The business of pro wrestling - the art, the sport, the drama of pro wrestling - is predicated on selling tickets. If a great wrestling match is scheduled for one fall in the forest and nobody pays to see it, then it's not a great match.
There are a few different ways to sell tickets to a pro wrestling show. One of the best ways, though not the easiest, is with your mouth. A gifted wrestler or promoter or manager can get on the mic, look into the camera and tell the audience something that will get them out of their chairs and to the next live show, ready to hand over cash. What's said might be a promise, a prediction or a threat. It might even be a fib or an optimistic exaggeration ... but it has to sell tickets.
I don't believe there's anyone alive, in any language, who's better at selling tickets with their mouth than Paul Heyman. He's in a class by himself, at the very tippy-top. The past few years he's been on TV mostly as the manager - the "advocate"- for the current WWE Universal Champion, Brock Lesnar. Heyman was ringside in the Superdome when Lesnar broke the collective heart and spirit of the wrestling world by ending the Undertaker's 21-match WrestleMania undefeated streak, and he'll be ringside Sunday when Brock Lesnar defends his championship against Roman Reigns in WrestleMania 34's main event.
But Heyman stays busy. He's launched "An Evening with Paul Heyman," a series of freeform audience question-and-answer events, the next of which will be here at the Joy Theater on Thursday, April 5. When Heyman talks, he ensorcels the listener. At an "Evening" in London a couple years back he put forth a conspiracy theory about Lesnar ending the streak that, despite being in this humble scribe's opinion transparently unlikely (and that's being polite), racked up millions of views on YouTube. Heyman is a powerful spellcaster, and Thursday night at 10 p.m., attendees will have a long-form opportunity to witness him weave his magic.
Gambit: What can people who come to your show expect?
Heyman: A wild ride, because I don’t know what to expect. What makes our show different is that it’s completely in the hands of the audience. What do they want? We’ve advertised an Evening with Paul Heyman, and that’s the extent of the advertising. We have an intimate atmosphere for about 700 people. We all get in a room together at the same time, and we shoot the shit. That’s really what this is. A freeform, open discussion about anything that this particular gathering wants to talk about with me or amongst themselves, and it gets pretty lively, pretty quick.
Having done a few of these live shows, what’s surprised you most about them?
The detail and historic events recalled by some members of the audience, decades after the event took place. Just minor details, little things that make you realize the impact entertainment can have on someone’s life. I mean, you’re seeing it in Star Wars fans who live and breathe by every syllable ever uttered by Princess Leia or Han Solo. People who are obsessed with certain television shows and dissect the characters and the motivations and the inspirations behind those characters to a micro-degree that is a case study for a psychologist to look into.
And there are people who went to [wrestling] events many, many years ago that will recall, you know, the guy next to me wore a green shirt, and I remember looking at his green shirt and then looking back to the ring, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. Just how vivid these images are, embedded in people’s minds, makes you truly appreciate the accountability you have as a performer to provide something that people will remember for the rest of their lives.
Is there a difference between the Paul Heyman that we see on TV and the Paul Heyman who's on the mic at these shows?
Well, you have me for a lot longer period of time. The Paul Heyman you see on television is limited by the nature of the television show to 10 to 15 minutes on a Monday night. This is 90 minutes to two hours of interaction with me, for better or for worse. So you get a lot more of me, and you know, there’s both an upside and a downside to that equation.
As great as you are on the mic, is there a switch that you flip when you come out from behind the curtain, or is it just a part of you that you’ve cultivated?
You know, that’s a very interesting question, I was just discussing this with someone the other day. There is no conscious decision to flip the switch. I think the switch just gets flipped for me internally going through the curtain, and even just the last few steps you take before you go through that curtain. The proverbial stepping into the shoes of the character. But I think what happens is you inhabit the being that you present to the audience on television. Anyone who is around me will tell you: my breathing pattern changes when I walk through the curtain. The manner in which I carry myself changes when I walk through the curtain.
