Pro wrestling lost one of its most recognizable voices, arguably the most recognizable voice, today. WWE announced that “Mean” Gene Okerlund passed away at the age of 76.
You know him, even if you weren’t a wrestling fan or even alive during his glory years in the 80s and 90s. The little guy with the mustache, omnipresent tuxedo, and horseshoe hair who conducted backstage interviews with crazed pro wrestlers in a sonorous voice which was equal parts radio announcer cool and barely restrained mock exasperation with everything around him. You also probably remember the way Hulk Hogan would always, always, begin his discussions with him by saying, “Let me tell you something 'Mean' Gene”, a prelude catchphrase which always signaled the Hulkster was about to go off.
The fact that one of Hogan’s most memorable catchphrases has nothing to do with Hogan and everything to do with the interviewer isn’t incidental. Okerlund was the calm axis around which everything in WWF’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling era revolved, the only sane person in an undulating sea of lunacy. The WWF of the time was cartoonier than the other promotions of the time, with big men, bright colors, and a fever dream pitch to everything from the characters the wrestlers played to the melodramatic angles they enacted. By being the calm, innocent one, Okerlund was basically us, the viewers, dwelling in a world without shouting bodybuilders and leg drops.
He played an unflappable version of ourselves, though. Okerlund was, throughout his career, un-phased by the weirdness around him. He did vaudeville, more or less, a lifelong act where he played the straight man to a host of clowns. The interview style he perfected followed a pattern: feigned obliviousness, wrestlers ratcheting up the verbal or physical intensity of their actions, a whiff of frustration or bemusement, then throwing it back to the announcing table or ring.
The archetype existed before him—pro wrestling has always required a seemingly straight-laced interviewer to play off of—but nobody mastered it like Okerlund. It sounds so simple, yet nobody else has figured it out, despite everyone aping him. And it is him, specifically; turn on any pro wrestling, from any sized promotion, and watch their Okerlunds, the way the interviews are paced, the flinching from the inevitable crescendo of madness, and the faint look of disgust when the cutaway happens. Crucially, he never learned: the next big segment, he’d be right there taking everything perfectly seriously, at a face value which does not and cannot exist in the kayfabe world.
That’s why the intro to Hogan’s interviews is so telling. There is no Hulk Hogan without “Mean” Gene and he always knew it. There’s no Randy Savage or Ultimate Warrior. A list of pro wrestling’s superstars, from the AWA to WWF through to the end of WCW, where he migrated in the early 90s as the WWF stars of the 80s were on the wane, don’t make it without Okerlund. His contributions to the form, whether you consider the entire thing goofy or worthy of study as a serious thing, cannot be understated—he was vital to pro wrestling’s development in both its goofiness and its seriousness.
His best work was always with “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Savage in his pomp was a whirlwind of stream of consciousness ranting. Good as he was, it always had the potential to grate without Okerlund’s contrast. And what a contrast it was—Savage would threaten to throw candy at him or compare himself to cream by shouting it loudly. Pay attention to Okerlund when he’s interviewing Savage and note the constant quick, slightly alarmed glances he throws off-camera, the way they seem fearful and small and, in so doing, makes Savage look bigger. It’s masterful and the physical stuff is what nobody else could quite get.
He cracked sometimes. How could you not? He’d stifle laughter or something would go wrong and he’d swear a blue streak out of nothing. He seemed simply human in a way so many others didn’t, like your dad or uncle, just with a better voice. But he laughed at dick jokes and he’d get mad when part of a set fell down and, yeah, he was just a guy. That’s what made him awesome, and seeing him struggle to keep it together every now and then just made him more so.
He’ll be godawful missed, the last survivor of the the truly great talkers from WWF’s 80s run and one of the greatest non-wrestling performers wrestling’s ever seen. As Hulkamania and Macho Madness fade from view and Okerlund’s voice falls silent, remember one of the greats. There won’t ever be another one.