For weeks now Bray Wyatt and his joyfully-bleak "Firefly Fun House" segments have been the talk of wrestling twitter. And for good reason - they're creepy, hilarious, bizarre, cryptic, and wholly unique from everything else we've seen in professional wrestling as of late.
These short vignettes see the former Wyatt Family proprietor hosting his own kids show with a slightly demented twist. And each week, the stakes have gotten larger, while the segments themselves have gotten stranger. Just take a recent example where Wyatt brutally smashes his puppet castmate Ramblin' Rabbit (voiced, like everyone on Funhouse, by Wyatt himself) before ending the show with a strange ad for Ramblin' Rabbit Jam.
It's unusual to see this sort of cartoonishly-violent segment on WWE TV. It's downright unreal that such a segment could be pitched, recorded, aired, and then viewed on YouTube almost a million times, without someone in charge thinking it might be too fringe, too strange, or too uncomfortable for the company's rather-generic audience.
And while it's not clear yet if "Firefly Fun House" truly represents a bold new storytelling process for the typically-stagnant WWE, or if this is just a momentary lapse of Vince McMahon's otherwise steely-grip...
The success of these segments can almost certainly be traced back to one of the first mass-market experiments in surrealism television: Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.
Kids born in the late 80's and early 90's were a lucky group. Not only did they come of age during pro wrestling's Attitude Era, they were also the first generation to experience cartoons on demand.
It all started in the early 90's. While The Family Channel and Disney Channel had included cartoons as part of their early morning/afternoon blocks for years, networks generally refused to show animated programming during primetime because they saw they medium as being primarily for children. But when long-running kid's network Nickelodeon finally debuted a slate of well-received animated shows (Doug, Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy), alongside the unprecedented success of The Simpsons, there proved an actual demand for cartoons.
So Turner Broadcasting, following a similar path to its launch of 24/7 news juggernaut CNN, decided to put its extensive cartoon library to use with the launch of Cartoon Network in late 1992. It was an immediate success. By the end of 1994, it had become the fifth most popular cable network on television.
But the network didn't stop there. Instead, knowing it needed to broaden its appeal, Cartoon Network commissioned then vice president of programming Mike Lazzo to create a cartoon aimed at adults. This would be the network's first fully produced original series.
The resulting effort, Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast, was absurd, surreal and - perhaps most importantly - cheap to make. That's because Lazzo and the team reused animation cells from previous Space Ghost cartoons. Not only that, to make the show's bizarre talk show format work, producers interviewed actual celebrities at CNN headquarters, before splicing the interviews into non-sequitur hilarity. They even threw in the occasional curse word to boot.
The show aired at 11:00pm opposite the kinds of talk shows it was spoofing, and immediately found an audience with late-night kids wondering what the hell they'd just stumbled into after their Kung-Fun Phooey rerun. To kids of a certain age, it felt almost scandalous - like realizing scrambled PPV channels still had audio, or playing Mortal Kombat for the first time. You knew you had just seen something you weren't supposed to.
By 2001, adult-oriented cartoons were the norm - The Simpsons had just eclipsed a decade on-air, Beavis and Butt-Head had wrapped up a successful run, shows like King of the Hill and Futurama existed (if not necessarily to wider-acclaim), and Comedy Central found that by going even more controversial with a crudely animated diddy named South Park, it could stir up unheard of ratings.
Having learned the right lessons from Coast-to-Coast's success, Turner Broadcasting also decided to go all in on the "cartoons for adults" fad with the launch of Adult Swim.
The late-night programming block debuted with early hits such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Home Movies, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, Sealab 2021, and The Brak Show. In a real-life non-sequitur, many of these shows premiered unannounced almost a year prior - at 4:00am, during a throwaway programming block typically reserved for Coast-to-Coast reruns.
Turner Broadcasting knew what it was doing. Almost all of the shows became hits with its intended audience - that audience being a group of teenagers and adults who might've grown up with the network, but who had matured beyond the typical cartoon hijinks. When a show like Sealab 2021 took a classic deep sea adventure cartoon and remixed it with tales of the mundane... or a show like Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law replaced Harvey Birdman's heroic escapades with courtroom drama… or an entirely unique IP like Aqua Teen Hunger Force featured meatballs, fry cartons, and milkshakes as its foul-mouthed protagonists… the late-night TV world felt topsy-turvy in a way it never had before.
For a generation of now-teenagers who had lived through the OJ Simpson trial, the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings, the Y2K scare, and 9/11, topsy-turvy was a feeling they were used too if not outright comfortable with. Athletes and Presidents on trial… technology turning against the world… and the world turning against the US... all of this created a new, unpredictable norm. And surrealist entertainment like what Adult Swim was offering captured the spirit of this new norm in a way that teenagers could find relatable.
Plus, millennials and Gen-X'ers were brought up in a very different television landscape than their parents. Wholesome, family-friendly television was out in the 90's and early 2000's. Shock jocks, Reality Television, and Crash TV were all in. Suddenly, normal not being normal made a lot of sense.
When Adult Swim pivoted in 2006 to showing reruns of popular children's television show Pee Wee's Playhouse (a show that many now-adult viewers had likely grown up with), it seemed a bit odd, if only because the network was appropriating an entirely kid-friendly show for an adult-oriented programming block.
But when viewed through the Adult Swim lens - that everything is a bit bizarre, and the world isn't quite as black-and-white as we once imagined - the show took on an entirely different character. And when then-adults googled the show, only to realize early versions once had much darker adult themes, Pee Wee's Playhouse became a subtle commentary on the adults Millennials were developing into.
Later hits like Tom Goes to the Mayor, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job, Metalocalypse, and Children's Hospital pushed the network's programming into weirder, darker, and more uncomfortable (yet ultimately hilarious) places.
Of course Infomercials is the networks crowning achievement in surrealism. This incongruous series of specials which typically airs at 4am with little fanfare spoofs everything from public-access television to ads for real estate. But because every episode is entirely unique, with no connection to the rest of the series, these episodes have been able to go to stranger places than most TV could ever dare go.
Take for example 'For-Profit Online University,' an episode crafted as an infomercial for a university where students pay directly for knowledge instead of traditional classes. Or 'Too Many Cooks,' a spoof of 80's tv intros that goes on and on before eventually stumbling into some rather… disturbing places. ('Cooks' unexpectedly went viral and launched multiple parodies, including a Progressive commercial with more than a few similarities).
So if you look at WWE's coveted 25-34 year old demographic, Wyatt posing as a new Adult Swim-esque kids show host is practically visionary. Not only is it something no pro wrestling organization has done before, it's the kind of segment that both seems directly inspired by and designed to specifically recall an entertainment experience that key demographics might relate to. It's no longer forcing wrestling fans to come to you… it's meeting pro wrestling fans where they already are. It's reminding certain fans what they like about off-kilter entertainment.
Take, for example, this weird Aqua Teen Hunger Force background video:
And then contrast it with Wyatt's recent Muscle Man Dance:
Either it's an unlikely yet eerily similar coincidence... or this segment was crafted to specifically reference a throwaway Adult Swim joke from 2005.
I hope it's the former. And I hope we see more of it in the near future. Because professional wrestling, a weird sport/entertainment mish-mash itself, could always afford to be a little less mundane and a little more surreal.