogatory sense, who was also not being referenced by talents as he was currently working for a rival company. He ponders aloud as to whether he should quit and join Ring of Honor or New Japan, companies never mentioned aloud in WWE before.
The crowd also have a role to play and the speaker should play to or influence that crowd's role.
By this time, wrestling fandom was made of of two cultures, the first being the casual fans. They show up at events, buy the merch, cheer the good guys, boo the bad guys. They follow the storylines and show no interest in what goes on backstage.
The second culture consists of fans that frequent websites that trade in backstage rumours. The big rumour at the time was that Punk had had enough. His contract was expiring after the upcoming pay per view and he wasn't signing a new one.
These two cultures became prevalent at shows with the casual fans cheering John Cena and booing CM Punk and the internet fans doing the opposite. At this point, the internet fans were audibly jubilant because Punk was mentioning many things that had been covered on wrestling rumour sites but never before mentioned on WWE programming. This made things even more intriguing as Punk addressed those same internet fans with the same derision:
Oh hey, let me get something straight. Those of you who are cheering me right now, you are just as big a part of me leaving as anything else. Because you’re the ones who are sipping on those collector cups right now. You’re the ones that buy those programs that my face isn’t on the cover of. And then at five in the morning at the airport, you try to shove it in my face and get an autograph and try to sell it on eBay because you’re too lazy to go get a real job.
The promo ends with Punk about to point out the hypocrisy of the WWE's anti bullying campaign only to have his mic switched off. Moments later, the show goes off the air.
I remember how I felt at the end of that promo, I asked the same question that millions of fans around the world asked, Was that for real?
The answer was that it was for real, but it was still planned. The promo was given with the consent of the powers that be, while at the same time, much of what Punk said was genuine. This became apparent when he quit for real a few years later in similarly controversial circumstances.
So why am I sharing a post about wrestling promos in a series of posts that concentrate on Spoken Word artists? Because I have already mused on the idea of authenticity and I would go further and say that there are few speech acts in Spoken Word and poetry that are as authentic as this. Could you imagine, for a second, someone from those scenes going off against their benefactors in as visceral and vitriolic a fashion?
This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.