In professional wrestling, kayfabe (pronounced KEI-feib; IPA: ) refers to the portrayal of events within the industry as real, that is the portrayal of professional wrestling as not staged or work. Referring to events as kayfabe means that they are worked events, and/or part of a wrestling storyline. In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to an actor breaking character on camera.
Kayfabe is often seen as the suspension of disbelief that is used to create the non-wrestling aspects of promotions, such as feuds, storylines, and gimmicks in a similar manner with other forms of entertainment such as soap opera or movie. In the past, kayfabe was strongly adhered to in order to preserve the illusion that pro wrestling was not staged. With the advent of the Internet wrestling community and the sports entertainment movement in pro wrestling, the maintenance of pro wrestling's backstage secrets are more difficult to keep than they were in earlier decades. Today, kayfabe is sometimes broken to advance storylines, to explain prolonged absences due to legitimate injury, as a tribute to a wrestler, or even for comedic effect.
Origins of the term
Pro wrestling can trace some of its stylistic origins back to carnivals and Catch Wrestling, where the term "kayfabe" is thought to have originated as carny slang for "protecting the secrets of the business." The term "kayfabe" itself may ultimately originate from the Pig Latin form of "fake" ("ake-fay") or the phrase "be fake."
Kayfabe may also derive from another trick used by traveling carnival workers. With money tight, a carny would call home collect and ask for "Kay Fabian". This was code letting the people at home know they had made it safely to the next town without paying for the cost of a phone call.
The term "kayfabe" has been adopted (and arguably misused) by those outside the industry (i.e. fans and some members of the press) with the popularization of, first, insider newsletters, and later, insider information available via the internet. In modern, popular usage "kayfabe" can refer rather broadly to narrative conventions—like not "breaking character"—which are common in theater. Originally, however, within the wrestling business, maintaining "kayfabe" referred rather narrowly to the socially-enforced demand not to reveal the predetermined nature of wrestling matches and the cooperative aspects of the performances. In practice, this imperative meant that wrestlers, promoters, their families and others close to the business, were socially forbidden from talking frankly about the nature of their work to fans or the press.
Many storylines make use of kayfabe romantic relationships between two performers. Very often, both participants have other real-life relationships, and the "relationship" between the two is simply a storyline. However, more than once, kayfabe romantic relationships have resulted either from a real-life relationship, such as between Edge and Lita, or ultimately developed into a real-life marriage (e.g., Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, who got married in 2003, more than a year after their kayfabe marriage ended).
For years, the World Wrestling Federation presented real-life spouses "Macho Man" Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth as a wrestler-valet relationship, with no mention that they were actually married. In 1991, the two began a kayfabe romantic relationship, which culminated in a wedding ceremony at that August's SummerSlam 1991. The storyline ended a year later with the couple's real-life divorce (and Miss Elizabeth's departure from the WWF).
Tag teams of wrestlers, who may or may not look alike, are often presented as relatives, though they are not actually related. Examples:
- The Four Horsemen (Arn Anderson and Ole Anderson were portrayed as brothers and at one point Ric Flair was portrayed as their cousin)
- The Hollys (Hardcore Holly, Crash Holly, and Molly Holly)
- Edge and Christian
- The Dudley Family
- Brothers of Destruction (The Undertaker and Kane) (and, by extension, Paul Bearer, who was depicted as Kane's legitimate father.)
- The Koloffs (Ivan and Nikita)
- The Kayfabe Anderson and Graham families.
- Hornswoggle was depicted as being Vince McMahon's illegitimate son, and was later depicted as Finlay's legitimate son.
- Paul and Katie Lea Burchill
- The Godwinns
- The Smokin' Gunns
- Paul Wight (AKA The Giant / Big Show) was originally billed as being the son of Andre the Giant.
The Von Erichs, despite being a real life family, had a number of peripheral kayfabe relatives, most notably Waldo and his "son", Lance. Additionally, the "Von Erich" name itself was kayfabed; their real family name was Adkisson.
"You're fired!" and "I quit!"
Through kayfabe, wrestlers also quit or get fired, or are said to have been booked to lose a match where their jobs are on the line (e.g., a "loser leaves town match"), only to return at a future time.
However, such "departures" may also be used to advance a feud between two wrestlers. A classic example is the "masked man", where the wrestler (usually a face) who has supposedly lost his job makes appearances at subsequent events while wearing a mask, and then interfering in his heel opponent's matches; eventually, the masked wrestler's identity is exposed by his foe and the feud intensifies. This storyline was used for the Dusty Rhodes/Kevin Sullivan feud during the 1980s and also for the feud between Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan in 2003.
The "you're fired" gimmick has also been used to re-package a wrestler with a new gimmick.
