Retro Review

Tag Team Starring Jesse Ventura & Roddy Piper – Retro Review

Adam Van Winkle reviews the lesser-known Jesse Ventura and Roddy Piper TV pilot, Tag Team.

Never underestimate the importance of wrestling crossovers on television or in movies to the long-lived success of pro wrestling. 

Vince McMahon never has. And if he has missed more than he has hit in this regard, it’s this recognition that keeps him going back to that particular well.

Rocky III launched the crossover success and immense popularity of Hulk Hogan.  While Terry Funk had originally been the wrestler imagined by Sylvester Stallone when he wrote the script, Funk graciously passed and passed along the name of Hogan for the role.  Ironically, Hogan lost his original job in the WWF under McMahon Sr. for taking the role, as Sr. believed it broke with kayfabe too much. Hogan went to the AWA, where, when the success of Rocky III launched his stardom (and Mr T’s of course), McMahon Jr., newly minted owner of the WWF, snatched Hogan back up, and put the title on him to start 1984 and the Hulkamania era.  Jr. continued to capitalize on that success when he booked Hogan and Mr T as featured showcases in WrestleMania I and II.

In a sort of binary case, Randy Savage found late-career resurgence with his turn in the Tobey MacGuire launched Spiderman franchise as Bonesaw, the wrestler Spiderman takes down when he first tests his new mutant abilities.  That movie got over way more than Arachna-man in WCW. And, at a time, late in his life we unfortunately now know, when the WWE was still not touching Savage for mysterious reasons, the Macho Man was back in the mainstream.

Speaking of a resurgence, there seems to be a renewed interest in telling old school wrestling stories on TV and in film.  The internet television series GLOW speaks to this renewed interest, fictionalizing the 1980s women’s wrestling promotion of the same name, and starring wrestler Awesome Kong (real name Kia Stevens, currently at AEW of course) with guest spots by wresters Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, Brodus Clay, and the great Chavo Guerrero Jr.  Much anticipated is the next Todd Phillips project, as the Old School/Hangover/Joker director is at work on the untitled Hulk Hogan biopic starring Chris Hemsworth in the lead role.  

The catalyst and crowning achievement of said movement is perhaps Darren Aronofsky’s film, The Wrestler, which took home a slew of awards in 2008 and 2009 from the festival circuit to the mainstream Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Grammys (Bruce Springsteen of course doing the signature song for the film).  Of course Hulk Hogan, ever the opportunist, tried to hone in on the success of The Wrestler, claiming on The Howard Stern Show that he’d originally been offered the starring role for which Mickey Rourke won so many awards, but turned it down. Darren Aronofsky says this was not even remotely true as the role was written for Rourke.  A slew of pro wrestlers including the Blue Meanie, Jim Powers, Nigel McGuinness, Ron Killings, Chuck Taylor, and Jay Lethal, did feature in the film.

Do a quick Google search and you’ll see that though it may have peaked in the last ten years, Television and Movie infatuations with wrestlers and wrestling and been ever-present from Rocky III to GLOW.  Guest appearances on popular television over the years include Triple H on The Drew Carey Show, Vader on Boy Meets World, King Kong Bundy on Married with Children, Steve Austin on Nash Bridges, Lita on Dark Angel, The Miz on Psych, and the animated guest spots of Bret Hart on The Simpsons and Stone Cold and Vince McMahon on Celebrity Death Match (a claymation wrestling show itself, pitting celebrities against each other).  The Rock would take the cake for guest appearances appearing as his recently departed father, Rocky Johnson, on That 70s Show (alongside Ken Shamrock and The Hardy Boys), if not for Roddy Piper. Piper’s recurring role as Da Maniac on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia before his passing in 2015 is utterly brilliant and hilarious.

Of course, don’t you dare forget the hilarious-because-it’s-so-bad WCW-Baywatch crossover episode I previously reviewed here at TWM.

Countless movies have relied on wrestlers to carry the vehicle  with mixed success. There’s the bad, like Hulk Hogan’s movie run: No Holds Barred, Suburban Commando, and Mr Nanny.  And there’s the good: the aforementioned Rock, Dwayne Johnson, has found bonafide success in the television and feature film mainstream.  We’ll see where Cena ultimately ends up on the cultural spectrum in this regard: Hogan or Rock. Do yourself the favour and watch the 1974 movie, also called The Wrestler, produced by Verne Gagne and starring Gagne and Billy Robinson alongside Ed Asner.  It’s 70s wrestling greatness oozing in 70s cinematography. While you’re taking your 70s nostalgia trip, watch Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley, a very solid 1978 effort at writing about wrestling in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in the 1940s featuring wrestlers Terry Funk and Ted DiBiase (and one of my all-time favourite musicians, Tom Waits).  I won’t even dare list, no offence to the Marine franchise fans or any of you who liked that silly-ass Scooby-Doo cartoon promoting the WWE Power Plant or something, the actual WWE produced or planned crossover vehicles. But those are somewhere on the Network for you to find if you are a gluten for punishment.