The best example I can give you is - and there are other performers who can articulate this far better than I can - if you have a really bad cold or the 'flu, or even, I’ve seen people with walking pneumonia do this, and you just don’t feel well. You sit in your locker room all day dreading the fact that you have to perform at a top level on live, worldwide television, but when you walk through the curtain, being sick is the last thing on your mind. You don’t feel sick at all. Your character is not sick. The persona that you inhabit is not sick.
The moment you come back through the curtain, you want to drop. But while you’re out there, you feel great, because that’s the time to feel great.
At the beginning of your career, you managed the fan clubs for some all-time great managers. Is there someone in particular whose style or approach got you to rethink your own promos or your own mic work?
I’m challenged by everyone that speaks on a microphone anywhere in a public forum or on television. Am I influenced by them? No, because I know what is authentic with the persona that I present, but there are people out there right now whose work I greatly admire and think they’re doing innovative, progressive things on a microphone that work so well for their personas, that it’s going to propel them to a higher platform by next year’s WrestleMania.
Just for example, the Usos. The Usos are the most compelling tag team on a microphone I’ve seen in decades. And they’re just scratching the surface of this new way for them to present their promos, so I can’t wait to see what develops in the next year with their style. It wouldn’t work for me, obviously, but what I do wouldn’t work for them. So in terms of being true to themselves, the Usos are the perfect example of what happens when you get in touch with who you are and present that to the public.
While you’ve done a tremendous job as the advocate for Lesnar, I’ve always thought he was an underrated [speaker]. Was there a conscious decision that he’d be less verbal this most recent run?
I don’t know what Brock Lesnar can say about himself that truly encapsulates what a once-ever athlete he truly is. How can someone, in an industry that is predicated on being a larger than life personality that embellishes your own accomplishments, how can someone then with credibility present who they are, what they’ve done, what they’re capable of?
Doesn’t it take someone with previous experience of success in this industry, be it the Dangerous Alliance in WCW or the critical success of ECW, or my commentary with Jim Ross, doesn’t it take someone with an extended resume to be able to describe the accomplishments of Brock Lesnar in order for it to carry his credibility?
Because otherwise, Brock could be wrongfully lumped into the category of, "Well, everyone in that industry exaggerates who they are and what they’ve done, and he is just one of them." And the fact is, I have the easiest job in the world, because all I have to do is articulate the verifiable accomplishments of Brock Lesnar. I never have to embellish or exaggerate when it comes to him.
[content-1] Fair enough. All right, this is a little bit of an offbeat question, but as skilled as you are at controlling an audience, or leading them and shaping their emotional reaction, does having that control ever weary you? Are there times it feels like a burden that you want to set down?
No. I grew up watching my father in the courtroom present the case to the jury, and that’s exactly what I feel I do. I present my case, or the case of my client to the jury, and the jury in this case happens to be the WWE Universe. Or in New Orleans, the jury will be the 700 people in the room with me at the Joy Theater on Thursday night. So it’s just a matter of making the case. I’m just presenting my case, and it’s up to the recipient to decide whether they agree with me or they’d like to disagree with me and express their opinion as well.
Having accomplished so much in professional wrestling and outside of it, is there something left that you’d really like to do that you haven’t? An itch you still want to scratch?
Firmly establishing myself as the greatest advocate of all time, exploiting the opportunities that are created by the box office appeal of Brock Lesnar and being even a part the parent to my children that my parents were to me are all the very lofty goals that I strive to achieve on a daily basis.
What’s been the challenge for you in doing these "Evening with Paul Heyman" shows?
Oh, well, walking in the door in and of itself has been the challenge, because I don’t know the pulse of the audience until I'm in the midst of them. So you have to be prepared for anything, and the ironic thing about preparing for anything is you’re prepared for nothing. You just have to expose yourself to being completely vulnerable to whichever direction the audience wants to take the show, or questions that the audience wants to ask, or discussions that the audience wants to have. If you try to prepare your answers, there’s way too much ground to cover, so you just take a deep breath and you go along with the audience for the ride.
