Part one of my exclusive audio interview with former WWE, WCW and TNA writer and performer Vince Russo is now online at JimmyVan.com in MP3 and Real Audio formats. You can also listen to a five-minute preview clip of the interview in Real Audio format at this link
Here is a text transcript from this 44-minute portion of the interview.
JV starts by asking Vince for his thoughts on the passing of Eddie Guerrero. Vince said he heard about it last Sunday (November 13). “I probably got about twenty calls last Sunday. You know again what can you say, it’s just another tragic, tragic death in the world of professional wrestling.” Vince said he didn’t get to work with Eddie as long as he would have liked to, but in the three months he did he got to see what kind of a human being Eddie was. He said Eddie had a great heart. “It’s a tough, tough business. It almost demands a certain lifestyle. I think there’s a lot of guys that just become victims of their own circumstances. I just wish that somebody would step forward and take a little bit more responsibility than there is right now because I just hate to see this kind of thing keep happening.”
Eddie had rediscovered his faith and become close to God. I know the same thing happened to you, did you have the chance to talk with him about that after he left WCW?
“No not really to be honest with you because when I worked with him at WCW I was probably as far away from God as you can possibly get,” Vince said. He said unfortunately he never got to have any conversations with Eddie on a spiritual level. He said he didn’t watch the WWE Raw tribute to Eddie but he read about the comments that Shawn Michaels made and it seemed that they used to talk about their faith. “I wish I would have known Eddie after I became a Christian,” Vince said.
Growing up you were a wrestling fan and you launched a radio show in New York.
Vince said he launched a radio show in New York in 1991 called “Vicious Vincent’s World of Wrestling”. They syndicated the show themselves and got it into about seven different markets which enabled them to get some WWE talent on the show, and that helped him get his foot in the door as far as becoming a freelance writer for WWE.
You trained with Johnny Rodz.
“I went to Johnny Rodz’s school probably for about three months,” Vince said. “I didn’t have any interest in becoming a wrestler but I wanted to know everything I possibly could about the business. So that’s kind of why I went to the school, I went through the same training that a lot of the guys do because if I was gonna get in the wrestling business, I just wanted to really understand every aspect of it. You know going to that school, that was a real education for me.”
So when we saw you in the ring years later in WCW, you actually knew how to take bumps.
Vince said he did but he went to Johnny’s school in 1991 and 1992, and WCW was 1999 so there was a long lapse in there. “Because I wasn’t as well equipped as I should have been, I wound up getting hurt. If you don’t know what you’re doing in that ring man, it could lead to disaster.”
JV noted that he’s taken bumps before and remembering to tuck your head in is a big deal.
“Something that little and that simple I did not do. And it was something that simple that Ric Flair did that kind of triggered problems I would have for like the next nine months.”
You wrote a letter to Linda McMahon that helped you become a freelance writer for WWF Magazine at the time. What did you say in that letter?
Vince said he told her about his love for the business and what he was doing with the radio show. He said he was honest with her. “We were paying for our own radio show and it was getting to the point that I was really runnig out of money. I just didn’t have the money to support the radio show anymore. And I basically said to Linda, I would love the opportunity to take this dream to the next level other than walk away from it completely.” Vince said probably a month after that, Linda called him.
There was a period in 1995-1996 when Vince McMahon and WWE came up with a bunch of whacky characters like TL Hopper, Who (Jim Neidhart in a mask) and The Goon, and you actually hated the product while writing for the magazine.
“It was terrible,” Vince said. He said he talks about this a lot in his book, Forgiven: One Man’s Journey from Self-Glorification to Sanctification, which he said should be hitting book stores this week. “I’m talking about as a wrestling fan, because first and foremost I was a wrestling fan, and it was absolutely horrible. I was really embarrassed over the product, which kind of led me to going into business for myself through the magazine.” Vince said they were creating their own angles in the magazine and were shooting a little bit. “As a wrestling fan, I couldn’t mirror what was going on on television because at the time, it was just bad.”
Around that same time and before the “Attitude” era, a show debuted on USA Network called WWF Live Wire hosted by Todd Pettengill and Sunny. You did Q&A’s as Vic Venom, and this was the first time on WWF television that I saw somebody talk about the competition, plus viewers would call in and do things like refer to Sunny by her real name on the air. How did Vince McMahon ever agree to an idea like that?
