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Laughably Bad: The Plight of the Comedic Heel

For the last eighteen months or so, I’ve been saying I’m going to write this – and after a short break from accessibility reviews to clear my head, it’s time. I personally think that the comedic heel has the hardest time making themselves known, presented, and indispensable to promotions. If you think about a basic booking line-up, you’ve got your major title players, a jostling mid-card, and some up-and-comers moving into the ranks. Certainly, there’s room for comedy in wrestling, and anyone who says there isn’t is missing a huge and vital part of wrestling as a performance art, but it very often falls on the face characters to uphold that comedy, rather than those they oppose.

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Poor Damian suffering through a surprise kiss from Travis Banks in ATTACK!

For example, in my most recent piece about Jack Sexsmith, and in watching his wrestling, the comedic aspect of his wrestling vanished alongside his friendly, approachable nature as he turned heel. Comedic heels are seen as weaker, less threatening, less likely to achieve their aims; and that goes right down to the booking, because if you can’t believe someone is a credible threat, you won’t believe that they can win.

This isn’t to say that a good heel can’t be funny – Jimmy Havoc has made that point moot several times, because we’ve seen him in a party hat, and we’ve seen him try to cut pieces off Will Ospreay, because the fact that he’s got a sense of humour and lets you laugh with him doesn’t stop him being a credible threat. It’s the difference between the Joker and the Riddler – the Joker might be laughing at something, or might dress in a way which would possibly be considered silly, but if you laugh at him at the wrong time, you know you’re going to regret it. Whereas the Riddler has often been condensed down into a joke, to the point that he’s in the Arkham games literally as a completionist’s issue. You’re never going to struggle booking Havoc against anyone, because he can always be a credible threat, annoyed by a small slight, or picking a fight just because – but when you’re a full comedic heel, you have to have more reason to get aggressive.

birthday haskins jimmy
Jimmy Havoc entering into the party spirit for Mark Haskins’ birthday at Progress. Photo credit James Musselwhite

Which is where, for this, ATTACK! Pro Wrestling comes in. Everything that happens in ATTACK! is like someone took acid during a gas leak and the resultant fever dream got booked as a wrestling show – from Eddie Dennis performing a dance routine mid-match to Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne cosplaying as each other to slut-dropping police officers, ATTACK! doesn’t work the way any other sort of wrestling show does. Which has made it the perfect place for the Anti-Fun Police to exist. (I can’t explain ATTACK! further, just go buy a few of their shows or buy tickets to go to a show if you can, because if I tried to explain, I’d be talking Dada and surrealism and all sorts of things that would still cease to explain how awesome it is. Just go watch.)

trav fun police

The Anti-Fun Police is exactly what it sounds like – a group of “police officers” often greeted with the chant “you’re not a real policeman” who go around making sure that no one has any fun. That this leads to wrestling matches which are inexplicably incredibly fun doesn’t seem to have filtered through to management, but that’s bureaucracy for you. Chief of the Anti-Fun Police is Damian Dunne, and he’s essentially the reason for this piece of writing. Because this is a man who works incredibly hard at making people laugh through being no fun whatsoever, and who I feel deserves a hell of a lot more respect for doing this.

Other members of the Anti-Fun Police, both active and non, include Travis Banks, the Hunter Brothers, Los Federales Santos Jr., Joe Nelson, and Millie McKenzie. While all have been incredibly important parts, Santos is the current mainstay of backup for the Chief, a man whose masked identity shrouds him in mystery, and who speaks English as a third language; after Spanish and Welsh. Travis Banks was a large part of storylines in ATTACK!, where he became the Chief of the Anti Anti-Fun Police, because as I probably offended the man with the other day, he’s wasted on serious wrestling. Comedy Travis is Best Travis, fight me.

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Anti-Fun Police from Attack! Mistletour 2018. Photo by Ringside Perspective.

But that’s the point. There’s this idea that comedic wrestling is something that is great, and makes a good show, and is all good fun – but that it’s not “real” wrestling. You might get the odd funny moment in a Progress show, but you only get two shows a year that are based entirely around humour, and neither of those is canonical – that is, fits within the then current Progress storyline. You might get humorous snippets in a WWE show, but it’s a side storyline, never the main one. Comedy wrestling doesn’t get titles, comedy wrestling might get an underdog story, but comedy wrestling doesn’t work as the story vehicle for championships. Except in ATTACK!, but as we’ve said, they’re sort of bucking the trend on that, and even there, once Damian Dunne became their champion, some of the humour dropped away. ATTACK! are the exception to every rule, because they let a comedic heel be both loved and hated, as well as a champion, and I respect them to no end for that.

