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‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund took wrestling seriously, so we could too

The legendary interviewer died at 76 and leaves behind an unmatched impact on professional wrestling. 

25th Anniversary Of WrestleMania - WWE Hall Of Fame
Mean Gene Okerland at the 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania’s WWE Hall of Fame in 2009.
Photo by Bob Levey/WireImage

The first impression a child watching Gene Okerlund doing an interview with any wrestler on a wrestling broadcast had to be this: He seemingly had no right to be standing there. His 5’9 frame barely came up to the collarbones of some of the Goliaths he held the mic for during promos. With midsize wrestlers, he looked tiny. Bigger wrestlers could try to blot him out from the screen entirely, reducing him to a passenger floating on a bicep.

They could try to push him out of frame, but they rarely succeeded. Despite his relative lack of size, Okerlund — who died on Jan. 2 at the age of 76 — never shrank or shied away on screen. Even when he was quiet and serving as little more than a pugnacious mic stand for any one of a long stream of charismatic, swole-shouldered lunatics, “Mean” Gene Okerlund controlled the picture, serving as wrestling’s supreme straight man for over 40 years.

Okerlund played the role of The Serious Adult in the Room on WWE and WCW’s biggest shows. He was the one who asked the questions, demanded answers, and served as the pivot for every beef, rivalry, feud, and outright war between the giants and bit players of wrestling. He hectored wrestlers like an investigative reporter. He was pushy, ornery, sometimes outright hostile to his subjects, playing up the drama while never forgetting to mention that the show was at the National Guard Armory in Nashville this coming Saturday, and that tickets were still available — but selling fast.

That was his job: giving the impression that this was serious, serious business.

Okerlund was seemingly built in a lab to do just that specifically for the sport of professional wrestling. His stentorian voice practically came with its own amplifier. His presence, though, was smallish, almost nerdy, a caricature of what Vince McMahon himself might sketch up for the role of Sniveling Broadcast Journalist. Okerlund sounded like the voice of God. He looked like God’s grumpy, slump-shouldered, balding personal assistant Kevin.

Okerlund’s presence, though, felt 8-feet tall. He was trained as a broadcaster and DJ. He might was well have come from improv theater, though given how well he controlled a scene. Okerlund would never be the star — that was not his job, and never would be. In an over-the-top medium like professional wrestling with exaggerated highs and abysmal lows, Okerlund served as the level. He kept everything on balance, and gave the exact measure of real gravitas to a moment no matter how absurd that moment might be.

Watch him wish a “gravely injured” Hulk Hogan well after getting beaten up by Earthquake and deny Okerlund’s ability to own the moment. You can’t. It is simply not possible.

Okerlund essentially reinvented one job, and invented another. The job he evolved was the old role of carnival barker. Okerlund pushed it into the age of cable TV, becoming the force multiplier for whatever the WWE needed to push that week. He did all that with a jaw-dropping consistency. Okerlund stayed on the same note and level for almost a half century of work, providing a rock-steady launching pad for the launch of three generations of wrestling’s brightest satellites.

The job he invented was being Mean Gene Okerlund. And in that job, Mean Gene Okerlund’s highest calling — and greatest moment of art — was playing the role of straight man during promos.

What Phil Hartman was for improv geeks, Okerlund was to wrestling personalities. During a promo, sweaty wrestlers observed by the viewer at a distance in the ring in Okerlund’s hands became gonzo, intimately felt TV talent. To use a sports cliche: Cutting a promo with Mean Gene Okerlund didn’t build character, it revealed it.

For instance: If The Ultimate Warrior was impossible to control — and by Okerlund’s own admission in interviews later, he was — Okerlund’s exasperation made it apparent all without losing the spot.

If a wrestler was flagging, he poked and prodded until they woke up. If they missed a plot point, he went back and effortlessly redirected. If they made a huge error — like the one relative newcomer Booker T made in legend Hulk Hogan’s direction during a 1996 WCW promo — Okerlund rapidly and gracefully got the scene back on track without fuss.

It might have been a disaster, but Okerlund made sure live disasters were brief — and in doing so, likely helped Booker T dodge any serious or lasting fallout.

Not all of it took obvious effort, but Okerlund worked smart. If they could go for days on their own — like Hulk Hogan did — he simply got out of the way and silently played the official face of Serious Authority.

Hogan is a good example of what Mean Gene did at his best. If a wrestler played along, Okerlund could play him into legendary status, all while keeping eye contact with the viewer just enough to say: I am here, and as the Serious Person I am vouching personally for just how serious this all is.

Addendum: He could do that while saying “even if the man next to me is Randy Macho Man Savage.”

The Macho Man, more than even Hogan, might be the great example of Okerlund’s on-screen powers. No one pushed Okerlund’s capabilities as a straight man further than Savage. The gravel-voiced wrestler took long, twitchy pauses without warning during his promos. He took bizarre metaphorical off-ramps, talked over prompts, and blew past questions and plot points. Sometimes, Savage reduced Okerlund to little more than a scowling, tuxedoed prop.

Even with candy piled on his head, Okerlund holds equal weight on-screen the whole time. Macho Man Randy Savage was already bizarre enough on his own — but in contrast to Mean Gene, the Macho Man’s bronzer and chains gleam a little more lightly, his voice and shaky gestures vibrate and growl with a bit more alarm and urgency. If Randy Savage is the dish, then Mean Gene is the plate, the salt, and the tablecloth the Macho Man tucks into his tank top like a huge napkin.

Mean Gene Okerlund was, in his best moments on TV, the contrast to the garish color palette of professional wrestling, a frame that made every color brighter and more definite.

Sometimes Okerlund wore a tuxedo for big events like Wrestlemania and Summerslam. A tux worn to a wrestling match is the kind of cartoonish editorial choice wrestling almost almost always makes when it comes to authority, or power, or wealth, or anything, really. The wealthy don’t wear minks everywhere like Ric Flair did. The powerful don’t walk around firing everyone theatrically like Attitude Era Mr. McMahon did, and the strong don’t tip over ambulances like Braun Strowman still does from time to time.

The master of ceremonies doesn’t really wear a tuxedo all the time, either. Gene Okerlund did, and always managed to make it a funny and serious look at the same time. It was funny because Okerlund was about to spend three hours in that tux interviewing ranting, oily men in their underwear on camera like it was the most important thing in the world. That was the gag, after all — this was a yokel of a sport, overdressing like a rube for its own working-class prom.

Yet the tux was also a serious choice. Why? Because Gene Okerlund, looking straight at the camera without a smile, came across as a gentleman the instant he opened his mouth. And if he was here, jokes and scowls and all, well: Were we all not gentlemen and ladies then, enjoying the sport of kings? The rumble was royal as long as he was there.