“(McMahon) really didn’t agree to the idea,” Vince said. “I’ve always spoken from my heart. And I’ve always said, right or wrong, I’ve always said what I felt. I was having a real problem with that show Live Wire because… the problem I was having was, Todd Pettengill wasn’t a wrestling fan. Nothing against him personally, but he wasn’t a wrestling fan. My own personal opinion was, Todd was a DJ trying to make some extra money. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But as a wrestling fan, it just didn’t sit well with me. It was a wrestling show, I felt it should have been hosted by a wrestling guy. So I had a meeting with Vince talking about magazine stuff, and I kind of brought that up. He kind of just turned around to me and he said, “Well why don’t you do it?” Almost like calling me out on the carpet, I had never done anything on TV before. And when he called me out on the carpet like that I said okay, when do you want me to start?” Russo said they sat him in another part of the studio, and he was really shooting on Todd Pettengill. “I was coming from the perspective of, I was a true, real wrestling fan. And I took exception to him talking like he knew about the business and acting like he knew about the business when I knew he really didn’t. So a lot of that was just a lot of shooting comments which kind of led to me getting in trouble.” Vince said there was a Raw episode where Bret Hart made the decision to stay with the WWE. “It was around the time of the Royal Rumble. And I kind of predicted, Vic Venom did, that Bret Hart was gonna win the Royal Rumble. Let’s face it, the booking back then was so predictable it wasn’t even funny. And I’ll never forget when I walked off the set and came to the back, Vince was there and his veins were popping out of his head. And he said to me, “Vince, how could you give away the finish of the Royal Rumble, why would you do that?” And I just looked at him and I said Vince, nobody told me who was gonna win the Royal Rumble. It’s just so obvious that if I didn’t say that, I would have looked like an idiot!” Vince said that McMahon looked at him like, how could you possibly talk to me like that? “But I’ll tell you what, they changed the finish of the Royal Rumble after I said that. And that was kind of the start of things really starting to change.”
You mentioned how Todd Pettengill wasn’t a wrestling guy. What do you think of Michael Cole since he came in and was a mainstream newscaster but he has done his best to become a wrestling guy.
“Exactly, and that is the difference,” Vince said. “Michael Cole from day one really became a student. I mean really became a student. I have a great, great respect for Michael Cole, I like Michael Cole a lot. For Todd, it was a side job. It was a side gig, it was a way to earn extra money. And like I said as a wrestling fan through and through, that just didn’t sit well with me for some reason. It was nothing against the guy personally, he was just trying to make an extra paycheck. But as a wrestling fan, I just felt you know what, you’ve gotta put wrestling people in there.”
WWE also came up with the “Billionaire Ted” skits and it was the first time that WWE really publicly acknowledged the competition in that manner. What did you think of those skits and did you have anything to do with producing them?
“No that was before me, but I was actually in one of those skits,” Vince said. “It’s funny that you say that they were acknowledging the competition because they were. That was the good thing. But the bad thing was, they were going about it the wrong way. Those skits were terrible. See my philosophy always was and it still is to this day – if you’re number two, you’ve got to throw everything you possibly have at number one. You’ve got to hit them with the kitchen sink. On the other side of the coin if you’re number one, you need to go on like number two doesn’t even exist.” Vince said at that time, WWE needed to hit WCW with everything. He said it wasn’t so much about WCW spanking them in the ratings because at the time they hadn’t really started doing that yet. “That was really Vince’s ego more than anything else. He was hot at Ted Turner for taking these guys away from him. And that was really more of a personal thing between Vince and Ted Turner. It hadn’t gotten into the ratings war yet because at that time, I think the WWF was still holding its own.”
You were elevated to Editor of the magazine. I understand that Vince McMahon was in a booking meeting and he pulled out one of your articles and said, “This is what we should be doing,” and ultimately it led to you becoming a television writer for the company.