For you to readily find too, of course, is the Rock’s Showtime series, Ballers, or, if you’re so inclined, Thunder in Paradise, starring Hulk Hogan and number of wrestling guest stars, both television series that starred wrestlers, produced independent of WWF’s umbrella (in fact, TiP is largely the reason Hogan landed at WCW in the mid-90s as it filmed at Orlando’s Universal Studios, where WCW taped its Worldwide weekend television program).

Besides Dwayne Johnson (good) and Hulk Hogan (bad), and John Cena (somewhere in between), perhaps the most IMDB credited wrestlers of the last quarter-century are the aforementioned Roddy Piper and, of course, Jesse the Body Ventura.

Piper found cult-film success with They Live and Hell Comes to Frogtown in the 1980s, and was a reliable guest star for TV, popping up in the equally campy Walker, Texas Ranger and Outer Limits series int he 1990s.  If you haven’t spent a couple of hours with the previously listed Maniac episodes, do yourself that favour too and check out It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Ventura’s film run will forever mostly be tied to Arnold Schwarzenegger, as he successfully sidekick-ed in Predator, The Running Man, and Batman & Robin throughout the 1980s and 90s.    Sylvester Stallone here pops up again, as Ventura also featured in the Stallone vehicle Demolition Man, alongside Wesley Snipes in 1993.

It seems only natural then that someone at some point came up with some way to put Piper and Ventura in a vehicle together.  And they did. Enter the 1991 television pilot, Tag Team. Enter Robert McCullough, tv writer of Star Trek: Next Generation and Zorro and JAG and Pacific Blue and Eight is Enough and Baywatch Nights fame.  At least, that’s who IMDB sticks with the writing credit for this TV show that never was.

Like a lot of crap on television, this tv beast was no doubt a camel by committee.  Like Thunder in Paradise, it was more derivative than definitive. TiP took its cues from beach-y shows like Baywatch and Miami Vice and ride-along machine-character shows like Nightrider.  Tag Team sought the slightly more realistic route, going instead for the 80s cop buddy campiness of CHiPs or Moonlighting or Starsky & Hutch or Turner & Hooch. Put Piper and Ventura in as the cop buddies pot, don’t ignore their wrestling personas, and you’ve got gold, you’ve got Tag Team.

In the vein of all great 80s and 90s TV pilots, Tag Team is here to deliver the background story, the inciting incident for you creative writing fans, for what would be the series.  It is here to carve out a premise. And maaaaan, is Tag Team’s a doozy.

Piper and Ventura are, of course, a pro wrestling Tag Team.  And as we open up the episode, we are treated to the true nature of the closeness in and out of the ring:

Piper is, or course, just stretching his partner’s back, but you see what we’re in for here.

The story immediately takes me into an existential place.  Piper and Ventura wrestle as Tricky Ricky MacDonald (Piper) and Bobby “the Body” Youngblood (Ventura).  “The Body” is an obvious reference to reality, and so is Piper’s character’s name when you break it down.  “Tricky Ricky” is the same as “Rowdy Roddy” and “Piper” and “MacDonald” are both Scottish references. Fourth wall shattered.  These guys are playing themselves in a fictional story. Mind blown.

If that weren’t enough, the wife of the owner of the promotion these two wrestle for adds another layer of philosophical crises, the ramifications of which are both moral and metaphysical.  She barges into the locker room and insists our two heroes throw their next match. She has a lot of money placed with bettors, and if they lose she wins big. If they refuse to lose, she’ll tell her husband that Ricky and Bobby were making unwanted sexual advances at her.  

Wow.  Okay. So, in this show wrestling is real, as much as boxing anyway, and treated as such.  Fighters can “throw” a match. Which means they are trying to win if not incentivized to lose on purpose.  Therefore, guys we know to be wrestlers engaged in staged performance in the WWF are portraying essentially themselves on a fictional TV show which portrays the fictional world of wrestling as real.  Piper and Ventura are playing real versions of their fake selves. Told you it was metaphysical as much as it was moral.

Assuming the show runners were not trying to create a treatise on Sartre though, we’ve got to move past this first scene and into the pilot movie.  This is not to be a failed attempt at a wrestling show, Tag Team is a failed attempt at a buddy copy show.

The match that night goes as any attuned viewer would guess: Ricky and Bobby overcome the heel tactics of the Samurai Brothers managed by none other than Mr. Fuji to win in the end.  Oh, and there’s an epic slow-motion tag-in focusing on just Piper’s and Ventura’s hands. That’s important for later. In winning the match, they lose as they are fired.

