"It's still real to me, damn it!"
Dave Wills, the Crying Wrestling Fan

"Kayfabe" is a carny term thought to have originated from the Pig Latin for "be fake", possibly originally by pronouncing it backward ("kay-feeb"). Professional Wrestling adopted the term as a reference to the standard Fourth Wall features of separating the audience from the action. It is meant to convey the idea that, yes, pro wrestling is a genuine sport, and yes, this is how these people act in real life. It is essentially Willing Suspension of Disbelief specifically for pro wrestling.

Back in the old days, though, kayfabe was much more; it was pro wrestling's real life Masquerade. Wrestlers, promoters, and everybody else involved with the business alike resorted to any means necessary to guard the secret that wrestling was rigged, from wrestlers roughing up any reporters who dared ask, "It's all fake, right?" to (alleged) death threats towards anybody who threatened to expose the secret, through contacts with the Mafia and other organized crime. Heels and faces weren't allowed to travel, eat, or be seen with their "enemies" in public. Wrestlers lived their gimmicks 24/7 and those playing Wild Samoans or Foreign Wrestling Heels could not speak English in public if their characters didn't. There are even rumors that some wrestlers would lie under oath in court to maintain the illusion, and some old-time heels tell stories about carrying guns for their own protection from those fans who took it just a bit too seriously.

Naturally, there had always been skeptics that denied pro wrestling's legitimacy from the beginning,note  but fans widely started to figure out the truth in the '70s (if indeed they ever really didn't know before—with any live TV audience there is a certain amount of kayfabe of a sort going on with them too, remember), and once Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation rose to prominence in the '80s, the secret was pretty much out for any but the most die-hard (and thick-headed) fans. And even they finally got it in the '90s, when McMahon himself revealed it on Monday Night RAW. McMahon was also forced to break kayfabe when he hosted a tribute broadcast to Chris Benoit after the wrestler was found dead with his family, which aired a few days after McMahon's "character" was supposedly either Killed Off for Real or at least was to be out of commission for a while; a day later, when the details of Benoit's death became known (that he had committed murder-suicide), McMahon further dissolved kayfabe in a follow-up broadcast in which he discussed the tragedy. Other kayfabe-breaking incidents have occurred during live broadcasts, with the announcers outright referring to "wrestling angles" and "storylines", perhaps most notably the off-camera accident that killed Owen Hart during a pay per view broadcast, forcing the announcers to explain what had happened.

Another aspect was legal: steroids. McMahon had to explain that pro wrestling was entertainment and not a "sport", and therefore avoid having real sports governing bodies from investigating. (Not that he didn't have legal issues surrounding steroids.)

"Breaking kayfabe", for a pro wrestler, is tantamount to "breaking character" for an actor.

Note that even in the current era, when pro wrestling is known to be staged, kayfabe is still a big deal; most wrestling organizations expect wrestlers to maintain kayfabe at all times, and one (Deep South Wrestling, one of WWE's farm leagues) levied substantial fines on its wrestlers for breaking kayfabe at public appearances, before it was shut down. This has become more apparent now thanks to most wrestlers having an online presence, as they can now extend it beyond what is seen on camera, playing up their personas and engaging in icy and confrontational conversations with their opponents on the likes of Twitter.

Some people compare modern kayfabe to Penn & Teller's tricks which seem to give away the magic's "secret", while actually setting you up for a different, more impressive effect.

Kayfabe can be heavily bent, if not outright broken, by a Worked Shoot.

As a side note, if you happen to know anybody who claims to have been a wrestling fan "back when it was real", unless Willard Scott announces their birthday on The Today Show, they were taken in by kayfabe. By all accounts, wrestling was pretty much completely show within 10-15 years after the turn of the 20th century. This was necessary to compete with the emerging sport of boxing, which naturally lends itself to long, drama filled, multi-round fights, whereas a real wrestling match could last about ten exciting seconds, or two boring hours.

The late Gorilla Monsoon, one half of the best commentary duo of his era, had "KAYFABE" on his car's license plate.

The night after the Exposed! Secrets of Pro Wrestling special came out (years after kayfabe was exposed in mainstream wrestling), Mick Foley was the only one to try to "restore" kayfabe by claiming "I didn't do so well, last week- but I was watching TV last night, and the Secrets of Pro Wrestling were revealed to me!" Although Foley was probably just taking the mickey (pardon the pun) out of the ridiculous show.

