In 2003, in The New Yorker, David Denby wrote of the taxonomy of movie villainy: “A perennial issue in popular melodrama: How do you create villains evil enough to arouse the anger of the righteous? Many people enjoy violence in movies, but they want to feel justified in their enjoyment; they want to feel that some characters are so far beyond the pale that good folks have little choice but to kill them. The Nazis always qualify, as did Soviet spies (in the old days) and serial murderers, cannibals, rapists, drug lords, persons of indeterminate Third World origin, giant bugs and lizards, ambitious machines, Willem Dafoe.”
In pro wrestling, especially in the ’80s, all of the above apply — just replace Mr. Dafoe with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who died on Sunday at 73. The wrestling manager has historically been a simple machine engineered to draw the ire of the crowd — what baby oil and face paint did to demonize the physique, so the heel manager did to play havoc on the ears of the unsuspecting audience. When the villain du jour was too mealy-mouthed, or too — gasp — likable to get sufficient boos on his own, the resident heel manager would supply the detestability necessary to rival the local hero. And when the hero was the constant and his enemies disposable, it was the heel manager who played the recurring role of malevolence.
If obituaries are prone to otherworldly praise, especially in the superhuman realm of pro wrestling, allow me to be plain: Nobody — nobody — played that role better than Bobby Heenan, and nobody ever will again.
He started off as so many non-wrestler wrestling icons do, as a hanger-on, carrying wrestlers’ bags and working the concession stands. He started managing because he was too scrawny to wrestle, and though he eventually wrestled, his most famous turns in the ring were moments of celestial comeuppance at the hands of his babyface foils — moments belied by his loudmouth managerial persona: “You manage as a wrestler and wrestle as a manager,” he was fond of saying in describing his technique.
The moment most people remember about Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wasn’t one of his best promos or an instance of comic embarrassment, but a scene when his presence did (almost) all of the talking. It was “Piper’s Pit” in February 1987 where Andre the Giant revealed himself as Hulk Hogan’s foil. When Andre appeared on the set, accompanied by Heenan, Hogan was aghast to see his old friend accompanied by his most persistent antagonist. “What’re you doing with him? You guys aren’t together! Come on, man!” Turning heel in pro wrestling has its stages of the cross: posing narcissistically, telling fans to shut up, hitting your erstwhile partner with a chair, and aligning with a nefarious manager. Andre siding with Heenan wasn’t a business transaction, it was a declaration of moral turpitude.
Andre didn’t beat Hogan, despite Heenan’s antic confidence. The heels rarely did in those days. In an interview that presaged his more famous confrontation with Vince McMahon in 2001, Bob Costas called Heenan the Gene Mauch of wrestling — the most successful manager never to win the championship. But that misses the point. If Mauch’s inability to reach the pinnacle was a postscript, Heenan’s was preordained. And if Mauch was a metaphor after the fact, Heenan was a living embodiment of the dramatic tension of looming — but never fulfilled — dread. The fact that he was a delightfully surly talk show guest was a bonus.
Throughout his life, people praised Heenan’s comedic brilliance. It’s true — he was the funniest person to ever grace the pro wrestling stage by a wide margin. But with all due respect to his wit, I’d wager that his greatest gift was his knack for the most central part of wrestling: storytelling. Maybe this is the rub of his “manage like a wrestler” mantra — he constructed miniature dramaturgy at every turn. He didn’t just blather repetitive insults backstage and wave his arms dully at ringside like so many others of his ilk. His promos had a purpose, and his ringside presence was as much payoff as what happened in the ring. When he shifted into the role of color commentary alongside WWF mainstay Gorilla Monsoon, his storytelling took flight: He could tell the story of a match from start to finish, not as it was, but how he — Heenan, the heel — wanted it to be. Between pithy one-liners (“A friend in need is a pest”), Heenan trolled Monsoon and the audience, willfully misrepresenting villainous high jinks, and along the way an entire alternative history of the WWF was built in Heenan’s simulcast.
