It figures that Vince Russo's finest work would be in a shoot interview.
Russo, a top writer for WWF, WCW and TNA, and his frequent writing partner Ed Ferrara, were huge forces behind the Raw vs. Nitro television wars, and in many ways, the direction the business is in now. You can disagree with the ideas they came up with – and many do – but it's hard to dismiss the impact they've had.
Now, I am not generally a fan of "shoot interviews". Most of them adhere to the following format: (A) Interviewer reads from a list of prepared questions behind a lone, stationary video camera. (B) Wrestler whines for two hours about how Vince McMahon is an asshole, and how he/she should have been champion forever.
However, Pro Wrestling's Ultimate Insiders is NOTHING like that. There are four key elements here that differentiate this DVD from other shoot interviews.
First, I find the subjects fascinating, and they have a lot to say about wrestling. Instead of spewing venom and profanities about the business, Russo and Ferrara come across as relatively honest. And why wouldn't they be? Neither man claim they're not headed back to WWE anytime soon, so there's little reason to shy away from things.
Over an incredible nine-hour (yes, NINE HOUR!) span, Russo and Ferrara hold back on nothing. For those of you who don't know the history behind Russo, here's the Cliffs Notes version:
Bored with running a video-rental store, Russo invested all his money in a New York-based wrestling radio show because he was a lifelong fan of the squared circle. He also trained under WWF journeyman Johnny Rodz, not for a career in wrestling, but to learn about the business.
Following his radio show run, the McMahons hired him to write for their in-house publications, which led to a job writing television shows during the industry's mid-90's boom period.
In 1999, Russo jumped to WCW as the company's creative director, and many have blamed him for the organization's downfall. After a short run helping TNA get off its feet, Russo quit the business and says he has devoted his life to religion.
One annoying habit with the originator of "crash TV": I caught him saying "I've gotta be honest with ya" AT LEAST thirty times over the course of this DVD set. Its okay, Vince, I don't think anyone's questioning your honesty. Whether you were right or not: that's a whole other subject.
Russo's greatest strength is that he's a salesman – he can sell a concept and defend it with poise. That comes across loud and clear here, even though he's "retired" from the business. Russo seems hesitant for the first couple of minutes and sits all cross-armed and pensive (perhaps the bad blood between him and Ferrara hasn't resolved it itself). But after the first question or so, he has all the confidence in the world.
Not cockiness, mind you, as some might expect – such as claims about how he saved WWF or whatever – but confidence in his knowledge of the industry.
Ferrara, who comes off sounding a lot sharper than I figured him to be, was also a big wrestling fan growing up. He wrote sitcoms in Los Angeles while moonlighting as an indy wrestler ("Beautiful" Bruce Beaudine). An opportunity came up in the late-90's for him to write WWF television with Russo, and when Russo left the company, Ferrara followed.
Ferrara also worked in the front office for TNA briefly (although separate from Russo, as the two had a parting of the ways in WCW) and now teaches television-writing/producing workshops in the Chicago area.
The second key element to this DVD is the interviewer. Wade Keller of the Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter knows his stuff. It's one thing to ask a bunch of pre-conceived questions; it's another to challenge the interview subjects and adapt as the conversation progresses. As a former journalist myself, I can attest to the fact that asking questions isn't nearly as easy as it looks. Keller comes off as a natural host, and succeeds at keeping the entire interview on track.
The third big differentiator is on production values. Forget shoot interviews, some of the visuals here are superior to many indy league wrestling tapes I watch. For example, if Ferrara uses an insider term, a crawler appears across the bottom of the screen explaining it. If Russo cites a match or other situation, a Torch newsletter from that era flashes across the screen. There are at least two cameras filming the interview, which is a nice way to keep people watching, and not bored with a stationary visual for so long. Little touches that just improve the whole concept.
And the fourth key element is bonus features, which I'll get to as I go over each disc. With the amount of content you have here, they REALLY didn't need to give us any bonuses. Yet they do, and they're innovative ones, to say the least.
Disc 1 – Inside The WWF
Now, I'm not going to review EVERYTHING that's said here – we'd be here all day. Plus, if I spoil it all for you, why would you bother buying it? Instead I'm just going to give a brief overview.
