Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Conflict, Kofis, and Kings-Why Kofi Kingston's New Accent Exemplifies Everything Wrong with WWE Storytelling

WWE fans have been shaking their heads, wondering wha' happened to Kofi Kingston. The popular high-flyer with the Jamaican accent is no longer Jamaican. One week he's "boom booming" and talking with a signature Jamaican accent, the next he's hailing from Ghana, West Africa, speaking with no accent at all. As if the fans were too thick to notice the change, Triple H (God bless him for always willing to help out) made a point of asking what happened to Kofi's accent. Naturally, that was the extent of an explanation.

The funny thing is that the WWE fans aren't shaking their heads because they're confused, they're shaking their heads because this is just the latest WWE change in booking that comes without explanation (In an effort to be fair, I did go on the WWE's web page and checked out Kofi's Superstar Profile. On it, it's noted that With a love for the Caribbean and the Caribbean lifestyle, Kingston brings a hybrid personality of his homeland and the island to the ring week in and week out. The problem of course is that the WWE didn't bother to mention this on TV in any way. Then again, why should they start now when they routinely change characters and storylines with little or no explanation. Case in point, the Bella Twins split to take sides with the Colons against the Miz and Morrison. Next thing you know, it's like it never happened (The old TV series Dallas once wrote off an entire season as a dream, earning eternal notoriety for its sloppy storytelling). Consider the babyface turn of MVP. One week he's a heel, fresh off a feud withMatt Hardy, the next he's a babyface (The same thing happened to Carlito but by now, Carlito doesn't care nor do his fans).

Truth be told, the WWE isn't the first promotion to change someone without any notice. Let me take you back to 1981 when Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) brought in wrestler Jimmy Valiant. Valiant, who had worked for various promotions (including the WWWF as part of the legendary tag team the Valiant Brothers) had just finished a memorable run in Jerry Jarrett's Memphis promotion as babyface "Handsome" Jimmy Valiant. "Handsome" Jimmy was wildly popular in Memphis but inexplicably, none of the bookers in JCP knew about this. Instead, they brought in Mr. Valiant as "King" James Valiant, a cocky heel managed by "Lord" Alfred Hayes (who at this point in his career was working as a manager).

King James Valiant grew a beard and became "The Boogie Woogie Man."
"King" James worked in the area for a few weeks before Jarrett asked JCP if they could use him for a tag match in Memphis. JCP agreed and sent Valiant to Memphis where he teamed up with Jerry "The King" Lawler for one night. Valiant was a superstar in Memphis and his appearance led to a healthy box office that night. In true wrestling fashion, Jarrett asked to use Valiant again, telling the bookers in JCP about how successful Valiant's appearance had been. At this point, JCP realized they were sitting on a potential goldmine. It was time for "King" James to go into permanent exile.

What happened next was some fancy footwork by the gang in JCP. Booker Ole Anderson told Valiant to grow his beard out (he'd been working in JCP as a clean cut heel) while he kept him off the air. Valiant suggested he be called "The Boogie Woogie Man" Jimmy Valiant and told Anderson about how he'd often come out to entrance music ( a novelty at the time). Anderson agreed and several weeks later, Valiant began coming out to the Manhattan Transfer's remake of The Boy from New York City [1] .While only a few weeks had passed since King James Valiant wrestled as a heel for JCP, no mention was made of him nor was it acknowledged that he was "The Boogie Woogie Man", now wrestling as a babyface [2] .

As we can see, other promoters have taken shortcuts when it comes to repackaging characters with no explanation which begs the question-what's wrong with the WWE doing it? The problem is that the WWE does so on a regular basis, usually without any rhyme or reason. Faces turn heel with no explanation, teams split up only to reform (Heaven knows I could write a treatise on how many times the WWE has foolishly split up the Hardys only to reform them without any explanation), and characters have dropped or added gimmicks with no rhyme or reason. When you make a change to a wrestler without explaining why, you're not only insulting your audience's intelligence but you're wasting a chance to get some heat from it.

Wrestling is all about getting the fans excited enough to continue tuning in to weekly TV and motivated enough to buy a ticket to a live event or order a pay-per-view. The way that promoters do this is by creating heat for characters and storylines. We all know the formula to get heat- somebody wrongs another wrestler, someone wants to prove they're the best, etc. etc.. There are time tested ways that promoters built up excitement by using conflict.

Good stories typically involve a lot of conflict. That's why it's rare that you find the characters of Supernatural sitting around playing Monopoly or 24's Jack Bauer spending an episode catching up on his grocery shopping. I remember a screenwriter telling me that every scene should have some sort of conflict That's not to say that every conflict has to be spectacular-just like a wrestling match shouldn't be highspot after highspot, a story shouldn't be one spectacular action scene after another (even Michael Bay knows that a movie can't be all explosions). The trick is pace your conflict and create a tempo that slowly but surely builds to an explosive climax (this is also useful in the bedroom-or so I've been told).

Things like a wrestler turning heel or face should never happen off camera. They're too good at creating conflict, and more importantly for wrestling promoters, drawing heat. Turning someone heel off camera is like deleting the scene in Return of the Jedi where Darth Vader turns on the Emperor in order to save his son's life and turning it into a throwaway piece of dialogue. Instead of showing Vader watching the Emperor blast Luke with Force Lightning only to finally pick up his former master and hurl him to his death, you'd have Han Solo asking Luke how everything worked out on the Death Star and Luke casually commenting, "You'll never believe this but my old man saw the light and kicked the Emperor's ass." Not exactly the stuff of movie legends.
What if George Lucas decided to delete this epic scene and instead explain it via dialogue? So Luke, we blew up the shield generator, anything happen on the Death Star? Yeah, you'll never believe this but Vader saw the light and killed the Emperor. Now, what's with these Ewoks?

Granted, Kofi Kingston's change in hometown from Jamaica to Africa doesn't have to be treated as an epic event. However any promoter worth his salt will find a way to turn it into something. Remember, not all conflict has to be world shattering. In Kofi's case, it could be mentioned in an interview that he grew up in Jamaica but he wanted to acknowledge his country of origin as he felt he didn't want to lie to the fans. While this would be something minor, it would fit in with the idea that he's a babyface and he doesn't want to mislead his fans. Or, it could be something deeper. Another babyface might question Kofi's lack of honesty in acknowledging his roots. "Kofi lied about being Jamaican-who was he trying to fool?".

Over the last few years, the WWE has shifted its approach to booking from using traditional bookers to utilizing writers to script promos, angles, and feuds. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because as we saw, good storytelling and wrestling go hand in hand. Unfortunately the WWE's writers either need to brush up on their storytelling or they need to explain the basics of storytelling to their boss because it's clear they could be doing a much better job.

[1] While Jimmy Valiant was not the first wrestler to come out to entrance music (Gorgeous George is often credited as the first to do so on a regular basis), he was one of the first to do so on a regular basis. Valiant even recorded his own song which he used as entrance music during his run in Memphis).

[2] This would be the beginning of a wildly successful run for Valiant in JCP with "The Boogie Woogie Man" becoming one of the promotion's most popular wrestlers for the next five years.

No comments: