"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 , 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 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 21st century, 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.
The radio industry has taken this trope in a different direction, with the presenters occasionally being different versions of their real-life selves.
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.
For another kind of fiction pretending to be real, see Direct Line to the Author.
Kayfabe In Other Media:
- 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.
- 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 kayfabe.
- Requiem for a Heavyweight: Discussed Trope. Mountain Rivera, a washed-up boxer, has to start a new career in wrestling. It's explained to him that all he has to do is make it look real and learn how to fall without getting hurt. At the end, when he's entering the wrestling ring, he's told again that it's fake and that he, being a former boxer, shouldn't get carried away and hurt someone.
- 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.
- 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 The 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.
- Kayfabe: A Fake Real Movie About A Fake Real Sport is a mockumentary about the professional wrestling business. The wrestlers know that no one believes what they're doing is real, but they nonetheless do their best to put on a good show, never breaking character even in the most ridiculous moments.
- The Prestige:
- Alfred Borden and his assistant Fallon take kayfabe to great extremes to hide the fact that they're actually a pair of identical twins.
- In one scene, Cutter sends Angier and Borden to watch a Chinese magician and figure out exactly how the man makes a heavy goldfish bowl (filled with water and goldfish) appear from under a cloth. Borden immediately deduces that the old magician is doing kayfabe: he's holding the bowl between his legs under his skirt, hiding the strength required to accomplish the trick by always appearing frail in public. Borden admires the way the Chinese magician goes to such an extreme that he "lives" his performance at home, especially since that's what he himself does with his twin brother.
- 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.
- In Other People's Heroes, the superhero/supervillain business is an elaborate charade with choreographed battles according to storylines, controlled damage, and mind wipes to ensure that no one catches on for long.
- Chuck Tingle has an elaborate persona and the real identity of the writer is unclear.
- 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.
- Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: Carroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, was asked to appear on the show (at Fred Rogers' request) in his Big Bird costume before taking it off on-camera and explaining the costume's workings and that the character was fictional. Spinney refused, but as a compromise (which Rogers agreed to), would appear in character only in the show's "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" segments, and in the regular segments Spinney would talk about puppetry in general. Rogers did get in a few remarks, however, about one of the things about growing up is eventually discerning the difference between reality and make-believe characters. (Indeed, Rogers openly has stated that the characters of the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" are pretend.)
- In a similar vein, Basil Brush is always depicted as himself.
- 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.
- 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 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 ever 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 scripted, since filming in the unscripted 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 are actors playing roles (some come back several times as different people!), but it doesn't stop people from watching it.
- The Crypt Keeper is always regarded as real when he appears with human actors (which admittedly isn't often). This was most pronounced when he "directed" the movie Demon Knight; the rest of the cast wasn't all-too impressed by his humor, however.
- The various Iron Chef series have varying degrees of kayfabe, although one thing all of them have in common is that no, the Eccentric Millionaire hosting the show is really just an actor playing the part. Doesn't stop everyone from regarding him as such.
- Contrary to popular belief, Ferne Mc Cann's persona on The Only Way Is Essex is NOT kayfabe - she really is a Nice Girl, despite the media portraying her as such and as a Rich Bitch, although she's middle-class.
- The producers of the original TV series The Fugitive forbade stars David Janssen and Barry Morse from appearing in public together; they were good friends in real life, but antagonists on the show — and the production company and network wanted to keep up that appearance. They and their wives would often have dinner at each other's homes, instead.
- It's actually quite admirable just how seriously the humans involved take the Puppy Bowl, like it is a genuine football game, just with puppies.
- Many daily Game Shows pretended that they filmed one episode per day (often referring to the projected air date as if it was "today"). In reality, they generally filmed one week's worth of shows in a single day (contestants and panelists bring multiple outfits, changing between shows). A contestant who will "come back tomorrow" only has a short break; one who will "come back next week" may actually return for filming the next day, next week, or even months later. (This was more of an artifact from when everything was live as opposed to tape; Jack Barry asked this on every show he hosted.)
- On another, more recent note, the 2017 revival of The Gong Show has Mike Myers hosting under the persona of fictional British TV presenter "Tommy Maitland" (Myers with a bit of makeup and a Scottish accent). On the show itself, everyone refers to Myers as Maitland, and references to Myers himself are nonexistent. Outside the show, it varies; some articles about the show run with the idea of Maitland being "real"—complete with his own fictional backstory—while others explicitly state he's Myers.
