Inside the Weird but Wonderful World of Comedy Wrestling
If you have ever found yourself at the UCB Theatre in Chelsea at 11:00pm on a Thursday night, you’ve probably witnessed a comedy wrestling match. Since 2006, Upright Citizens Brigade Wrestling, or the UCBW, has nestled these campy and over-the-top comedy wrestling matches between two competing improv sets at the theater’s long-running Cagematch show. Wrestlers go toe-to-toe in these 4 to 7-minute long matches that feel as ingrained in the show as the improv portion. Comedians masquerading as professional wrestlers compete in scripted matches with a predetermined outcome. Although many may dismiss the comedy wrestling matches as silly — or an opportunity to grab a beer or pee — the UCBW has outlasted many of UCB’s most successful shows. Yet to most, the origins of the UCBW and comedy wrestling in general are a mystery.
Nearly 12 years ago (December 2005, to be specific) UCB performer Charlie Todd created a wrestling character at the It Sucked Awards, a bit show at the time. Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, was a fan of the WWE’s over-the-top “Attitude Era.” Wrestling fans may remember the Attitude Era as a point when professional wrestling revolved around insanely unrealistic storylines, bawdy sexuality, and all-around offensiveness. Todd was also inspired by UCB Theatre’s prior wrestling show, Piledriver, which ran in 2001 and 2002 and was created by Billy Merritt. At the It Sucked Awards, Todd played a bad guy (known in wrestling as a “heel”) and cut a nasty promo or a monologue, of sorts, directed at the audience. Shortly thereafter, fellow comedian Eugene Cordero came out as a rival wrestler and punched Todd in the face. The bit was a huge success, and the idea to form an entire league of wrestling comedians was born.
At the time, Todd was host of UCB’s weekly improv competition show, Cagematch. To Todd, integrating comedy wrestling matches into the format of the show felt like a no-brainer, but not everyone was on board. “There were definitely people who were like, ‘Why do I have to watch a wrestling match in the middle of an improv show?” Todd told me over the phone. “But, you know, we won people over in time.”
Still, comedians who were hungry for stage time immediately took to the idea. Todd played Chuck McMahon, an obvious parody of the WWE’s head honcho Vince McMahon. Cordero portrayed Pu Kang Kang and went on to be the UCBW’s first champion. The rest of the UCBW filled itself with comedians who brought in their own gimmicks and characters, like Whole Lotta Denim, Lezzie Steel, and Old Fishstix. If you’re so inclined, a detailed list of current and former UCBW wrestlers can be found on the league’s impressively up-to-date Wikipedia page.
According to Todd, the league had one mission: “Can we take what WWE is doing, which is already ridiculous and over-the-top, and can we somehow parody that?”
Because Cagematch only allowed one short wrestling match a week, the UCBW quickly realized that they needed longer shows if they wanted to really provide audiences with a developed and cohesive storyline. In March 2006, UCBW put on their first “Pay Per View” show, mimicking the WWE’s grandiose monthly wrestling events. The PPV (which was a live show and not televised in any way) occurred independently of Cagematch. After a period of playing second fiddle, comedy wrestling didn’t have to take a backseat to the standard improv show. It could headline all by itself and provide audiences with a unique, and outrageous, way to laugh. Currently, the UCBW thrives and puts on four yearly PPV shows consisting of WrestleSlamMania, ReVengeance, AutumnSlam, and Hanukkaos. This year’s AutumnSlam takes place tonight.
Since the inception of UCBW, several notable people have participated in the festivities. Aubrey Plaza worked a short stint as Chuck McMahon’s girlfriend. Donald Glover wrestled as the crowd favorite Rude Boy Roy. Even professional wrestling legend Mick Foley, and current WWE superstars Drew Gulak and Dolph Ziggler, have made appearances over the years.