They kick thinks off with introductions of Russo and Ferrara, which I've largely covered off already. Russo explains that at the time he rose to power in the WWF, the key bookers lived in a "bubble", where they refused to let outsiders in and pitch new ideas. Geez, that sounds SO different from the WWE I know and love today…
It was an article in WWF Magazine Russo wrote that mentioned Eric Bischoff by name (the first time in history the publication had acknowledged its competition) that got Vince McMahon's attention. From there, Bill Watts (who was a member of WWF's creative team for a cup of coffee) got Russo into the booking meetings.
Ferrara's rise is also detailed, but it's not nearly as interesting. They explain how, in the mid-1990's, WCW's product was progressive and edgy (nWo, luchadores, etc.), while WWF wrestling (T.L. Hopper, The Goon) was stale and cartoon-like. By Vince and Vince (and later Ed) "throwing away the rulebook", they were able to write wrestling stories that hadn't been tried before.
It took the hot Steve Austin-Vince McMahon feud to get WWF back on the map, which Russo and Ferrara credit the performers with rising to the occasion, not themselves. They give their opinions on top WWF stars of the era, such as Bret Hart, Steve Austin, Triple H and The Rock with varying degrees of compliments.
Not surprisingly, I suppose, The Rock receives the most praise from both of them as being easy to work with and having the most natural talent. The interview on this disc (at least for me) concludes with their thoughts on the Survivor Series screwjob -- it appears Bret did screw Bret after all. The last two or three questions (including one about Owen Hart) aren't working on my copy. I'm assuming it's just a technical error and I will try to clean the disc up later.
Bonus Features: In January, Russo and Ferrara booked for an independent "supershow" in Southern California. You can choose to select the matches or the behind-the-scenes booking meetings that take place between Russo, Ferrara and the talent.
It's an interesting concept, but nothing I'm overly crazy about. For one, the backstage stuff is hard to hear with lots of background noise. You also have to wonder how genuine everyone is being with a camera running right in front of them. And frankly, it gets kind of boring to hear guys I've never heard of talk about the setup for a one-time match. If they were talking to, say, Triple H and Batista about booking a segment on Raw, I'd find that far more interesting. Still, big points for originality here, and some decent indy matches, too.
Disc 2 – Inside WCW
Russo and Ferrara start here by explaining their decision to quit the WWF. I'm starting to become a tad skeptical of their responsibilities under Vince McMahon. If I understand this correctly, McMahon didn't care about any of the undercard was booked on Raw; he let Russo and Ferrara write the whole thing and even decide where the characters were going. I'd have to think that McMahon would at least have a passing interest in his mid-card talent.
I think at one point they even suggest it was THEM, not McMahon, who shaped months in advance what the main matches at WrestleMania would look like. Perhaps I just heard that part wrong. In any event, McMahon would give input into the major angles, such as those involving Austin or Undertaker.
At the same time, he was working Russo and Ferrara to the bone writing shows and pay-per-view's 24-7. No word on whether Crash Holly ever won the booker role using that same 24-7 rule.
When McMahon decided to add a second big show (SmackDown), Russo and Ferrara realized they weren't going to get a pay increase while doubling their workloads, so they looked into WCW.
In addition, Russo admits that he wanted to spend more time with his children, to which McMahon callously told him to "hire a nanny".
The next portion is dedicated to the problems they had in WCW from day one. Backstage politics, an inflated bureaucracy and pressure from Time Warner are among the many roadblocks they faced there.
Russo argues that standards and practices (the unit of Time Warner, not the ill-advised tag team of Lenny and Lodi) never gave him a rulebook of what was acceptable and unacceptable, even after he requested one.
After a few months of "crash TV" in WCW, the higher-ups gave up and told Russo to become part of a booking committee; the argument being that Russo needed someone to help "shape" his ideas. I think there's some validity to that for sure.
Russo quit instead, while Ferrara stayed on, leading to bad blood between them, which they both recall in detail. Geez, I'm surprised TNA never featured a Russo-Ferrara match, given how "reality" draws in the ratings.
