The nice folks over at wrestlinginc.com had a chat with former WWE and WCW head writer Vince Russo. In it they discuss his success in the WWE, ECW, and today's WWE product. Here are plenty of highlights for you to check out:
Wrestling INC: I know you have a background in journalism and have been writing since the 1980s. When did you start watching wrestling?
Russo: I'd probably have to say 1972. I was probably about 12-years-old and quite frankly, the first time growing up in Long Island, I stumbled across it. Looking back, I'd say 1973.
Wrestling INC: I didn't realized that you've been watching for such a long time. Have you been a fan for the entire period since 1973
Russo: I have been a fan. Honestly, I lost track of it when I did go away to college for a couple of reasons. First of all, I went to college in Indiana and wrestling wasn't that big there. Evansville was a big town and that's where I went to school. Wrestling wasn't as big as it was in New York. There was probably a time between 1980 and 1985 when I pretty much didn't watch it at all. Once I was married and back in Long Island, I started watching a little bit again.
Wrestling INC: Who were some of your favorite wrestlers growing up?
Russo: What got me hooked on wrestling was just trying to find something on TV. I came across Vince McMahon, Jr. back in the day interviewing Caption Lou Albano and The Valiant Brothers and I was hooked. That explains what drew me to the business, what I like about the business, and my psychology about the business. When I was first grabbed, it wasn't about something that was going on in the ring. It was an interview with these three characters and I had never seen anything like this before. I was memorized by "Handsome" Jimmy, "Luscious" Johnny, and Albano. That's what got me hooked and when I started watching, there were a couple of guys I liked right away. Growing up in New York everybody loved Bruno [Sammartino], but I was a Chief Jay Strongbow and "The Big Cat" Ernie Ladd fan.
I think that's why I always butt heads with the internet wrestling community because watching from that far back, and it was the end of Vince McMahon, Sr.'s tenure end, but watching way back then and knowing what drew me to it, I always knew what it was meant to be. To me, that's what wrestling is all about. Back in the day it was predetermined, they had to separate it from boxing as much as they could, and they had to ask why people would see fake fights when they could see real ones. The answer was in the characters, presentation, and storytelling. I always felt that was what the business was built on and the in ring work was really secondary. That's how I've written or produced throughout my 20 plus years in the business.
Wrestling INC: Is it true that you got hired because of a letter to Linda McMahon?
Russo: Absolutely. I wanted to get into the wrestling business and I was doing a wrestling radio show on Long Island that I was funding myself. I was running out of money and thought to myself I'll be dead in the water if I don't do something, so I wrote a letter to Linda McMahon. I was smart enough to not write to Vince McMahon because that's who everybody wrote to. I was like, "let me write a letter to Linda McMahon because she probably gets few." So I wrote this letter to Linda with this idea that she's from a business structure and she oversaw the [WWE] magazine at that point. I had no idea. Next thing I know, Linda is calling me back and that's how I got the opportunity to become a freelance writer for the WWF magazine at the time.
Wrestling INC: Do you remember what you wrote in the letter?
Russo: I was honest about my situation. I'm Vince Russo, this is what I'm doing, I've been a big supporter of your company for years, and I'm running out of money and looking for an opportunity. I basically shot straight and I got a call.
Wrestling INC: While you were with the magazine, there was a three year period in 1993-1996, where you had some great wrestlers in Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and Undertaker, but creative was atrocious at that time. You saw wrestling in a big decline. You were working for the company, but not creatively. What were your thoughts on the WWE at that time?
Russo: I was on the outside looking in and as a wrestling fan I was embarrassed by the product. I couldn't watch it and in the meantime, this whole NWO thing was going on at WCW and they were headed in the right direction. [The WWE] at the time was stuck in the 1980s and there was no movement. At that time for a wrestling fan, it was really embarrassing the type of product that we were putting on. That's not a shot at anybody. That's how I felt at the time.
Wrestling INC: What ultimately led to the transition from the magazine side to the creative end?
