You can find the Bad Dog Comedy Club and Bar on the boundary between the Christie Pits neighborhood and Little Italy in Toronto, with Koreatown slightly to the east. As you walk down the block you’ll pass a dry cleaners, an Ethiopean restaurant, a McDonalds, an income tax center, Ali Baba’s Middle Eastern Foods, a Minimart, and a sushi restaurant, all jumbled and jostling together. The comedy club itself is tucked above a post office, with a liquor store on one side and a vegan bakery on the other. A Tim Hortons sign glows across the street in the twilight.
Tonight–August 9, 2019–Dan and I are getting ready to climb the narrow dark stairs to the second floor when a lanky figure barrels past the gaggle of people on the sidewalk, almost bowling us over. “Excuse me, sorry, excuse me,” he announces, pausing on the stairs to glance back apologetically. “Sorry everyone, I’m late, sorry!”
Sami Zayn disappears up the stairs, taking them two at a time, leaving us laughing in his wake before his show even begins.
We make our way up the stairs after him. The venue seats about seventy, a cozy little room currently full of people from all over the world, most of them in Sami Zayn shirts. I clasp Dan’s hand briefly, exhausted after a long day of SummerSlam meet and greets but still excited. I can’t believe we got tickets. I can’t believe we finally got here, to the other side of the world.
I’m here to see Sami Zayn talk.
In the beginning of 2015, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn cut their first promo together in NXT. They haven’t been seen together since Sami’s triumphant win the previous December, since Kevin turned on him and attacked him. Filled with righteous fury, Sami has demanded to have a match with his faithless friend, and they’re meeting in the ring to sign the contract.
General Manager Regal recaps the situation, then pauses to allow the wrestlers a chance to speak. Silence falls as the two of them stare at each other for a long moment, and remains unbroken until Sami finally picks up a mic:
Kevin doesn’t respond, and Sami goes on to speak for an uninterrupted minute and a half, with increasing frustration and passion, his voice breaking as he begs Kevin to explain himself, to justify his actions, to talk to him.
And Kevin says nothing, nothing, nothing at all.
Watching in 2015, knowing almost nothing of their past, I can still tell this is important, that it’s resonant. What I don’t realize at that moment is how perfect and neat a reversal this first interaction is of all their past together; how striking it is to start their WWE career with Sami pouring out his heart, and Kevin wordless and silent.
When Sami Zayn first came to NXT, he hadn’t cut a promo in which he spoke in more than fragments for over a decade. A genius at physical comedy, he had developed a persona and style that let him enhance another person’s promo brilliantly. And he was so good that he could mostly get by working in silence. But not speaking is a handicap in wrestling, especially in WWE, where wrestlers are expected to be able to use words in many situations, from fully-prepared promos to quick impromptu exchanges and any variety of semi-scripted speeches in between. It’s no exaggeration to say that WWE careers have foundered on a wrestlers’ lack of ability to express their character and motivations in ways that are authentic and emotionally resonant, specifically through the spoken word rather than in the ring.
So when Sami arrived in Florida, he knew he was in for a challenge. When he looks back on that time, it’s clear that he dreaded promo class, that he was half-convinced he would be sent away in disgrace immediately when he opened his mouth. “Despite coming to WWE with 11 years of experience already under my belt, the idea of ‘cutting a promo’ terrified me when I first got here,” he wrote much later in his tribute to Dusty Rhodes. “Though I had done a lot before getting to WWE, my interviews or ‘promos’ had consisted of only a few words. I had relied on a lot of my non-verbal skills to get to WWE, but the jig was up now that I had signed.”
His worries have long and deep roots. An intensely private person, it seems likely that over the years he came to find the schism between his private self and his public, in-ring self comfortable and reassuring. It served as an actual, physical filter to a man who may have lacked faith in his own internal filters. Sami ruefully admitted once on a Talk is Jericho show that he’s picked up the unfortunate habit of swearing loudly in the ring when he gets emotional. Getting emotional is a risk–and not simply of accidentally using bad language. Being authentically emotional in the ring is to show some aspect of your private self in an intensely public place. If you have a clear, vivid, compelling character-based reason built into your character to not speak—maybe even a physical barrier between your true face and the world—you never have to worry about accidentally giving too much of yourself away, and the bleedthrough between the real person and the character—one of the most compelling and frankly terrifying parts of wrestling—can be kept under control.
