Let's face it, pro wrestling has never been highbrow entertainment and probably was never meant to be. But it has been a cornerstone of television for more than 50 years.
World Wrestling Entertainment's "Raw" program is jumping from the Spike TV cable network after a five-year run and will be returning to the USA Network tonight with a three-hour show, "WWE Homecoming." "Raw" had been on the USA Network between 1993 and 2000 before jumping to Spike TV, which was then known as The Nashville Network.
WWE's "Homecoming," along with this past Saturday's debut of the upstart Total Nonstop Action Wrestling on Spike TV, usher in a new season of wrestling in the new TV year and the continuation of small screen's love affair with the bodyslamming spectacle.
Wrestling programs -- along with TV shows like "Amos 'n' Andy," "Leave It to Beaver," "Gunsmoke," "I Love Lucy" and others -- helped usher in the golden era of television in the 1950s.
My grandmother and great-grandmother were among the viewers who enjoyed the spectacle, which was a live-action hybrid of drama, comedy and athleticism that pitted hero wrestlers, or babyfaces, against villains known as "heels." My grandmothers often told me tales about cheering and booing stars such as Gorgeous George, Haystacks Calhoun, Bruno Sammartino and Hatpin Mary, a bespectacled old woman who liked to stick wrestlers she did not like with a hatpin.
The wrestlers and their in-ring personas were larger than life, and they engaged in stories pitting good versus evil -- a very basic, classic formula that continues in wrestling storylines today. Despite highs and lows in mainstream public interest, larger-than-life characters and basic storylines may be the reason wrestling has had such long-lasting appeal.
"It tells the very old story of good versus evil, but played out in a very different way," said Adam Nudelman, co-author along with his partner Adam Kleinberg of "Mysteries of Wrestling: Solved" and co-host of the radio show "Get In the Ring." "That's the root of it. It's like a take on Shakespeare where no matter what, you're always going to have a protagonist and antagonist in wrestling."
Nudelman, a longtime wrestling fan, remembers how he started watching. But he cannot explain why he continues to watch.
"It had to be around the time of the first 'Wrestlemania'. It was like a fad back then, with Mr. T and Hulk Hogan and all those guys," Nudelman said. "I remember my friends talking about it. I was attracted to the comedy aspect of it. It was more kid-friendly back then and appealed to kids. I'm not sure whether it's because of my radio show or something else that makes me continue to watch."
Like Nudelman, my friends introduced me to pro wrestling when I was 12, shortly before WWE's first "Wrestlemania." My teachers often asked me how I could watch "that junk" on TV. But my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother encouraged -- and at times helped me enjoy -- watching Hulk Hogan battle "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff, the late Andre the Giant and others. I just had to make sure I fit some PBS programming into my TV habits.