“It wasn’t really a booking meeting,” Vince said. “What happened was, it was a Tuesday morning. The Monday prior, Monday night, had to be the worst show in the history of Raw. I’ll never forget it because the rating was a 1.9. It was atrocious. I literally wanted to go to work the next day with a bag over my head, that’s how bad it was. I’ll never forget, I walked into that building the next day at about 8:30 in the morning, and Vince’s secretary summoned me up to Vince’s office. And even though I used to have meetings with Vince about the magazine, I never got called up to his office. So my first impulse was, this is bad. He’s gotta make somebody the scapegoat.” Vince said he went up and McMahon had all his guys sitting around the table, and he had the magazine in his hands, and he threw it down on the table and said, “This is what the show needs to be.” “My mouth just about hit the floor,” Vince said. “Never in my wildest dreams.” He said McMahon had to do something because it was bad and was becoming worse, but he never expected McMahon to do it in such a public forum the way he did.
You and Ed Ferrera eventually became the top writers for WWE and were instrumental in the transition to the “Attitude” era. What was the atmosphere like backstage as the product evolved?
“Before Ed even came along, it was just Vince and I writing a lot of this stuff. And I’ll be honest with you, there were a lot of people that thought that I was absolutely out of my mind. And there was a lot of people that thought I was crazy. And there were a lot of people that were just waiting for me to fail. And I could feel it, I could feel it, I could feel it. But Vince just knew. He just knew something had to drastically change. And basically what got me through that period was I had the protection of Vince. He really, really protected me; if you mess with me, you mess with him. It was like, hands off.” Vince said that was the big difference from what he went to WCW. He said in WCW it was the same thing in that he had everybody gunning for him, but he had no Vince McMahon. He had no protection to allow him to do his thing.
Did you face any resistance in WWE from any of the “old school” guys? People like Pat Patterson and Jerry Brisco seemed to embrace it.
“There was resistance on everybody’s part at the beginning. I mean this was something they had never done before. This was something they weren’t used to. All of a sudden, the babyfaces became the heels and the heels became the babyfaces. It was a total change of philosophy.” Vince said week after week as the ratings grew, you saw everybody getting on board with it and everybody embracing it. “But it was really, really a transition.” He said Patterson and Brisco became two of his favorite characters of all time, but at the beginning he had to convince them that this would work.
Was ECW influential in the way that WWE transformed their product?
“A lot of people think that,” Vince said. “Not to take anything away from the ECW. First of all, Vince never watched ECW, he didn’t have a clue what it was, he didn’t have a clue who was on the show. I probably caught ECW a handful of times. But what was influential to me was, it wasn’t rocket science, it was real simple. Before I started writing, they were still booking 1970’s. And all I did was, I came in and I brought the product up to speed whereas WWF now was mirroring society. It became 1996 instead of 1976. And again, that wasn’t hard to figure out, but they just had so many old school guys working in creative and working in key spots, that these guys were basically, they just kept rehashing what they knew. Well you know, time was passing them by, and what was working in 1976 wasn’t working in 1996.”
Prior to the launch of Nitro in 1995, you never really heard about television ratings. Then after Nitro launched it was suddenly about the ratings and what did Raw do compared to Nitro. How did that affect you as far as doing your job goes, and did it put pressure on you?
Vince said it didn’t necessarily put pressure on him, but his attitude always was that next week’s show was gonna be better than this week’s. “We took such time and such crafting to the shows because I think pride is the key word. The challenge was to always make the next show better. That was always the philosophy.”
Did you keep tabs on what they were doing in WCW on Monday nights? Did you keep monitors around you?
“This is where I give Vince all the credit in the world, and this was again the difference with WCW. We would sit there and start writing the TV every Wednesday or whenever it was, and the ratings would actually come in while we were writing the TV. And one way or another, Vince really wouldn’t get excited because Vince knew we had to stay the course, we had to stay the course, this was going to take time.” Vince said McMahon was patient and he went with it. “When I went to WCW, I tried to educate them the same way. I tried to explain to them, guys you’ve gotta understand, this isn’t gonna happen overnight, it doesn’t work that way. We’ve gotta stay the course, stay the course, stay the course. But again the difference was, WCW, they wanted ratings overnight. It doesn’t happen that way, it just doesn’t.”
It seems now that Vince McMahon doesn’t have that kind of patience and they try to hot-shot a lot of stuff to pop the rating every week. Why do you think that is now?