After years of successful and hilarious matches, a new comedy wrestling promotion began to emerge. If UCBW is the WWE of comedy wrestling, then the young promotion Xtremely Serious Wrestling, or XSW, is the up-and-coming scrappy indie promotion rising in popularity. XSW was created by Mitchell Fesh, who serendipitously ended up at UCB in the summer of 2010 after comedian Chris Gethard offered to fly one lonely, depressed fan to New York City for a night. Fesh was that fan. Seriously.
At a loud Starbucks in Midtown Manhattan, Fesh told me that as a 19-year-old in Ohio, he spent a lot of time watching UCB Comedy and UCBW videos on YouTube. An avid comedy and wrestling fan, he was always drawn to UCBW, even before he ever got the chance to see a live show. After being flown out to New York for what was supposed to be a weekend, Fesh managed to elongate his visit to an entire summer by couch-hopping. A year later, he moved to New York permanently.
For the next six years, Fesh went from being the “Gethard Show kid” who sat in the front row for Cagematch every week to a key player for UCBW in and out of the ring. He competed as a tag team and eventually as a singles performer called Dr. Felix Kompfnut, PhD— a “psycho therapist.” He went from fantasy booking matches while bored at work at a movie theater to actually helping UCBW bookers Pat Baer and Zach Linder build matches. Fesh informed me that he was so devoted to UCB that in six years, he had only missed five Cagematch shows, and no PPVs. But despite his active involvement, Fesh was frustrated by some aspects of UCBW. The matches were short and allowed for very little character development and plot furthering. You were a slave to booking, which meant you could wrestle infrequently and with opponents who were not as dedicated to you (In fairness, I think you would be hard-pressed to find any opponent a devoted as Fesh).
“There’s nobody who comes to see the wrestling,” Fesh said of the Cagematch audiences. He was sick of comedy wrestling playing second fiddle to improv portion of Cagematch and dreamt of putting on a show that operated more like an actual wrestling promotion — similar to Chikara, the Philadelphia-based indie company that Fesh trained with for a year and a half. He yearned for stakes and commitment in matches, and felt that UCBW didn’t value those things. “I hated when people said ‘This is intentionally comedic wrestling,’” explained Fesh. “I wanted to do it to the level it deserves.”
With limited opportunities and the growing itch to see his own comedic wrestling vision to fruition, Fesh decided it was time to start his own wrestling company, and Xtremely Serious Wrestling was born. Before branching off, Fesh told Charlie and the folks over at UCB about his plans, making it abundantly clear that he didn’t want XSW to be seen as a competitor to UCBW, and meant no disrespect by it.
But starting a wrestling promotion, even a comedy wrestling promotion, is hard. Fesh took out an LLC and saved money for two months. He had to secure a space, build a roster, and promote a totally new show that didn’t have the built-in fan base like UCBW had. But still, Fesh figured the risk was worth the reward, and the first show took place on September 30th, 2017 at Muchmore’s in Brooklyn.
I attended the inaugural show in Brooklyn. As wrestlers painted their faces and stepped into ridiculous costumes, people set up the “ring,” which consisted of caution tape attached to sticks in lieu of traditional ropes. Competitors like Cheetodust, Chilly McFreeze, and The Bad Habits (a tag team of nuns) competed. And just as these comedians transformed into wrestlers, the usually-mild Brooklyn comedy crowd transformed into a rowdy, chanting wrestling crowd. Sure, the venue was small and the production values were modest, but for those involved, they could have been selling out an arena of thousands of fans. Their October show was even more raucous, and featured a prop-heavy main event between Fesh’s UCBW “psycho therapist” character and the classic underdog Shawn from Michael’s, portrayed by notable UCBW referee Riley Soloner. As the two men pelted each other with cotton batting and blew glitter into each other’s eyes, the crowd roared as if they were watching the main event at a very tiny WrestleMania.
When asked to describe the show, Fesh said, “The biggest thing is that it’s unique. It’s like a sketch show and it’s like a wrestling show, but it’s really its own thing. It’s the best.”
In the near future, Xtremely Serious Wrestling will be airing their matches on Powerbomb.tv. Their next live show is November 18th at Muchmore’s in Brooklyn.
Top photo by Arin Sang-urai.