HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver was one of the loudest voices calling WWE out for their relationship with Saudi Arabia last year. The company has yet to officially announce their plans for returning to the Kingdom in 2019, however, and the Saudi royal family hasn’t been implicated in the murders of any journalists (that we know of). So with WrestleMania week upon us, Oliver and his team turned their attention to another aspect of WWE’s business practices... their classification of wrestlers as independent contractors, and how that’s just part of a system which exploits their talents and contributes to their shocking rate of early death.
All while the company, and principal shareholders the McMahon family, profit from their labor.
The 23 minute segment, which HBO has released and is embedded above, is typical Oliver - a comedian who uses his show as a vehicle for journalism and activism. It’s definitely funny, and you believe the host when he repeatedly points out how he shares his old boss Jon Stewart’s love of wrestling:
“I like wrestling. And you might be surprised to hear that, but I’d argue it’s objectively entertaining. And the WWE has, over the years, delivered numerous ludicrous and genuinely incredible moments from when Jake The Snake Roberts set a live cobra on Macho Man Randy Savage, to the time Braun Strowman suplexed The Big Show off the turnbuckle and broke the entire ring, to when Stone Cold Steve Austin drove a beer truck into the arena and sprayed the corporation with a beer hose - not to be mistaken for the time when Kurt Angle drove a milk truck into the arena and sprayed Stone Cold Steve Austin with a milk hose.”
Beyond that, it’s a thorough takedown of how the combination of WWE’s virtual monopoly on big-time pro wrestling, the workload they demand of their performers, and dealing with them as independent contractors rather than full employees gives the company numerous loopholes to provide minimal benefits, avoid regulation, and promote a culture that encourages an unhealthy approach to the job.
Some small details don’t line up, such as playing Bret Hart’s comments about the company from 1998’s Wrestling With Shadows documentary, then implying Owen Hart’s 1999 death influenced the quote (and not mentioning Bret’s subsequent reconciliation and ongoing relationship with WWE). But there don’t appear to be any outright falsehoods.
The big question is whether the fan base will answer Oliver’s call to arms. We can all agree the running gag of seeing Vince take humiliating bumps is laugh out loud funny, and that the mock-PPV ad for benefits which closes the segment is great stuff. Last Week Tonight asks us to hit WrestleMania 35 at MetLife Stadium and other WWE events demanding better treatment for wrestlers with the same kind of signs, chants, tweets and passion we have other causes.
Will fans revolt for a wrestler off-season, or comprehensive health benefits, the same way they did for the Women’s Evolution or against Roman Reigns as the company’s top face?
We shall see.