People have always looked for some sort of escapism. No matter who you are, you have some problem that you need to take your mind off of. Just as chicken noodle soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, and mashed potatoes are comfort food, pro wrestling is considered by many to be comfort food for the soul. Even with all of the changes that the industry has gone through, it is an entity that can still help ease the pain of everyday life.
Although thousands of fans have been known to attend wrestling matches dating back to ancient times, I would go as far as to say that wrestling attained its "comfort food" designation when the sport hit television in the 1950's. Dad had a long day at the office, mom spent the day scrubbing the toilet and slaving over a hot stove, and even junior had his problems getting the business from "The Beav" at school. None of the three had ever seen a spectacle like Gorgeous George in their innocent little suburb. Who was this blonde grappler with "Georgie" pins and a valet? For an hour every week, "The Toast of the Coast" and his heroic opponents took Americans across the nation out of their difficult, humdrum, everyday lives and into a world of larger than life action.
In the world of the 1960's, a somewhat less optimistic America, fans had their own regional hero to root for, often reflecting the racial divides of the time. Nowhere was this more evident than with northeast wrestling idol Bruno Sammartino. Thrilling the immigrant populations in cities like New York, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, Sammartino proved to be a hero not only in the ring but out of it as well. To this day, baby boomers who grew up in Pittsburgh will regale anyone who asks with tales of watching Bruno with their steel worker fathers and grandfathers. Those fathers, often sitting down with a cold beer on Saturday afternoons, watched the Pittsburgh Studio Wrestling program with delight as Bruno pounded away on Nazi sympathizers like Waldo Von Erich and evil orientals like Professor Toru Tanaka.
When wrestling went national in the 1980's, the sport followed the rest of the country by partaking in the "decade of excess." Bright lights, big cities, and bulging biceps became the gold standard of pro wrestling and on top of it all was Hulk Hogan. Even with detractors who felt that the sport was no longer what they grew up on, there were probably more new fans enjoying the escape of pro wrestling than those who gave up on it. Hogan was patriotic Americana destroying the Cold War-era evils of a bald Iranian, a barrel chested Russian, and even a giant Frenchman.
Wrestling may have achieved its zenith of escapism in the still wildly popular "Attitude Era" of the late '90s. Stone Cold Steve Austin's long running feud with Mr. McMahon was the first topic of discussion around watercoolers and at bus stops nearly every Tuesday morning. Similar to the arrival of the Hogan era, many fans of previous time periods weren't as engaged with the "beer bashes" of the Austin reign, although fifteen years later the time is still fondly remembered.
I've often deemed myself as the luckiest of wrestling fans. I say this because I'm able to enjoy most every style of wrestling that's been offered over the years. Never one to believe in the questionable idea of "workrate," I can enjoy a match pitting Akeem against Koko B. Ware as much as I can enjoy a Brisco-Funk exhibition.
I could never rate a match using the infamous "star ratings system" because I simply don't look at a match that way. Some of the best personal wrestling "comfort food" for me are the early WrestleMania events. Often damned by "fans" who feel that they're above these cards, I can't imagine my wrestling fandom without them. From the hyperbolic yet believable commentary of Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura to the then-new concept of music, lighting, and cavernous venues to the classic unforgettable stars of the era, many fans including myself could watch these shows again and again. Many of us do just that. Unlike other sports where repeated viewing is unheard of, wrestling can be watched over and over. There's always that entertainment value to keep you coming back for more. Wrestling tapes and a bowl of spaghetti? Comfort food to satisfy all kinds of hunger.
It's more than the matches that bring us back. It's the comforting feeling of familiarity. Many of us don't get that from the current product, but I sincerely hope and believe that many people do. In the way that the fans from past eras enjoyed their stars, I hope that the fans of today (especially children) have fond memories in the decades ahead of John Cena, CM Punk, and Jeff Hardy.
After all, it's memorable names, moments, and action that keep this business alive. It's the business that provides a wide variety of each to keep any kind of fan happy. A perfect circle if there ever was one.