You’re going to read and hear a lot of the same things in the next little while with regards to the death of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. The greatest manager in wrestling history. Comedic genius. Superb performer. Magic in the commentary booth.
It’s easy to romanticise one’s talents or contributions in the wake of their passing. It’s rare when you can say, without any semblance of doubt, that it’s all completely accurate. This is one of those times.
I don’t need to recite the memories. If you’re reading this, you all have them. If you don’t, I genuinely feel sorry for you that you missed them.
To a generation of wrestling fans that grew up on late eighties WWF, Bobby Heenan was woven into the very fabric of the promotion. Whether managing the top heels, announcing pay-per-views with Gorilla Monsoon, hosting Coliseum videos in hokey skits with Gene Okerlund or making Prime Time Wrestling entertaining, he was everywhere. The reason for his overwhelming presence is obvious to viewers new and old – Bobby Heenan was the very essence of what made pro-wrestling great.
By the time he’d made it to the World Wrestling Federation, “The Brain” was the absolute perfect character for the business. He was clever and witty, but he was bumbling and incompetent. He could cut a fierce money-drawing promo next to Andre The Giant, but he was the ultimate chickenshit at the same time. He dressed like a millionaire and acted like the big man in town, yet he was a shameless cheapskate and took shortcuts at every turn. He was diabolical, yet totally harmless. You could see him get his ultimate comeuppance in satisfying fashion, and rather than have it blow off his heat as it would with most, he’d come right on back and be as hot as ever. All it took was for one fan to chant “Weasel”, and with a simple turn of his head in recognition, the entire building would follow suit. Every time. It was an amazing persona, masterfully executed.
Even before that, Heenan was as polished a manager as you’d maybe ever see upon his arrival in the AWA. Managing the top heel team and two best workers in the promotion, Ray Stevens and Nick Bockwinkel, Bobby could lend his unique magnetism to any act and enhance it. Case in point, when Bockwinkel took the AWA World Title from Verne Gagne, there wasn’t anybody in the world that needed to talk for Nick, he had a wonderfully eloquent, intelligent and despicable promo. But as a combination, the added undercurrent of arrogance to Bockwinkel’s confidence was pure magic, with Heenan serving as the catalyst for a dynamic main event heel act.
It wasn’t even something that was developed. His understanding of the business came along, sure, but as a natural performer, Bobby Heenan was born with a very special gift. He was brought into this world with a sense of humour and delivery that allowed him to, when called upon, completely steal any scene he was in. Like watching a Don Rickles appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, where everybody else in the room is there in the supposed role of a “star”, but sit with their thumb up their ass in awe. Heenan could rattle off one-liners, see the comedy in any moment, and leave anybody in the dust. And he did, many times.
The brilliance of Heenan, however, is that he wasn’t a one-note joke, and when it wasn’t time for him to “be the show”, he was smart enough to know exactly what to do to let the appropriate parties shine. You’ll never watch a match or performance of Bobby Heenan in his prime and think he did the wrong thing at the wrong time. As an entertainer, he was completely unselfish, not caring if you laughed with him or at him.
One of the things that makes the career of Bobby Heenan so fun to ruminate on is that, unlike so many others, you don’t see an unrecognised brilliance and lament the fact that he didn’t get his due. You don’t hear anybody say that he was ahead of his time or underappreciated.
Bobby Heenan was the master of the time he was in. If he came along right as wrestling was first big on television, he’d be a forgotten historical figure who wouldn’t have had the chance to be the wildly entertaining personality he was. If he’d come along later he’d probably be scripted, made far less effective and possibly rendered useless.
In the territorial days, he homesteaded Minneapolis and was king of that hill at a time when managers were given an incredible responsibility. During a period of time when it truly mattered how big the next live gate was, Heenan and others of his breed were entrusted to deliver the goods. That Bobby was considered the best of his kind is no small feat, his position one of tremendous significance.
