Requiem for a Weasel: Saying Goodbye To Bobby “The Brain” Heenan
On September 17th 2017, Bobby Heenan passed away. Born Ray Heenan November 1st, 1944, “The Brain” entered the world of professional wrestling in 1965 as arrogant manager “Pretty Boy” Bobby Heenan. He soon became one of the most hated managers in the sport through the 70s and 80s, managing the likes of The Assassins, The Valiant Brothers, The Blackjacks, Ray Stevens and AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel. In the mid 80s, he made his way to the grand stage of the WWF during the rock-and-wrestling boom. This is how his fans know him best: building a stable of wrestlers known as the Heenan Family, he racked up countless championships for his protegees and squared off against the World Champion Hulk Hogan by backing the likes of King Kong Bundy, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff, “Mr. Perfect” Curt Henning and, most famously, Andre The Giant.
After three decades of managing champions, he later moved onto color commentating. Along with his partner Gorilla Monsoon, Heenan’s charisma and unmatched comic timing cemented him as perhaps the greatest color man of all time. After several years calling classic matches in the late 80s and early 90s of the WWF, Heenan left the company and joined rival WCW for a lighter schedule and to be closer to his family. Heenan’s time in WCW gave great moments as he continued his role as a color commentator, but his style clashed with how the company was run and he soon saw his role diminished until finally leaving the company in 2000.
Unfortunately, in 2002, Heenan’s health started to fail him. After feeling pain in his throat, he discovered that he had late stage throat cancer. He was able to recover after considerable treatment, but the voice that was the sound of 80s WWF was gone. In 2007, he had reconstructive surgery on his jaw. He tried to recover and regain the ability to speak, but after the cancer returned and a few bad falls, it was clear to those around him that he would never again be at 100%. He finally passed away in 2017. He was 73.
Everything written above is fairly common knowledge just to catch up the ham and eggers who don’t know the name. Bobby Heenan is the watermark when you think of the terms “wrestling manager” and “color commentator”. His legacy and impact are apparent in not only the world of sports entertainment, but in the pop culture lexicon. John Madden drafted Heenan as the manager of his all-pro team. David Letterman compared Glen Beck to Bobby, pointing out their similar “Weasel” qualities. ESPN, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Deadspin and the Chicago Sun Times have all written full articles about his death. For a man who may not be a household name, it’s clear that his his life and work affected many people in many walks of life across the globe. And this is why I wanted to write this post. Bobby “The Brain” Heenan had a direct impact on my life and how I became the man I am today.
Two professional shit-stirrers. Only one of them realizes it’s all an act.
I became a wrestling fan in the early 90s. I can’t remember the first match I saw, but I remember being in Kindergarten at the time. My friend Steven Weikel asked if I had heard of pro wrestling. He explained it as real life good guys and bad guys fighting each other. As a kid who lived off of Ghostbusters and Ninja Turtles, that concept nearly made my head spin. “What? Like, for real? This is a thing? Why the fuck has nobody told me this yet?!?!” (Granted, I probably didn’t drop F-bombs in at 5 years old, but I’m sure that was the sentiment). I immediately tuned in and saw the likes of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, larger than life phenomenons fighting the good fight against the dastardly “Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase, the arrogant Mr. Perfect or the Iraqi-sympathizer Sgt. Slaughter. I was immediately hooked. I watched every week, emulating the moves with my brother in wild battles with our stuffed animals. I’m sure my mom and dad could have bought a car with the amount of money the spent on action figures, t-shirts, live event tickets, pay-per-views and everything WWF could slap their logo on. However, as much as I rooted for good to conquer evil and was a die-hard Hulkamaniac (with the stretched-out necklines on my shirts to prove it), there’s no denying that I was attracted to the villains too. The arrogance, the rudeness, the dastardly deeds. In the end, we all want to see the good guy win in the end. But facts are facts: evil is kind of cool. And while I secretly waited to see Ted Dibiase stuff a hundred dollar bill in some palooka’s mouth or The Undertaker zip some shmuck up in a bodybag, there was nobody I enjoyed watching or listening to more than Booby Heenan.