“I can only go on my experience when I went back there briefly,” Vince said. “What a cluster. When I tell you, when we were writing the show, it was first me and Vince, then Ed Ferrera was hired and it was me and Ed, the two of us. I walked into a board room over at WWE, and there had to be twelve writers in this room. And I mean, when I first walked in there, the first thing that just floored me, was the number of writers in this room. The second thing that floored me was their age. They were kids, man. And all of a sudden I realized, you’re walking into a totally different place. It was a totally different place, and there was no way in the world I was gonna be able to fit into that. And I’ll never forget Vince said to me, “Vince you have to understand, times have changed and it’s not like it used to be.” And I just said to him real matter-of-factly, I said, “Vince with all due respect, the way it used to be, we were drawing ratings.” I can’t even fathom twelve people or ten people sitting in a room discussing a show. It was a mess. And I knew, and Vince knew, there was no way I was gonna be able to work within those conditions, so we just kind of ended the whole thing before it even started.”
I’ve heard that you also weren’t big on the fact that Stephanie McMahon was heading up the creative efforts.
“When Ed and I were doing the shows, Stephanie would sit in. I’ll be honest with you, I thought Stephanie McMahon was an extremely, extremely intelligent woman just like her mother, Linda McMahon is very, very intelligent. Stephanie was as smart as a whip. But I’ll be honest with you, I never saw a creative side to Stephanie. I never did. And the fact of the matter was… I was gonna be the head writer for SmackDown! and Raw, but I was gonna be reporting to Stephanie McMahon, and that was fine with me, that’s Vince’s daughter. But the reality of the situation is, that would have never worked. It wouldn’t have worked. And I think that once I got in there… and there were a couple of conversations between me and Stephanie, and not even in person because she wasn’t even in the office when I went in. But there were a couple of conversations on speaker phone and what not, and again the entire landscape of the place had just changed, and the old guard, it was done, and it was over. And it wouldn’t have worked again.”
Do you think it’s a situation now where the boat is starting to sink, but Vince is in a situation where it’s not like he can fire his own daughter.
“Vince put himself in a terrible, terrible spot when he put Stephanie in that position,” Russo said. “And I’m a father too, and I really, really respect him for this. He will never do anything, anything, that’s going to leave egg on Stephanie’s face. And that goes a little further than just not releasing Stephanie of her duties. Keep in mind, Stephanie’s the person bringing in all these kids. So Vince isn’t going to go over Stephanie’s head and get rid of any of the people that she’s hiring. I saw it when it happened. He put himself in a real bad spot, because he would no matter what, he would never be able to replace his daughter. And I think now whatever it is, three years later or four years later whatever it is, it is what it is.” Vince reiterated that he didn’t see a creative side to Stephanie, but admitted that you’ll never see a business side to Vince Russo either. He said right now he’s doing Ring of Glory and he’s wearing every single hat, and the business hat is a very difficult one to wear because that’s not him. “In my experience in working with Stephanie, I just didn’t think the creative part was her strong point. Could she work business circles around me? Absolutely, I mean no question about it. But creatively, I think it was a little different creatively.”
One of the big stories that happened while you were working in WWE was the 1997 Survivor Series. We all know what happened, it’s been talked about to death. But from your standpoint, number one were you aware of the screw-job going in, and number two, what did you think after it all transpired?
Vince said it’s a long story and he wanted to plug his book again because Ring of Glory and his Ministry is what he does full-time now. “As a spokesperson for God, my book Forgiven is about my transformation in life. And it’s about what God did in my life. And my responsibility is to get that book in as many hands as I possibly can because in that book you will see what God did in one person’s life. And in that book I talk in great detail about the Survivor Series. And there are a lot of things that people don’t know. I was in the fire. I was there for every single second of it. What I will tell you, and what I said to Bret Hart directly, I to this day am 100% behind Vince McMahon and his decision to do exactly what he had to do. First of all, Vince tried to work out every possible scenario with Bret. Everything. I was privy to it, I know. And all Vince did was, Vince acted in an effort to protect his entire company. I mean that’s all Vince was trying to do. I said those exact words to Bret the first time I saw him when I went to WCW. One of the first things I had to do was sit down with Bret and talk to him. And I just said, “Bret, I know you don’t see it this way and I know you never will, but I’m just telling you from the other side, I support Vince 100%. All he was looking to do was protect his company.” Again there’s a lot more detail in the book, there’s a lot of little nooks and crannies, but that was where I stood at the end of the day.