Damian Dunne is a great wrestler. That’s not up for debate; the man’s always been able to hold a crowd in the palm of his hand, keep attention, and drive storylines, and since he’s gone full time in the last year, he’s improved physically as well, where he was no slouch before. I love watching him be funny – at Kamikaze the other night, I got to watch him write his own rulebook and demand the others in the match don’t run, kick-out, or “do knee stuff – that’s my thing”. I’ve never seen the man break into a smile or laugh when he’s meant to be serious, which is a hell of a skill when you’ve seen some of the matches he’s been in! There’s no question that he loves what he does and continually pushes the character towards greater things. But is he held back by the comedic heel idea of being unable to tell a story and manipulate the crowd into certain emotions? Maybe.

It’s true, you want to cheer the comedic heel, you want to enjoy them and the way they make you laugh. The Anti-Fun Police get more cheers these days than they do boos, and far more laughter than cheers. There may be an attempt to boo them, but no one seems to mind if you ignore the rules a little and cheer the heel if they’re funny. This isn’t the way you boo a personal favourite who you know to be working a heel gimmick – what I call the ‘boo – I love you – boo” moment, but is a genuine like for someone who is making you laugh.

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Spike Trivet making his presence known at Riptide. Photo by Rob Brazier.

The thing is, the way a heel is used in a story changes how you see them. Spike Trivet, in Riptide, is scathingly hilarious in a way that makes me laugh and then hate myself for laughing, because he’s a terrible, terrible man. But he’s terrible because his actions carry weight; he interferes in matches that are important, injures people, pays off referees to make sure he gets the results he wants. These actions have ramifications beyond that one show, that carry through to the next show, and the next, constantly disrupting and changing the title picture into one that suits him. He’s an effective heel, and so he’s allowed to be funny and make the crowd laugh, just as long as we still despise him for his actions. And those actions led him to a point where he managed to get Riptide management to schedule a match against Jack Sexsmith, where the winner takes the #1 contender’s spot for the Riptide title. Spike’s machinations were powerful enough that despite not even being in the Riptide Rumble, he could still stand to walk away with the prize – and due to a recent retirement speech from Sexsmith, he now stands to face Chuck Mambo for the Riptide Championship.

In the same promotion, Dunne and Santos have been making regular rounds, ensuring that the Riptide crowd don’t have any fun – but they’ve had no accomplishments. They’ve faced off against Session Moth Martina, TV actor Dave Benson Phillips, and poor Santos has even had a lion put on his back, but they’ve not walked away with any particular accolades. Most recently, Santos attempted to audition for New Lykos (an ATTACK! invitational match put on at a Riptide show) and Damian was quick to tell him that he needed to go to the back and stop having so much fun. And the crowd loved the resultant silly match which led to Kid Lykos pinning New Kid Lykos (Santos) to become New Kid Lykos. Which meant that even in a silly match, for minor stakes… the prize Santos had beaten three other men to reach was taken away from him.

lion on santos
“THERE’S A LION ON MY BACK!” from Santos, as Lion Kid looks pleased with himself for putting Simba there. Photo by Rob Brazier.

This is the plight of the comedic heel; that even when they win it’s a joke in someone else’s story, and often taken away from them. Their victories rarely carry from show to show, thus not allowing them to gather momentum, which is what’s needed to create a believable build up to bigger stories, matches with larger consequences, or title runs. The comedic face doesn’t have this problem, although they may need to get a little more serious if they want a title, because the audience’s laughter becomes love. With a comedic heel, the laughter becomes love; a problem for a heel character, and further stunts their ability to achieve things. Promotions don’t know how to further this, how to give accomplishments to the heel characters who are funny, rather than scary.

At the most recent Riptide show, Point Break 2019, when Trivet didn’t get his own way, he was infuriated to the point of grabbing Rosa Rose, the announcer, and attacking her in order to get what he wanted. Now, that’s great heel work, and it’s being rewarded appropriately with a #1 contender spot and the sort of anger and rage from the crowd that’s stronger than from jumping another wrestler. But in the same show, Dunne and Santos were part of an eight-person tag team match that served as light entertainment. Trivet didn’t even have a match, but his actions were memorable, and had consequences. The tag match, on the other hand, had nothing on the line.

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What it looks like when you give the comedic heel the chance to succeed in your company.

I’m not ever about to call for comedic heels to vanish, because I love them, and they’re part of that gloriously pantomime side of wrestling, where even though the villain is laughable and you know they fail in the end, they’re still an integral part of the story. Without the comedic heel, a wrestling show can get intense and stressful. If every match has to have consequences, then the planning of shows has to be complex enough to require string and a corkboard and probably a degree in quantum mechanics, and you just can’t expect that. But wrestling companies need to give their comedic heels a chance to grow and flourish, giving them those big-stakes matches and those strong stories. ATTACK! have proven that it can be done, and that you can still have stakes to care about, even if both your face and heel characters normally make you laugh. And it doesn’t surprise me that Defiant and ICW are following suit in letting Damian Dunne lead the way for a comedic heel to be seriously considered for title runs and high-stakes matches. After all, if you want something done properly, you go to the best.

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