But when he arrived in WWE, Sami no longer could rely on that safe distance. He had to learn a whole new way of connecting with the audience—with words as well as with physicality.
He became good at it shockingly quickly, considering he was starting from almost nothing. Dusty Rhodes encouraged him to develop a natural speaking style, to speak from his heart. His promo after he wins the NXT title—when he runs out into the audience to celebrate, then rolls back into the ring and breathlessly apologizes for getting carried away before going on to explain with passion what the title means to him, what it means to everyone who loves him—is one of my absolute favorites.
But—I don’t know how to explain this intuition, but I feel like he was often… holding something back. I feel like he still struggled sometimes to fully, spontaneously engage with his character from its depths. To say that my favorite wrestler could be less than flawless at what he does seems blasphemous, but I can’t shake it: the feeling that he was hesitant to completely inhabit his character in certain moments.
It crops up in little ways, here and there. At a panel at ComicCon in 2015, someone asks a question about El Generico, and Sami points out that he can’t speak for Generico or know his opinions. As the audience breaks into laughter, Kevin, sitting two people down, leans forward and says, “If he were here, he’d sure look at you and say you were pathetic.”
The laughter spikes, then goes quiet as everyone waits to see how Sami will respond. Seconds tick by. Anticipation grows. And finally Sami leans forward to the mic and says:
Everyone laughs again, but what catches my eye is Kevin, who throws himself backwards in his chair in affectionate exasperation at the non-answer: You can talk back to me now, so talk to me, damn it. Tell me I’m full of shit, or that I don’t know what I’m talking about, or that I never really knew Generico, or… anything!
Here they both are at last, here in WWE face to face, and Sami won’t fire back at him. We know it isn’t that Sami’s particularly tongue-tied, we can see it in the stories people tell about him: waving his hands and sardonically yelling “Yeah, fuck the match! Who gives a shit about the match?” at an apathetic promoter; racing around the Performance Center cafeteria enthusing loudly about the pepper grinders and the potatoes. But that’s all in private. In public, in-character, without a filter…
After Sami turns heel in 2017, his heel persona is all of his more negative aspects turned outward on blast, dialed up to eleven: an abrasive, strident motormouth. He joins forces with Kevin, and they’re nearly-inseparable for a while. Sami rarely cuts a promo without Kevin by his side, and they do a lot of impromptu, untelevised backstage promos where they riff off each other, clearly unscripted, simply playing with words and with their characters. Kevin radiates delight at having his prickly, mouthy friend by his side at last. More than once, he’ll catch himself up short after he’s talked for a while and will turn to Sami, demanding that he take his turn, telling him he needs to talk now. Then he’ll watch raptly as Sami steps forward to speak, hanging on his every word (Sami’s precise words don’t matter; watch Kevin).
It feels almost like Kevin is there as a safety net as Sami gets practice riffing through a promo without a clear script. Even on the air, many of their promos and interactions feel more impromptu and ad-libbed than usual. They seem to be having fun. It’s a pleasure to watch Sami getting more comfortable in his voice.
And then things–for whatever reason, who ever really knows the reason?–go askew after their WrestleMania match against Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon. Kevin and Sami stop interacting on-camera, and Sami enters a feud with Bobby Lashley.
It’s a disastrous combination. I have more respect for Lashley than I let on, but his strength does not lie in his work on the mic, which leaves Sami carrying the feud through the promos, because Sami keeps ducking actually wrestling, claiming to suffer from “vertigo.” He’s competently delivering the lines he’s been given, but there’s not much animating spark to what he’s saying. He’s holding back–honestly, I would never blame him, given the material he was working with–but the feud is just painful.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” I complain when we get to a promo in which Sami claims that Lashley didn’t really serve in the military. “It’s out of character for Sami to imply that being in the United States military is anything at all to be proud of! This is a totally Generic WWE Heel Promo, it could be delivered by Dolph Ziggler or the Miz or Baron Corbin. It’s got nothing to do with Sami Zayn at all.”
“True,” Dan says. “It would be so much better if he were heeling it up based on his authentic views, wouldn’t it?”
His tone is sarcastic, and for a moment I can see it: Sami Zayn accusing an imposing black veteran of being a murderer and war criminal for God and country in front of a typical American audience.