- Chloe Khan, former X-Factor contestant, who is not Middle Eastern - it's just a change of surname, teeters between this and her real-life self. The Playboy girl image she promotes is entirely a character, what she is in real life (apart from being a model) varies between The Fixer (in a positive sense), The Matchmaker and a Lady and a Scholar (but without the academic setting). She is actually not as ditzy as the British media seem to think.
- 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.
- Miley Cyrus's songs and performances center 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).
- GWAR's members never did interviews out of character (or costume) for many years.
- In their early days, Fozzy did the same. At the very beginning (back when the band was called Fozzy Osbourne), Chris Jericho used the name Moongoose McQueen for his singer persona, and "McQueen" and Jericho would talk each other up but deny being the same person.
- I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue:
- No-one involved 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.
- Two episodes of ISIHAC are recorded in a row. However the chair and teams will act as if the second episode is a week after the first as this is how it sounds to the radio audience. Similarly, panelists on The Unbelievable Truth have called back to jokes or topics from 'an earlier recording' or 'some time ago' instead of half an hour earlier that afternoon.
- 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.
- 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 genuine 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.
- That Gosh Darn Hippie Show makes frequent use of scripted phone conversations Played for Laughs between DJ Hippie and various "callers", though DJ Hippie always behaves as if they were real and their scripted nature is never acknowledged on-air.
- The Washington Generals are the ultimate jobber to the Harlem Globetrotters as the constant losers in a fake league that focuses 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
- It is not uncommon for athletes in "real" sports to put on a sort-of kayfabe of their own, creating feuds or rivalries that may well have no place in reality but which serve to help build a brand and keep fans engaged between games. It also isn't uncommon for players to make a show of being best buddies on the field and even in media interviews, only to be distant-at-best when the cameras aren't rolling.
- During the 1998 home run chase between Mark Mc Gwire and Sammy Sosa, they gave off the image of being close friends united in a race for history- when Mc Gwire broke the home run record, Sosa came and gave him a big hug. Years later they both admitted that they never really talked to each other at all outside of happenstance meetings and pre-arranged interviews.
- 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.
- Pokémon Sun and Moon:
- Incineroar, the final evolution of the Alolan Fire starter, Litten. It's a Dark-Type, based on a professional Heel wrestler and fights extremely dirty in battle, even attacking the opponents' trainer. However, true to its pro wrestler theme, it's not deliberately malicious and is all an act. Out of battle, it maintains its act, but actually enjoys the admiration it gets, especially from children.
- Professor Burnet in the same game may well be in on the act whenever she says the Masked Royal and her husband Kukui aren't the same person.
- 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 FaceHeel 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.
- Adam Carolla:
- On his podcast, he interviewed an actor who talked about all the "True Story" bio pics he appeared in as [insert fallen star here]'s drug dealer.
- 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.
- "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).
- The Needle Drop has Anthony Fantano and Cal Chuchesta. The fact that they're the same person in a Paper-Thin Disguise is acknowledged absolutely nowhere in Anthony's online presence.
- 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.
- 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.
- Youtube vlogger Ami Yamato is a completely real British-Japanese woman who lives in London, and totally not a 3D animated character skillfully composited into real footage. That's why her face reveal was her without makeup, and the comments act confused whenever someone talks about animation. Because she's a completely real person.
- South Park:
- In one episode 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.
- Another episode featured actual professional wrestling and a real wrestler getting angry that they were getting more publicity. He eventually outdoes them when people think he's creating his own narrative.
- Disney has a policy of not explicitly publicizing the actors behind Mickey and the Gang, so as to not shatter the illusion of the characters. It's not that they pretend they don't exist, but when they are brought up by the company, it's at events and in media meant for animation and Disney enthusiasts.
- 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
- Even modelling has moments of kayfabe. Notable examples include:
- Lily May, from Mold, North Wales, United Kingdom is a model and adult actor, but the MILF persona she portrays is very clearly a persona in the same way as wrestling is stage-managed, but some fans on Twitter do not realize this. Only a few people know it is kayfabe and Lily May's real persona is never or rarely mentioned, if ever, in public. The Ambiguously Bi nature portrayed on her Twitter page is also kayfabe too, although she has stated she is bisexual in Real Life. The MILF persona is not real, despite what fans think. This borders on Alter-Ego Acting.