Russo's return to power coincided with that of Eric Bischoff (both guys were still on Time Warner's payroll) and Russo says he knew right away the combination wouldn't work. I, for one, thought it could have worked because of the differences between the two of them, but obviously I was dead wrong.
With WCW unable to get back its viewership from the glory days, Russo turned to the "reality television" concept of breaking kayfabe on the air, presenting shoot interviews and tons of other crap that never quite panned out.
Keller rightly points out here that fans already knew that matches were scripted, and didn't want storylines to spell that out for them, such as the infamous Hogan-Jarrett and Nash-Goldberg "worked shoots".
Predictably, Russo defends his strategy – even making David Arquette WCW World Champion – and explains that they were just trying to shock viewers back into watching the show. I'm not sure I necessarily agree, but at least I understand their rationale behind it now.
The venom – although it comes out in small doses – starts to surface, with Russo saying he hates the business now, and how close he came to ruining his personal life in the pursuit of bigger ratings. Ferrara isn't as angry about wrestling, although he was happy to leave the industry once WWF purchased WCW in 2001.
We end here discussing the fall of WCW (which WWE gleefully chronicles at least a few times each year). Russo and Ferrara finished their careers off in WCW, never to be heard from again. … OR WERE THEY?
Bonus features: More backstage stuff/matches from the So-Cal supershow. The only bout that really held my interest involved someone named Super Dragon, but I wouldn't really say this is stuff to go out of your way to see. Again, the backstage comments are interesting, but drag on a little too long.
For example, there's footage of Russo and Ferrara sitting down in chairs, just shooting the shit. Not really a necessary feature, especially it's just small talk. There's also kind of a mini-shoot interview with Ferrara while he's outside taking a smoke break.
Disc 3 – One-On-One With Vince & Ed
Pretty much as advertised. A subject is presented – anything ranging from TNA; ECW; WWF buying WCW; should wrestling be unionized?, etc. – and both subjects answer the question in a one-on-one setting.
Their responses seem genuine, and although both men don't have a passion for the wrestling business anymore, they don't close the door on ever returning.
One minor complaint towards the end is that Russo starts getting too preachy. No, he's not quoting bible verses or anything, but it seems like every fourth word out of his mouth (besides "I've gotta be honest with ya") is how The Lord has saved him, and how he's doing the work of The Lord, and how his writings are now done by The Lord.
Oh, great -- he's scripting promos for God now ("Well, let me tell ya something, Satan..."). Insert your own Powers-That-Be joke here.
Russo wrote a book a few years ago filled with negative things about everyone in the industry (well, someone had to top Flair, I suppose), but he never published it because that was when he found The Lord. There was also a rumor around at the time that the reason he was brought into WWE briefly as a "consultant" was to stop his book from being published, but that's never addressed here.
They close off discussing what's wrong with the business today, how it can be improved, their legacy to the business and what their future plans include. Interesting stuff, which I hadn't seen reported elsewhere on the Web.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that either Russo or Ferrara (or both) will be back in Vince McMahon's employ one day, regardless of their intentions to never return.
One funny portion to close this out. When asked about future projects, Ferrara plugs his website, edferrara.com, literally about 30 times in the period of two minutes, while discussing a collection of horror stories he's written. Which is available at edferrara.com, by the way…
Bonus Features: Ed Ferrara then and now. First, a match from 1991 on some indy show where's he known as "Beautiful" Bruce Beaudine, complete with long blond hair and Adrian Adonis-like pink trunks. Lovely.
Then we follow him around in the NWA Wildside territory circa 2001, where he feuds with female wrestlers and an extremely effeminate grappler named Lazz. Hey, Ed: Andy Kaufman called; he wants his gimmick back.
Overall Recommendation: If you're a fan of the Monday Night Wars era of wrestling, you need this DVD. You might think hours and hours of hearing two guys talk would get boring, but it really doesn't.
As I said, I'm not sure I agree with everything they say, but it's fascinating to hear them discuss it. So I can't recommend this particular DVD set enough. It's a great companion piece to something like WWE's Monday Night War DVD and in a strange way, makes you nostalgic for the era of Austin 3:16, the nWo and D-Generation X. But not T.L. Hopper.
Pro Wrestling's Ultimate Insiders
Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara