AS VEGAS – It sounds like an episode of Glee: An on-again, off-again couple finally decide to get engaged, and two separate dance numbers — one involving a disco ball — break out amid a heap of betrayal, wars of words and a few sneak attacks.
But the only thing this program’s stars do with glee is hit each other with flying elbow drops off the top rope.
This is Monday Night Raw, World Wrestling Entertainment’s wild and woolly live weekly show on the USA Network. Tonight in St. Louis (8 ET/PT), it celebrates its 1,000th episode, a major milestone in the streak of the longest-running weekly episodic program in TV history with no reruns.
In addition to Raw, the WWE has its Friday night Smackdown show on Syfy, and WWE Main Event will air on Ion on Wednesdays starting Oct. 3. That’s in addition to 12 pay-per-view events a year and a huge presence on social media.
“It’s like an athletic soap opera in some respects, and that’s what grabs people,” says Glenn Jacobs, a 6-foot-7 mountain of a man who plays the masked monster Kane.
The program has been a cable ratings giant itself over the years, pulling in a consistent and fanatical 5 million people each Monday. “They get acclaim for their original series, but Raw is one of the core reasons USA has been the most-watched cable network for the last six years,” says Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at Horizon Media.
Part of the show’s success has been that its target viewers — teens and young men — tend to be hard for shows and advertisers to reach, Adgate says. “These are the ones who are playing video games or going online to watch YouTube.”
Raw is more than just a TV show, though. Since its first airing on Jan. 11, 1993, it has been a traveling circus of good-guy/bad-guy drama (or, in wrestling parlance, babyfaces vs. heels), airborne physicality, standup comedy, Broadway showmanship, vaudevillian shenanigans and colorful characters, in a new arena and city every week.
The show moves to three hours starting tonight when it originates from the Scottrade Center and popular stars of WWE past, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Bret Hart and Mick Foley, share the wrestling ring with today’s talent. The tattooed WWE champion CM Punk will defend his title against John Cena, the square-jawed face of the organization, in a battle of fan favorites, and there will be a “wedding” of that engaged couple, Daniel Bryan and his eccentric tomboy girlfriend AJ Lee.
Historically, wrestling weddings don’t go all that smoothly, and Raw production designer Jason Robinson would know. His team will do everything from picking out the rings to designing the setup for the vows, and he has done several weddings in his nearly 17 years with WWE.
He has also blown up a limo and a bus on live TV, driven everything from a Zamboni to a milk truck to the ring, and split the stage so someone could drive a tank through it.
“I guess whatever happens next Monday will be the next craziest thing,” Robinson says backstage at last week’s broadcast from Mandalay Bay Resort and Hotel.
Wrestling has been a fixture on television since its earliest days in the 1950s. But its popularity really soared into pop culture in the 1980s with outsized personalities (and physical specimens) such as Hulk Hogan and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
Vince McMahon, the WWE CEO who has run the company since 1980, never dreamed of having 1,000 episodes as a goal, “but I have some pretty wild dreams, and have all my life,” he says. “I don’t know limitations until they really slap me in the face.”
His business philosophy is to never have a ceiling, which is why he has expanded his media empire to include a WWE Films brand and an upcoming WWE Network.
“Many years ago, I had a chief financial officer say, ‘Vince, you make your money on pay-per-view, so why do all this other crap?’ Without all the other stuff we do, pay-per-view doesn’t work,” says the CEO, whose PPV revenues are up 30% after setting a record with 1.3 million buys for Wrestlemania 28 in April.
McMahon has involved himself in the on-screen action as well, playing an evil version of himself. When Raw debuted in 1993, though, he was just an announcer.
That first episode kept the old-school style of fans’ favorite heroes and villains squashing hapless weaker opponents (known in the parlance as “jobbers”). But when rival World Championship Wrestling, owned at the time by media mogul Ted Turner, began airing its Nitro program opposite Raw, “having value in the matches became the most important thing,” says David Shoemaker, who writes about wrestling for the websites Grantland and Deadspin.
“We had to build a better mousetrap,” says McMahon, whose current competition “across the board is all forms of entertainment.”
Back in the day, a Cena/Punk contest would have been held for a WrestleMania or other pay-per-view event. Now, headliner matches are a staple of every Raw.
Fans watching the show at the arena or on their couches see only the spectacle of such a match. But the actual live broadcast is the end to a long and hectic day for wrestlers as well as crew members.
On the morning of the 999th Raw at Mandalay Bay, 14 semis of equipment roll in to put up the ring, a huge HD panel, assorted lights and pyrotechnics in around four hours. Then the creative types show up, including McMahon, for the daily production meeting to go over what will happen on Raw, from wrestlers’ story-building “promos” to what tweaks are needed for the script.