Are there some wrestlers in the past who you think were underrated talkers?
There are some very talented people who never got in touch with who they themselves were until after the spotlight was off of them. And if they had the chance to come alive in front of the camera the same way Steve Austin did, the same way Dwayne Johnson did, the same way any of the great talkers of the past generation have, I think we would have had other people up for debate for best talker of the past five years, best talker of the decade, best talker of the generation. Some people just need to find themselves.
Watch what happens when Shawn Michaels broke away from The Rockers and inhabited the persona of the Heartbreak Kid. You know, it wasn’t just the fact that a lot of what he was doing was taboo, it was the manner in which he presented himself. It was the way that he delivered his lines. You can give anybody shocking things to say, but can they say it in a way that draws an audience and sells tickets and drives network subscriptions? So yes, there are several people that I’ve seen who were underrated. There are even more people that I’ve seen that ended up being underutilized.
This is probably a question you get asked a lot, but are you eager to ever try your hand at booking again?
I have my hands full at the moment participating in the layout of whatever is done regarding Brock Lesnar, and along with my other responsibilities, it’s a full-time gig. I very much hear and appreciate the semi-clamoring for me to return to the position of being the lead writer on a project and perhaps I will, though whether it’s a sports entertainment project or not, I don’t know. It might be a TV series, a movie, or something else. But in terms of “booking,” I don’t see the opening for that at the moment, nor am I keeping a keen eye on whether that opening exists or will come into fruition anytime soon.
I realize your focus is always on your client, Brock Lesnar - and just on a personal note, I found the end of the streak literally traumatizing - but this time around, is there another match on the WrestleMania card you feel particularly excited about?
You know, this is going to sound like a very diplomatic answer, or a very prepared statement, but really, I’m looking forward to the whole show, and here’s why: no-one goes to a Broadway show or a movie - or if they do, they’re just ruining their own time- and only cares about one thing on the show. You go to a movie for the entire experience. You go to a Broadway show for the entire experience.
You know, the very first question you asked me, what can people expect? And I said a ride. That’s the best thing I can offer an audience, a wild ride. If it's something that leaves you breathless, that way you walk away from a show, you say: That was the greatest WrestleMania of all time. And, oh, I wish this guy won, oh I wish that female accomplished her goals... but in the end, you walk away having to catch your breath saying man, I will never forget this night.
No one wants to walk away saying, Hey, that was pretty good, but you know what? Last year’s was better. Or, the one a couple years ago blew me away more. Everyone wants to go with the desire that on the flip side of a show you walk away saying, Nothing compares to that; how are they ever going to top it? And that’s the desire for every performer on the show as well. That’s what everyone who will go through the curtain at WrestleMania has on their mind: how can I make this the most memorable show in these people’s minds? How could I make them remember what’s on the shirt of the guy next to me?
I think you said it best: You were there when Brock Lesnar conquered the Undertaker’s WrestleMania undefeated streak. You were traumatized by it. I love that word. From this entire conversation, for the rest of the day, I will remember that word. I mean, that’s what we seek: a heightened emotion that you can never shake. That to this day, when you said it, you say it with great pain: I was traumatized. You didn’t just throw the word out, you said it with passion: I was traumatized by it. And I loved hearing that, because that’s what we’re after. We’re after something that becomes part of you, that 50 years from now when you’re sitting with your grandchildren and they say tell me a story, you say, You know I was there on the night that Brock Lesnar conquered the streak? They’ll say, Wow, really? What was it like? Oh, it took my breath away, still does to this moment.
And that’s what you look for. Moments like that, that become part of people’s lives, that when you meet them 10 years later, they can’t wait to say to you, Hey, I was there. It’s a shared experience. And it’s a shared moment. And you share the oxygen in the room with people that are experiencing this in their own lives, something as intense as you’re experiencing in yours.