For 25 years, Paul Heyman has been one of the most influential and controversial figures in the wrestling business. Now wrestling's evil genius is the subject of WWE's latest DVD and Blu-Ray documentary, "Ladies and Gentlemen, My Name is Paul Heyman."
In it, Heyman discusses his earliest years working in the AWA and NWA, his time leading the extreme wrestling revolution in ECW, and now as the spokesman for former WWE and UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar.
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In this interview, Heyman discusses the documentary's release, as well as his unique interview style, his thoughts on extreme wrestling revivals, and the night he blew up on Long Island wrestling fans.
CASTILLO: I imagine a couple years ago, even you wouldn't have thought WWE would be releasing a DVD about you. Whether it's true or not, there's at least a perception that, storylines aside, the McMahons over the years have not been the biggest Paul Heyman fans. So what does it say that they put this much time, effort and resources into releasing a DVD about you?
HEYMAN: I look at it from many different perspectives. Number one, I don't think I ever had any bigger advocate, besides my father, than Vince McMahon during the 1990s. There's a story that is recounted on the documentary. I was sitting in the office with Steven Chau in 2000, who was the president of the USA Network reporting directly to Barry Diller. This was at the time when WWE was in federal court in order to jump to Viacom off of USA Network. And USA was looking to fill the programming slot, and ECW was the frontrunner for that option at the time. And during the meeting, Steven Chau showed me a printed-out email that he had received the night before from Vince McMahon that said, "If your network doesn't do business with ECW and, more specifically, with Paul Heyman, you will be depriving your network of a great resource and your viewers of guaranteed great programming." And Vince had no reason to do that except it's what he felt at the time. He felt ECW was a great shop for the industry in terms of developing talent. So I can't tell you that I've spent my life butting heads with the McMahons. I've had my ups and downs with them, as anybody else in my position would. I would not have guessed three or four years ago that a documentary on my career would have been released by WWE. But I wouldn't have guessed three or four years ago that I would have been back in WWE.
CASTILLO: Or doing some of your best work in WWE, I imagine. It's what, 25 years into your career? And you've always been considered a pretty good performer. But especially the work with CM Punk last year through this year, people are talking about them being some of the greatest promos of your career. And, not just that -- some of the greatest promos in wrestling history. What, if anything, changed? Is it just age and maturity? You've always been good at promos. Why at this stage in your career has it been elevated so much?
HEYMAN: Well, thank you for your kind words on that. I think my perspective on what we're really supposed to be doing is more mature than it used to be. I approach my interviews with the mindset of: Exactly what are we selling? How can I sell it the hardest and the most effectively in the fewest words possible? And how can I make each word that I say mean as much as it possibly can? And I bring that perspective to the table because I used to focus a lot on the character that I had to play. And now I think I take the approach of remembering how effective my father was as an attorney, and remembering being a kid sitting in the court watching my father sell his case to the jury. So now the jury is the WWE Universe, and I'm advocating the sale of the pay per view or the programming or the rivalry or the concept that we're selling.
CASTILLO: Yeah, I agree. I covered courts for years for Newsday. And as a wrestling fan, there was nothing more compelling and no better promo than a good closing statement. I lived for it. There was nothing more fun than that. I'm assuming you're largely going out there on your own with some directions from the writing team, but clearly there's a difference between what you're doing and what many of the other superstars are doing. Is that an indictment on that very scripted approach? There's not a ton of people talking about many other promos, but everybody talks about yours. Is it a testament to the way you do it and an indictment against the way it's otherwise done?
HEYMAN: I don't think it's an indictment on the way things are done. I think it's an indictment on the process that has not been exploited properly by the talent. I am afforded a great luxury. I get to put a lot of my own promos together. But I don't do it sitting in a room by myself. I get to work with the writers. Usually, what I craft will end up being self-edited down when I'm out there. I usually have several different ways to go, and depending on how I hear it when I'm out there, I'll go down Avenue A, B or C. I never have every word planned out. It's just not the way I do it. I'm afforded that luxury because so far I haven't messed it up. And I approach every episode of "Raw" with a very realistic understanding that your promo on "Raw" is only your audition for next week's TV. If you walk out there with the arrogance thinking, "Oh, well, look at my body of work. I'm allowed a bad one." No you're not. You're not. It better be good. In fact, it better be great, because we're not here just to do good. I look at every performance as an audition to be able to perform next week as well.