Sans mask and in athletic wear, Jacobs is the first in-ring talent in the building and attends the meeting. He’s a 17-year mainstay on Raw, but he has been toying with the idea of moving to that less-bruising side of the industry when he hangs up his size-15 boots. “Now that I have seen a little more about the production side of it,” he says, “you realize how impressive doing a live television show every week is, and everything that goes into it and the changes that have to be made as you’re going along.”
Many of those alterations are made in rehearsals before the arena is open for the live audience. Producers go over matches and segments with the wrestlers in a TV writers’ room of sorts, and clad in a headset, Paul Levesque, the WWE’s executive vice president of talent and live events — he performs under the moniker “Triple H” — makes sure the smallest details will run smoothly. (He also happens to be McMahon’s son-in-law.)
At the “Gorilla position” just behind the staging (named for the late wrestling and announcing great Gorilla Monsoon), wrestlers get last-minute instructions on matches, and referees also have in-ear monitors for audibles during the action.
“Raw is live, and it’s live right up until we’re done, which means we’re changing stuff,” says Levesque, who will flip the script on the fly depending on crowd reaction. “The reality of our business is fans control the content. They control who’s the most popular, who’s the most hated, because we really go where they’re going.”
Going big on social media
A large mat comes out when it’s time to practice some of the evening’s biggest power moves. The ring has a few inches of padding, but really it’s just steel, wood, canvas and ropes, says Sean Sellman, director of production logistics. So stars are taking some serious bumps.
Mike Mizanin just recently returned to the WWE after filming the movie The Marine: Homefront for six weeks — Johnson, Cena, Hogan and other stars over the years have flirted with varying success on the bigger screen. A couple of weeks in, though, the former reality star on MTV’s The Real World noticed his back oddly starting to tighten up. “I was like, you know what, I think it’s healing right now,” the dapperly dressed Mizanin says after a WWE.com photo shoot.
More than just his body is refreshed; he brought his cocky and brash character “The Miz” back with a new haircut and some facial scruff. “Just that little change of your hair and your face, people will notice,” Mizanin says. “Twitter is blowing up my hairdo! My hair’s trending, what the hell is going on?”
Social media has become a major focus for WWE. Its latest push is with Tout, a newer platform allowing wrestlers to interact with fans through videos of 15 seconds or less.
Many of its stars are on Twitter, and most Monday nights during Raw, Twitter’s most popular topics are wrestler names or hashtags created from what’s said during a wrestler’s verbal sparring with another. The hashtag du jour: #Raw1000.
On social media as well as in arenas, Lee is one of the most popular of the WWE’s female “Divas” and a rising star from a current love-triangle angle involving her “crazy chick” character, Bryan and Punk. (The spunky and diminutive Lee, who comes across as shy off-screen, also laid a big wet smooch on the much-larger Jacobs one night to make it a love rhombus for a time.)
“I love the in-ring work, but as a fan I love the dramatic stuff more than anything,” says Lee, a self-admitted “nerd” who hopes to inspire little girls the same way WWE women did for her when she was 12.
“This day and age, there needs to be a girl who’s not wearing as much makeup and isn’t that pampered-up and fancy. There’s a place for that, but there’s also a place for a girl I think fans want to hang out with and see themselves in.”
The fans come first
She’s getting a lot of cheers, but the man who garners the most — and receives just as many jeers at times — is Cena. While other wrestlers partake in the vast catering spread or work on their matches, he takes the time to visit with a pair of little boys from the Make-A-Wish Foundation whose wishes are to meet their muscular idol.
In turn, he dotes on them with autographs, hugs and attention.
“Our audience really attaches themselves to characters,” Cena says. “Somehow along this 10-year journey, I’ve been able to morph into myself.”
For him, a 1,000th Raw is just as historic as The Simpsons reaching 500 episodes or 20 seasons of Law & Order.
“It’s something that transcends everything, but at the same time, there is no ‘Hey, man, they just hit 1,000 episodes!’ from the entertainment folks,” Cena says. “I’ve never paid much attention to the ‘important’ critics. I pay attention to the people who come to see us.”
The key to longevity — and another 1,000 — will be continuing to be fresh and innovative, Levesque says. “We’ll get to Raw 2,000. It’s on the moon, I think.”
One guy who hopes to be there, too, is WWE commentator Jerry Lawler, a 42-year veteran who was at the first Raw at New York City’s Manhattan Center.
“I might just be a head in a glass tube,” Lawler laughs backstage, just before his entrance music queues up — Mussorgsky’s The Great Gate of Kiev— and he walks out to 10,000 cheering fans.
“Even if I’m just a head, just set me in front of a TV somewhere.”