“Stone Cold” Steve Austin is a name that’s pretty synonymous with the term “badassery.” There’s an expectation that comes along with it, one that tends to include a can of whoop-ass being opened on someone, either before or after a mudhole has also been stomped in them. Much like his professional wrestling contemporary The Rock (now better known as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), even if you weren’t watching professional wrestling during the ‘90s heyday of the Attitude Era, chances are high you still very much aware of the Austin, whether it be via the iconic “Austin 3:16” T-shirt, his proclivity for beer and giving his boss the middle finger, or your idiot classmates attempting to Stone Cold Stunner each other on concrete and then having to go home early after a stop at the nurse’s station.
At the time, Austin and The Rock were the Number One and Number Two of WWF/WWE, respectively (and arguably all of pro wrestling—sorry, WCW). But while The Rock parlayed his larger-than-life WWF/WWE persona into an acting career where he now rests atop the box office (and HBO’s Ballers), Austin never really made that leap, at least not all the way. To be honest, even with all of his Texan roughneck charm, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was never going to be the leading man that his professional counterpart and onscreen rival became. Instead, he found his niche in an even more unexpected avenue: host and producer. Whether it was his own competition and reality series like Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge and Redneck Island or even one of WWE’s iterations of its Tough Enough series, Austin’s proven himself an affable host who serves as the draw for these series with his particular brand of charisma, whether you’re interested in the show itself or not. (It’s worth noting that the WWE Superstars who went the A-list celebrity route like The Rock and now John Cena have done the hosting thing as well, but unlike Austin, it would not necessarily be considered their strong suit, nor their focus.)
That TV hosting ability also translated into his own podcast, “The Steve Austin Show.” That, unexpectedly, ended up being his real niche; as it turned out, Austin is one hell of an interviewer. His mix of conversational tone (and wonderful anecdotes and turns of phrase), research, and engagement with his subjects helped make “The Steve Austin Show” podcast one of the most popular and compelling wrestling podcasts in years. As did his enthusiasm for his guests, as Austin proved himself to be the rare wrestling veteran who genuinely seemed excited about the present and future crop of wrestling stars, instead of bitter that things aren’t like they were back in the day or letting them in on everything they’re doing wrong—which has made for fascinating interviews. Despite being an all-time larger-than-life wrestler, a major part of Austin’s gimmick was always his working-class hero, blue-collar status, which is both what he brings to his podcast interviews and what he brings to his Straight Up Steve Austin hosting/interviewing duties.
Straight Up Steve Austin is a new talk show on USA Network that’s a combination of Austin’s interview style from the podcast plus the badassery (“badass” is a word used a lot on this show, in the most earnest way possible) of Broken Skull Ranch, only with non-wrestling celebrities having fun instead of jacked Average Joe’s competing in challenges. (Well, there are “challenges” between Austin and the guest, but they’re all in good fun.)
This is perhaps is the only review where you’ll see this comparison, but Straight Up Steven Austin is essentially the straightforward, earnest, unironic version of Rob Huebel’s Do You Want to See a Dead Body series. Unfortunately, that removes the insanity and surprising, “what’s gonna happen?” nature of such a series, especially if you don’t care for or about the celebrity of the week. The first two episodes (which were available for review) feature Rob Riggle and Impractical Jokers’ Sal Vulcano, and while the former is more interesting overall—due to Riggle’s illustrious comedy career and military pedigree—the latter really works hard to draw in those who aren’t interested in Impractical Jokers (and really, prank shows after the early aughts) through Vulcano’s intense wrestling fandom. But despite how compelling of an interviewer Austin is and how stoked his subjects are to talk to him—again, because of his legendary wrestling career during the boom period—I can’t say that I’d have fully paid attention to the episodes had I not been assigned to.
The target audience for the series appears to be dudes who like badass things and having badass times, which makes it somewhat disappointing that USA Network and Straight Up Steve Austin clearly don’t want to open their doors to anyone else, at least start things off—it has the ability to invite in less expected people, should it take the opportunity. The whole conceit of the show is Austin taking these celebrities to unexpected spots in Los Angeles—which, he always pronounces as “Loss Angle-eez”—and having even more unexpected adventures like keg bowling and deep-frying whole chickens. So it’s not like the celebrity has to fit a certain bill like the contestants and competitors on Tough Enough or Broken Skull Challenge or Redneck Island. The series is essentially an abridged, live-action version of Austin’s podcast, forgoing the studio for the expansive city of Los Angeles and making sure to get in plugs for his own Broken Skull IPA, the “three things” he learned by the end of every episode, and his catchphrase (in which he modifies slightly to make it more personable and perhaps avoid paying some sort of fee to WWE).
There is certainly room for Straight Up Steve Austin to grow, as the “problems” with the series aren’t even based on the format so much as the concept that a show like this should only be a boys club. Sure, WWE RAW Women’s Champion Becky Lynch is a future guest, and there’s nothing wrong with a series that boasts its badassery and ”boy stuff” (though the Rob Riggle episode’s otherwise frivolous minigun adventure is shot in such a masturbatory fashion that it’s especially uncomfortable, in light of recent and persistent events). But as previously mentioned, Austin is such a dynamic host and interviewer that it wouldn’t hurt for there to be guests who he takes outside of their (and this intended audience’s) comfort zone while getting them to open up.
As far as WWE unscripted mainstream television goes, Straight Up Steve Austin has a leg up by being closer to actual reality, simply by virtue of being an “extreme” talk show, as opposed to (the always amusing) network-mate Miz & Mrs. and E!’s (extremely “reality TV”) Total Divas and Total Bellas. The way the series is setup, your earnest enjoyment of Straight Up Steve Austin is going to rely 40% on your enjoyment of Austin, 50% of the celebrity of the week, and then another 10% on whatever activities they’re partaking in. Ironic enjoyment will allow for more entertainment to come out of the one-liners Austin gives before the opening title card, the number of times “badass” is said, and the very slim possibility that someone might eventually admit they don’t like Austin’s IPA, but Austin is so competent in his role that you kind of have to watch the series as earnestly as it actually strives to be.
Straight Up Steve Austin premieres Monday, August 12th on USA
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.