I’ve heard that one of your biggest regrets from a writing perspective was the crucifixion angle with Steve Austin and The Undertaker.
“Yeah it was,” Vince said. “The crucifix to me at that point meant nothing. There’s something that people really need to understand, and people really have a hard time with this. People don’t know me and they really don’t understand what I’m a fan of as far as wrestling goes. They don’t understand. They think that Vince Russo was a fan of what you saw me write and what you saw me put on television. But that’s not true at all. Because my job, getting paid by Vince McMahon, my job was to give Vince McMahon the highest rating I could, every Monday night. And I knew what the people were going to tune into. I knew what the people wanted. And basically it was my job to put that out there. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that I was a fan of all that stuff because the truth is, I wasn’t. I really wasn’t. I’ve been married for 22 years, T&A stopped doing something for me a long time ago. I’m married with three kids, that never did anything for me. But I knew what it did to the 18-year-old at home. So you know what, we put it out there. But the crucifix angle, of course, knowing what I know now… it was an absolute disgrace. But at the time I wasn’t saved, and to me it was just another skit.”
The angle you liked the most was The Rock’s heel turn at the 1998 Survivor Series.
“Right and that’s exactly what I’m talking about because what I got off on was good writing and good story telling. The kind of wrestling I like is a thinking man’s wrestling where you’ve gotta tune in and you’ve gotta watch every single week because you don’t know where they’re going with this. Nobody saw the Rock turn coming. Nobody. But when I tell you, for three months leading up to that, there was a little hint here, there was a little hint here, there were so many things that if you went back after it happened, you would have watched it and said, how could I be so stupid? That’s the type of wrestling that I’m a fan of, and that’s what I miss now more than ever. Wrestling now and wrestling today is written at a 12-year-old level. I can’t sit through a show, I can’t. But when I click between commercials and what I see, it is written at a 12-year-old level. And what me and Ed tried to do was, we tried to bring some sophistication into the product. We tried to make you have to think about what you were watching. And that’s why today, that’s why I’m no longer a fan of the product, because that type of writing, and those type of multi-dimensional characters, they just don’t exist anymore. And that’s where they lost me as a fan.”
JV said the big swerves are often easy to figure out ahead of time today.
“Absolutely. Getting back to what I said earlier, that’s what I mean to you when I tell you that we used to write every show to be better than the last. We agonized over the smallest details. I mean, agonized. If you saw the TLC that was put into these shows… the bottom line is, when you’ve got ten writers, you can’t add that same TLC. You don’t have the time to. I think I kind of do know how it went from two people to a committee, because when it’s a big committee, Vince doesn’t have to give anybody else credit for it. When it was two people, it was like well, who is this Russo and Ferrera? We got a little bit more press because it was only the two of us. When you’ve got fifteen people in a room, at the end of the day Vince McMahon is gonna get the credit for the product. And you know what, I’ll tell you what, right now he can have the credit for the product. I don’t think anybody else wants it.”
There’s a lot of churn now, you always hear about a new writer, then a writer’s gone. You think the fact that these aren’t wrestling people has something to do with it?
“Oh, big time,” Vince said. “We can have a five-hour conversation about the psyche of a wrestler. If you don’t know how these guys are, and you don’t know what they’re thinking, and you don’t know how they’re feeling, and if you don’t know each personality inside-out, if you don’t know what storylines they”ll do, what they won’t do, if you don’t know these guys, forget about it. That right there is 75% of the job. When you’re sitting down writing a story, you’ve gotta know how Stone Cold Steve Austin is gonna react to it.” Vince said you have to know what you can and cannot ask the wrestlers to do, and what you’ll have to negotiate. “I don’t care if you’re a Hollywood writer, this is a whole different animal. And unless you know the sports entertainer/wrestler, they (the writers) are gonna keep going through that revolving door until the end of time.”