CASTILLO: And, clearly, it's about more than the words. Some of the things I've watched you do recently that have really impressed me go beyond just the words that you put together. One little thing: When Cesaro was out there and lost to Kofi Kingston a few weeks ago, your facial reaction was priceless. And it was so honest, so natural. It wasn't the over-the-top hands on your head thing. It was just a real honest, "What the heck was that?" kind of thing. Does that come more naturally to you than it did before? Is it just living the moment and giving a natural reaction, or what your character's honest reaction would be?
HEYMAN: I broke into the business in the '80s, and the '80s was based on hyper-exaggerated reactions.
CASTILLO: Right, it was about playing to the back row.
HEYMAN: Absolutely. It was the age of Hulkamania and the interaction with the audience was very operatic. Today, because everything is distributed via video, whether it's television or digital, or YouTube, or the web, everything that you do ends up being broadcast on one platform or another. So I think the interaction is a lot more intimate. Back in the '80s, if you were to mumble to yourself, "Oh my God, I can't believe my guy just lost," you'd have to do it in such a fashion that you were looking toward the ceiling, the eyes are bulging out of your head, and it's like your trying to whisper to at a helicopter landing pad. It's, "Oh my God! I can't believe I'm speaking to myself and my guy has lost!" And today, you can actually mutter to yourself and look down at your shoes and it's going to be captured. So you can get that point across without, as the old saying goes, playing to the back row.
CASTILLO: Us being a Long Island news organization, I'd be remiss if I didn't go over this again: That time at the Nassau Coliseum where you ended up chewing out the fans. (Heyman was on commentary during the Nov. 5, 2001 episode of "Raw" and, during a commercial break, got on the microphone and lashed out at fans for not being enthusiastic throughout the night.) Being a little older and a little wiser, do you think you handled that the right way?
HEYMAN: I called them "the worst audience we ever performed in front of," and said "We shouldn't ever tape television here." I'm fine with it. It was a reaction for the moment. They were a lousy crowd that night. Here's the funny thing: Nothing drives a performance like an audience that gives back, and even takes over. ECW was a product that will be remembered as much, if not more, for its audience interaction as for the things that happened in the ring. The WWE Superstars look forward to every time they see Chicago on the schedule. We spend a year building toward WrestleMania, and the number-two thing everybody looks forward to is the "Raw" the day after WrestleMania, because it's the wildest crowd of the year. I'm from New York and I go to Chicago or the day after WrestleMania and see these wild crowds, and as a New Yorker, you want to say, "If this was in New York it would be even better." And you think about the legendary crowds at Madison Square Garden. So we bring a live, worldwide TV show, not to the Garden, but to the Nassau Coliseum, and the crowd is just sitting there with their thumbs up their tuckuses. It's like, "Hey, we're all New Yorkers and you're making New York look bad. Get up off your butt and make this show. And if you don't like the show, take over. Boo the show. Vociferously and energetically and passionately boo us out of the building. But don't just sit there." The opposite of loving the product isn't hating the product. It's apathy. And it makes for terrible television. Why is John Cena the biggest star in the industry? Because, whether you love him or you hate him, you're at the top of your lungs about him.
CASTILLO: Yeah, he elicits a reaction one way or the other.
HEYMAN: Right. So to come out to a show in New York -- and at the time I'm wearing New York hats just to tick off the rest of the world -- and you might as well have had this in a freezing cold arena in Anchorage, Alaska.
CASTILLO: You've seen that over the years. What contributes to that? It seems like a lot of the times it's pretty arbitrary and is not a reflection of how good a show is or isn't. Crowds are sometimes dead and it feels infectious. It feels like nobody's in the mood.
HEYMAN: The crowd is a performer. En masse, a crowd has its own personality, its own character. And there are going to be nights when the crowd delivers a great performance. And there are going to be nights when the crowd bombs.
CASTILLO: You brought up ECW. At one of those TNA tapings recently at the Manhattan Center it was, again, another ECW revival. It was Tazz and Rhino, and everyone was talking about ECW and soliciting "ECW" chants from the crowd. There ended up being a back-and-forth between Tazz and Wade Keller of the Pro Wrestling Torch about how relevant this is anymore. Is it time to move on? When you see that kind of thing -- the umpteenth ECW revival -- is it heartwarming for you know that there's still that passion for something you helped create? Or do you also think it's kind of time to move on?
HEYMAN: I think it's very much time for anybody and everybody to move on, especially on a product that you're trying to push forward. Nostalgia tours are great, but not in a youth oriented and dominated industry. I think the lesson learned in all this is that Spike TV didn't renew them. And one of the reasons has to be that the most passionate reaction they can get is for a product that went away in 2001. And they've been trying to brand themselves since their inception and they can't get it done. They should have spent that time and energy trying to brand themselves and not trying to elicit a response of an audience based on a product that they don't even own.