In the final year of his life, Mean Gene Okerlund received an acknowledgement quite fitting, within, of all things, an energy drink commercial. It’s in this spot for Mountain Dew Kickstart that Okerlund stands as silent spectator to Kevin Hart’s impression of a riled-up 1980s pro wrestler.
“Let me tell ya somethin’, Mean Gene!” spits the diminutive comic to the microphone-wielding Okerlund, an approximate recall of a recognizable wrestling buzzphrase, made famous when Hart was barely out of his toddler years.
Hart’s caustic promo parodied Hulk Hogan’s, “Well ya know somethin’, Mean Gene!”, the opening line to a million and one Hulkamania soliloquies, delivered at top volume while Okerlund peered up at his longtime friend and colleague. Those growling threats offered in the direction of Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, and Andre the Giant always began with that verbal tip of the cap (or, bandana) to Okerlund, whose enthusiastic set-ups were but slow pitches for Hogan to mightily wallop out of the park. Through Hogan’s regular name-drops, Okerlund’s name was etched forever into the professional wrestling lexicon, as well as pop culture lore.
The very name “Mean Gene” is more than just a wrestling identity – it is eternally part of a catch phrase.
But Okerlund, who died Wednesday morning in Sarasota, FL, at age 76, was more than just a mere component of a catchphrase. To several generations of fans, his presence on wrestling programming was just as colourful, just as vital, as the men and women who donned the tights and boots.
Okerlund was missed even while he was still alive, his brand of effective character enhancement a dying art as the years ticked by.
We make quick studies out of the backstage interviewers of the modern era, who feed a lone talking point question to the performers with an utter lack of zest, displaying all the enthusiasm of a ne’er-do-well fulfilling a community service obligation. Granted, the modern presentation of wrestling doesn’t allow for much more than this rushed, hackneyed bit of cliche-dom, the interviewers themselves more interchangeable than LEGO bricks of the same colour and size.
It’s a far cry from the interview style that Okerlund demonstrated with casual aplomb throughout his four-decades-plus in the wrestling business, the consummate straight man in a world of crooked crazies.
Okerlund may have had the advantage of being given more time to flesh out his one-man press conferences (as seen especially on Prime Time Wrestling episodes in the second half of the eighties), but “Mean Gene” more than possessed the talent to make the most of each stand-up’s duration.
It didn’t matter who the subjects were – in two minutes, Okerlund could help convey the character’s motivations, intentions, quirks, and intangibles to a new viewer, getting across exactly who those individuals were, with little more than their shared wits, and a lone camera trained upon them.
There was nothing over the top about Okerlund’s delivery – he believably reflected what he had to work with. When the interviewee was a confident and relaxed babyface, Okerlund could express low-key admiration, while still asking tough questions. A reprehensible heel would get the slightly-exasperated Okerlund, his voice raised slightly to convey his scepticism and latent dismay. A confused and harried good guy, feeling a mite desperate amid recent struggles, could earn a mildly-sympathetic, softer tone of voice from Okerlund, who would still grill them on their career crossroads. An annoying and irascible villain manager would get no such gentleness, instead being skewered with comedic disgust from Okerlund at his most acidic.
These all seem like primer lessons on how to be an on-camera interviewer in pro wrestling, but the truth is nobody could do it like Okerlund could.
The great thing about Okerlund is that, no matter which of the aforementioned templates was being carried out before the camera, he could improvise and banter with anybody, regardless of their skill level. There would be follow-up questions to the wrestler’s remarks, oftentimes calling out (in the case of goading heels) obvious contradictions in their rhetoric. He could spar verbally on the fly, weaving humanity and sense into the lunacy of Savage, Piper, Ultimate Warrior, and every other prismatic nutcase that spat fire at his side. He could also, as he would prove many times with the likes of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and “Classy” Freddie Blassie, expertly volley zingers as part of an impromptu comedy duo, during a moment of staged dissension.
Cases such as these are where Okerlund was most effective – he injected realism into a world that was positively surreal, grounding the absurdity in a way that only a serious journalist could. And while Okerlund was far from immune to being the butt of a joke, or even the witty perpetrator of understated comedic gold, his presence lent authority to the proceedings, the token adult in the room. While the world around him was this technicolour circus of insanity, revenge, defiance, and barbarism, here’s Gene stoically making sense of it all, adding a calm, modest touch to a medium that can sometimes be too over the top for its own good. He pulled these free-flying creatures down, and tethered them to a mooring, keeping them there long enough to help personify said creature to the curious audience.
To enhance your interview subject to an effective degree without outshining them, while still holding your own in terms of being believable and colourful, is an art form. Such an art form requires a smooth and deft balance, a steady hand.
When everyone and everything around you is a caricature of some sort, perhaps the temptation is great for one to become a caricature themselves, blending in with the broad-stroked scenery that comes standard in their career domain. And yet Okerlund, while allowing himself to be sucked into the whirling dervish of pomp and camp that was 1980s WWF, maintained a professional command that set him apart from the cartoon characters in his midst, the accompanying translator for the perpetual madness.
There’s a noticeable parallel between the realms of wrestler and interviewer – the most skilful ones are those who can enhance their foil, accentuating their strongest features while also selling them. If wrestlers and interviewers are measured by similar subjective metrics, then “Mean” Gene Okerlund’s status as the all-time best in his role is forever unquestioned.