In the same decade I was born, professional wrestling took a brave new turn—it stopped pretending it was real. While wrestling’s been around since the early 20th century, it wasn’t exactly popular through the middle decades. But, thanks in large part to Vince McMahon, pro wrestling stopped trying to hide that it was mostly fake. The pretense was dropped and audiences were free to believe and disbelieve the reality of it all—often at the same time.
Kurt Andersen explores this in more detail in his recent book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. He observes that in the eighties, pro wrestling “was a transgressive fun con.” And then he expands:
In professional wrestling matches, an occasional, inevitable bit of unscripted authenticity was known as a shoot—old-time carnival lingo for when the gunsight on a shooting gallery’s rifle aimed accurately. The standard fakery of matches in pro wrestling was known as work, and in the 1980s WWF producers invented the worked shoot: as one historian (and fantasy novelist) explains, they started incorporating “the real events of wrestlers’ personal lives as part of the story…alcoholism, cheating relationships, childhood trauma and problems with the law are fused from reality into fantasy.”
Andersen, as part of his larger argument, concludes that a “worked shoot” is the best metaphor for our recent cultural transformation. Indeed, once you keep that idea in mind, you can start to find it everywhere. Not only will you see it in professional wrestling and other spectacles on the reality TV spectrum, it’s a feature of most of our entertainment and even political discourse. And it may even be part of our personal lives.
Consider the recent Jim Carrey documentary on Netflix, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. The film is 90 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage of Carrey on the set of the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, interspersed with an interview of Carrey twenty years after the fact. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember that Carrey’s performance as the legendary comedian is eerily spot on.
What you discover in watching the documentary is that Carrey sort of became Andy Kaufman for the duration of the movie’s filming. And by “sort of” I mean he lived and acted as if he was Andy Kaufman until Man on the Moon was completely shot. While this is perhaps not too unusual for method actors—Daniel Day Lewis comes to mind—it is an interesting twist when the character being portrayed is not only a historical individual, but one that was recently alive. This phenomenon also allowed Carrey to inhabit Kaufman’s pre-existing relationships.
Perhaps not uncoincidentally, one of these was with professional wrestler Jerry Lawler. In some of the most uncomfortable scenes in the documentary, Carrey (as Kaufman) goes to great length to be antagonistic toward Lawler, who it seems, can’t tell how much of the worked shoot is an actual shoot.
Several years back, I experienced a similar occurrence. I was able to interview the frontman for the band mewithoutYou, Aaron Weiss. We began by discussing spirit animals, although I ultimately wanted to talk about theology. At one point, he said, in reference to his recent enrollment at Temple, “The simple process of being in grad school has caused me to limit my truth claims.”
As we continued the discussion, the conversation ended on an interesting note. We talked of religious epistemology and truth claims, and Aaron explained how he believes God can communicate directly to people’s souls. But that is a fairly privatized sort of thing, and what is revealed to you is not something you should encourage other people to believe, much less force on them in an evangelistic sense.
“I would encourage you to not accept any of my ideas, you know, I don’t think they are remotely trustworthy to anyone else,” he said. In and of itself, this wasn’t a noteworthy thing to say, but then he continued. “I’m talking with you because this is part of my job in a weird way. I happen to like talking with you, just on a personal level. You know I enjoy your spirit and your disposition and your mind—you know what I mean?”We are scripting the reality given to us for a watching world. While perhaps this is unavoidable, we can aim to steward our task well and aim to be as authentic as is reasonable.
I acknowledged that the feeling is mutual, and note that we could probably a have had really long and interesting conversation, if we had had enough time on our hands. Aaron rather heartily agreed, and then added, “But, I think at the same time, it helps me to unplug for a moment from the concept that anything that I’m saying should be taken even remotely seriously by the readers of your publication, at all. I don’t presume that at all.”
He then noted, “This is my job. For a living I come and play shows, and I talk to people when my manager tells me to talk to people, and I pack up my gear when my manager tells me to do that, and so, on that level, I would really discourage anyone from taking anything that they read that I’m saying too seriously. I’d say to take it with a grain of salt, and move on.”
We talked for about 90 more seconds after that, but then the manager popped in and said it was go time, and so we hugged, and I left and went out and enjoyed the show.
When I re-listened to the interview the next day, I tried to make sense of what he was really saying. I didn’t have this concept of a “worked shoot” in mind, but that’s kind of what the whole thing was. It was a staged/fake philosophical discussion with the lead singer of band that I like. We made an authentic connection, I think, but it was also all part of the act, as he pointed out toward the end. I never felt he was being disingenuous, but he was very adamant that I not take the things he was saying seriously. He told me he liked talking to me, but was that a real admission or something he tells every interviewer? Does he also hug every interviewer? I guess I’ll never really know.
As a result, I was a bit stuck on what to do with the interview footage these past couple of years. On the one hand, Aaron gave me what I came to interview him for (clarity on his religious views). But then, he took it away by saying I shouldn’t really believe anything he says—in the green room or on the stage.
When I watched Jim & Andy, I realized a very similar thing was happening. Although I didn’t have category of a “worked shoot,” I was primed to disbelieve a bit of what Carrey was saying in his commentary on the footage. Carrey’s commentary in the film, in an Inception-like layering, is itself a worked shoot. While the documentary implies that Carrey is authentically reflecting on his role as Andy Kaufman, smart viewers will discern the ruse. Given what Carrey is commenting on, and the length that he went twenty years ago to be someone else for entertainment purposes, why would one assume that anytime the camera is rolling, any actor is being purely authentic?
In an age of scripted reality TV, and celebrities who revel in constantly being watched, all the world is really a stage. As with Jim Carrey in Jim & Andy (and perhaps Aaron Weiss in mewithoutYou), fantasy and reality are often indistinguishable. In the conclusion to Andersen’s book, he makes it clear that he’s not against fantasy in and of itself. Yet he rails against the obvious problem of intertwining fantasy and reality to such an extent that they can no longer be untangled. For a long time, Anderson felt post-Enlightenment reason maintained the guardrails of reality and truth. But in many ways, this is no longer the case.
And, like it or not, we are a tad complicit in this blending of fantasy and reality. In a sense, each of us who possesses an “online” self will struggle with the above consequences to some extent. It’s not that what one puts on the internet for public consumption isn’t real, it’s that it is airbrushed—whether physically or spiritually. At best, it’s a picture of reality that is skewed toward the fantastic elements of our everyday life. I’m using “fantastic” in both senses here, meaning “extraordinarily good or attractive,” but also “imaginative or fanciful.” Some will level this imbalance out with an occasional dose of hard reality. Or maybe they’ll note struggles of religious doubt. But for many of us, our online persona is itself a carefully crafted worked shoot.
We are scripting the reality given to us for a watching world. While perhaps this is unavoidable, we can aim to steward our task well and aim to be as authentic as is reasonable—this is also true for the church as a whole. We should take our own cultivated picture of reality with a grain of salt, while doing the same for the images we see of our online neighbors. Our neighbors don’t necessarily have a right to an unfiltered picture of our personal reality, but they do have a right to a picture that isn’t airbrushed into fantasyland. And that’s something we should all shoot for.