“Okay,” I say faintly, “let’s stick with reading the script. Reading the script is good.”
On the last Raw before Money in the Bank, Sami issues a sardonic challenge: he and Lashley will each run a military-style obstacle course and see who does better. It’s a ludicrous suggestion, and there’s no reason for it, so I’m convinced that this weird stunt will end up playing to one of Sami’s particular strengths: he’s a genius at executing moments of seeming physical clumsiness in ways calculated to be funny, an illusion of awkwardness created with control and grace. Surely after Lashley completes the course Sami will run it himself, but will do terribly at it in hilarious ways. As Sami walks the audience through the course, I can see it: how he’ll manage one tire flip before it rolls away from him and careens down the ramp, how he’ll wriggle impotently through the low crawl, how he’ll flail wildly across the monkey bars. I’ll sting at the inevitable humiliation of one of my favorites, but I accept that technically he has it coming after his generic-brand-WWE heeling. At least I’ll get to watch him do something I know he’s great at after weeks of depressing, infuriating promos.
Instead, after Lashley inevitably finishes the course easily, Sami simply attacks him from behind, then kicks him in the face.
I’m upset, I’m frustrated. Did Sami come all this way, from the bars in Montreal to the bright lights of WWE, to recite awful scripts and not wrestle? I don’t understand.
Eventually I understand maybe a little bit better, when Sami finishes his feud with Lashley and immediately goes out for the double shoulder surgery that keeps him sidelined for almost a year. He mentions in an interview that he couldn’t even lift his arms to get out of bed in the mornings, and I wince as I remember every bump he took, every time he moved his arms. I think of him in pain, unable to tell a story in the ring, forced to work from other peoples’ words and struggling to find anything in those deadwood scripts that struck a single spark from his soul, and my heart breaks.
Re-watching him describing that obstacle course, my attention is caught by one line in the middle of all his empty bluster. As he points to the low crawl, explaining how you have to go on your hands and knees, unable to move freely, he snarls that he’ll excel at this because “I do my best work in confined spaces.”
There, I think. There’s a bitter spark of real emotion from the heart of a wrestler who can’t wrestle, working in the most confined space of all.
Back to 2019, to Toronto, to the comedy club. The first part of the night is two comedians to warm up the crowd a bit, one of them a wrestling fan and one not. They use the non-fan’s lack of knowledge to hilarious effect, building skits off different ridiculous aspects of wrestling. At one point the fan, attempting to explain wrestling to his partner, says casually that there doesn’t seem to be much connection between impromptu comedy and professional wrestling. Which is (as he himself explains) all kinds of wrong, of course: I’d go so far as to argue that professional wrestling is literally impromptu acting, comedy or not. The way wrestlers generally ad-lib both their spoken words and their physical performance, the way reactions to the audience get built into a match—even the more carefully-controlled environment of WWE requires a lot of impromptu work.
After the warm-up skits, the second act, Renee Young and her comedian partner, Stacey McGunnigle, take their turn. Renee’s been working on Raw commentary for a few months, and I lean forward, laughing but also fascinated as I start to see how this kind of stand-up impromptu is literally practice for the hard work of wrestling commentary. The audience lobs suggestions and Renee has to react and respond to them while holding steady a specific character: a hassled customer service operator trying to calm a woman dealing with a raccoon infestation; a beleaguered shopper fending off an aggressive cosmetics saleswoman. It’s not that much different, really, than having to maintain a consistent character while responding to events unfolding in real-time in the ring, though on the comedy stage she doesn’t have people yelling in her ear about what she should be doing differently. Renee’s having fun, but this is very distinctly job training.
Stacey asks for another suggestion from the audience. “A woman dealing with a sexist co-worker,” someone calls out, and Renee and Stacey both roll their eyes knowingly as the audience laughs: this is not a stretch. It’s like a verbal equivalent of a wrestling match, it occurs to me as Stacey swaggers through an invisible door, shoulders squared, and Renee lets her posture wilt into long-suffering lines: both of them feeding each other cues about the direction the sketch is going, following each other’s lead, reading the room, constructing a small story together.