No doubt about it, Heenan was a bad guy. He cheated, he schemed, he lied, he begged. He did everything he could to get ahead. He’d pass his man a pair of brass knuckles behind the ref’s back or grab a guy’s foot as he ran in front of him. He’d rile up the fans, leading them to throw chants of “Weasel” as Heenan covered his ears to stifle them out. He would pull every dirty trick he could think of, goading the fans to near riot until he finally got knocked on his ass. And while Heenan was an absolute master at getting the fans to hate him, or get “heat” as it’s called in pro wrestling, there were plenty of people on the roster at the time who could do it similarly. Jimmy Hart, Mr. Fuji and Sensational Sherri were perhaps not at Bobby’s level, but they were all fantastic at riling up a crowd. But Heenan had a hook: he was fucking funny while he did it.
Here’s just a few choice one-liners of Heenan’s that I’ve always loved:
- ”North Dakota State. What do you have to do there to graduate? Milk a cow with your left hand?”
- ”A friend in need is a pest.”
- ”Haven’t you ever kicked a man when he’s down? You’ve missed a lot in life.”
- *Bret Hart and Roddy Piper are facing off* – ”Are they saying anything? No? Just two ugly guys looking at each other. That’s fun.”
- ”The other brother’s name is ‘Bruce’, right? Now isn’t that a stupid name? You got nine months and you come up with ‘Bruce’.”
- ”Parts Unknown, it usually means Downtown Newark.”
- ”Her face could hold an 8 day rain with all those wrinkles.”
- ”I had guy give up one time during instruction.”
- ”Now remember this: When a man sticks his hand out to you, you shake it. Then kick him really hard when he’s not looking.”
I could spend this entire article quoting Bobby Heenan, but I’ll suffice to say that his wit was unmatched. His best moments of course were with his long time broadcast partner Gorilla Monsoon, who would often deride his jabs with “Will you stop!” Their chemistry was the stuff of legends. One of my earliest memories of being a pro wrestling fan was the 1992 Royal Rumble. 30 men would compete in a timed battle royal for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Bobby Heenan was doing color commentating with Gorilla Monsoon calling play by play. But there was something extra at stake: Ric Flair was in the match. Heenan had brought Flair into the company, stepping in as his business manager. Bobby always praised the bad guys and cut down the good guys, but this was different: he had a reason to really care. The funny thing for me is that I didn’t even get to watch the match. This was in the days of pay per view being set at a particular channel. So if you watched, you couldn’t really see anything through the scrambled signal. But you could hear it clearly. Like a kid in the 50s listening to a Lone Ranger serial, I listened to Bobby Heenan lose his mind for 60 minutes as Flair battled 29 other wrestlers. It was a master class performance of humor, fear, desperation and exultation. Ric Flair may have been the one in the ring, but Heenan was the heart and soul of the match. A lot of time has passed since the day I listened to that broadcast. I’ve obviously grown and matured, but that performance has never left me. In one night, I became a lifetime fan of Royal Rumbles, Ric Flair and Bobby Heenan.
“With a tear in my eye…
From an early age, I’ve always loved comedy. I remember being much to young to watch the movie Airplane, but it became a favorite to watch with my mom and dad. I likely didn’t get every joke, but when they laughed, I laughed. My mom would show me Laurel and Hardy, watching Laurel smoke his thumb or stretch Hardy’s neck 6 feet long. My dad would watch Rodney Dangerfield and make funny stories based on my Sesame Street books for my brother and I (my personal favorite was Bert and the Broken Teapot becoming a Bert and the Broken Stashpot).I was blessed to be raised in a home with strong sense of humor. And as influential as my parents were in introducing me to humor, Bobby Heenan was likely the first person outside of my family who I knew was funny.