Conversely, some fans would prefer not to see "real" fighting, and prefer kayfabe. The arguments include:
  • If it was real, it would be too disgusting to watch, like boxing or Joe Theisman's Squick moment on Monday Night Football.
  • Real fights tend to be very short, as demonstrated by the UFC or MMA in general.
  • Conversely, real fights can bore viewers by going on for the full length of time, ending with a (sometimes controversial) judges' decision. Since pro wrestling is scripted, boring matches should logically be less common, as no wrestler wants to bore his audience.
  • Real fights tend to be visually boring. Wrestling is more theatrical, and requires different skills (including gymnastics and even a little ballet).
  • As demonstrated in the NFL, when the injuries are real, the quality of the games slowly degrades over the course of the season until it is not much higher than college games'. Kayfabe allows for (relatively) minimal injuries over a long period of time - or rather, allows professional wrestlers methods for working around the injuries they do sustain in order to keep the matches exciting.
  • Unlike actual sports, wrestling involves an underlying morality of good vs. evil (or face vs. heel) which has been a part of literature for centuries. These are powerful and primordial tropes, and most people find them deeply satisfying. In fact, tropes in general seep in much more easily and clearly in a fictional sport, theoretically leading to more interesting storylines. Parodied in an episode of South Park where the kids think wrestling is only about the stories ("W.T.F.").
  • Wrestling provides lots of good ol' fashioned, unabashed Narm Charm.

To put it another way, wrestling fans who treat the sport as if what we see on TV is real are not so different than people who talk about soap opera characters like they are real people. All fictional works require some suspense of disbelief to get the audience really connected. The only real difference between that and kayfabe is that professional wrestling extends that fiction beyond the edge of the camera frame.

At the core, we all know that it's scripted, but knowing that doesn't stop you enjoying it. We know that movies and TV shows are "fake" too, but a well told story, particularly one with lots of action, is well received regardless.

Kayfabe In Other Media:

  • No-one sees The Muppets unless they're in action - they do their own press conferences and when they cameo in other works, they're treated like regular people.
  • Stephen Colbert's character on The Colbert Report was actually a character that happened to have the same name and certain life events as the real Colbert.
  • Miley Cyrus's songs and performances centre around a stereotypical off-the-rails-Former Child Star image, but her interviews constantly reiterate that it's just a persona and she's actually quite well-adjusted (although she does like her drugs).
  • Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor on Doctor Who kept up the pretence that he was The Doctor whenever he met fans, and would never be seen smoking or drinking in public to uphold this.
  • The Washington Generals are the ultimate jobber to the Harlem Globetrotters as the constant losers in a fake league that focusses on showmanship rather than actual basketball, in the early days of the exhibition matches, they would even play as several different teams to create the illusion of a whole league rather than just two teams, much like old-school jobbers.
  • This practice was used in roller derby predominantly in the 1970s. Modern Roller Derby uses aspects of Kayfabe only to the extent that skaters may adopt slightly different on-track personalities; the action is entirely unstaged.note 
  • The actors on Trailer Park Boys would always appear in public in-character during the show's original run; they didn't appear as "themselves" until the original cancellation. Now with the show back, they appear as exaggerated versions of themselves alongside their characters. While it wasn't that difficult to determine that it was a mockumentary (it after all has credits listing the actor's real names and the writing staff), it did lead some people to believe it was a real documentary show.
  • Hogan Knows Best and Brooke Knows Best were rumored to be some of the most heavily scripted "reality" shows every made.
  • The cast of one of the original modern reality shows, The Osbournes, prided themselves on the fact their show was not scripted like most of the ones that followed. However, The Osbournes is a large reason why most of them are now, since filming in this style took a lot more time (and money) to get enough usable footage.
  • It's an open secret that a lot of The Jerry Springer Show is staged and many of the guests were actors playing roles (some come back several times as different people!), but it doesn't stop people from watching it.
  • On his podcast, Adam Carolla interviewed an actor who talked about all the "True Story" bio pics he appeared in as [insert fallen star here]'s drug dealer.
  • GWAR's members never did interviews out of character (or costume) for many years. In their early days, Fozzy did the same.
  • Mick Foley's second book Foley Is Good!...And the Real World is Faker Than Pro Wrestling was all about pointing out instances of this.
  • Weekly World News never once ran a disclaimer or otherwise indicated they were a parody, even though some articles they printed were potential grounds for libel lawsuits.