Top-Down Smackdown: Saluting Santino Marella

By Luke Y. Thompson in TV, Toys
Monday, July 7, 2014 at 5:19 pm

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Before we get to the main topic at hand, I'd just like to point out that the toy above is a real, officially licensed thing that exists. Randy Orton and gorillas in a cage.

Just remember this the next time they refer to Mark Henry as a "Silverback." "Self-proclaimed" or otherwise.

In bigger news this week, Santino Marella announced his retirement from in-ring performance, due to cumulative neck injuries.



Given the fake Italian accent he's adeptly used for years and the poor sound quality, it's almost impossible to make out what he's saying in the official recording. But the gist of it is that he's proud to be from Canada in real life, and that he hopes he can continue to be a wrestling personality, as a manager or commentator for example, even if he can no longer risk doing impact moves in the ring.

It's been a long journey for Santino, who debuted in WWE as a fake hometown hero during a European tour, and was briefly an Italian underdog before turning into a cocky villain. Like many classic cowardly heels of years past, he was often more entertaining than the good guys who would humiliate him, memorably participating in angles where he'd be in dysfunctional relationships with divas, or pretend to be his own twin sister. Eventually, like Chris Jericho before him, he became so entertaining as a comedy villain that the fans would no longer boo him, and the company had to make him a babyface.

But it was arguably a double-edged sword - WWE was so happy with him as a comedic player that he never got that final, over-the-top push to back the humor up with main-event credibility, as Jericho and Kurt Angle had. I got to interview him three years ago, and asked him if he ever saw himself getting to the top level. His response, while still cloaked in the goofy accent, felt honest:

Interesting question; I debate that myself. You do have more longevity and always have a place when you're the comedic component, but I know I'm developing the skills to become a main-event competitor. My grappling's better; my conditioning is better. I'm more experienced. When I first started I was basically fresh, like a rookie. So it''s not something you can pick up very quickly. It takes many years. But I'm becoming better and Triple H actually told me that you can still be a comedy person, but you can now put the jokes on the other person instead of yourself. So I can still be funny and be competitive.
Put aside for a moment the irony of Triple H telling anybody how to be a comedy person, and marvel at the longevity Santino managed as the English-mangling goofball. It took a lot of talent, and if you don't believe that, think back to every one-joke character Vince McMahon has tried to create for people who just were not up to it: T.L. Hopper, The Goon, Duke the Dumpster Droese, and almost every early '90s character of that sort fell quickly by the wayside, with Isaac Yankem DDS getting two more gimmick refreshes before hitting gold as Kane, and Doink the Clown requiring at least one major performer change. Even Hornswoggle, a big hit with kids for a while, has been trying to refresh his stale persona lately.

More common is the comedy gimmick that evolves into danger: Kurt Angle began as a goofy parody of Hulk Hogan, but was so good in the ring that he made the main events anyway. Chris Jericho (and to a lesser extent, Christian) used temper tantrums to turn the cocky cluelessness into danger. And while we classically think of Dusty Rhodes as a fast-talking, dancing fat man, his blood-soaked bullrope and cage matches showed that he was for real.

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When I try to think of comedy gimmicks that stayed alive, few come to mind. The Bushwhackers, while simple in the ring, were always good for portraying wild oafs in any skit required, and were flexible in that regard; Hacksaw Jim Duggan became more of a comedy character late in his career, but he made a name for himself as a brawler; the Honky Tonk Man engaged in just enough injury-inducing cheating to maintain an air of danger under the laughs; and The Rock was mean-spirited enough in his jokes that you never mistook him FOR one.

Santino took it all with a smile, and never broke from the character of the petulant man-child, but he was never one-note - from tea in England with Vladimir Kozlov to drinking Beaker's magic potion when the Muppets came to Monday night, he knew his persona inside and out and was ready to adapt to anything. I think it's a great shame he'll never get that final boost that he would have had the talent to embrace, but we must not underestimate just what an incredible job he did do of knowing his role...and NEVER shutting his mouth.

And he had the best theme music ever.

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