Monsoon: That was an illegal move!
Heenan: No it wasn’t.
Monsoon: Yes it was!
Heenan: No, it was a legal move, it was a Greco-Roman Hair Pull.
It was at the 1992 Royal Rumble when Heenan’s storytelling hit its apex. Ric Flair entered at no. 3 in the 30-man field and eventually won the match, and the WWF title. Heenan was an adviser to Flair and unapologetically in favor of him throughout the match. And while he had his share of reinterpretations (“He just tried to lift the Undertaker!” he said upon witnessing a Flair low blow), the power of the call was in his plaintiff emotion. (“That’s not Fair to Flair!”) Flair wrestled for over an hour in the bout, an extreme physical exhibition by any estimation. Watching the match, Heenan’s commentary was just as impressive, and, arguably, as much of a marathon.
Some of Heenan’s finest moments came on Prime Time Wrestling, a studio show that bore witness to the disarmingly sentimental relationship that he and Monsoon shared. (When Monsoon died in 1999, Heenan tearfully eulogized him from the announce desk.) But it was also a forum for Heenan’s comedic chops. He was such a good talker that he didn’t even need the fans or even his cohost as his foil: Some of his best work was when he was on the phone to an imaginary “Miss Betty.”
In wrestling, the manager’s job isn’t really to be evil, despite the in-character protestations of boy scouts like Hogan. No, the goal is to be deliciously — lovably — evil. Everybody wanted to see the hero get their hands on Heenan, but they’d just as soon see him forced to wear a weasel suit. That particular sketch, made famous versus the Ultimate Warrior, was piloted in the AWA against Greg Gagne. The match was preface, the suit was merely a tool. The agony is the reward. The broad comedy, the tripping over the tail, the meteoric ignominy. The scene ends with Warrior gone and Heenan flailing. Any other match would have closed with the hero gloating, but Heenan’s embarrassment was the purest victory. He wasn’t much of a worker, but as a performer he was a one-man wrecking crew.
Heenan’s physical comedy, his acid wit, and his revisionism on commentary were all part of the same product: a subtle undermining of the entire craft. In his later days he complained about the death of kayfabe (as do most old-timers in the wrestling world), but this wasn’t a contradiction. Heenan’s work was something altogether different. Laughing along with Heenan despite his apparent villainy let us feel like we were in on the joke. “Parts Unknown,” he once quipped of the infamous anti-hometown of many of wrestling’s most mystical figures, “usually means downtown Newark.”
In their interview, Costas said that “John Madden has dubbed you ‘The smartest man in all of sports.’” (Heenan: “You can say that again if you want.” Costas: “The smartest man in all of sports.” Heenan: “That has a nice ring to it, don’t it?” Ring Lardner would have been proud.) Whether or not that was true, Heenan was clearly the smartest man in wrestling, and not just in the fashion of a know-it-all heel manager who dubs himself “the Brain” and wears the title embroidered on his sateen jacket. For the average viewer — “People who got a brown sock and a white sock and pair at home just like ’em,” as Heenan would call us — he was the Rosetta Stone that allowed us to really understanding wrestling. By denying the truth of what we were all seeing in the ring, he gave voice to the farce, and in doing so he gave it a subversive sort of legitimacy.
There was one other Hogan moment on which Heenan’s presence made an impact. At WCW Bash at the Beach 1996, the night when Hogan joined the nWo and turned heel, Heenan was on the announce team and wasn’t privy to what was about to happen. (Management preferred to keep the announcers in the dark and let them react organically.) Falling back on his glass-half-empty shtick, Heenan accidentally presaged the surprising turn: “Whose side is he on?!”
It was exactly the right question, but nobody even considered that anyone would ask it. The line was edited out of subsequent broadcasts, which tells you exactly what you need to know about Bobby “The Brain” Heenan: He was always fully in the moment and somehow one step ahead of us at the same time.