To kick off a special series on top pro wrestling romance storylines – ten years after the infamous Kurt Angle/Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley/HHH love triangle in the WWF – we spoke with Seth Mates of the Newsday Steel Cage Blog. Mates was at WWE from 2000-2002, and was on the creative for the second half of 2002, during which the Chuck Palumbo/Billy Gunn wedding angle took place. (Editor’s note, the below videos were added after the interview, and don’t necessarily correspond exactly to his answers.)
1. What are the most memorable on screen wrestling romances from your childhood through today and why?
Seth Mates: Liz/Savage was THE thing that made wrestling romances work.
The HHH/Angle/Steph storyline in 2000 still makes me angry to think about, as it started out as arguably one of the best told stories in wrestling history, before it completely fizzled out at Unforgiven 2000 when Steph just kicked Angle and sided with HHH. For the storyline to work, she NEEDED to go with Angle, but for whatever reason (and I’m not sure what it is, but I can take a guess or two …), Steph stayed in HHH’s corner. Fans were SO into that story, and the vignettes and creative art were absolute genius.
And then — rug pulled out from under us. So the message to the fans was clear — don’t bother getting invested in a longterm, intricate storyline, because you won’t get any kind of payoff.
In fact, it was a trio of botched stories in that stretch — Steph/HHH/Angle, the Survivor Series when HHH was dropped in a car and returned without a scratch a few weeks later, and when HHH and Austin joined forces a month after they wanted to kill each other — that absolutely killed dead the creative high the company was on, pretty much training the fans never to get too invested in stories because they won’t get the payoff they want. From then to now, I think I can count on one hand the long-term stories they’ve told that aren’t just “you cost me a match so now I’m mad at you. Grrrr.”
By the way, see if you can spot the common thread in those three storylines. It should come as no surprise.
2. Are there any pairings you proposed that were turned down foe one reason or another?
SM: None that I can remember off-hand.
The one pairing that always cracked me up was Al Wilson and Dawn Marie. We were originally going to use an actor to play Al, but I think Torrie suggested we use her actual father. When he first showed up at TV (I think we were in San Diego for his first show), we all had reservations. Ultimately he wound up being OK and played right into the goofiness of the storyline, though he did get a little too “friendly” with Dawn Marie from time to time!
But everyone involved played it well, and for the record, it was my idea to kill off Al. Sorry, Torrie.
3. Was the Billy and Chuck storyline a directive from upper management to “find something for these two guys to do,” or did someone in the writing room decide to put the two together? What was your role?
SM: We didn’t get a directive to come up with something for Billy and Chuck. We were told to come up with a stunt for the season premiere of SmackDown. At first we pitched matches — TLC and War Games among them — but they wanted a stunt. It was me, David Lagana and Paul Heyman sitting around a room racking our brains (Michael Hayes might have been in there too, but I don’t think he was). I kept pitching stuff with Jesse Ventura involved as well, since the show would be from Minnesota. At one point, Paul pitched a storyline about two of the girls — I don’t remember if it was them getting “involved” or just getting married. And I just blurted out, “What if Billy and Chuck got married?” Paul grinned from ear to ear and said, “And Jesse Ventura could perform the ceremony!” He called Vince right away and Vince LOVED it (well, the storyline — I don’t remember why we nixed the Jesse thing, but I also don’t remember that actually ever being on the table).
The idea came just a couple of weeks before the actual show, right before that “proposal” we did on TV. It’s not like we were working on this months in advance; we just got lucky. They started promoting it right away. We had a meeting with Kevin Dunn and some TV people to get a lot of the production ideas down — the music, video clips, details, etc. We went over a list of potential twists and turns with Vince — originally we wanted a few people to do possible “run-ins” — Road Dogg is the only one I remember off hand, but ultimately we just used Godfather.
4. How was the original idea of the “gay” angle received? Were there any reservations about it from Chuck and Billy, the writing team or anyone else?
SM: I’m not sure; I wasn’t on creative when the idea to put them together as a “gay” team was first proposed, nor was I in the room when Paul and/or Vince pitched the wedding idea to Billy or Chuck.
5. Was there any concern of a backlash like when WCW had to shut down the West Hollywood Blondes (Lenny and Lodi) angle?
SM: Vince never cared about backlash back then. In fact, I think he craved it, thinking it might bring back some of the ratings from 1999 and 2000. We did this and the Katie Vick thing at about the same time, so that was when he was hoping shock would sell.
6. Did you expect the storyline to get the mainstream attention that it did with even the Today show picking up on it?
SM: I did not, and so that was the coolest thing ever. I was 23 at the time, on the WWE creative team, and here was my idea making it big time. Of course I had to play it cool backstage and not even let most people know whose idea it was, but of course my friends and family knew and thought it was the coolest thing ever.
7. Were you happy with the crowd response?
SM: For what was largely a stunt built around midcarders — with all due respect to the talent involved — the crowd was totally into it. I went to the arena floor in Minneapolis to watch the storyline play out — as I often did for big angles — and I had chills, the reaction was so nuts.
8. The memorable end to the angle, of course, was the assault by Eric Bischoff and Three Minute Warning on the commitment ceremony. Were you happy with the way that played out?
SM: It was what it was, and the Bischoff reveal was cool (David Lagana said at the time that had we done that live, it would have been one of the most “holy shit” moments in wrestling ever, and I agree with that), but in hindsight, we blew the finish. All week long, all anyone was talking about was whether Billy and Chuck were gonna kiss at the end of the ceremony. So to have them wimp out during the vows was kind of anticlimactic. They should panicked after “You may now kiss the groom,” or whatever they say at commitment ceremonies. But it’s hard to blame them totally — I didn’t even think of that until after it had already been taped.
9. How integral was Rico’s role to the storyline?
SM: Rico WAS the storyline. Neither Billy and Chuck were strong enough promo guys to get the story over the way it did. Rico had that “wedding planner” wireless microphone for a reason.
10. In hindsight what could WWE have done differently to follow up on the storyline at its peak?
SM: They dropped the ball 100 times over. Rico moving to Raw the following Monday should have been a much, much bigger deal than it was. We were heading into Unforgiven with HHH vs. RVD and needed to take the IC Title off RVD, which they did by having him drop the belt that night to Chris Jericho in a meaningless switch. They should have put the belt on Rico and given him a chance to be a star. He could have been; he was a natural heel with a ton of charisma. And he was DIFFERENT, which is something you can only say about a handful of guys in the past few years.
Nowadays, everyone is just a big jacked dude who uses his real name and wants to kick someone’s ass. But Rico was a CHARACTER who was a natural heel and who could have ridden that publicity to maybe becoming something. I’m not saying he would have been the next Hogan, but he could have been a star.
Then, at the Unforgiven show, we did the gimmick with Billy & Chuck vs. Three Minute Warning, and then the HLA [“Hot Lesbian Action”] with Stephanie McMahon and Rikishi, which was terrible. The Scooby Doo unmasking thing was well done with Bischoff, but was predictable and terrible at that show, which is still quite possibly one of the worst Pay-Per-Views in WWE history (which, by the way, was followed by what I think is one of the best ever, in No Mercy 2002).
Vince was committed to giving Billy and Chuck a big star push after the storyline, but Billy got hurt at a house show, which took a lot of the steam off Chuck as well.
The Steel Cage Blog can be read at Newsday.com.