Russo: We started the RAW magazine and it became a shoot magazine. It wasn't fluff and for the first time I was going out there and talking to the wrestlers about what was going on. In the regular WWF magazine, I was shooting my own angles because what was happening on TV was horrible. I wrote an interview with Bret Hart for the RAW magazine where we talked about Eric Bishoff and WCW. This was probably 1995 and I'll never forget this as long as I live. I got called into Vince's office and back then I didn't just get called into Vince's office. I remember he had the magazine and with one arm, he cleared everything that was on his desk. He screamed at me, 'what the hell are you trying to do? Are you trying to put me out of business?' I vividly remember the moment and should have been scared to death and fired on the spot. Something made me say, 'no Vince, I'm trying to help you.' It just came out and I wasn't fired. We did have that conversation and I didn't back off.
Six months later I got called to Vince's office again and this was when the ratings were really bad. He had all his minions around the table and I walk into the room thinking the ratings were horrible last night and they need a scapegoat. So I'm going to be the scapegoat and going to be fired in front of all these people. That's what I thought and I was partially okay with it because the product was so bad at the time. I was unhappy and fine with that. He did the complete opposite. He had the magazine in his hands and threw it down in front of everybody and said this is what our show needs to be. It's one of those moments in time you can't believe is happening because I went in their expecting the worst and it was the complete opposite. That's what got me writing with Vince.
Wrestling INC: There was that episode of RAW when Vince addressed the audience and said that the product was going to be edgier. Was that before or after this meeting occurred?
Russo: It was the RAW when they had duel shoots going on. There was one in the United States and one in England, where they were going back-and-forth. When the ratings came in, it was atrocious. It was that RAW where I was called into the office the next day.
Wrestling INC: Did you follow ECW?
Russo: It's so irritating because at the end of the day, I can talk to you until I'm blue in the face. I have nothing to hide or lie about, but people want to believe what they want to believe. I just got a nasty email from one of the writers of a wrestling website, basically saying I ran out of ideas when ECW went out of business and I couldn't copy them anymore. I've said in the last 20 years that I probably caught ECW on TV maybe three times. When I watched it, I liked what I saw.
I would say WCW and the NWO angle at that time was a much greater influence on me than ECW. The thing that appealed me to ECW wasn't characters, creative, or storylines. It was these guys killing themselves in the ring. That was the one thing I admired about Paul Heyman and still wonder how he got those guys to work at that level for him when they could have killed themselves in the ring. I never saw anything like that. There really wasn't an ECW influence because I didn't want guys to go out there and kill themselves in the ring. The NWO angle was more cutting edge and that's what wrestling should be in the 1990s. I liked the ECW product, but they never influenced me one way or another moving ahead with the Attitude Era.
Wrestling INC: When the Attitude Era started, how far along was it when you noticed that it was working? Did it occur right off the bat or take a while?
Russo: It definitely took a while because I would be with Vince when the ratings came in. He looked at the ratings, would turn to me and say we worked damned hard for those 3.0 ratings. He would put the ratings to the side and we would go on with business as usual. I remember it was 3.0 ratings for a very long time, but we never changed course because we knew we were onto something. The ratings became 3.3, 3.5, 3.9, 4.0, 5.0 and much of that credit is to Vince because anybody else would have jumped ship if they didn't see instant results. Vince really knew this formula was going to work and he was smart enough to know it wouldn't happen overnight. Staying the course is what made it successful.
Wrestling INC: Was Vince McMahon ever apprehensive with the change? It was so new with a move from a cartoony product to an edgier product because there are different levels one could go. Was Vince ever apprehensive about suggestions in the beginning?
Russo: He never was apprehensive. Rarely did I have to sell something hard. I think it was a point in time for Vince when he had to ask 'what do I have to lose? Could it be any worse than what we are doing now?' We were balls to the wall and this week's show will be better than the last one. There was nothing hindering us what so ever.
Wrestling INC: You could tell in the product that personalities were coming out more. You saw people completely break out of their shells. How closely did you work with the talent during that period?
Russo: Very closely. I can remember the night Steve [Austin] won the belt and Vince taking me to the side and basically saying 'from here on in you don't leave Steve's side. You are with him 24/7 and nothing else matters.' I worked really closely with all the talent - from Mick [Foley], to The Rock, to DX. It was a team effort and everybody was in for the ride. There was no argument or fighting. It seemed everyone was on the same page. More importantly, it was a time when everyone was on top of their game. I don't think there'll ever be a period like that again because so many things fell into place and so many things worked to capacity. I don't think you can ever get that again.
Wrestling INC: Back then, was there a line between the creative team and politics? For instance, we've heard stories about Triple H and Shawn Michaels wanting The Rock to lose to Bret Hart on an episode of RAW, but Bret didn't want The Rock to be beaten cleanly. Did you have times when you wrote something out one way and then were told from the higher-ups that it's going to change?
Russo: No and there were never higher-ups. Vince and I were writing the TV during this period. I'd say there were a handful of times when maybe a top talent went to Vince the day of TV and wanted to do it a different way. Vince would directly call me to discuss it. If that happened three times over that five year period, it was a lot. What we had written and brought to TV was 95% of what you saw.
Wrestling INC: So we've been talking about wrestlers working with you and getting their characters over. When you look at The Rock, Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and DX, do you think they'd be as successful had they come along now where you have scripted promos?
Russo: I scripted their promos back then. The wrestlers got a script and I worked with them. Sometimes the wrestlers would go off script, but when I started writing TV every single word was scripted. I don't know if this is true, but I hear today wrestlers are given a scripted promo and they need to stick to every word. That's what I hear, but I don't know if it's true.
It wasn't like that back then. I would write a promo and discuss it with the wrestlers, who would then collaborate. Never at any point would I tell anyone this is your promo and you need to go out there and do it word-for-word. That's ridiculous because I had to write an outline for them on what you should say and what you need to get across. At that time, the wrestlers have to take the outline and put it into their own personality and flavor. That's why you had to work with the talent. If a writer writes something today and talent has to go out there and read it for verbatim, it isn't going to work because you need input from the talent.
Wrestling INC: What was it like being there after breaking WCW Nitro's 84 show winning streak?
Russo: I never stopped to smell the roses because I was so focused on writing the next show and how to improve from the previous show. I really can't tell one show from the other. On that particular show, at the end of the day, it was just another show. We did achieve a lot of great success and I can tell you from a writing standpoint, there was no time to enjoy any of it because you always had that next show right in front of you.
Wrestling INC: What were some of the favorite angles you produced during the Attitude Era?
Russo: I'd say that two standout. There was when The Rock joined The Cooperation [at Survivor Series 1998]. I loved the whole story and how it was laid out because it was weeks of precise writing to get to that point. Working with Ed [Ferrara ] was about the art of storytelling, which I love. Personally I loved writing, developing, and crafting the Goldust character because I was a movie fanatic— doing the research and getting those lines for Dustin Rhodes to quote. On a more personal level, I enjoyed that and on a character level too. Storytelling wise, I think The Rock joining The Cooperation was one of the better things we did.
Wrestling INC: How stressful was it writing RAW back then when it went live to two hours every week?
Russo: It became stressful when SmackDown was added. When you go from two hours to four hours, you need to increase the writing team. At the time, it was just Ed Ferrara and I, and back then every show was life and death for me. I never phoned anything in, whether RAW or SmackDown. I always made sure it was the best show I could possibly write so when the two hours became four hours, that's when it became difficult.
Wrestling INC: Do you see a point in diminishing the product with too much TV?
Russo: I don't watch RAW today and it's not a Vince Russo - WWE thing. I just won't watch a three hour wrestling show. For me to sit in front of my TV for three hours, watching the same thing, I don't even know what that show has to be. I'm a huge San Francisco Giants fan and I watch 162 games the entire year. I love baseball and the Giants, but I can't sit through an entire baseball game. I need to take a break. For me to sit there and watch a three hour wrestling show, where there is a number of 15 minute matches, I don't have the patience for that. It's way too much and loses the impact.