Earlier today WWE released four short episodes of Southpaw Regional Wrestling on its YouTube page. Southpaw isn’t one of the many defunct promotions whose tape footage is now owned by WWE; it’s an entirely made-up company (apparently set in Mobile in 1987) used as the backdrop for an Adult Swim-style parody of old territorial wrestling shows. Imagine if Tim and Eric made a wrestling show that was equal parts Anchorman and Jim Crockett’s Saturday afternoon show on TBS—it’s got the found tape VHS aesthetic, complete with tracking lines and abrupt cuts, with John Cena doing his best Ron Burgundy as Southpaw’s lead announcer Lance Catamaran. It’s also technically an ad for KFC, but the show is smart enough to work the chicken finger promotion seamlessly into its 1980s world.
What’s most striking about these short, absurd fast food ads is how much more entertaining they are than WWE’s regular programming. The vast majority of comedy on Raw and Smackdown is groan-worthy tripe that only small kids and one specific 71-year-old man in Connecticut could like. Most main roster WWE promos are overly scripted, filled with corporate jargon and unnatural language, and delivered by wrestlers who generally don’t have the acting chops necessary to salvage them. Southpaw promos, patterned after the more direct, more personal and off-the-cuff promos that wrestlers used to cut, work not just as good comedy but as examples of how effective interviews can be when wrestlers focus on a couple of bullet points and get to show off their personality. I don’t know how tightly written these segments were—the whole show has the shaggy dog appeal of the modern day style of improv comedies popularized by Judd Apatow and Adam McKay, so it’s possible the wrestlers in Southpaw were allowed to riff—but somehow WWE wrestlers playing ridiculous characters on a fictional show from 30 years ago feel more believable and are visibly more comfortable than when they’re playing their regular characters on WWE TV.
Surprisingly, it’s not just funny for wrestling, either—I also edit the comedy section here at Paste, and this is legitimately better written and performed than many videos and online shows from professional comedians. It would be one of the top recent highlights at Funny or Die or College Humor, and would even fit in fine on Adult Swim itself. In a bit of a shock, the least effective comedy comes from the two most accomplished comedians on the show, and it’s almost entirely because of the writing: Cena is fantastic in his portrayal of Catamaran, but when his dialogue strays from the straight-forward and becomes absurd or ruminative it feels too much like a blatant Anchorman homage. And Chris Jericho, who plays the backstage interviewer Clint Bobski, is similarly great in his delivery, but is sandbagged by a try-hard costume that screams “freshman improv troupe” and a weak early sketch with TJ Perkins playing Southpaw’s charisma black hole of a champion. Again, I’m not sure how much room Cena and Jericho had to improvise, and how much of their material was fully scripted. And it’s not like either are bad in any sense of the word (unlike poor Perkins, who’s given nothing and makes it worse in his sparse screen time). But when the four episodes are done, and I thought about the best parts of the show, I realized they weren’t involved in any of them.
It’s hard to pick who comes off the best here, but the two wrestlers whose careers might be most immediately improved by the show are Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows. They have a lot of experience at this kind of comedy, thanks to the Talk’n Shop podcast (Gallows even appears in a bowdlerized version of his old Sex Ferguson character), and now they get to expose their skills to WWE fans who might only know them as the (no doubt creatively mandated) dull tag team the Club. Gallows delivers the best promos of his WWE career as Tex Ferguson, the ideal 1980s Southern badass babyface, whose best friend Chadd 2 Badd (Anderson doing a Michael PS Hayes / Tony Anthony tribute) turned on him and hired a litany of territorial tough guys to increasingly injure Ferguson. It’s a bit that recurs in every episode, paying off more and more, and Anderson’s one spotlight scene is one of the two or three best in the show. Their scenes in particular work so well because of how perfectly they resemble what they’re parodying. If you only saw these clips, and didn’t pay attention to their words, or didn’t watch closely enough to notice Ferguson’s increasingly comical injuries, you’d probably think they were really shot for a wrestling show in the late ‘80s.
Tyler Breeze is only in two scenes total, but both are pretty much perfect. He plays a shady banker who buys the farm that Big Bartholomew (Rusev, not even trying to hide his Bulgarian accent in a good ol’ country boy stereotype) lives on, and threatens to sell it to the highest bidder if Bart can’t beat his hand-picked champion, a joke I won’t spoil here. Breeze is tremendous as the cartoonish heel, with a bad wig and fake mustache making him look like he just walked off the “Sabotage” video. Since he was never given a shot on the main roster, perhaps they should just turn Breeze into a manager full-time? Southpaw Regional Wrestling proves he’d excel at it. Other highlights include video packages for a new surfer tag team played by the Ascension, somebody who may or may not be Fandango as Cena’s despondent commentary partner, and anything and everything that Rusev does. And the regular voice-over artist for the embedded KFC ads is a perfect, era-appropriate touch.
I grew up watching this kind of wrestling on cable stations and local UHF channels, and if you’ve heard me talk about wrestling for even five minutes you’ve probably heard me talk about how much better wrestling could be back then. When I saw the first trailer for Southpaw, I was worried that it’d be another example of WWE trying to diminish wrestling’s history while simultaneously profiting off of it, that the concepts of Southern and territorial wrestling would be the focus of the jokes instead of the context for them. I’m not sure who wrote or produced these clips, and how much freedom the wrestlers themselves had to improvise lines or characters, but it’s obvious that Southpaw views this era with a great fondness even as it makes fun of it. It’s not mean-spirited in the way so much of WWE’s so-called comedy can be, but nostalgic and absurd. In their own way, these four videos are more entertaining than almost anything WWE has ever made before. If you like wrestling, you need to watch them all right now.
You can watch all of Southpaw Wrestling below.