JV said in any business, you surround yourself with people that know that business. He asked Vince why Vince McMahon and Stephanie McMahon want Hollywood television writers who have Nickelodeon and “WKRP” on their resume rather than wrestling people?
“Just my opinion but part of my theory is, Vince McMahon would rather be in Hollywood than the wrestling business. That’s the truth. It’s not a knock on Vince. I think part of the problem is, there’s a huge part of him that obviously feels like he’s mastered the wrestling business. No question about it, he has. He’s the king of the mountain. There’s a part of Vince… I think part of Vince’s disdain towards Ted Turner so much was because I honestly feel Vince wanted to be Ted Turner. If Vince could trade in the WWF tomorrow for MGM or Universal, I guarantee you he would. I think Vince feels like he’s done everything he could in the wrestling business, and he probably has. If Vince could be a Hollywood mogul tomorrow, he would.”
JV said he remembers a scene in “Beyond the Mat” when McMahon was interviewed and he said, “We make movies.”
“Right! Do you think it’s by chance that when The Rock’s in a movie, Vince is the executive producer? And again, that’s not a knock on Vince. He’s mastered what he has done. It gets to the point in all our lives where, when you master something, it’s just a matter of time before you get bored with it. And I kinda think again, if Vince had the opportunity to run… from what I understand, he’s started his own movie division. And now he’s gonna be putting out movies and the guys are gonna be starring in them, well okay. There you go.”
Moving back to when you were first with WWE, May of 1999 was when Owen Hart passed away at the Over the Edge PPV. You were backstage that night. What are your thoughts on that night, and on Owen Hart?
Vince said he loved Owen Hart. He said every time somebody passes, that’s kind of the right thing for people to say, but he really loved Owen. “To this day, he was the greatest human being I’ve ever associated with in the wrestling business. And let me put it to you this way, and I’ve never said this publicly before. But this is why I think so highly of Owen Hart. Owen Hart is the only guy… I’ve worked with over 100 wrestlers. And Owen Hart is the only guy that I know that didn’t cheat on his wife. And let me tell you something, that fact alone in that business makes Owen Hart a giant of a man. The loyalty he had to his wife and to his family makes him a giant of a man in that business because unfortunately in the wrestling business, that does not exist. I loved the guy. He made me laugh. He made me laugh so hard sometimes I cried. That was just Owen. Now that I’m a Christian and now that I can really understand as tragic as that night was, and it is a night that will stay with me for the rest of my life, I also now can accept that that was Owen’s time to go. That was his time to go. And we’ll never know why, only God knows those answers. Perhaps we’ll never know, but I do believe that that was his time. I can’t even put in words that whole night and how it changed my life forever, and how every time when I start getting so down on the business and the people in the business and the politics in the business, I’ll always think of Owen because he was the one guy that really represented the purity and the love and the bright side of the wrestling business better than anybody.”
If it was up to you, would you have continued with the show after it happened?
“That’s hard to say because the reality of the situation is, there is nobody, nobody in that building that was thinking rationally. I mean, was there a right way, was there a wrong way, I mean who knows. There was nobody in that building that was thinking rationally. I didn’t have a problem with Vince going on with the show.” Vince then said that he was also there when Brian Pillman passed away. He said Owen called him into the locker room, looked him in the eyes and asked Vince to tell him that Brian wasn’t really dead. “And as I was saying, “Owen, I’m sorry,” Owen was lacing up his boots to go out to that ring and give the match of his life. And you know what, when I think about the show going on that night, that’s what all the boys did after they found out Owen died. And I witnessed Owen do that first hand when Brian Pillman died. There was no, “I don’t want to go out to wrestle,” there was nothing. He wanted to get out his feelings the best way he knew how, and that was in the ring. And I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think Owen would have wanted to take that away from any one of the boys that night.”
JV said the same for Eddie, who passed away the night of the tapings.
“The boys express themselves the best when they’re doing what they do best. It’s almost like you couldn’t have even asked them to not go out in the ring and do what they do. It’s almost like that would have been unfair.”
Part one of my exclusive audio interview with former WWE, WCW and TNA writer and performer Vince Russo is now online at JimmyVan.com in MP3 and Real Audio formats. You can also listen to a five-minute preview clip of the interview in Real Audio format at this link.