While Sami Zayn is recuperating from his double shoulder surgery, he does his first improv comedy skit with his old friend, another wrestler from his Montreal indie days, James McGee (despite sharing a last name and first initial, no relation to the author of this piece). He takes some time to travel without the pressures of a WWE schedule, posting pictures of himself resting by shimmering lakes, hiking through sun-dappled woods.
When he finally returns to Raw the night after WrestleMania, he immediately has a match for the Intercontinental title against Finn Balor. After his loss (another loss, so many losses), Sami picks up the mic and informs the applauding crowd that they’re what’s wrong with WWE, what’s wrong with him. He rants about how ugly the souls of the audience are, how intolerable either our cheers or our boos are to him, how unbearable it is to stand in front of us every week. He talks for five uninterrupted minutes, an eternity in WWE. How many wrestlers have a chance to stand by themselves in the ring and cut five minute promos that promote no feud at all, that are there just to establish a character and motivation? And this is no isolated incident. For four weeks in a row, Sami gets five, six, seven minutes where he stands alone and stares out at us with hollow eyes and talks about how horrible it is to be trotted out to entertain us, how his job is a prison that destroys his soul. Five, six, seven minutes; an eternity of pain, week after week. A month of promos that take all of my cherished dreams about the relationship between the wrestler and the audience, all my fond hopes about our support meaning something, and they burn them to the ground, and they sow the ground with salt.
There’s a lot of buzz debating how scripted these promos are. Some people argue that Sami is being forced to be a mouthpiece for Vince McMahon to express his contempt and hatred of the fans. Sami would never say this unless he were forced to. This is all Vince. I absolutely understand why people would believe that; it’s a handy shield against how painful Sami’s words are. But whether scripted or impromptu, it doesn’t really matter, because there’s no doubting the raw emotion in his voice: this is real. If the words have been written for him, Sami is still finding the emotional resonance in them, finding how they ring true in his character’s heart. He’s letting us see pain and passion he never has before. Mark Henry raves about his work, talks about greeting Sami backstage after one of his scathing speeches, saying “Where has this guy been all this time?” Sami responds,”Mark, I’m not holding back no more.”
“See?” I say after reading it to Dan, bleak and desolate, “see? It’s all true, that’s how he truly feels, how he’s always truly felt.” I don’t know whether I’m more humiliated by my pain now or by how much I had cared for someone who despised wrestling fans so deeply.
“Oh God,” Dan says. We’ve had this discussion more than once over the last weeks, over the last year, and his patience is wearing a little thin. “What is truth to a wrestler? It’s just a tool like any other, and a weak tool at that. Truth is irrelevant.”
“He said he’s not holding back anymore.”
“And you think that means what he’s saying is true?”
I nod miserably. Obviously that’s what it means, that he’s been holding back his true emotions for years now.
Dan shakes his head. “I mean, I’m sure it is at some level, in some moment. But ‘not holding back’–that’s an acting term. I’ve taken a few intro acting classes for fun, and a lot of acting theory is about learning to not hold back your own emotion in a role, how to inhabit your character without reservation even in the rawest moments. About taking risks and letting audiences see you at your most vulnerable. Being open to your character and its reality. I don’t know whether Sami actually took acting classes during his hiatus, but he’s surely been thinking about the craft of acting, and it shows. He’s lightyears ahead of where he was before his injury.”
He’s right, and even as my heart hurts, I’m so proud of Sami for being good enough to lacerate it like this. The hints that he spent at least some of his time off not just rehabbing his shoulders, but working on improving one of his few weaknesses, to the point where he can now hold an audience of thousands spellbound, hanging on his every word week after week… it’s amazing. I loved Generico, but there’s no way, no way at all, that the masked luchador could have stood alone in front of an audience and expressed his character, his motivations, his pain and his anguish and anger, with such clarity. With no partner, no rival, not even a feud: just a microphone and his words and body. People like to say that WWE is the end state, that wrestlers who get there rest on their laurels and rake in the bucks and don’t ever need to improve or grow; yet here’s Sami Zayn going from eloquent silence to delivering promos that rip out the heart.
Over the months after that, my heart aches for Sami-the-character as he slowly gives up his high-flying moves, as his faith in his wrestling dims and flickers and finally is snuffed out entirely. But at the same time, my heart soars as I see Sami-the-performer gain more and more confidence in his words, in his ability to express authentic emotions: rage and glee, nihilism and doubt. As the character’s horizons narrow, so the performer’s widen: a whole new set of tools at his disposal to craft a character that’s fully resonant and real, who’s experienced the best and worst of himself and is ready for whatever comes next. Not holding anything back.
