TV

The Deaths Of Mean Gene And Super Dave Are Big Losses For Fans Of Absurdity

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On Wednesday, we learned that both Gene Okerlund and Bob Einstein had passed away and it felt like a double whammy to everyone that grew up watching the two. It’s weird, both inhabit such a specific era in time that I was actually surprised that I couldn’t find a clip of these two together as Mean Gene and Super Dave Osborne. Both, in their own unique way, had a gift for selling the absurd.

Professional wrestling is one of the very few entities that I loved as a ten-year-old that didn’t translate into something I still enjoy as an adult. From the outside looking in, the WWE looks bigger than ever, but it also feels, like most everything today, more niche. It’s something that a viewer still has to actively seek out. The thing I’ve noticed most about professional wrestling today is that there really aren’t any casual fans – you either love wrestling or you don’t care at all. (And I have many friends who love wrestling.)

With that being how wrestling is today, it’s kind of hard to explain the WWF of the 80s and 90s to people. It was somehow more mainstream. When Saturday Night Live was off, NBC would often air WWF’s Saturday Night’s Main Event instead. Imagine tuning in for SNL and seeing 90 minutes of wrestling, opened by Animotion’s “Obsession” as a theme song. There was even a Saturday morning cartoon that, strangely, featured no actual wrestling. (For example, there’s an episode that focuses on the Iron Sheik not being able to pass a driving test.)

At the heart and soul of all of this was Mean Gene Okerlund. It’s hard to describe, but when you’re a little kid and you’re watching wrestling for the first time, it’s very strange. But what Mean Gene was brilliant at doing was making all of this absurdity accessible. At first sight, he seemed like someone you’d been already watching for years. There was a sense of integrity, which was weird for a scripted sport that wasn’t all that open about being scripted at the time.

But, man, could Gene Okerlund ever sell it. My parents would tell me it was all fake, but how could any of this be fake when Mean Gene was taking it all so seriously? Gene Okerlund was our guide through this strange world and I’m not convinced the popularity of the WWF in the 1980s happens without him. Here are literal giants on our television yelling and screaming week after week, and then there’s Gene Okerlund, treating the whole thing like he’s interviewing a senator. Maybe that’s why I don’t really pay attention to wrestling today – because there’s no else like Mean Gene Okerlund.

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These days, Bob Einstein was, of course, probably best known for playing Marty Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm. But there’s a subset of people — Gen X kids like myself — who will always see him and whisper to themselves, “Super Dave.” Who out there remembers Bizarre? (Very few of you reading this, probably.) Well, Bizarre was a Canadian-based comedy sketch comedy show hosted by John Byner that was also broadcast on Showtime. Other than Super Dave Osborne — which served as a parody of popular TV daredevil Evel Knievel — the only other thing I remember about Bizarre was that I wasn’t allowed to watch it. So, of course, I watched it every chance that I could, but all I remember was there was a lot of profanity and nudity. Doing an online search for it now, there are a few DVD compilations available branded with the word “Uncensored!,” which is never a great sign.

But thinking back, yes, it was exciting to watch something I wasn’t supposed to, but the real draw was Super Dave Osborne. And, obviously, others agreed since Super Dave was the only character that survived Bizarre and became an entity of its own. Einstein, in character as Super Dave, became a favorite guest of both Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Super Dave was somehow both mainstream funny enough to hang out with Carson, yet was niche and hip enough to be on Letterman.

The brilliance of Einstein’s Super Dave is that we all knew what the joke would be. Super Dave would get annoyed about some aspect of a stunt he was supposed to perform (no one did “annoyed face” better than Einstein), something would go wrong, then Super Dave would basically be badly injured or killed. We all knew it was coming. Einstein knew we knew it was coming. It didn’t matter. Somehow the setup and execution were funnier every time. It’s like a repetitive joke that gets funnier the longer it goes on. (Like the “you can say that again” scene from They Came Together.)

Of course, this was perfect for a host like David Letterman, who was at the time doing an almost cynical, meta-commentary on late night talk shows anyway. And here’s Einstein, doing pretty much the same thing, letting everyone know over and over that this joke is absurd, but here it comes anyway.

In their own separate ways, Mean Gene and Einstien’s Super Dave acted almost as tour guides through the pop culture landscape of another era. In their own way, they both helped shape the Gen X mentality (whatever that is, sellout) and they won’t be forgotten.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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