To put it in black and white, I always wanted to be Bobby Heenan. He may have not been everyone’s ideal role model, but in some ways I don’t know if I could have picked a more suitable one for the life path I’ve taken. I wanted to perform in front of people and elicit a reaction like him. I wanted to play the villain, raising the ire of a crowd and feeling their relief when I finally got my comeuppance. And I wanted to be funny. I wanted to be quick witted, holding the ability to disarm anyone by making them smile first. I wanted to get a reaction with a oversold pratfall or a simple facial expression. I wanted to make the big joke or the snide jab, riding the wave of an audience’s laughter and timing when to slide the next one in.
My desire to copy Heenan even influenced my life directly. When I trained in pro wrestling at the age of 18, I trained as a manager. Wrestling managers were all but dead in the early 2000s, but I didn’t care. In one small part, I could say that I got be like “The Brain”. I copied his movements, his reactions, his falls. My favorite bump (fall) to take was a whip into the corner where I popped out, slamming on my back in the ring and selling like I had crippled myself. It was my Heenan Bump and I loved taking it.
Digital cameras mostly sucked during my pro wrestling days. That’s probably for the best.
An even bigger way Bobby directed my life is in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever shared with anyone. When I went to college, I admittedly didn’t really know what I wanted to do. There was one career path that I locked into in the Communications field: Broadcast Journalism. My college had a decent broadcast journalism track, so I decided to study there. I soon got bored with that path, realizing that most of it was just boring news reporting, and found the exciting and lucrative (*cough cough*) world of theater. However, there’s a somewhat embarrassing reason I wanted to be a broadcast journalist in the first place. You guessed it: Bobby Heenan. Whenever Gorilla Monsoon would snap at Heenan for deriding the good guys, he would inevitably shoot back “Don’t yell at me! I’m a broadcast journalist!” He, of course, wasn’t. He was in broadcasting of course, but he certainly was a journalist. But his joke retort unknowingly hooked me into an early career path. Fortunately my school had a better theater program than broadcasting or else I might be reporting in a tent somewhere, trying not to shit myself to death in between spurts of gunfire.
When I’m asked who inspired me to do what I do, I always give two answers: George Carlin and Bobby Heenan. Carlin always seems like an obvious choice, Heenan perhaps not so much. But I hold them both as idols to me in the world of comedy and entertainment. I was never fortunate enough to meet George, but I was able to meet Bobby several years ago at a fan festival. It was after his jaw surgery, so he unfortunately couldn’t speak. That was perhaps the biggest cosmic joke: the man with the quickest wit in the room could no longer speak. I got to shake his hand and get his autograph (of course on a promo poster of that fateful Royal Rumble). I got the chance to tell him what he meant to me. I told him that I was an actor and a comedian and he was the first to inspire me to follow that path. I thanked him changing my life. Sadly, I’ll never know what his response would have been. Would he have been honest and heartfelt, giving me words of encouragement? Would he have thrown a quick-witted jab to me, giving me an embarrassed but grateful laugh? Would he have just smiled and given an awkward thanks? Unfortunately, I can’t know. All he could do was give me as good a nod of his head and a vocal “uh huh”. I really wish I could have known the words that were in his head at that moment. But still, I can say that I not only got to meet my first comedic idol, but I got the chance to tell him how important he was to me.
Ultimately that’s why I felt I had to write this. It seems somewhat silly to me to mourn the death of someone I didn’t know personally. His friends and family certainly have more cry about than I do, having lost by all accounts a wonderful man outside of the ring. But whether or not we were on a first name basis, Bobby Heenan was important to me. Simply put, I would not be the man I am today if not for his wit, his charm and his talent.
I guess I just felt the need to say goodbye. Goodbye to the greatest wrestling manager of all time. Goodbye to the greatest color commentator of all time. Goodbye to my secret hero, who I always silently hoped would get one up on the good guys. If for no other reason, than for a good laugh.
Goodbye Brain. Us humanoids will always miss you but we will never forget you.