There was something distinctly vaudeville about Bobby "the Brain" Heenan, who died this past Sunday at the age of 73. In what was almost certainly the greatest commenting duo in pro wrestling history, he would needle his WWF commentating partner, Gorilla Monsoon, who played the straight man to Heenan's cutting wit with a style that nobody else had. You could almost hear the rimshot when Heenan delivered a pun or savaged a babyface to Monsoon's disapproving and exasperated "will you stop".
Their ongoing routine had a whiff of the very old to it. Not old in a stale or hokey way, but in a classic way, the way Abbott and Costello or the Marx Brothers can still have you rolling on the floor after 75 years. Their partnership tied pro wrestling to its carnie, live entertainment past, reminding us that its roots reach deeply into the misty past of America's dramatic heritage, as much ill-fitting suits and self-effacing zingers as strongman contests and duping marks in the audience.
Above: Best of Heenan and Monsoon's early work.
When Heenan began commenting in 1986, he perfected something which was new even if his personal style was classic, something Jesse Ventura had started doing for the WWF in 1984: He codified the babyface-heel dynamic on commentary teams. The accepted, regular style was to call matches more or less as straight athletic contests, with the inevitable shenanigans by the heels always coming as a shock to the naifs working commentary.
None of that for Heenan. He rooted openly for heels because they were heels, being careful to always provide some sort of logic to make them sound reasonable, even if it was only in whatever alternate heel reality he and the bad guys lived in. He was a defense attorney, constructing alibis, what abouts, and noble motivations for everyone from Rick Rude to the Honky Tonk Man. And, again, Monsoon was next to him, playing the perfect straight man, his nobility and decency cast as relief against Heenan's acid one-liners and flights of fancy where up was down and bad was good.
The best talkers in pro wrestling take the translation and conjure new realities, and here was Heenan doing just that.
Because he was always giving the heel's perspective, each and every match, he did more to carry the WWF's storytelling than any series of wrestling promos, no matter how good, was able to manage. If a heel had a grievance, there was Heenan, on the mic, in your ear, reiterating it throughout the match. I was a nearly exclusively NWA fan as a kid, but when I watched the WWF, it was usually because I wanted to see what Heenan would say or do and whether he'd get his ass kicked for it.
He got this from his managerial career, and it's a testament to how great he was on color commentary that it's easy to think of him as a manager and a (pretty good) wrestler second. A pro wrestling manager is invariably a heel "managing" heels; managing is in quotation marks because, of course, there's little legit management being done. Instead, pro wrestling managers act as mouthpieces and figureheads for pro wrestlers who are a little slower on the mic or need a little extra heat from the nearly always obnoxious, weaselly managers.
Heenan managed so many pro wrestlers in his AWA and WWF days that it would obliterate my word count to name them all. If you were a top heel in the WWF, odds are you shared some connection to Heenan. There were others—Mr. Fuji, Slick, Lou Albano—but nobody with the magnetism of Heenan, Most famously, perhaps, was his role as Andre the Giant's manager during the Wrestlemania III feud with Hulk Hogan.
Pay attention to what Heenan does in the moment where the feud is solidified. Andre was not a swell talker, and Heenan lays it out on Andre's behalf: The Giant received a trophy recognizing him as the greatest athlete in pro wrestling, only for Hulk Hogan to come out, rattling off a prepared speech and grandstanding his way to leeching from Andre's moment of adulation. Heenan puts all of that into plain English for the crowd, serving as translator of subtext without ever overdoing it. What's more, every bit of Heenan's complaint that Hogan hotdogged his way into Andre's moment was true, or at the very least, sounded extremely true. The best talkers in pro wrestling take the translation and conjure new realities, and here was Heenan doing just that.
Heenan kept managing even as he commentated. There was Andre and men who spoke even less, like the Barbarian, but good talkers, too, wrestlers who could keep up with him. Notably, they paired Ric Flair—arguably the greatest talker in wrestling history—with Heenan when the former arrived in the WWF. Heenan had so much ill-will built up towards him after years managing and egging on heels that Flair, who was a distinctly NWA product, came into the northeast-based WWF with both recognition and scalding heat just by virtue of the association. Flair is one of the best ever (probably the best ever in my book), but it's not hard to see his career faltering if he'd gone to the WWF without Heenan to help introduce him to a new audience.
Above: Heenan introduces Flair to the WWE
By serving as both color commentator and manager of specific wrestlers, he in effect became the manager for all the heel wrestlers. He told their stories and their justifications, whether he was going to be ringside with them or not. Importantly, that's something which has stuck—American pro wrestling shows almost always have a heel commentator doing Heenan's role as advocate for the baddies. It's just part of how things are done and it seems as natural and enduring as chairshots and Irish whips, in large part because Heenan made it seem like such a good idea.
And it was a good idea, because he made it so self-evidently correct. It's not taking anything away from Ventura—who was the first to really attempt the heel commenting role and extremely good in his own right—to say that Heenan was the best. How could it be, when this funny, odd, supremely intelligent man was the ideal?
He moved out of managing completely, becoming solely a color commentator upon moving to WCW in 1994, and it was there that he delivered my favorite Heenan moment. As Hulk Hogan came out at Bash at the Beach 1996, ostensibly to help Randy Savage and Sting against Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, Heenan shouted that he didn't know what side Hogan was on. Hogan, of course, betrayed Savage and Sting, forming the nWo with Nash and Hall. Heenan's in-story skepticism was warranted.
But it was so much more than momentary skepticism, and this is where the genius of Heenan truly becomes apparent.
Go back to what he said about Hogan and Andre: In pro wrestling narratives, it's usually that a heel turn necessitates a change in character. Heenan's insistence that Hogan was always a narcissistic son of a bitch, that the heel was always Hogan, never his opponents, gives an entirely new, altogether more sophisticated cast to the meta-story of Hogan's career. Suddenly it becomes one of a charismatic strongman who was always amoral, the heelish backrakes Hogan trucked in even at the height of his babyface popularity transform into foreshadowing, angles like Hogan rescuing Elizabeth from ringside while leaving Randy Savage behind become the sinister, divisive acts of a sociopath. Heenan knew, leaving him as pro wrestling's kayfabe Cassandra figure.
It may have been accidental framing in the sense that Heenan blurted out what popped into his head, but it was a framing of Hogan born of a devotion to characterization and logical storytelling. That devotion is what the best pro wrestlers, managers, and commentators possess. Heenan had it in spades. He was outrageously funny and even quicker than that, which was his real hallmark—he had the quickest wit we've ever seen, a fountain of insults, jokes, and opprobrium.
He was in poor health for many years prior to his passing, having dealt with cancer which led to the removal of part of his jaw. To see such a bright light brought low by infirmity is always hard, but this, or any other of the later videos of him at signings and conventions watch some of the later videos of him at signings and conventions:
What comes across strongest is never that Heenan was pitiable; it's that all of the wrestlers would come up to him awash in reverence. It wasn't just a few people, either, but everyone, from every promotion, of every age.
Bobby "The Brain" Heenan was adored. He was titanic. He will be sorely missed.