I first became a wrestling fan in 2006. That was quite a ways ago now, but still feels very recent compared to most who speak on wrestling in the capacity that I do. As a pre-teen at the time, there was of course plenty about the business that I didn’t understand at first. Among them, was the value of one of the genre’s most beloved, celebrated non-wrestlers, one Mean Gene Okerlund.
Naturally I hadn’t seen a lick of him during my first few years watching pro wrestling, and wouldn’t come to for quite a while. Not until the WWE Network came about, really. I just knew that everyone adored him and missed him. But it was a little puzzling to me. Sure, Mean Gene seemed charming enough, but in my head I imagined he was playing that same role that WWE interviewers have today.
You know the ones. They’ve had them for decades. Youthfully handsome, faux-nerdy guys and perpetually cheerful, beautiful women. All of them made to seem utterly vapid and soulless. Constantly recapping the angle of whomever they happen to be speaking to before asking, “What are your thoughts?” or “Do you think you can win?”
This is literally a job you could program an automated text-to-speech app to perform.
In fact you’d probably legitimately be able to train a parrot to do the jobs that these people in WWE have. I’m not exaggerating, they’re this basic, pretty much all the time. And they are non-descript in personality and contribution to the point that they all blend together. I actually opt not to name them on my Raw and SmackDown recaps, instead referring to the main roster group of mic-holders as “Interviewer Girl #1, Interviewer Girl #2 and Interviewer Girl #3. And to be totally honest, I’m not positive there are actually three of them.
They add nothing of note to any broadcast they’re on. You could just as well have any of the performers cut those same promos all by themselves, and in fact they’d probably come off less phony that way. Once you notice that they only have about three questions they may ask at a given point, it’s fairly distracting.
This is in no way a knock on any of them personally, but a knock on the way WWE handles them. They make them this way. That much is pretty obvious, given the laundry list of interviewer after interviewer. For me personally, I started with Todd Grisham and Josh Matthews, and they were pretty much the same as the folks holding the mic today.
Brandi Rhodes actually played this role for a little while. She stuck out as Eden Stiles about as much as anyone else. But shortly thereafter, she established that she’s actually a very strong promo in her own right. It truly doesn’t matter who takes up the role, they all become this.
Make no mistake. Despite appearances, the role that Mean Gene once mastered does not exist in WWE anymore.
That’s why it wasn’t until after I looked back at the work Mean Gene did, that I realized how invaluable he actually was. The reason he was so important back then, only for the equivalents today to be entirely unnecessary, all boils down to one, WWE’s biggest self-imposed problem and one that I fully intend to do a deep dive on one day. And that is the issue of the scripted promo.
See, back in the day, wrestlers didn’t really go off a script. At most they’d have bullet points, and figure out for themselves how they wanted to get to them, often on the fly. This made for a more authentic and free form experience. It allowed them to react to crowds accordingly, be themselves, and show off their passion without having to worry about memorizing and perfectly reciting twenty minutes’ worth of dialogue.
By and large, that system was a thousand times better than what WWE has today. It’s the reason so many of wrestling’s most legendary talkers are from a by-gone era. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s drawbacks, especially when they’re on live television, as became commonplace in the 90s. You don’t want any embarrassing faux pauxs, you can’t have the interviews going too long and you can’t have them veering too far off-topic. They’re out there with a point to make, after all.
That’s where Mean Gene Okerlund came in.
He did a lot more than just hold a mic and ask people for their thoughts. If a wrestler started going off-topic, he’d steer them right back onto it. If they went too long he’d be able to get them to the finish line. And if they struggled to make a point, he’d act as a safety net. Often he would be the one explaining things to the audience instead. He did all this in the form of actual questions, ensuring that the person he was out there with never came off poorly.
Then you have the knack Mean Gene had for playing along with people’s characters. He’d often jump in shock and act appalled at the insults of the heels, eyes widening with intrigue at the more off-color lines. He could communicate a lot through expressions alone.
If you’re doing unscripted, live promos on the regular, you need someone with Mean Gene Okerlund’s skillset. He was one of the most underrated steals WCW ever made, greatly aiding many a new talker.
The way WWE’s system is made today, someone like him would be way overqualified for the interviewer job. Again, it’s a job that really doesn’t even need to exist in a land of scripted promos.
The reason I bring all this up is because it’s something that desperately needs to return to the wrestling industry.
And I’ve reason to think we’ll soon see a return to form for pro wrestling interviews.
The higher ups of AEW have made it clear that they aren’t interested in having scripted promos. They haven’t hired any writers, for starters. It’s much more a classic pro wrestling setup, atleast as far as talking is concerned.
This is something that I think will be a major edge for them over WWE in the long run. While much of their roster is still inexperienced with promos and unlikely to be knocking it out of the park right off the bat, I happen to think this is the only way to get people to that level. Thus far, we haven’t seen a ton of actual promos on AEW TV. Only Chris Jericho has really had substantial mic time. This is for a few reasons, largely because they want their image to be of a wrestling-first promotion. Rather than, say, routinely opening the show with a 20 minute promo segment.
But I also think it’s a matter of ensuring that the talent are ready for it when it comes. Not just those talking, but those holding the microphones. And with that segue, I want to talk about AEW’s secret weapons, both of which have gotten very little attention…
Chris Van Vliet and Alica A.
These are the two broadcasters AEW has signed for this position. As I’ve just laid out, having good people in this spot is pretty vital for a promotion that’s trying to bring back the authentic, unscripted promo. And to me, these signings show an initiative to get this right. They might not have been big headline signings, but they could just be worth their weight in gold…
Alicia A aka Alicia Atout was first seen by many working as the backstage correspondent at All In last year. Her work was well-received. She was most noted for a segment with Kenny Omega, parodying some of the silly things WWE made their interviewers do. She’s also worked for Impact in this role for a time, and has interviewed plenty of significant wrestlers on YouTube as well.
Chris Van Vliet, similarly, is most known as a YouTube interviewer and a pretty big name one. His videos, which see him sit down with wrestlers for around 40 minutes most occasions, frequently get upwards of 100k views. He’s also talked to celebrities, most notably actors, in clips that have gotten millions of views. He’s regarded as one of the best at what he does.
Of course interviewing someone for a brief promo on live TV is a bit different than a lengthy sit down interview being filmed for YouTube. But considering the current landscape, I think it’s fair to say that AEW got the best people possible for this job.
I’m an optimist. So I’d really like to think that with two hands like these, a renaissance of sorts is on the horizon. A return to form for the pro wrestling interviewer and for promos in general. I suppose we’ll find out the effect they have in the coming months.
This world will always miss Mean Gene.
There will probably never be another like him. But it’s high time someone tried to step into his shoes.