On the August 22, 2005 edition of Raw, WWE Champion John Cena successfully defended his title by defeating Chris Jericho in a "You're Fired!" match. Though the match had been conceived to cover for Jericho's departure from the company, Jericho was not truly "fired," as his release was a mutual arrangement, and he continues to have a civil relationship with the company.
Another recent example is the May 2006 match between Rey Mysterio and John "Bradshaw" Layfield in which JBL said if he didn't win the match for the World Heavyweight Championship he would quit the SmackDown brand. When he lost the match, he said he quit. However, he returned to Smackdown as its color commentator, replacing Tazz after he went to the ECW Brand. In actuality, JBL was forced to retire from active competition due to a serious back injury.
Real life issues
The most popular example is the Montreal Screwjob (also called the Montreal Incident) in which Bret Hart (WWF Champion at the time) was going to wrestle Shawn Michaels for the championship. The agreed finish was to have Hart walk away with the title that night and come on Raw the next night to give up the championship. Hart had already signed a deal with WCW (World Championship Wrestling) and was rumored to leave Survivor Series and go directly to Nitro. Vince McMahon, fearing that his championship would appear on his rival's TV show, felt that he needed to change the agreed finish without telling Hart. Vince went out and told the ring crew to ring the bell and say Michaels won the championship. Hart, very upset, spat on Vince (later punching him in the dressing room) and wreaked havoc on equipment around the ring. It was long thought that Michaels had nothing to do with the change but it was later found out he was in on it as well; the incident was recreated as a storyline to "screw" Mankind. The same finish was also recreated on the March 18, 2006 edition of Saturday Night's Main Event, where McMahon screwed Shawn Michaels in a match with his son Shane in order to build up the feud between the two leading up to their match at WrestleMania 22.
Another example involving Michaels was the Madison Square Garden Incident, in which real-life friends Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Kevin "Diesel" Nash and Scott "Razor Ramon" Hall broke kayfabe by embracing in the ring at the end of a match between Michaels and Nash. Nash and Hall were on their way to rival promotion WCW, and the incident was a farewell from Michaels and Triple H. As punishment for breaking kayfabe, Triple H was relegated to working lower card matches and was booked to lose to Jake "The Snake" Roberts in the King of the Ring tournament having previously been booked to win it.
Sometimes a real life issue that a wrestler is involved in outside of kayfabe will be used as a storyline. An example of this is the storyline that involved Ric Flair and Mick Foley, which used real criticisms that each wrestler had labeled against the other in their respective books as fuel for the storyline. Matt Hardy and Edge feuded after Hardy's real life girlfriend Lita cheated on him with Edge. Though Edge and Lita were not an item on-screen, fans who knew about the real-life events reacted by booing both at WWE events. The two were eventually paired up on-screen and made references to Hardy. Hardy was eventually rehired and returned to feud with Edge. Also, during Eddie Guerrero and Brock Lesnar's feud over the WWE Championship in 2004, Lesnar brought up Eddie's real-life past drug addictions, and were used as part of their feud with Lesnar claiming he was better than Eddie because Eddie had been an "addict".
In October 1990, WWF president Jack Tunney placed "Ravishing" Rick Rude on "indefinite suspension" following crude remarks Rude made about the Big Boss Man's mother. The real life reason for this was because Rude's contract with the WWF was about to expire and they couldn't come to terms on a new contract. Rude eventually signed with World Championship Wrestling in late 1991.
In the buildup to Hulk Hogan's match with Vince McMahon at WrestleMania XIX, real life tension between the two men following McMahon's steroid trial was added to the storyline to generate interest in their match.
Shoot comments were a popular tactic of Vince Russo, who would often blur the line between kayfabe and reality. WCW, in its declining years of the Monday Night Wars, would use real life incidents the wrestlers had as material for storylines, even though they could be seen as tasteless at times. A prime example of this is when Sid Vicious suffered a severe leg injury in a match against Scott Steiner, when he literally broke his leg in half after botching a moonsault. In subsequent weeks, Steiner claimed responsibility for the injury and went around "breaking" the legs of backstage crew members saying, "Say hi to Sid for me!".
Rey Mysterio, Jr. broke kayfabe during a tag team match with Xtreme Tiger against Manik and Perro Aguayo, Jr. for The Crash March 20, 2015, when Aguayo went limp after falling to the ring ropes following a dropkick from Mysterio. Mysterio broke character when it became apparent that something was seriously wrong with Aguayo (as did the other wrestlers in the match; it was later revealed that Aguayo had died from severe whiplash trauma suffered when he hit the ropes.)
- In the NBC comedy television show, 30 Rock, one of the writers named Frank (played by Judah Friedlander) is seen wearing a hat with the word Kayfabe on it.