Finding they can no longer wrestle (because I supposed in this TV world it is 2003 and only one wrestling promotion exists), the two embark on a series of escapades trying various jobs.  We are treated to wonderful excerpts from these. They try to be movers, but well, they drop a piano and blow up the moving truck. Then, they take jobs to be padded attackers at self defense classes for women.  They are dejected as they are just pounded on by women.  

We join our downtrodden pair at the grocery store.  Serendipitously, they come in the middle of a robbery.  Naturally, Piper and Ventura (I’m just gonna refer to them that way as opposed to MacDonald and Youngblood), beat the hell out of the robbers and apprehend them for the police (this involves, by the way, Piper doing the aeroplane spin on one of the would-be assailants).  The arresting officer’s joke with the former wrestlers that it’s too bad they’re not cops since they so easily thwarted crime without firearms.  

Seed planted.  Premise secured.  Piper and Ventura are going to Police Academy, er, sorry, police academy (Steve Gutenberg was not there).  Because police training is really just a series of tests of brute strength, our two heroes do exceedingly well in their training.  The police exams at the end are a different story. Those require brains, not braun, and Piper is very worried. No matter, Ventura assures him and reminds Piper how Piper has all kinds of wrestling stats and wrestlers memorized (like “Who is the tallest wrestler ever?”), therefore, he’s surely smart enough to ace these “police tests.”

And they do, and they graduate and are bestowed with badges and uniforms (Ventura’s uniform rips, of course, as his bicep bulges out of it when he salutes).  Show over, right, we’re all set to go to enjoy a long running series as these two move from rookies to grizzled veterans? Wrong-we still got a plot to get through.

First assignment for rookie cops?  Traffic duty? Parking meters? Arena event management?  Hell no! We’re assigning the rookies Ventura and Piper witness protection for a witness set to testify against crooked undercover cops. If this were The Wire, I’d know rookies are being intentionally assigned to this task so that it fails and the crooked cops don’t get busted.  But this isn’t The Wire. My gawd, is this not The Wire. For this 1991 show, we’ll just go with rookies got assigned this task “because,” because “because” is always a good enough reason with campy 80s and 90s TV.

Of course bad guys do come for the witness.  No matter. Eschewing their weapons, our two heroes easily despatch of the baddies with some fisticuffs and wrestling moves.  Unfortunately, the witness runs away in the fray, and now our heroes have lost their assignment. Their boss is not happy and suspends them.

Back in the locker room (the police one this time, not the wrestling one), Piper is shirtless and sad.  He laments that he thought he’d finally found a place to belong. This reminds Ventura of something the witness they were assigned to protect had said about an Animal Shelter where she worked (seriously), and they decide she must have run there.  This turns out to be correct, “because.”

The witness is sorry she ran, she was just scared (and rather than go back, she just goes to work at the animal shelter working on broken dog arms).  It’s okay, Piper and Ventura assure her, and they take her to court as assigned.

But, BAM, more baddies are on the scene outside the courthouse!  They attack! Piper and Ventura must make epic leaps and overcome the odds, but one by one, they begin to put down the heels.  At one point, inexplicably there is a rope tied between two posts in a sort of faux-construction site set up and Piper bounces his foe off the rope with an Irish whip before bashing him.  Having dispatched most of the baddies, Piper turns to find Ventura struggling with the final heel. Ventura is pinned to a tree by the bad guy with a giant stick to his throat. Piper leaps, and, I swear to gawd they wrote it this way, Piper slaps Ventura’s extended hand to TAG INTO A POLICE VERSUS CRIMINAL FIGHT.  It is done in epic slo-mo, just as it was done in the match in the opening versus the Samurai Brothers (symmetry of plot is also key in campy 80s and 90s TV). And, just as in the Samurai Brothers match, Piper tags in for the win, finally vanquishing the thugs.

Piper and Ventura get the witness to the court safely to testify.

Jealous that Piper got his shirt off twice in the show already, Ventura makes sure his sweater-chest is bare for the final scene as we are at Ventura’s and Piper’s apartment (oh yes, they are roommates too).  Ventura has been working out when the doorbell rings. He answers and finds Rita, the witness they protected, with a dog from the shelter. She has brought it as a gift. Piper comes out of the shower (also shirtless) and the three laugh together over the dog.  Piper and Ventura decide to name it, “Bodyslam.” End show.

And end the show it does. The pilot was not picked up as a series, and we do not find out what becomes for the buddy cops Ventura and Piper, nor the dog, Bodyslam. 

I can’t help but imagine what wonderful A-Team meets Turner & Hooch show might have been.  

I can’t help but imagine, that in the annals of pro wrestlers in the movies and on television, we are missing a very big chapter of bollocks we’ll never recover.

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You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.

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