Back in the Bad Dog Comedy Theatre, months after Sami’s return, he and James McGee finally take the stage. Sami explains about the proceeds going to his charity, how he’ll accept donations later (“I made a box,” he explains with an almost-bashful awkwardness, holding it up). He and James interact with the crowd for a little while, gathering material for their skit from the concepts tossed out by the fans: sightseeing in New Jersey, the weather in Norway, having roommates. Sami tells a story about riding back from some indie show on the same bus as a musician named Slick (or maybe Slicc, or Slique—I’m not sure which one) and being impressed by how effortlessly cool and laconic he was.
Once the crowd is warmed up (we are, of course, warm already, the room is filled to the brim with delight at the mere sight of Sami), he and James settle into their sketch. The setup: James meets his mysterious new roommate. James takes out imaginary keys and opens an invisible door, walks into the newly-created apartment to find Sami there.
As he does, Sami slips, effortlessly, gracefully, instinctively… into silence.
He leans against the wall, totally at ease, his face arranged into lines of cool disdain. Conjuring an invisible cigarette, he begins to smoke, his hands tracing ironic arcs as James greets him. He says nothing. James is confused, then intrigued, and the theme of the skit quickly becomes James’ attempts to coax his new roommate into speaking. Sami is cool, he’s aloof, he’s totally untouched by James’ attempts to engage him.
“You’re so cool,” James says admiringly.
Sami takes a drag on his cigarette and curls his lip.
“Everything you do is so cool!” James enthuses. At this point he’s just trying to get Sami to say his name, even the tiniest thing. He gestures for Sami to sit down on a stool. With a quick kick, Sami knocks it aside.
“That’s so cool,” James sighs rapturously.
He coaxes and cajoles Sami to say something, say something, say anything, while Sami crafts a flawless portrait of a self-absorbed hipster musician. Because that’s who he is, it’s clear even before James mimes looking at a record and saying “Hey, this is your picture”–he’s playing the disaffected super-cool musician he met on that bus ride long ago.
“It’s your picture, but there’s… no name on the album,” James says in disappointment as the audience bursts into giggles.
Sami shrugs and looks bored.
“Look,” James says. His admiration is starting to give way to frustration. “You act like you don’t care about anything, but you have to care about something, right?”
Sami lifts an eyebrow and says nothing. He takes a long drag on his invisible cigarette, staring past James.
“I mean, at the very least you obviously care about… about smoking, right?” James says, gesturing at Sami’s hands.
Sami narrows his eyes at James and then deliberately flicks his cigarette away.
“Even that’s cool,” James says again, scrambling to pick up the cigarette and burning his hands comedically. The audience is laughing with delight as he keeps trying to get his disaffected roommate to tell him his name, and I’m struck again by some of the similarities to a wrestling match. You can see James and Sami reading each others’ cues, dropping hints about where the skit is leading, setting the pace of the small story. It’s starting to wrap up, and I can tell because suddenly James drops the clowning and starts speaking to Sami with a dramatic earnestness. It’s the point in a comedy routine where the straight man begins the windup to the punchline, and James is setting Sami up for the reveal that we all can sense is coming and are anticipating.
We hang on James’ words as he tells his aloof roommate that he gets it, that it’s easier and safer to stay silent. That as long as you don’t speak, you don’t have to risk showing how much you care, or how easily you can be hurt. But, says James, it’s a risk you have to take someday, somehow. (I think he also slips in a threat to raise the rent if Sami stays silent). Take the risk, James says, leaning forward. Talk to me.
There’s a long beat of silence as he finishes up his plea. Sami looks at him. Looks away. Looks back. Then he says, perfectly deadpan: “My name’s Slick.”
It’s the right ending, the confirmation of what the audience has suspected all along, and everyone laughs with delight and applauds.
The skit has lasted until the end of the scheduled time; the show should be over. But instead there’s some quick negotiation; I get the impression James has called an audible and decided they’re going to do an additional skit. The next one features two men meeting in a doctor’s waiting room, discussing their reasons for being there. Sami stays seated through the whole skit, his fidgety physical energy contained. And this time he talks through the sketch, adding his words to James’, making a narrative with him.