In the WWF world of cartoon hoke and slapstick comedy he could play the goof better than anyone, but backed it up with material that would easily get an announcer fired from WWE today. Though he was walking some lines that would be frowned upon in the modern age, he often touched on sensitivities for laughter. During one episode of Prime Time with Monsoon, Heenan pointed to a stuffed Gorilla toy with a laugh, calling it the new Koko B. Ware action figure. During a match where Koko wore a single white glove (a la Michael Jackson), “The Brain” theorized that he wore it so that drivers could see him hitchhiking at night. Heenan would be similarly snide to Virgil. At SummerSlam ’91, as Ted DiBiase put a beat down on his former bodyguard, Bobby broke through with, “I hope Virgil didn’t do something stupid like put a down payment on a boom box”.
Nothing was off-limits. Women, ethnics, little people, characters. Despite this, it was all tempered, excused almost, by the fact that nobody was made to look as bad by Bobby Heenan as he made himself look by design. As a character, he made it so that nobody could possibly aspire to be him, the true mark of a heel.
Conversely, “The Brain” was excellent at adding the right touches to enhance others. His WCW run was highlighted by his work in the early days of the New World Order angle, appropriately stating how big a threat the invading force really was. When it came to the money angles with Sting and Hogan, Bobby knew the points to hit and how to hit them. As Goldberg gathered momentum and it was obvious he was catching on like wildfire, Heenan was the first to drop the shtick, forget about his own agenda and focus on putting over Goldberg like he was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete.
Bobby had some bad habits too, no doubt. His drinking accelerated in his WCW days as the product declined and going to work became a chore. While it was a story that went largely unreported, the decision to remove him from Nitro came not for a no-show as widely believed, but for being drunk during an afternoon production meeting before a show.
He got to make a cameo at WrestleMania X-7 in his WWF return, and to nobody’s surprise, stole the show in the Gimmick Battle Royal on commentary. It was the last major league role of note he ever had, his throat cancer incapacitating him shortly after. What followed was a slow, gradual decline that feels terribly inappropriate for a man who made people around the world smile so selflessly. His failing health became sadder and sadder, as the gifts he brought to the world were robbed from both him and us. Given the nature of the industry today, there’s no doubt he’d have been brought back for random TV appearances for years to come, maybe even hosting the Hall of Fame if it weren’t for his ailments.
But Heenan wasn’t one that appreciated mourning and misery, so it would be wrong to remember him with anything other than smiles and laughter. “The absurdity of life is very funny”, he once said, explaining the mentality that made him what he was. When I personally think of Bobby Heenan, my mind, like yours I’m sure, races to a litany of preposterous moments. Howling with angst during the 1992 Royal Rumble. Throwing his pencil in the air on Prime Time to try and catch it with style like Mr Perfect, and failing miserably. Crippled with sadness as he reported the news that Jamison, the Bushwhackers’ annoying geeky manager that had choked on food, had tragically survived.
One of the more poignant Heenan moments, one that captured the full scope of Bobby’s talents, is his farewell to the WWF. On an episode of Raw after Survivor Series 1993, after being a pain in the ass to Gorilla for all those years, Monsoon finally threw him out. Between his begging, cowardly comments, tripping all over the place, stolen toilet rolls falling out of his bags and screaming “My belongings!” as Gorilla tossed his stuff out, it’s a joy to watch him play the quintessential buffoon. Then, right at the end, he looks back one last time. He suddenly tears up and salutes goodbye after eight glorious years. As entertaining as he was and as much as you loved seeing him lose, it was still heartbreaking to see him go. Just as it is right now.
Among the more enduring Heenan memories is seeing Bobby pay tribute to Monsoon after his passing on Nitro. Fighting back tears, Heenan said that the pearly gates would now be known as the Gorilla Position. It seems only fitting to end this piece by extending the same sentiment to the other half of one of wrestling’s most iconic duos.
If there is such a thing as heaven, it just became the Bobby Heenan Show.
So long, weasel.