"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, and changed in separate locker rooms. 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
. To get an idea of just how important kayfabe was, it's interesting to watch shoot interviews with old-time wrestlers filmed in the modern era, even decades later when everyone knows that wrestling is fake, they often start speaking as if various angles and feuds were real and tend to dance around actually saying that wrestling is staged if pressed (Arn Anderson, now a backstage agent for WWE, is notorious for this).
Naturally, there had always been skeptics that denied pro wrestling's legitimacy from the beginning,note 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), and once Vince McMahon
's World Wrestling Federation
rose to prominence in the '80s, the secret was 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
a "sport", and therefore avoid having real sports governing bodies from investigating. (Not that he didn't have legal issues
"Breaking kayfabe", for a pro wrestler, is tantamount to "breaking character" for an actor.
Note that even in the 2000s, 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 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 genuine 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. This is 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:
- The Wrestler explores this and other aspects of wrestling, and goes into the fact that while it's "staged", it's still extremely demanding as wrestlers are essentially doing rough stunt work. They're True Companions as well, when not doing Kay Fabe.
- 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.
- This is much stricter than it used to be. Back when Jim Henson was alive, this was usually the case, but he wasn't afraid to break kayfabe on occasion; doing UK chat shows with Kermit clearly on the end of his arm while he explained how he did the voices, or The Jim Henson Hour episode "Secrets of the Muppets" (with the joke being that the Muppets know they're real, and have no idea what this strange bearded man is talking about). It didn't matter; many people who've worked with them have said seeing a Muppeteer doesn't stop the Muppets from seeming real.
- 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, who would work as several characters to keep rosters and costs down.
- This practice was used in Roller Derby predominantly during the TV era (the 1950s-70s). 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.
- They still only very rarely make scheduled appearances as themselves, and typically only in things directly connected to their Swearnet online channel.
- Hogan Knows Best and Brooke Knows Best were, ironically enough, 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.
- At Disney Theme Parks, kayfabe is very strictly enforced. As far as every—every—cast member is concerned, that is Mickey Mouse, that is Cinderella. The characters never break character, and they're quite careful to make sure you never see two Tinker Bells at once. note
- A staple of many, many radio shows (and now podcasts) is to have characters that are treated as real people, but in actuality are just characters, among other "theater of the mind" tricks.
- No-one involved in I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue will ever openly acknowledge that Samantha doesn't exist (Humph once explained to a fan that Samantha was real, but Colin Sell wasn't, and this was happily accepted), there is no laser-display board and, above all, that Mornington Crescent is anything other than a well-known game with a storied history and clearly defined rules.
- Long-time fans of Bubba The Love Sponge have figured out "Ned" doesn't actually exist, but a voice done by one of the show's crew (and is played by his father at live appearances). Officially, they insist he's real, however.
- "Willy" on the Christopher Titus podcast is just a voice Titus does; he's admitted it elsewhere but they treat him like a separate person on the show (he's since retired him due to some Unfortunate Implications and Titus revealed he was made up).
- Larry The Cable Guy got his start this way, as comedian Daniel Whitney would call into various radio shows across the country playing Larry. The character took off, and most never knew he was playing a character, and even now most assume Daniel is really Larry.
- Similarly, Adam Carolla got his start in radio calling into The Kevin and Beane Show playing Mr. Birchum, a surly and jaded high school wood shop teacher. Although many fans assumed he must be a character, his actual real-life knowledge of carpentry kept others thinking he was a real person. At public events he would acknowledge it was just a character if people asked.
- Speaking of, one of Adam's podcast regulars is Deaf Frat Guy, a Frat Bro with a hearing disability. In reality he's a comedian named Josh Gardner (who isn't deaf or in a frat), but he always appears in character. Most fans of course have figured out he's not real, since he's been playing this character since Adam's radio days and would now be on his tenth year or so of college.
- The members of Deagle Nation went several years without ever breaking character in public, even when people called them on the phone, to the point where up until a fluke accident gave it away it was commonly believed to be real. Even after it became known that the videos were staged, Jace and Tyce continued to post on forums and blogs and make videos in-character, and several communities continued to play along as though nothing had happened.
- As depicted in Man on the Moon, Andy Kaufman was fascinated with wrestling and decided he wanted to be the Heel wrestling women. He and Jerry Lawler collaborated, and the two fooled everyone, and we mean everyone, with some hardcore Kay Fabe. Even if you knew Andy was faking it, he was uncomfortably realistic in his sexist persona.
- The world of Flonyard in Dog Days seems to run on Kayfabe. Battles are non-lethal, thanks to the locations in which they are held, and the various warriors and important characters are treated like idols, getting interviews and giving concerts on television. No ill-will tends to arise between nations who hold battles.
- The daring(and quite real) kidnapping of the Biscotti Princess is candidly televised and presented as though it were a story event similar to those seen in wrestling.
- Comedians who strike it big doing a character, such as Pee-wee Herman and Larry the Cable Guy, will almost always do interviews and appearances in character and receive billing as their character's name rather than their real one.
- In Shadow of the Thin Man, Nick and Nora attend a wrestling match. When the man running it says that they are in for a great match, Nick quips "How do you know? Were you at the rehearsal?". Later on they leave while the fight is still going on, with one wrestler in a painful looking hold and groaning with discomfort. As she passes the ring, Nora tells him that she hopes he gets out of it okay. The wrestler stops groaning and thanks her for her concern in a perfectly normal tone of voice.
- In Screwball Comedy Nothing Sacred, Wally takes Hazel to a wrestling match. He starts talking about how it's all phony and scripted, and then starts riffing on how New York is full of phonies.
- In Ménage à 3, DiDi has her first experience with professional wrestling and, being The Ditz, takes it completely seriously. Her behaviour after the match confused the hell out of Roxie, the wrestler she had befriended earlier, until Roxie realized that DiDi was legitimately angry at her for the Face–Heel Turn she pulled in the ring. She tried to run with it and play up her character... for all of 10 seconds until DiDi started crying, then she decided that she had to come clean or risk getting fired.
- On one episode of South Park, the kids take a field trip to a pioneer-themed living museum set in 1864, where the actors are under no circumstances allowed to break character until the second their work day ends at 5:00, even if they are held at gunpoint by a group of robbers demanding the code to the mine shaft tunnel so they can use it to escape from the police (a door locked by a keypad doesn't exist in 1864, you see). It took Stan getting into a character of his own and rephrasing the question in a way the actors were allowed to answer it to defuse the situation.
- Cracked compiled a couple of lists of various times wrestlers took Kayfabe to nigh-insane levels, including fans accusing a woman of being a murderer because her opponent died in the ring.