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.