I’ll be honest: it’s not as hilarious as the first one. Sami is more cautious, less deft than he was when he was lounging against the wall in disdain. It’s like watching someone pick their way carefully across a tightrope after a dazzling and fearless trapeze act. But it makes us laugh, and he gets across to the other side, and the show is over. We tumble out into the night, satisfied and admiring.
It’s just a comedy routine, right? It’s nothing filled with deep psychological meaning. But I find myself thinking about a moment in the evening a lot, even weeks later. I watch Smackdown, I watch Sami Zayn talking on the screen, I think about his odd elliptical character arc from silence to speaking, and I remember James McGee sitting and looking at one of his oldest friends and saying with sudden earnestness that yes, to speak is a risk, that it’s safer to look cool and aloof, untouched by the sorrows of caring too much. But it’s a risk you have to take if you want to connect, if you want to create.
I remember it a lot, James reminding his friend to not hold back.
It’s just after Sami’s show, and Dan and I are at the Tim Hortons across the street, sharing a late-night donut and going back over the day. I beam out at the night, at the bustling street, and think about how far Sami has come and how much he’s grown, all that he’s given up and all that he’s achieved. I think about Asai moonsaults and masks, about silence and words, about the lights of WrestleMania and the Intercontinental title always gleaming just out of reach.
“He’d be so proud of Sami,” I say, then laugh at myself a little, wiping my eyes. “He’d be so proud.”
“Who, Dusty?” Dan says.
“Oh,” I say. “Oh yes, of course, Dusty too. Him too.”
“Scream” vedette David Arquette has an extreme volonté that almost cost him his life — professional wrestling.
Two years ago, Arquette faced off against ex-con Nick Gage in a deathmatch, the most hard style where the wrestlers swing chairs, baseball bats and the like.
With blood gushing from his neck, Arquette gets up and tries to pin Gage but can’t. He jumps out of the ring, holding his neck. Then, he climbs back in and smacks Gage with a folding peau. After a couple of minutes, though, Arquette is the one who gets pinned.
“It nearly cost me my life, ” Arquette told the Star of the match. “I was in way over my head. I was about half an inch from death…”
Arquette decided to go back into the ring after fellow pro wrestler Jack Perry, the son of late actor Luke Perry, assured him that he wasn’t bleeding to death. Perry is the one who took Arquette to the hospital.
Arquette told the Star : “I could hear Luke but I couldn’t see him, ” Arquette told the Star. “I said : ‘Luke is it pumping ? ’ because I was worried I was bleeding out and he said : ‘No it’s not pumping. ’ I knew at that point I wasn’t dying immediately, I could try to finish the match. ”
Arquette has had a lifelong love affair with wrestling, which is traced in a new documentary, “You Cannot Kill David Arquette. ” The film tells of how Arquette has spent the past two decades trying to earn back the respect of the wrestling world — after he won the 2000 World Championship Wrestling heavyweight title as a publicity stunt for his movie “Ready to Rumble. ”
In those years, the 49-year-old Arquette has battled heart problems and drug addiction. After the Gage match, Arquette’s wife, Christine, told him : “I just feel like you want to die, ” the actor recalled.
“I don’t want to die but life is painful, ” Arquette told the Star. “If you have addiction issues like I do there’s an element in the back of your head that the accro is literally trying to kill you. You have to find ways to deal with it so you don’t continue to kill yourself, either slowly or quickly. ”
For Arquette, wrestling helped him deal with the deaths of Luke Perry, a close friend who died of a stroke, and his transgender sister, Alexis, who died of a heart attack.
“Losing someone is really painful but a few things have happened to make me feel we are all much more connected, ” Arquette said. “For wrestling, you shave everything and at one point I was looking at my arms and it was like I was looking at Alexis’ arms, as being transgender she would shave them… For a deuxième it was like I was looking through Alexis’ eyes… I think we’re a lot more connected than any of us know. ”
Through the film, Arquette has finally learned to accept himself. “I accomplished what I set out to do, ” Arquette told the Star. “I wanted to prove I could be a wrestler. And through this whole experience, I figured out – and it’s ironic – I need to stop beating myself up. I had to stop attacking myself and be kind to myself, as corny as it sounds.